Icons and Anchors

So, one fun thing to do with the Icons system from 13th Age is to start mapping it onto fiction and game settings you like.  I’ve done it several times, and I encounter an interesting pattern  – the first few Icons of any setting tend to be very easy to come up with, but somewhere before the half-dozen mark, I run out and start grasping at straws.

At first blush, this seems like a problem with the model and that maybe 13 Icons is too many, but I suspect there’s a bit of a trick to that:  if, say, 3-4 is the “normal” number of Icon-equivalents in fictions, then each character has enough for their own story to be complete, and there’s a big enough pool to make sure that every player has a distinct combination.[1]  Still, even with that in mind, I found myself bumping against a limit in using the Icons model for certain sorts of setting, but still wanting to use the model.

See, the thing that sets the Icons model apart from other approaches is the implicit importance of the Icons.  As I noted yesterday, they’re definitive of the setting, and they have implicit infrastructure surrounding them which the characters hook into. Icon creation _is_ setting creation, and that’s really awesome.

But it’s big.  And while big and sweeping can totally rock at times, sometimes you want a little bit less scope, and in such a case, I would use Anchors.[2]  That is to say, suppose that rather than picking 13 people who defined the world, you simply picked 13 people?  The connection to them does not necessarily bring with it great scope, but it does open the doors to more personal connections.  If one of the 13 is your mom, but also someone else’s romantic conquest, then you have a dynamic right there.

Anchors also work if you want to take the Icons idea down to a smaller scale – the idea that I am perhaps most excited to do is to use the model to build a single city.  Rather than being the movers and shakers of the world, consider the important folks of the city: Merchants, crime bosses, mayors and mercenaries. Like Icons, they create implicit infrastructure and put faces on the factions of the city (sooooooper important) but they do so on a much smaller scale.

Now, functionally, isn’t that the same as Icons?  Yes, kind of, but the issue of scale is not entirely sleight of hand.  Icons are more or less untouchable – impacting or changing them redefines the game.  Anchors are closer to the ground (and, well, a bit less iconic) and while they may be powerful or important, they’re not untouchable.  They also may or may not be essential to their faction.  If an Icon dies, it should devastate the group it represents.  If an anchor dies (depending on circumstances) they may simply be replaced.

Hell, you can mix and match if you want – If you ran a Waterdeep game with 12 Anchors and 1 Icon (say, Khelben Blackstaff), it could work fine so long as the icon is at rough parity within the scope of Waterdeep (this model probably applies to most of the Forgotten Realms, as I think about it).

Also, it’s not necessary that the anchors be even locally powerful.  All that really matters is that they be tied into the story/setting at hand.  Hell, there’s no reason you could not use Anchors as the basis for adventure design, depending on much more disposable relationships and characters.

So, this is me shamelessly stealing the ease-of-explanation of the Icons model to use it for some other approaches to setting and adventure design I dig.  It’s not the only hack the model supports, but it’s definitely the first one in my mind.  And tomorrow, we’ll start breaking out some more concrete hacks.

1- If they want to. One obvious bit of game setup foo is, of course, the question of overlapping Icons. I suspect the number of overlapping Icons has a very concrete impact on a game, and mandating certain connections (like, each player must have 1 Icon in common) can build certain types of relationships and games (much the same way you could, in 3e, have everyone have 1 level of the same class to represent some common background)

2 – Yeah, there’s hubris in naming it, but it makes it easier to talk about. 

14 thoughts on “Icons and Anchors

  1. Daniel M. Perez

    I’m starting to believe more and more in the collective game design subsconscious. Earlier this year, I made some notes for my Celtic hack of Dragon Age and one of the things I noted was the importance of Heroes in Celtic myth, and how up-and-comers seem to have a connection to CuChulain, or Finn McCool, or Oisin, or Magb, etc. I wanted to include that somehow in the game. In prepping to run a game of this online for CONcurrent, I came across that note, and lo, here you are talking about Icons and Anchors, which make that idea possible in the game. Love it.

  2. Anonymous

    Interesting. This aligns with my thought on prominent NPCs that aren’t quite Icons or aren’t Icons just yet. Some archetypes seem ill suited to the full status of Icons (Fool, Pan, etc). Some Icons explicitly rose above their competion (Lord of Shadows), but not every age may have a dominate person in that role (i.e. the Hero). It is useful to recognize the space for such anchors, particularly if they are only locally significant.


    1. Rob Donoghue

      You could, but that would kind of demand a different game. PC Icons would be playing the boardgame version of the game. PC anchors, well, are maybe a bit redundant, since your PCs are already PCs, which is kind of a big deal.

    2. chatty

      In the time since I asked this question, I got some more sleep. And then I realized the supers game I am running is predicated on the fact that the “icons” are being or have been displaced. And then I remembered that it is called “Icons: Redacted.”

  3. Nick Pilon

    I think that, possibly, a good evaluator for “is a setting good and game-able” is “how many Icons can you generate?” Settings that can only support 3-4 are probably too thin to be gameable, at least not for very long. There’s just not enough competing agendas and setting elements in play for all the players and a good cast of NPCs and subplots.

    Further, I don’t think your Anchors are really *that* different from Icons. While I’ve not read the 13th Age stuff yet, I hope Icons aren’t presented untouchable, since “redefining the game or setting” by changing an Icon in some way seems a great thing to hang narrative or character goals on. So, eliminate that. They’re closer to the ground. Well, I think that’s more a matter of campaign/game/setting scope than it is a real inherent, innate difference. If your game’s focused on a city, you’ll want Icons who define that city.

    As for the effect on the setting/game of them dying, I see that as a feature, not a bug. I think one of the big mistakes I made in my Dresden Files campaign last year was having too many Faces who weren’t essential to the things they represent. In Dresden-verse Chicago, killing or changing Marcone would dramatically alter the essential nature of the Organized Crime faction. Killing/changing the White Court and Red Court leaders *does* dramatically alter the essential nature of those factions. So even at a smaller scale, I’d hope this would be something we’d want to preserve.

    As I read it, the concept of Icons takes untouchable metaplot NPCs and explicitly turns them into levers with which a player or GM can manipulate the setting/game. Sometimes they’re big levers, sure, and hard to move. But they’re still there to be moved around, which is why their write-ups are so vague and open-ended. Right?

    1. Rob Donoghue

      Well, no, the Icons really are presented as All That And a Bag Of Chips (and this is more evidence that I need to write the post about why it’s not just a stack of Elminsters) and most of the points you raised are exactly *why* I felt the need to distinguish between Icons and Anchors.

      The trick is that Icons are a setting generation model, while Anchors (and the things they derive from, like Dresden Files city creation or the Elder Amberites) are campaign creation tools. Now, that line can absolutely get blurry from time to time, but it’s easy to illustrate. If you were going to pick the icons of the Dresden Files, The Merlin might be one, and importantly, the entirety of the White Council (possibly even all of Wizardry) would be his domain. In fact, to give a sense of scope, in Icon speak, the whole Red Court would probably be the hand of a single Icon, and the events in Changes are basically indicative of exactly what a big deal it is to take down an Icon.

      Put another way, Marcone is too small fry to be an Icon (unless you decide he’s basically the symbol of mundane humanity, which is a disturbing thought).

      Alternately, taking the Amberites as an example, in a true Icons model, the Icons are more aptly the Serpent and the Unicorn rather than the elders themselves.

      But in both cases, changing elevation gets powerful results. If you slide down a ways, Icons can get a little bit less Iconic, and reveal a different window into the world. There’s no clean point of transition, but eventually, you transition from Icons to Anchors. And that’s cool, because by and large, they solve different problems.

      Personally, my _tastes_ run to anchors, but the Icons model excites me for two reasons. First, it really is a slick tool for full-bore, grandiose setting construction, which is always fun. Second, and maybe more importantly, it’s such a clean, easily presented model for illustrating character-driven setting design that I am happy to steal its language for use at different scales.

    2. Nick Pilon

      Right, that point about the Red Court is more or less what I was trying to get at. I don’t think Icons are “more or less untouchable”. Touching them in a meaningful way requires either a deft hand or a honking big stick. Take the Red Court (faction) + Red King (icon). Harry clearly *touches* them prior to Changes; he’s responsible for the pivotal events that tip them over into war with the White Council, even if he never interacts with the Icon himself. Then we see a plot arc revolving around that new circumstance, which ultimately concludes with… Well, Changes.

      Given that, I still don’t see a qualitative difference between Anchors and Icons other than focus and emphasis on scale. Don’t Icons fill the same role in big, world-spanning epic fantasy that Anchors do in a small city-focused occult noir game?

    3. Rob Donoghue

      So, setting aside that scale is a really big deal in its own right (because that’s a whole other topic) the simplest distinction is this: The narrative importance of Icons derives from their power, while the power of Anchors derives from their narrative importance.

      Yes, it can be a super fine line, especially when you really start asking what fictional power means. But it allows me to put someone’s mom in the spotlight without making them a peer of the great powers, and that is important enough to me that the distinction matters.

  4. tieandjeans

    I’m working just from your discussion of Icons here, so my apologies if I flub this. But it sounds like Icons are the anchor points that stretch and define the tapestry/surface of the playable world. Each PC “rests” in a space defined by the pull of those larger forces, like a marble on a stretched bedsheet.

    13 seems like a great number for building a long-term world, but it also seems like it’s way too many for fiction other than massive series. Strange & Norrel, which has always struck me as a novel that leaves a great game-able world on the table, might have:

    John Uskglass – English Magic
    Strange & Norrel – Modern Magic
    English Royalty

    And then I’m left looking at what powers those already named might be in thrall or conflict with.

    Unnamed Faerie Power
    England itself

    For a party of 6, 13 Icons might be a necessary spread. But for a single narrative with a smaller number of protagonists, it seems like the influence of even 4 or 5 Icons can generate plenty of complication and plot.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      So, this highlights that Icons really serve two purposes, and the right number might be different for each one.

      13 is a good number if you’re creating a setting from scratch, because it guarantees a certain amount of dynamism and interaction. But it’s a hard number to map onto an existing setting for the reasons you note – an Icons setting has a very specific feel that’s not common in fiction because it’s perhaps too busy for any given story. That may seem like a bug, but it’s a feature if your goal is to create a setting in which many different stories can be told (as suits an RPG setting).

      This is also a strength and a weakness of the Icons being at a remove. You may never interact with the Grand Druid, no one may be connected to her, but it’s still a part of the world that druids are out there. This is in contrast to the more fictional or campaign-level design where if nobody cares about the Druid, then she might as well not be there. (Which is, by and large, me agreeing with you and just spinning things for emphasis)

      So, how do you strike a balance? Anchors are one solution certainly, if only because they’re much easier to drop into a game without huge ripples. That’s handy at the campaign level, an dit illustrates that 13 is maybe not so huge a number as all that – if you draw a map with each player having at least 3 external connections (which I don’t think is an onerous number) it’s pretty easy to hit 13 quickly (especially if the GM is keeping some in reserve).

      But beyond that, honestly, if a setting is already decently fleshed out, then Icons aren’t a necessary addition, especially if you get the underlying idea that the important groups or places in your campaign should have faces, even if those faces are not giants upon the earth.

    2. Paul Weimer

      I was thinking aloud earlier that Icons could scale up and down, and this post in talking about Anchors seems to have taken that ball and ran with it.

      The other thing that occurs to me is that you could build Icons or Anchors upwards rather than top down, especially if you are dealing with a scale smaller than an Empire, by asking questions about the power at the top of organizations and factions.


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