My Pickup Play and a 13th Age Trick

Spirit of the Century was created to solve a specific problem – we had a lot of gamers with terrible schedules, so we wanted to facilitate pickup play. So we did a huge chargen session one afternoon, and every game after that was based on who could show up. The baseline model of SOTC (fairly static, highly competent characters in a loose, well-connected organization) was literally custom made for that style of play.

I find myself in a similar position once again, and I’ve been thinking about other ways to solve that same problem. How do you run a satisfying ongoing game with an unpredictably rotating cast?

One answer for this that I’ve chewed on is the Babylon 5/Deep Space 9 model – the game that takes place in a hub where things come too. Expanded, this could just as easily be the model of a city campaign, but the lack of focus in a city is a double edged sword. It might work, but thinking about it revealed to me an interesting 13th Age trick.

One essential element of the B5/DS9 model is that everyone there represents someone else, usually their race/culture in a diplomatic sense, but the idea can be extrapolated. This makes for interesting political play with players as movers and shakers, but also introduces certain structural limits on interaction – players will never truly be on the “same side” (unless they all start on that side, which is a whole other thing).

So I was thinking about how you handle unaffiliated characters in such a setting, and why they might matter, and the simplest reason is that they’re not beholden to anyone. Their actions do not speak for any larger group, and their loyalties are not predictably aligned. They might be associated with a group, but they are not of it.

And this lead to a curious way to think about 13th Age’s Icons. By default, the assumption is that characters are made more interesting because they’re connected to Icons, but what if they’re interesting because they’re connected to multiple icons. That is, what if the default assumption in the setting was that everyone (or nearly everyone) is connected to a single icon.

This has both a subtle and profound impact on the setting. It’s not going to change a lot of day to day behaviors of the people you interact with – they don’t put on uniforms and declare their allegiance to the icon in song.[1] But it makes the expressions of the relationship dice ubiquitous and concrete, because they’re the foundation that people stand on[2].

In this situation, the conflicts of the great powers are predictable and slow, but the people who are not bound to one power or another are unpredictable, valuable and fearsome. They will be under pressure to “come into the fold” of one power or another, but the fact that they do not simply fold to that pressure is part of what makes them so valuable. Icon relationships are a fantastic mechanical way to represent exactly this dynamic.

(alternately, if you do a movers and shakers game, then it’s a great Primary/Secondary relationship model. We all serve the Dragon Emperor (primary) but have different secondary relationships)


So, I may go in that direction. If I do, I may also go with fewer Icons. Another cool thing about the Icons model is that the number that matter to your group will always be a subset of the full load, so it simplifies bookkeeping to a more mind-friendly number (say, 7ish)[3]. In a broad pickup game, there are enough characters total that all available icons will probably see use, which makes individual sessions harder to manage.

Not 100% settled on this model as what I want to run, but whatever I end up with, this will certainly inform my thinking.

  1. Unless it’s Gilbert & Sullivan 13th Age, which would be awesome.  ↩
  2. This includes oppositional definition. The rebel group dedicated to the overthrow of the Dragon Emperor is defined in terms of the Dragon Emperor, but the shadowy secret organization striking down the empire from within may be defined in terms of the Prince of Shadows. Small, but critical difference.  ↩
  3. This, BTW, speaks to a problem and opportunity in 13th Age adventures. Done right, they will hinge off the Icons, but there’s no guarantee that those icons will sync to the icons that matter in your game. But fortunately, that is very easily communicated – slap the impacted icons on the cover of an adventure and, bam, everyone knows if it will work for them.  ↩

15 thoughts on “My Pickup Play and a 13th Age Trick

  1. Andrew

    Regarding pick up games and how to frame them…
    I’ve generally used organizational formats like “Mercenary Company” or “Adventurer’s Guild” with great success. My home D&D 4e group is the Waterdeep Adventurer’s Guild, where each session is a different mission in the ongoing fight to defend the city. My Doctor Who RPG follows the adventures of a small UNIT base in the United States, investigating mysteries. In both cases, I don’t need to stress too much if certain players (or characters) cannot make it to a specific session.

    The weirdest part is that most players like transitioning around to different characters over time. Some may leave, only to retun later as an important ally (or enemy). Throwing in one-off side stories has also become a thing as we have found it fun to fill in details of the greater story I’m which the “normal” party may not apply.

    I suppose, within the framework of D&D and Doctor Who, I am sort of working to your latter suggestion of tying all of the characters to a primary “Icon” but with different secondary relationships.

    1. Arashinomoui

      That’s what I’m basically doing with my 13th Age game – I told everyone to take either a positive or conflict relationship with Emperor, as they will all be agents of his, and I’m expecting the differences will come out in play with who the folks choose as their secondary relationships.

  2. Rob Bush

    I am the very model of an Agent of the Emperor,
    In our game he is old, and looks a lot like Werner Klemperer,
    He sends me off to fight the Orc Lord and I’m bloody fabulous
    But you should see me when I find I’m fighting the Diabolist!
    My One Unique Thing is that I’m the Elf Queen’s secret paramour,
    My backgrounds let me swing from chandeliers just like John Barrymore,
    The Lich King wants to kill me so’s to make an undead tool of me…..
    The Prince of Shadows wishes he was nearly half as cool as me!
    The Prince of Shadows wishes he was nearly half as cool as me!
    The Prince of Shadows wishes he was nearly half as cool as me!
    The Prince of Shadows wishes he was nearly half as cool as cool as meeee!

    I’ve fought the Red, I’ve fought the Blue, I’ve even taken on the Black,
    I’ve shown the Archmage that, in fact, he really just does not know jack.
    But when the Druid wants someone to go and harvest hemp for her,
    I tell her to go screw herself ’cause I work for the Emperor!

  3. Reverance Pavane

    My first thought for [1] was a Japanese sararīman culture where everyone gets up for early morning calesthenics and to sing the Icon loyalty song…

  4. Blue

    Amusingly, I had just proposed something very similar to my group:

    For the Queen!
    “Gentlemen and Ladies of Digression, Honor, Skill, Loyalty, Chivalry and Adventurous Attitude needed. Accomplished bladeswomen, arcanists and riders welcome.”
    Think Three Musketeer for the Elf Queen, dealing with the intrigue of the elven court, the schisms between the high, wood and dark elves, and the High Druid as well as external kingdoms like the Dwarf King and the Emperor as well as other influences like the Lich King, threat of invasion by the Orc Lord, and incursions from and to the Abyss. (In other words, all the icons.)

  5. Josh

    I wonder if, adding Icons to FATE, couldn’t each Icon have a set of its own Aspects- broad Aspects, although somewhat narrow ones might make improving more interesting- and apply one of those aspects to the Session. You could make that random, or the GM could secretly choose one of that Icon’s aspects. Apply it as a aspect for that particular session.

    Just a random musing, I guess.

    1. Silverwizard

      At the beginning of the session roll a Fudge die for each level of relationship you have with an icon
      + the Icon grants some sort of boon during the session
      – the Icon makes a single conflict worse during the session

      The GM may use the – dice as an Aspect once for free (either to compel or invoke against the player) and the players may use their + dice as an Aspect once for a free invoke.

  6. John H

    This seems like it would work really well with Dresden Files RPG. NPCs are generally linked to one Icon, but PCs have complicated links to 2 or more, and want to avoid being beholden to any of them.

  7. Pingback: Examining Icons in Design » Genesis of Legend Publishing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *