One of the unique concepts in 13th Age is Icons, powerful NPCs who are not quite demigods. They’re–well–iconic, powerful characters in the game world. Some examples are the Archmage, the Emperor, the Elf Queen, and the Prince of Shadows. 13th Age offers thirteen of them, of course.
I’ve noticed other people having an initial gut reaction of “Oh God, more Elminsters.” Basically, they fear that 13th Age has set up super powerful NPCs who do all the cool stuff in the campaign while the PCs sit around and watch. It’s not that way, I promise.
13th Age sets up its Icons as powerful people locked in a power struggle with each other. For the most part, they’ve fought to a standstill. They’re at a stalemate and they need help to get an edge. That’s where the PCs come in.
Creating Icon Relationships
Each PC starts play with connections to one, two, or three Icons. These connections vary in strength from 1-3 dice. Relationship strength represents how useful the Icon is for the player, not how well the character knows the Icon. Each relationship is also determined to be positive, negative, or conflicted. (I like to say “complicated” instead of “conflicted”– like on Facebook–and joke that it means they’re having sex.)
The rules give each character 3 dice of Icon relationships at 1st level, but I generally increase this to 4. At just 3 dice, a player will probably dump all 3 into a single strong relationship. At 4 dice, the player has to have relationships with at least two different Icons, which makes for more interesting gaming. The character earns one more die at both Champion level (5th) and can increase any relationship (or start a new one) but is still subject to the limits in the handy chart in the rules. At Epic level (8th), the character earns yet another die, and is allowed to break one of the limits by one point, if the player wishes.
The icons fall into three broad categories: Heroic, Villainous, and Ambiguous. Where each icon falls is determined by each GM’s campaign. In my Tenrook Adventure campaign, the Emperor and the Elf Queen are the good guys (Heroic Icons). However, in my Intrigue campaign, set in the same world (but not in the city of Tenrook), the players are working for the Elf Queen to dismantle the Emperor’s power base. Thus, the Elf Queen is a Heroic Icon and the Emperor is a Villainous Icon.
So, for example, my 1st level half-elf ranger in Tenrook might have a strong (3-dice) positive relationship with the (Heroic) Emperor, and a weak (1-die) relationship with the (Ambiguous) Prince of Thieves. At 5th level, I might add a new weak (1-die) relationship with the (Villainous) High Druid, or maybe increase my relationship with the Prince of Thieves to medium (2-dice) strength. I’m not allowed to increase my 3-dice relationship with the Emperor at this point. At 8th level, I get another die. I can increase the strength of my existing relationships. I can even strengthen my 3-dice relationship with the Emperor, making it 4 dice.
Using Icon Relationships
By the rules, these relationships are used as a sort “get out of jail free” card. When the player has tried everything and has “drawn a bit of a blank,” he or she can make a relationship roll to move things along. The player explains how he or she is using the relationship with a particular Icon for help, rolls his relationship dice (d6es), and any 5′s and 6′s mean success. However, 5′s also mean trouble. So if you roll 3 dice and get 3, 5, 6, then your relationship helps you along, but you also make things harder for yourself in some way.
I don’t like those rules. In my games, I use a variant system I created. It’s not perfect, but it feels better to me and my players. The problem I saw was that nothing happens when you don’t get any 5′s or 6′s (67% on 1d6, 44% on 2d6, 30% on 3d6, 20% on 4d6). Nothing at all. Here you’ve just invoked the names of the most powerful people on the planet, explained how this relationship is gonna get you out of trouble, and typically half the time it fizzles and nothing at all happens.
I also hate the inelegance of the six-siders here, in a system that is basically all d20s for task resolution (combat and skill checks, but not damage and effects). The authors say they like switching it up as a signal that something special is happening, but then the system doesn’t often deliver that something special, so…
My variant system turns Icon Relationships into extra dice for any skill check. Normally, a skill check is 1d20 + level + relevant ability modifier + relevant background score and try to beat the difficulty class (DC), which is like 15 or 20 or maybe even 25. When you invoke a relationship, you roll an extra d20 for each point you have in the relationship, and take the highest result. The catch is that any odd number on any of those d20′s nets you trouble.
For example, you’re trying to talk a guard into letting you into the princess’s bedroom. The GM explains that there’s just no way the guard is gonna let you in, but sets the DC at 28 and says it’s a Charisma check. Your ranger has Charisma 15 (+2), a background called “trusted member of the Emperor’s Court” (+5), and you’re 1st level (+1). You have +8 going into this, meaning you need a natural 20. This is the perfect time to bring in a relationship. You invoke your 3-dice relationship with the Emperor, explaining how you drop a lot of important names in the guard’s ear, trying to make him feel like he’ll be in big trouble for questioning your authority or moral fiber. That gets you four d20′s to roll instead of one. The dice hit the table, clatter clatter clatter clatter, and you’ve rolled 4, 10, 14, 20. The 20 is your highest result, so you take that 20, add your +8 and get the nearly impossible 28 your GM set as a challenge. The guard stammers and sputters as you walk past him into the bedroom of the princess… who is pointing a short sword right at your throat. Nice try.
Who are these Icons, anyway?
Well, to start with, they’re Product Identity. That’s legalese for “Pelgrane Press owns these and we’re not sharing them, even though we’re licensing the mechanics of the game.” That means that if you want to create and publish material that expands on the Icons in 13th Age, you need Pelgrane’s explicit written permission to do so. That technically bars me from talking about them here in any detail. I feel comfortable giving a couple examples, though.
But that will have to wait till next time…