Thursday, May 29, 2014

13th Age: Icons and their influence on story

My weekly Wednesday game has been doing 13th Age for about two months now and we've been having a lot of fun, as you might expect. The group has pared down a bit with four actives and three occasional in-and-out players; we lost one player to a job move, too.

The campaign I've been running has been my adaptation of Realms of Chirak into 13th Age. This has been an easy fit because honestly it doesn't take much to run a setting prepped for D&D in 13th Age. I've done most conversions on an as-needed basis, and except for building up Chirak's unique icons I haven't had to add a lot in.

An interesting side effect of using the icons in 13th Age is that they create interesting "markers" for lack of a better word that tell the GM some specific story information....and depending on the scenario you are running it can lead to some creative ways of imagining how those 5s and 6s are going to affect the storyline in complicated or beneficial ways.

Since I'm using Chirak, and employing icons that are tailor made for my setting, it's proving to be especially interesting. For one thing the icons are an easy fit in any established game world because ultimately the icons aren't really a new rule at all: they're a codification of something that every good campaign already has. When you run a campaign setting you likely set up important figures and personas throughout your world, sometimes with the intent that the players could meet them, fight them, slay them or even replace them. Other times you set them up so that they're behind the scenes, influencing things in a way that will benefit or bedevil the adventurers, serving as a mystery in their own right to be solved.

Even traditional sandbox campaigns can do this, unless you run sandbox in an extremely static fashion (an that's certainly been done too). If you create the sandbox campaign in the closest literal sense then you are simply populating your world with static objects, events or individuals that rest in situ waiting for the adventurers to discover them and bring them to life. I think most people don't run the sandbox campaign this way anymore; it's evolved a lot since the early days (an ironic testament to the fact that what we regard as old school today has, itself, undergone its own path of evolution). But that said, if you run a sandbox in a dymanic environment then icons are a great concept to deploy. It lets the GM cluster "big names" in his setting and think about how these big names interact together...and with the PCs.

Icons basically create an interesting dynamic relationship in the storytelling process, as well. The icon rolls you engage in at the start of each session lead to complications, and those complications often mean the GM has to think on his/her feet. "Bert the rogue got a 5 on his relationship with Lady Poe and a 6 on his relationship with the lich king...." turns into a situation where Bert discovers a network of spies working for Lady Poe in the city who will help him....for a price. Meanwhile every undead enslaved to the lich king that Bert meets knows he's one of the fleshy living agents of the lich king for some reason....but they are happy to assist him in any way they can. These are not things that would necessarily ever have a chance of evolving in an ordinary D&D game without creating a deliberate framework; both examples above came about because of icon relationship roles in last night's game; if I had been running Pathfinder it's not clear Bert would have a chance at ever meeting or even caring who either Lady Poe or Malenkin the Lich King were in a conventional game.

Now, one could argue that the icon relationships basically create a preordained background of connections for players....and there's nothing wrong with that, and plenty of games (old school and new) have included the notion of contacts, allies and enemies as a feature of character design. But if it really does bother you, one way to make it more organic is to build the evolution of icon relationships into play. This is honestly how it's normally done....people meet important characters, and either work for, with or against them over time. A GM who used the icon structure to plot out 13 ways PCs could encounter and develop icon relations would basically have a huge amount of scenario potential preordained right there. That alone could be worth the hassle of starting everyone off as true "nobodies" and then letting them build from there.

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