This month I've split my gaming nearly 50/50 between PbtA and "Trindie" games. My trad-indie hybrids of choice have been Trail of Cthulhu and 13th Age. The latter satisfies my love for epic fantasy. I know Jason (among other Gauntleteers) isn’t as big a fan of that, but I love huge, shake-the-pillars fantasy campaigns. Yes, I can do intimate but I'd rather bring sky cities crashing to the earth.
Both games have a little more tracking than I love. But both have clear core mechanics, despite the range and variety on offer. I’ve stolen their most interesting mechanics for other games (thinking about core clues, distance, respecs). In particular I've come to appreciate 13th Age's “Icons” mechanic. I liked it when I first saw it, but over time I've discovered more depth and utility within. It's a concept worth lifting and remixing for other games.
13th Age has a default high fantasy setting, The Dragon Empire. Within that world exist 13 icons. These figures of great power and influence shape events throughout the land. Some are mortal, some are immortal. All have a suggested "alignment" but personal agendas complicate that. Each icon has a symbol—used throughout the text and on supplementary bits like tokens and coins.
At the start of the campaign, players assign three points worth of relationships to icons. These relationships can be Positive, Negative, or Complicated. So you might be aligned with the High Paladin, but you’ve had some misunderstandings.
At intervals determined by the GM (per session, per adventure, etc.) players roll one die per relationship point. Each 6 means a meaningful advantage from that icon; each 5 means a boon with a cost or complication. The GM may also have players roll when encountering significant manifestations of that Icon.
GMs have several options for handling those advantages. Information: a contact reaching out to the player, a flashback to a past event, supernatural messengers. Support: small magic items, clearing obstacles, allies with lodging. Mechanical: inspiration for a roll bonus, extra recharge attempt, desperation reroll. These can be handled in multiple ways and the rules encourage flexible approaches. Suggestions can come from the GM or player. There’s lots of icon option discussion in various supplements; third party sourcebooks like Gods & Icons offer many variations.
Icon rolls don't have to be purely a boon or gift. The GM can also use them to determine the influence of particular icons on the story. If the Ancient Turtle keeps popping up from these checks, maybe there’s a deeper reason at work. In my sessions, I give players tokens to represent 5/6 icon rolls, and sometimes I'll offer to cash them when a particular opportunity occurs to me.
So what's the big deal? At first I thought Icons just offered a nice setting shorthand and useful session planning mechanic. But Pelgrane did something weird with their adventures and supplements; something I didn’t dig at first. Nearly all the 13th Age books use icons as a framework for presenting ideas. The Book of Loot's broken into chapters of themed items based around them. Most published adventures offer detailed options for antagonists and patrons based on icon relationships. Both Bestiarys present multiple origins stories and concepts for monsters based on which their iconic association.
The icons offer a rich angle into the setting and an organizing principle that reinforces the world. They're the factions and forces at work everywhere. I don't need to know the nations, gods, geography—instead I can focus on these pillars. And it doesn't have to be 13; one Pelgrane setting variant presents the Dragon Empire in just seven icons.
They offer useful improvisational resources. Icons set up an easy leading question for collaboration:. "Tell me about one of the icons, the figures who define the world and shape events.” Players can establish a name, some traits, and an agenda. As always, what they come up with tells you what they want to see in the world—as friends or enemies. You could even follow Questlandia's lead and give some authority over that icon to the player who came up with it.
Icons are compact way of conveying the setting. They put a name to a concept. If I wanted to pitch 13th Age's Dragon Empire to players, I'd start with the icons and maybe a minor sketch of the land's shape. I wouldn't have to go any deeper than that. We'd explore everything else in play. I think you could boil down many dense settings in this way: find key figures to represent factions and forces. Use those as your touchstones.
They can monetize the setting. Legends of the Wulin has a great mechanic called loresheets where players spend points to connect themselves to the stories of the world. Icon serve the same purpose—those relationship points let players buy into the aspects of the world they want to see. Players can invest deeply in one icon or spread their interest around.
Icon connections can make relationships messier and more dynamic. These ties lie on top of PC to PC relationships. In Hearts of Wulin we build those relations as triangles. Icons—either directly or in the form of specific agents—can be the third vertice. It doesn’t add complexity, but it does add depth.
The icon rolls offer a concrete setting connection to Players gain a currency they can spend to interact and push their agenda. Sometimes they have costs. The aid I get to fight against my icon enemy The Naga Prince may have strings attached. It may eventually push me into a relationship with another icon.
Icons help define campaign levels—there's a difference between an icon master of a thieves guild and an elder dragon who swallows the dawn to start the day. Icons can represent factions, philosophies, organizations, families lines, nations, or whatever feels to the GM like the building blocks of the world. That's something I want to come back to in a latter post.
Because the icon mechanics are loose—connections and an invocation mechanic—you can fit them with systems as is. On the other hand you could also adapt them to fit with a particular game. For example, you could adapt icon relationships to Dungeon World. At the start of the campaign, players would assign three +1 to Icons (max +2 at start). They'd define the relationship as Positive, Negative, or Complicated.
You could have a simple start of session move or opt to have players invoke the move in play for a particular moment. Roll +relationship value. On a hit, forces move to aid you (explain how). If you’re opposed to the icon in question, you get aid from mutual enemies. In a 7-9, there’s a cost or complication—either now or in the future. On a fail, problems arise or the cost is higher.
I can imagine many variations on this. Hard and soft moves might change relationships. The GM might have successful rolls generate hold to be spent on particular options. A more ambitious approach might have a general icon roll move and then specific ones for each of the icons.
Overall I like the concept because it's rich, requires a minimal amount of work, and has player interaction. I've been thinking particularly for fantasy, but I think it has applications beyond that.