Icons and d20Tech

So, please take it as a given that 13th Age is going to be a great game.  It’s got some great minds behind it, and it really feels like it takes d20, combines a few of the good lessons from 4e, and makes a “good parts version” of d20.  The last d20 game that made me stand up and take notice to this extent was Blue Rose (the precursor to the excellent True20 line from Green Ronin).[1]

So, given that, it’s still curious that the most powerful idea in it has very little to do with the rules, and that is Icons.   You can read more about them at Pelgrane’s site (and in other place – it’s a popular topic) and I want to draw a circle around it as an important idea that’s going to see a lot of emulation down the line.

The Icon model is a logical extension of the idea of NPCs as setting.  This is not a new idea, but it’s a very clever implementation of it which presents the idea so clearly that I suspect it will become the common parlance for the concept.  In short, there are 13 powerful, iconic being in the setting and each PC is connected to at least two of them (for good or ill).   These icons are tightly tied to the setting – so much so that the setting itself can be sketched rather thinly around them.  They are not remote beings or gods – they are tightly tied to the day to day world, and the tie to the PCs means that PCs are similarly close to the centers of power.

At first glance, this is interesting, but maybe not compelling. However, there are some subtleties baked into this that really flesh it out.

The first, and probably most subtle, is the fact that the connection does not always manifest directly.  This is backed by the mechanics (you can call upon a connection in situations where the icon would never just show up) but the concept is straightforward – that connection implicitly includes a connection to the entirety of that Icon’s “faction” – whatever organization, allies or otherwise they may have. And note, those factions are loosely sketched at best – they’re an avenue for GM and player creativity, which is a nice bonus.

Now, in the hands of a lame GM, this could be an excuse to undercut the whole connection mechanic, by perpetually keeping PCs at arms length from the Icon in the worst traditions of clan-based play, but the risk of misuse is the price you pay for any good tool.  As presented, it is a means to flesh out the setting in line with player needs AND to draw the player into the world.

The second thing is that it drives a very interesting choice: the game does not guarantee that PCs will be powerful, but it does guarantee that they will be prominent. Not to say they can’t also be powerful, but by necessity, they will be drawn into matters of grave import, as absolutely suits the particular flavor of fiction that 13th Age embraces.  This is an upshot of the icon-centric setting design, and it’s pretty powerful mojo.

Now, I mean no sleight to the specific Icons of the 13th Age setting, but I know that my very first instinct is to build my own setting around a different set of Icons, and I suspect that impulse is far from uncommon.  In addition to building an interesting, playable world, 13th Age is presenting a tool for setting design which – to my mind – pushes setting technology forward dramatically.  Other games (Dresden Files, Burning Empires) have made similar pushes, but 13th Age has managed to do it in a way that is easy to illustrate, explain and (most importantly), re-use.  That is a big deal, and I am duly impressed.

Which is, of course, no reason not to hack it some more. But that’s another post.

1 – D20 evolution has an interesting cycle which I will grossly generalize as follows: A small number of games push the boundaries of what the game is, and a larger number of them expand and refine on the model.  Games like Blue Rose and 13th Age push things, and things like Pathfinder refine them.  This does not make the “push” games better – refinement and expansion is also essential – but it does make for a difference in what to expect from the game.  It also invites debate regarding which games push and which ones refine, and there’s a good chance that the ones that a given player think push are the ones the like best, but that’s neither here nor there.  The bottom line is that I feel that 13th Age pushes d20 forward, and (assuming they feed back into the OGL) improves the technology for everyone.

13 thoughts on “Icons and d20Tech

  1. RJ

    I definitely had the same impulse to re-cast the icons, depending on the game I’m playing. The interesting thing is 13th Age has actual, in-the-world icons of power to connect to, but other games may not. It’ll be up to the DM to determine how it best fits their game, but the system should be pretty painless to port.

    For instance, if I wanted to run a 13th Age game in the Eberron setting, the icons might be better represented by factions such as the Emerald Claw, Silver Flame or others. That’s what has me excited about them the most.

  2. Christian Griffen

    Very cool. I had the idea back in the day for my urban steam tech game, where every major NPC in the city would have “links” for PCs to connect to, but it never made it out of the idea phase. I’m looking forward to seeing how it actually pans out in 13th Age.

  3. RaiseDead

    I started a 13th Age campaign just a little bit ago and recasting/reforming the Icons to fit my own homebrew was half the fun. The idea of them being overarching NPCs that have very active and powerful roles in the game setting makes alot of sense and as a GM, it’s been really helpful for me to think on a larger scale as to what they are up to while the PCs are adventuring on a smaller scale. It’s almost like the Icons are specifically the DM’s characters to role play and figure out how their interactions inspire/challenge the PCs.

    It’s very evocative and the stories practically write themselves. I find myself giggling over the possibilities.

  4. Doyce

    13 Iconic characters around which the setting is loosely sketched… Hmm.


    I guess we have a name for one of the reasons Amber compels strong player buy-in.

  5. Anonymous

    Could you comment on the actual role of the 13 in the game? I have to admit that my first reaction to this description was very similar to my feelings about a certain 2nd Edition Campaign Setting where powerful NPCs easily and frequently outshine PCs or are too easily used as crutches by GM and Player alike to disenfranchise the other.

    That doesn’t sound like what you’re describing here, though. Maybe this is another example of the “risk of misuse price” you mentioned. I guess I’m struggling to understand how this is different from any other setting with powerful NPCs/Factions/Gods that motivate PCs, complicate plotlines, or (in worse case situations) perform the Deux Ex interventions that can ruin enjoyment of those participating in the story.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      That is a FANTASTIC question, so much so that I probably can’t do it justice in the comments, and it’s going to have to spawn its own post (probably next week, since I’ve already filled the queue with Icons posts).

      Short form, yes, part of it is the misuse issue – it is totally possible to play the Icons as a fat stack of Elminsters, and I can think of no idea more hellish than that. And there are no hard and fast barriers that keep that from happening, but there are a few subtle things that constrain it, the most powerful of them being the that these are the setting’s NPCs, not the GM’s NPCs (or at least that’s as it should be). One of the more annoying things about the uber NPCs is when they become agents for the GM’s agenda. Doing that with the Icons messes with the model pretty profoundly.

      Now, that said, I should emphasize that it’s not that Icons create a new kind of setting, they simply provide a very elegant tool for _expressing_ a setting. Implicit in the model are certain best practices (notably putting faces on setting elements and providing a sense of setting dynamism) but that’s all they are, and this is far from the only way to accomplish them. And that’s where the real rub of the misuse of tools kicks in – if the GMs intent is to just Elminster up the place, these tools won’t help much. But if the GM’s intentions are to really tie the players into the setting, then this tool can help with that.

      Anyway, this thread sort of pops up throughout the other 13th age posts, but one idea in particular emphasizes what I think the goal is here – the Icons model does nto insure that PCs will be powerful, but it does insure that they will be *prominent*, and I think that’s more important for a good game.

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