My usual advice for handling iconic benefits in 13th Age is to push as much of the work as possible onto the players. The GM has enough to do running the game and playing all the monsters and non-player characters without adding the burden of working a random number of iconic associations into the storyline. After all, players want a clear link between their icon relationship rolls and the events of the game – if I get a 6 on my Positive relationship with the Archmage, then I want that to have a tangible effect on the game. I want to find a lost ruin of the Archmage where the party can rest safely, or I want one of the Archmage’s magical servants to show up with a magic item on a silver tray, or I want some NPC to say “ah, you too are a servant of the Archmage – I will aid you.” That also means that iconic benefits need to be roughly comparable – if Bob gets a magic item from the Archmage, then Liz’s roll of a 6 with the Orc Lord should yield roughly the same degree of advantage, right?
Of course, if you’ve got a half-dozen iconic benefits to resolve in a given session, that gets tricky, hence the advice to push the work onto the players. Tell me how the Archmage benefits you – ask for an autosuccess on that skill check, or describe how you overcome some obstacle through your Archmageness. This also satisfies the clear causal link criteria – the player can see how their roll of a 6 translates to an in-game benefit.
Another approach – bring everything back to the Gamesmaster. Roll icon relationship dice behind the screen. The players still know what their icon relationships are, they know they’ve got a 2-point positive relationship with the Archmage and a 1-point Conflicted with the Three and so forth, but they don’t know which icons showed up behind the screen this session.
The virtue of this method is that the Gamemaster can be more subtle with iconic influences. As the players don’t know for sure what’s been changed by the influence of the icons, you don’t need to aim for parity between benefits. It also lets the GM ignore icon rolls that are really awkward to fit into a given session (if the party are in the middle of a desert far from civilisation, it can be tricky to explain how one character’s relationship with the Emperor pays off).
If you do go for this way of handling icons, then it’s worth subtly highlighting when one of those unseen iconic benefits manifests. Instead of telling them directly (“oh, that dragon had a lower armour class because of your negative relationship with the Three”), play up the symbols and thematic associations of the various icons. Have the environment grow chilly or musty, or note that a statue’s missing an eye when the Lich King bends his will upon the party; play up symbols of craft, tradition, beards and beer when the party are until the aegis of the Dwarf King. In this interpretation, the icons become the embodiment of invisible forces clashing behind the world – civilisation against anarchy, life against death, magic against corruption, elfness vs dwarfitude – and the characters are alternately lifted or buffeted by these unseen tides.
Personally, I really enjoy playing 13th Age as an improv-heavy dialogue with the players, and have lots of fun taking their wild ideas for iconic benefits and weaving it into the game, but that does favour a gonzo, anything-goes form of fantasy. If I had a more low-key, intrigue-heavy or mystical campaign in mind, though, unseen icons might be the way to go…
13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.