Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Icon Kingdoms: 13th Age Warmachine

There’s a lot to love in the new 13th Age game- and a lot to steal for other games. That’s especially true for the concept of Icons it presents: a tool worth borrowing for many different settings.

I’d skipped on 13th Age originally because I’m not much of a d20 or OSR guy. I’ve played and run both, but these days when I pick products up from these lines I’m looking to adapt them. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed most Pelgrane products. So when I started to hear more and more buzz about the system I became interested. Then I had the chance to play in one of Aaron R.'s online demos. I saw enough new and cool stuff- presented well by the GM- to make me pull the trigger on a Gen Con purchase. I’ve read through it a couple of times now (and so has Sherri, my wife) and I’m not disappointed. My friend Derek’s moving his existing Legend game over to the system. I’ll write up a full reaction piece in the next few weeks, but you can already find many solid reviews online. What has grabbed me is that 13th Age plays close to the way I run.

I don’t know how true this is for other GMs, but there’s often a gap between the rules as written and the game as played. In play we drop the complicated and chrome bits, we simplify systems, we forget modifiers, and leave out odd corner bits. It isn’t so much a question of house-ruling, but the play style we become accustomed to over time. Our 'at table' versions of GURPS, Storyteller, and Rolemaster grew from years of play. I'd be surprised when I went to reread the rules and realize how much we’d unconsciously filed the serial numbers off. 13th Age feels like someone said "let’s write a game that fits with how we actually play and really care about."

In the 13th Age setting Icons represent key figures controlling the destiny of the world. In some cases, they’re specific and literal figures (such as the ancient Great Gold Wyrm), but in most cases they represent a role (The Archmage, the Crusader, the Emperor). They’re tied to a set of ideas and ethos, often with particular cultural connotations. The role Icons may differ depending on who or what currently occupies that position. Having the High Druid as a gnome may feel distinct from an dark elf there. The book shows how these figures can be mapped to an alignment chart, if desired.

The Icons help define the setting- something I didn’t pick up on at immediately. They’re the first concepts presented in the book, which looked out of place to me since I came looking more at system than setting. But I soon realized how well those Icons helped to explain the place, offer a sense of history, and set the stage. More importantly characters build relationships with those Icons, right at the start. Each PC begins with three relationship points which they can apply to different Icons. These can be Positive, Negative, or Conflicted.

The key idea here isn’t that your character necessarily knows “The Dwarven King” personally. But instead that you have a connection to the King and his faction. Perhaps you’ve been of service to them. Perhaps you’re known as a staunch foe of them. Positive relationships mean that the Icon and associated agents consider you a good guy. Negative relationships mean you’re an enemy. Conflicted mean that you might be seen as ambiguous. Perhaps some see you as good, and other members regard your actions as suspicious. 13th Age offers a great table discussing these relations and how they might apply to heroic or villainous icons.

(I should mention a couple of other, smarter people than I who have been doing some useful readings of 13th Age. In particular I recommend Rob Donohue’s series. I also suggest looking at Wolfgang Baur’s work. He drafted Icons based on his own setting, Midgard. Keith Baker's done the same with Eberron).

Each point in a relationship offers a relationship die. Some of the classes (notably the Bard and Sorcerer) have talents which connect to these Iconic relationships. When a relationship die’s called for, the player/GM rolls 1d6 per point. A “6” result indicates a positive or supportive response. A “5” indicates aid or intervention but with an additional complication. It’s worth noting that the GM calls for these rolls- the player might suggest they’re applicable, but the GM decides if it happens 13th Age uses these relationship dice in several places:
  • At the beginning or end of a session to serve as a keystone for the present or next session
  • When the players encounter representatives of a particular icon. 
  • For discovery and surprise, which seems more of a catch-all
As a GM I like this concept. I often fall back to a more sandbox approach- with open-ended session prep sheets and the “Three Things” technique. The first use fits well with that. The second use offers a nice way to remind and connect the players to the world. The second use gives the GM nice way to develop a scene and as importantly acknowledge a player’s background and backstory. For example, if the group runs into a set of demon hunters, and the one player has a positive relationship with The Crusader, the GM might roll. On a six, perhaps one of the hunters knows the character or perhaps there’s a link to the PC’s origin. On a five, the hunters might lay and obligation on them- asking for help. In either case, there’s a nice opportunity to tell the players that their character matters and that the GM remembers it. The relationship dice offer a "story" sub-system. The game has a few of these but overall still feels like a classic game. 

Beyond this, I believe the Icon set up offers a supremely easy way to help players grok a complex setting and immediately connect to it. They buy in and can mechanically show what things sound cool to them. It reminds me a little of the commodifying of the history and setting in Weapons of the Gods. Often the start of a campaign can involve either an info dump or a long period where the GM slowly doles out concepts about the setting. The Icons approach gives a rich, but relatively simple framework to help the players. Just from the one page on each of the Icons, I think I have a pretty good grasp on the 13th Age World.

So I’m wondering how well this could be used to break down and get at other settings. In particular, I’ve been thinking about Iron Kingdoms: a game where I love the concept and feel, but end up overwhelmed when I try to read and parse out what’s going on. Doing this with IK would mean a slightly less mythic approach. Most Icons would stand for a nation or faction- but I think they’d have the same weight. For example, we might have Hierarch Severius as the Icon representing the Protectorate of Menoth. On the other hand the evil dragon Everblight makes for an awesome and fantastic iconic presence. I’m still working through and trying to figure out who the important Icons would be and what roles they would fulfill. I'm going to do more but here's a first thought.

For any particular Icon, I’d try to give a fairly minimal write up: who they are and what values they stand for. So I’d focus less on the history of Khador, than how they’re seen. Who are their enemies and allies, what do they value? More importantly, for each Icon I’d want to give suggestions for the three kinds of relations and what they look like. So for example, the key leader figure for Khador is the Empress Ayn Vanar—so I’d probably identify her as an Icon representing her philosophy, but more broadly the idea of Khador in the setting. Ideally I want to give the players a good sense of what those relationships mean on the ground. Right now my write up feels a little more generic. Ideally I'd want some details more heavily drawn from the setting:

POSITIVE: If Khadoran, perhaps you come from one of the noble or notable families. Or you could have had a great victory or deed of honor drawing the Empress’ attention. Your time in the military built you bonds with significant and influential people who have risen to power. If non-Khadoran, you saved the life of an important person in the Empire. Perhaps you served as a mercenary or adventurer and managed to impress someone. Or you might simply have a fast friend who has risen through the ranks and spread your name.

CONFLICTED: If Khadoran, then perhaps you performed your service, but you have been known to question the decisions of the Empress. Perhaps a portion of your family was purged, and some of that stain has fallen upon you as well. Perhaps you secretly killed a fanatical tyrant officer and fear that secret coming out. Perhaps someone cheated you in the rough justice of trial by combat. If non-Khadoran, perhaps your family engaged in trade or commerce with the Khadorans, building up a network, but you found them more dangerous than reliable. Perhaps a family member has married into a Khadoran house and that makes you wary. Perhaps you have no enmity against them, but in the past you’ve crossed some of their operations and interrupted them.

NEGATIVE: If Khadoran, perhaps you have declared that the Empress needs to be overthrown. You may have allied yourself with the Llaelese Resistance. Perhaps you tried to bring new ideas, philosophies or technologies to your homeland and became outcast. If non-Khadoran, you had your village burned by marauding Khadoran forces and have taken revenge. Or perhaps your family struck a potent military blow against Khadorans- or even simply betrayed them in a trade. Perhaps you’re a heroic Cygnaran, fighting against the rise of the red hordes.

I’m going to write up more of these Icon approaches to Iron Kingdoms- more fleshed out than this. It’s a setting I like, and this offers me a good entry point to figure out what’s going on in that world. I first probably have to make a solid list of who would serve these roles. By coming in looking for those figures, I’m hoping it will make the material feel less overwhelming. I’m wondering if an Icon approach to other settings might be fruitful: would it help showcase a complex fantasy world like Glorantha (The Red Emperor, the Arkat, Argrath, The Only Old One, The Pharaoh) or L5R’s Rokugan (the Clan Champions, Fu Leng, The Emperor, The Emerald Champion, Yoritomo, the Masked Ronin, etc).

Perhaps it might be a way to craft an interesting approach to other genres. Could Fading Suns or Dune benefit from this kind of breakdown? Icons seem like a logical fit with Microscope used to create a fantasy (or other setting). Drop the concept of Legacies from Microscope and instead have the player create an Icon. In a typical game, the players might create five and then the GM can figure out the rest. My friend Art pointed out that the concept scales: for a single-city urban campaign, you could use Icons to define the various factions and groups.