Superpowerful NPCs are the worst
One of the things that 13th Age puts front-and-center are the Icons. As the intro says to the first chapter of the Core book says “Most d20 games have powerful NPCs who shape the world behind the scenes. 13th Age brings them forward, making these thirteen powerful NPCs into icons the PCs will aid or oppose over the course of each campaign.”
Superpowerful NPCs would normally set off all sorts of alarm bells, obviously. Anyone who remembers good old Samuel Haight from the heady days of early White Wolf until the Wraith team saved us all by turning him into an ashtray knows wherof I speak. Likewise anyone who ever played tabletop Vampire:The Masquerade with its endless parade of souped-up elders. Or Changeling: The Dreaming and all those damn sidhe or …
White Wolf has a lot to answer for is what I am saying.
Also E*******r. Fucking E*******r.
Ahem. My bees are outwith my hat again. Where was I?
Oh yes! Superpowerful NPCs who push the players around or solve their problems so they don’t have to. No thanks, Satan!
Where the Icons work best for me is –
– crap I’ve just remembered fucking Fizban from Dragonlance as well and now I’m sad again –
Where the Icons work best for me is as the easily identifiable face for a political faction within the setting. Having a diverse set of politically active factions is an easy and fun way to make your game world feel bigger and more complex than it actually is; makes building interesting stories easier; provides an easy avenue to reflect the impact of player character action; and helps your players really, really hate whoever their nemesis turns out to be.
The Icons in the Game
In the conceit of 13th Age, the Icons are people but they are also both factions and symbols. They exemplify the core conflicts of the Age, just as they and their predecessors exemplified the conflicts of the twelve previous ages. They’re simultaneously agendas-made-flesh and people, and both of these things make them stronger than yer archetypal superpowerful NPC.
As agendas-made-flesh they provide easy hooks to hang the conflicts of my game on. Each one has a handful of things they are “about”, a set of goals, and a common approach to achieving that goal. They have overlapping spheres of interest, and they are constantly supporting and opposing each other in a way which Creates Game for my player characters.
They’re also people – with the weaknesses and strengths that people have. It’s hard to imagine the Order of Holy Priests “doubting” but it is really easy to imagine the Hierophant having a crisis of faith and how that might effect his followers if it came to life. It’s hard to imagine the Gang of Nasty Bootboys falling in love, but it’s easy to imagine the Crusader having a moment where she has to choose between love and conquest. Shit like that.
Your mileage on this latter pont may vary on this one, obviously, but at the end of the day even when sending parties of d20 fantasy thugs into dungeons to kick doors in I like to have a “human” element to my campaigns. You can take the boy out of the 90s emogaming but…
The other big advantage I think the Icons have over more familiar political factions is that they are easy to remember. There’s a baker’s dozen of them and they all have easy-to-remember names written in English.
While I’m here, I’m going to talk about that a bit. It’s a digression, obviously, and I’m sorry but it won’t be the last.
A Rose By Any Other Name Would Be Harder To Remember
Players are only human (as I understand it) and they have only so much space in their meat brains for remembering details about a made up world. This is as true for ttrpg as it is for live-roleplaying games (and incidentally one reason we went out of our way when writing Empire to keep the number of bullshit made-up words to a minimum but that’s a story for another time).
I want the names of important things in the game world to be as memorable as possible. A game where I call the place-where-all-the-priests-hand-out “Temple Ward” is a bit less realistic (arguably) but it’s also about a thousand times easier for the players to remember where they can go to find clerics than if I called it “New Downuptownstreet Plaza”. Or worse some random collection of syllables like “Tref Offeiriad.”
Your players have only so much brainspace to use up on made-up bullshit and you need to respect that as much as possible. It’s just maths (Biology? Something? You know what I mean).
Use familiar words for things, is what I am saying.
So for example, if I call my faction of elk-mounted elf-supremacists the Wild Hunt (or the Elf Liberation Front if I am going for cheap laughs) I can do so with some confidence that my players will remember who they are and what they are about much easier than if I call them the Gheallie Sidhe. I can still remember the Orc Rights Commission from Shadowrun in the very early 90s wheras I would be hard pressed to name any of the corporations or other factions with the possible exception of Ares Macrotech.
It all mounts up – every element of your game is something that players need to remember. Players love to write stuff down, it’s true, but every time they need to reference their notes to remember who someone is or what something is called they eat into your playing time just a little. And they send you the secret message that the faction (or NPC, or lost ruin, or ancient civilisation) you made up does not have a memorable name, and you cry a little inside.
Whenever I name something in a game I remember my experience with an Ars Magica-based live roleplaying game called NWO in the 00s which had a vast cast of characters with complicated names drawn from across medieval Europe. But rather than expecting everyone to remember all these di Lorenzos and von Dunkelhaffers each character had a cognomen (“an extra personal name given to an ancient Roman citizen, functioning rather like a nickname” thank you Google) which was a word or two in English that also served as a hook for remembering what they were about. “the Toad” or “the Black Badger” are a lot easier to remember than Grand Primus Gabriella di Russana di Frustivan or Lorenzo von Matterhorn.
So the Icons, by having names like “the Crusader” or “the Empress” rather than “General Volkstad van Derbinken” or “Empress Maraschino the Velour” are memorable, easy to pronounce, and leave free valuable mental and imaginary real estate for remembering the names of a few actual NPCs appearing in this game.
Embigenning your Game
Player characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum. I mean they can if you like – it can be a lot of fun just doing a dungeon bash in which the only thorny moral problems are whether to fireball the faceless orc mooks guarding the treasure chest or to use lightning bolts on them. It depends what you want from your game.
While I started talking about Iconic NPCs, what I’m really talking about here is factions. For me a faction is a generally NPC special-interest group that interacts in some fashion with player characters with the in-character aim of achieving one or more goals, and the out-of-character aim of fucking with the characters as much as possible.
As an aside, if what you want is to suggest a deeper game world then factions are your friend. 13th Age maybe has a few too many. There’s a solid frame by Cat Tobin for running a campaign in which the existing Icons are merged to form a 7 Icons setting that I very nearly used myself – but in the end I decided I was confident enough to run the full 13 albeit with some tweaks because I can’t help myself.
They idea of factions is nothing new. The new 5th edition D&D does a great job of highlighting the traditional forgotten realms factions as patrons/supporters/opponents of PC groups, and if you’re familiar with Eberron that’s a setting that’s absolutely swimming in competing factions all falling over each other to make the lives of your heroes just absolute hell.
Likewise I spent a lot of time playing World of Darkness games, and each one has at least five often cookie-cutter factions for each type of supernatural, and regularly foregrounds complex conflicts both between player character factions themselves (such as the excellently argumentative Atlantean Orders internal struggle portrayed in Mage: The Awakening) and between different philosophies of how-to-do-supernatural (the iconic Camarilla/Sabbat/Anarch fight that serves the foundation of the politics of Vampire: The Masquerade).
Factions provide easy levers and tools to present the imaginary game world and more importantly reflect the impact your players’ characters have on it. Beating the bandits is fun and all, but knowing that by doing so you’ll be throwing a wrench into the Evil Sheriff’s plans to overthrow the Good Prince and seize the throne adds an extra level of enjoyment to everyone. It’s a way to show that the players’ actions – and perhaps more importantly the choices they made before they took those actions – matter. That they mean something beyond the immediate moment.
They’re also a powerful storytelling tool for you as GM to actually build story frameworks. If the innkeeper with the rat problem is associated with an Icon (or a faction) then everything about that traditional story becomes more interesting. Why does the retired paladin of the Golden Order with the giant two-handed sword over the bar need the help of wet-behind-the-ears adventurers to clear out rats from her cellar? What do the players do with the knowledge that the biggest Mutant Death Rat has a dog-collar with the name “Pookie” on one side and the sigil of the Archmage on the other? What will it mean for the city that the vigilante paladins now have a secure cellar to meet in while they plot their borderline terrorist strike against the Department of Goeticism at the university? How much more memorable were those incidental sewer-dwelling bandits now that we know their flayed faces mark them out as cultists of the Lich King? And so on.
With all that in mind, and with the knowledge that my particular game is going to be set in a city where lots of different icons – and by extension factions – are vying for power I put together a mental checklist of things I wanted from each of the Icons.
One: They need a reason to interact with the player characters
Aaarguably, the only thing that is “real” in a ttrpg is the stuff that happens around the table as you present situations and things for your players’ characters interact with, fight, steal, intimidate, kidnap, argue about, or fuck. Everything else is icing at best or an annoying distraction at worst.
So each Icon needs to have a reason that players would interact with it. The followers of the Icon might be allies, they might be enemies, they might provide an incidental complication, or they might be all three at the same time. If it doesn’t somehow present opportunities for players’ characters to want to do something differently it’s not worth including.
Two: They need an agenda that could cause conflict
I’m a pretty straightforward guy and I think that action and excitement come from conflict. There are ttrpgs that foreground cooperation and collaboration, but when I’m running a game with handfuls of d20s I want people to argue with each other. Delicious, delicious disagreement is the fertile soil from which stories explode.
The main source of conflict is people. In a d20 fantasy game the world “people” can end up doing a lot of work what with the floating balls of eyes, flying saurian weapons-of-mass-destruction, and sapient trees. But it’s as good a term as any. Fundamentally conflict (and thus fun) arises from people interacting with each other.
People, even imaginary people in made-up worlds, want things. They might want something specific and immediate– to remove the Governor and replace him with one of their members for example. They might want something more far-reaching and long-term – to seal the Abyss and protect the world from demons.
My players want things to – to have fun, to socialise, to hang out and have a laugh. But their characters also want things – to fight evil, to find true love, to have enough gold in their pockets that they need to pay people to help hold their trousers up.
By defining what the Icons want, I also want to make sure I create pressure points where those agendas will potentially conflict with each other, but also with the players’ characters’ agendas. Their desires may or may not be obvious, but I want to know what they are so I can find ways to use the Icon and their faction in service of my first point about interacting with characters.
I also want to make sure that their agenda is relevant to the specific game I am playing – so at least one of their agenda points should be about New Port.
Once I know what their wider agenda is, I can think about what they want to achieve in the area where your game is set and how they might go about it, always with one eye on what this means for the players’ characters. How are the Golden Paladins fighting demons in your backwater village? Is there an evil here they want to destroy? Where did that evil come from? Why do the Golden Paladins need the help of the player characters to deal with it?
Sometimes it’s appropriate to build complex lists of strengths and weaknesses, but you often don’t need to do that and I definitely am not going down this rabbithole. For most d20 fantasy worlds you ideally want to be able to sum up an entire faction in half a dozen bullet points, and the more factions you have the less time you have to spend on each one.
(If I were running a different kind game – one with a single opposing faction rather than lots of competing factions – I’d totally mosey over to Night’s Black Agents from Pelgrane Press and check out the Conspyramid which presents a fascinating little tool for keeping track of an enemy conspiracy without needing to write an entire sourcebook about it. It’s worth taking a look at if you can find it and haven’t encountered it already)
Another digression: Cthulhu vs Boromir
My Boss talks about the Cthulhu Problem from time to time. No, it’s not racism at least not in this specific regard. His argument is that ultimately Cthulhu is boring because he wants to destroy the world. There’s not much question about whether 99% of people should do about Cthulhu. They have to oppose him because he will eat them and knock down all the Greggs.
Obviously it’s a bit simplistic an attitude, and understandably given my boss doesn’t really get the whole cults-and-tentacles genre, but it underlines one of the problems about Eeeeeevil in yer average ttrpg. For most people the only choice when faced with a Cthulhu cult that wants to destroy the town is how to stop them not whether to stop them.
The One Ring Conundrum, incidentally, is often presented as a counterpoint to the Cthulhu Problem. The ring is dangerous, but it is also powerful. It may be innately evil, or it may just be that it is connected to an evil entity. A mortal could use the ring to gain magical power to fight evil and save their people, and even if the ring were to corrupt them a bit how much corruption would they need to suffer before they were a danger to their people? Could someone step in before that happened and then destroy the ring? The bad people in this scenario are the people who want to throw the ring that could save the people of Gondor into a volcano because elves and wizards are scared of it. The ring is much cooler than Cthulhu because the danger it represents is ambiguous. It’s an archetypally interesting dangerous magic item. If you look at it the right way.
When it comes to a d20 fantasy ttrpg, I am much more interested in the One Ring Conundrum than I am in the Cthulhu Problem. That’s not to say you can’t have Eeeeevil forces to punch because (I understand) it is enjoyable to punch Nazis in your imaginary gamespaces. But if I want to have cool stories unfold from my tabletop, I don’t want to foreground people who are absolutely good or absolutely evil.
I’m using all my willpower not to go off on a rant about two-axis alignment right now.
I will finish by mentioning that you can absolutely solve the Cthulhu Problem (again, not the racism one) by focusing on the humans and not the Tentacles MacGuffin. Delta Green does a great job in its various incarnations of making the real enemy be the humans, and the tentacled-space-fungus-argh-the-angles fuckers the tool humans use to screw each other over.
Three: They need a level of ambiguity
Bearing in mind the Cthulhu vs Boromir thing… while my players and their characters will knee-jerk support or oppose some of the Icons by default, I want to shade each of them with a little ambiguity. Each of the “heroic” icons needs to have a thing that players might not like. Each of the “villainous” icons needs to have a quality that at least intellectually my players’ characters might be in favour of.
In my game, the Great Gold Wyrm wants to save the world from demons, which is great. But he also wants people to live selfless lives dedicated to saving the world from demons, putting all other considerations to one side, serving their fellow humans, and also eradicating all those colour coded dragons because they are innately evil and the GGW is a tiny bit racist. He’s a nightmare incarnation of that Lawful Good paladin who won’t let you torture the captured goblin for information because torture is bad. It’s simplistic, but I guarantee there is nothing more likely to make a group of heroes gnash their teeth than a faction who specialise in being not-angry-but-disappointed and don’t think the ends justify the means. I may be projecting a little there, but it’s not a surprise to me that there are Empire players who hate the honourable Jotun more than they hate the blatantly-wearing-an-”I’m Evil”-t-shirt Druj..
Likewise, the High Druid thinks that people should be more responsible with their magic and not unleash terrible hybrid abominations to eat people. The Diabolist doesn’t think The Man should be pushing people around and telling them what to do and shaming them for – for example – having an affair with their neighbour’s hot husband. The Lich King was betrayed and murdered and part of his agenda is to get back what was stolen from him from an Empress who arguably isn’t actually that much better than he is and also immortality. And so on.
I want my players to look at a faction and have one of two responses. Either “These people are clearly wrong about the demon binding thing but they talk a lot of sense about the state not interfering in peoples’ private lives” or “These people are definitely on the right track apart from the bit where they want to destroy all the cities and outlaw comfortable indoor toilets.”
Four: The Story will be guided by PC Icon relationships
Part of character creation in 13th Age involves the players splitting three points between their Icon relationships. Those relationships can be positive, negative, or what John dubbed “it’s complicated”. Each session (although to be fair I’m still finding the rhythm for this so it might not be each session) they’ll roll some d6 to see if their Icon relationships will offer them any assistance during the coming session. Even when the dice don’t say there’ll be a concrete impact of a relationship, I’ll bear them in mind and sometimes throw out a bit of colour or a minor benefit or disadvantage related to them.
I also know that some of the Icons are going to be more important than others in the game and I should spend a bit of time working on what that means. I also know that both Clive and Mark’s One Unique Thing mean that two of the icons will have an even deeper impact.
But one thing I’m also going to bear in mind is that there’s a couple of Icons I find particularly interesting myself, and I want to have them turn up from time to time even in the absence of the players having preexisting relationships with them. I really like the Crusader and the Three, and fortunately between the players’ collaborative city building and the defined history of New Port as having a connection to the city now dominated by the Blue, I’ve got excuses to build those two Icons into the game for my own amusement.
Rejigging the Icons
With my four bullet points in place, I went through the Icons in turn and thought about what I wanted from the game. One of the reasons they’re iconic is that they represent tropes common to anyone who’s played a bit of d20 – the dangerous inhuman army, the all-powerful wizard, the religious zealots, the queen of the elves and so on.
Obviously I have slightly different takes on some of those tropes, and different ways I like to use them. I don’t want to use the Orc Lord because the demonisation of orcs annoys me and I want to step away from that. I don’t like elves particularly (outside of Spire where I think they are ace), so my take on the Queen of the Elves is going to be a bit different. I have opinions about d20 fantasy religions, so the Priestess and the Crusader are going to need some tweaking before I’m happy with them. Stuff like that.
This stage is one I’d do regardless of what game I am running, incidentally. I’ve mentioned the fact that I rarely run anything “out of the box” and I urge anyone thinking of running a ttrpg to look at the factions, the politics, and the movers-and-shakers of their setting and tweak them so that they’re happier running them. Make some notes, talk to your players about it, and then make sure that you’re running things in a way that makes you happy.
I looked over some of the other treatments of the Icons – I mentioned the Seven Icons setting earlier but I also looked as ASH LAW’s gender-flipped icons, considered the dark universe Icons of Aaron Roudabush, reviewed the very different take on icons presented as runes in 13th Age Glorantha, and enjoyed the eldritch icons project to the degree that the Lich King very nearly ended up as the Ghoul King but then I remembered I was trying to minimize my tentacles this game.
Maybe next time.
Next I’ll take a look at the actual Icons, and talk about how I tweaked them and why I wanted them in the game, and what I think they’ll bring to the table.