Modding the Icons
Tweaking a world is a lot easier (usually) than making one from scratch. With 13th Age one of the core setting elements are the Icons who I’ve spoken about before. Once I’d finished Session Zero, I set to work tweaking them to fit the campaign I thought I was going to run.
I won’t go into exhaustive detail here. I tried that last night and hooo boy was it dense and largely uninteresting to people who aren’t playing in the actual 13th Age campaign I’m running. So here’s a quick rundown of who the thirteen Big Factions in the Shadow of the Rat campaign are, with an emphasis on talking about why I’ve made the tweaks I have to serve the campaign I’m running and the characters who’ll be running rough shod over it.
The earlier thing I wrote served as the foundation for the rejig, obviously. As I read the 13th Age treatment of each Icon I asked myself the questions that would help me make them servants of my game. How would they interact with players? How will their agendas cause conflict for the players’ characters? How can I make them ambiguous so that interactions with them are less straightforward? How will the player character Icon relationships shape the story?
A Quick Reminder of the Players’ characters
Keeping the players’ characters’ chosen relationships at the forefront of what I’m doing makes it easier for me to make sure that I create situations players are interested in. I hope.
- Grenn the Orc Rogue (Steve): Positive relationship with the Shadow Prince, “It’s Complicated” relationship with the Hierophant, Negative relationship with the Lich King.
- John the Tiefling Sorcerer (Mark): Positive relationship with the Shadow Prince, “It’s Complicated” relationship with the Archmage, Negative relationship with the Diabolist and a One Unique Thing “I am the diabolist’s greatest mistake”.
- Thomas the Human Cleric (John): Positive relationship with the Empress, “It’s Complicated” relationship with the Hierophant and the Lich King.
- Turok the Dwarf Ranger (Clive): Positive relationship with the Empress, Negative relationship with the King Under the Mountain (2 dice), and One Unique THing “The only dwarf who left their people to live in the Empire.”
In theory I could ignore the Icons the players haven’t taken relationships with. However, story and conflict don’t just come from the factions the party have relationships with, but who those icons own opposition. The enemies of my frenemies are… actually I’m not sure but you take my point.
For example. two of the party have complicated Hierophant relationships so that means I can look at scenarios where the Crusader – who also has a complicated relationship with the Hierophant – is a player. The Crusader also opposes the Diabolist and kind-of supports the Empress so while nobody has a direct relationship with her (yet) it makes sense that she be a presence in the game. Plus the players contributed the idea of the Crusader embassy being an unexpectedly important presence in the city, which makes it even more likely she and her supporters will be major players.
The Imperial Court (More Or Less)
The human dominated Dragon Empire underpins the entire campaign. The game is set in one part of it – the city of New Port – and that’s where most of our world building is going to take place. But the larger Dragon Empire gives context to what happens in New Port, and being able to reference the forces that exist in the wider world makes the bit we’re actually playing in feel more real. Four Icons essentially help define the Dragon Empire, and I’m calling them the Imperial Court.
The Empress rules the Dragon Empire, the greatest human kingdom ever known.
Every Empire has someone who sits on the throne and wears the big hat. The Empress is the icon that represents the authorities, but also the world that is safe and known. I knew she’d be a constant (if distant) presence since the heroes were agents of the Empire (albeit slightly dodgy ones). Most of the work I did on the Empress was actually about defining the Dragon Empire, because having some broad strokes on how that worked would be relevant to the game especially since the players had introduced a conspiracy fighting for independence from it.
I knew I wanted the authorities to be a little unstable, so I said that the current Empress was relatively new to the role. This also let me seed conflict between a new progressive leader and an entrenched traditional ideas of governance. I noted that while the Empress is reasonably forward-thinking, she’s also a political figure and that means she can’t always follow the course of action that she would like. The Empress – and thus the Dragon Empire – is just a little lower fantasy than might be suggested for the ruler of an Empire where knights ride metallic dragons.
I also made a note that one of the ways the Empress and the Empire would interact with the characters was through the complex Imperial Bureaucracy. I’ve already introduced the Imperial Ministry of Gongwranglers, Dunnikindivers, and Guttermancers who maintained a small “office” in the actual sewers and I plan to do a lot more of that kind of thing.
The Archmage is the premiere arcane spellcaster in the Dragon Empire. She preserves and defends humanity, and explores the outer reaches of deep and dangerous magics.
In 13th Age, generations of Archmages have woven powerful magical wards over the Dragon Empire that keep out all sorts of dangerous creatures, and encourage prosperity. These wards might not be entirely positive – they probably have a stifling effect on creativity and innovation because they are maintaining harmony.
Where there are wards there are people trying to take those wards down so they can unleash hell. Early on I threw out the idea that for twelve-and-a-half ages whenever the Archmage or their equivalent had encountered an evil they couldn’t deal with they did the magical equivalent of putting an upturned pint glass over it. The players got the point immediately.
One of the ways to present the Archmage is as a megalomaniac lunatic who does all kinds of ridiculous magical experiments and is basically juggling ticking time bombs. I decided to go with a slightly more positive interpretation of a paramount wizard with the best of intentions who is basically so busy patching the holes in a sinking ship she doesn’t have time to deal with the fact the deck is on fire and also there are deep ones with hammers knocking holes in the side of the boat.
The Hierophant hears the voices of all the gods, but he heeds only those of the powers of light and mercy.
Canonically, the Priestess is one of the “new icons” of the 13th Age. I decided to keep that element. I flipped her to male because there’s something about the force of good, peace, light, and mercy being a lady that makes my eye twitch a bit. That’s my problem though.
I wanted to add a little bit of an edge so defined the Hierophant as someone, who hears the voices of all the gods but chooses to ignore the gods of wickedness and selfishness. That will probably come to nothing but I know canonically that one of the most obvious goodies in the setting spends a lot of time actively resisting the temptations of the forces of darkness.
Arguably, gods aren’t very interesting; its the religions they inspire and the faithful who follow them that are interesting. So I made a big deal of the Hierophant’s syncreistic efforts to unite the followers of all the gods of light, and those unaligned gods that aren’t actively malicious, into a single pantheon of goodness. I wanted to hint that he’s Up To Something, but looking at the fact the party have two “it’s complicated” relationship dice with him, they’ll probably do my job for me.
The Crusader is the armoured fist of the dark gods, turning their wrath against the demons that would unmake a creation her patrons would much rather see brought under their own dominion.
The Crusader isn’t really part of the Imperial Court, but thanks to some suggestions from the players when defining New Port, I decided to make her more ambiguous. She represents a faction committed to destroying the demonic invaders that threaten the whole of reality by any means necessary. One of the tools she uses is the favour of the Dark Gods who represent the worst of human nature, because their methods work.
Her followers are militaristic arseholes, but arseholes who also spend most of their time fighting demons and incidentally protecting villages from bandits. They just don’t balk at sacrificing one village to save two others, which makes them villains. Espionage tales often play with themes of expediency vs idealism, or doing bad things for good reasons, and she’s an obvious place where I can let that theme take centre stage.
She’s clearly got a larger agenda – probably world domination – but she’s taking it one step at a time. I also know thanks to the players that her followers have a surprisingly prominent position in New Port.
The Middle Road
This gang of Icons are mostly ambiguous in nature – they’re not necessarily goodies or baddies in player terms. They’re also all outside the Dragon Empire to one degree or another. It’s probably no coincidence that they are clearly representing non-human agendas as well.
The King Under the Mountain
The King Under the Mountain is the ruler of the dwarvern people and claims everything beneath the earth as his domain.
The Dwarf King in 13th Age bundles up all the stereotypes of dwarves and puts a hat on them. I already knew from Clive that there were no other dwarvern citizens of the Dragon Empire so I decided to play that up.
The King Under the Mountain is technically allied to the Empress, but in practice is more interested in the security of his own nation and there’s the hanging threat that if things get too bad on the surface the dwarves will just withdraw into their mountain fastnesses and lock the doors behind them.
The history of the dwarves is that they used to live far underground but were forced to move to the surface by Terrors in the Deep, and that for many of them their ultimate goal is to return to the deeps. They also protect people from things – the horrors of the Underworld and the ongoing invasion of the Warlord (more about him in a moment).
I positioned dwarves as merchants and mercenaries, comparatively technologically advanced, masters of the use of magical runes. I’d done something similar with the dwarves in my 5th edition D&D game so it was all pretty straightforward.
Finally, I decided that while the Dwarf Lord wouldn’t be an active antagonist (unless things go very strange) he’d also not be an ally of the party. There’s something a bit authoritarian about him, and that might end up creating some interesting conflicts for the players if it comes into play.
The Queen of Stars
The immortal Queen of Stars represents the united spirit of a divided people.
I’m not a big fan of elves. I shall say no more on that beyond mentioning that the ttrpg Spire has gone some way towards mollifying that dislike in recent years.
There’s an obvious contrast between the dwarves and the elves, and I decided to play that up. I’ve not detailed a lot of it because nobody in the party is an elf or elf-adjacent but I think the historical origin of the elves is the Overworld – the bright and shiny counterpart to the Underworld that the dwarves came from. They’re literally otherworldly, but rather than being from Fairyland they’re from the Moon. Kind of. They either fell or sauntered vaguely downwards and now they’re part of the same world as everyone else and can’t or won’t go home.
With a nod to Spire, elf skin-colours range from pitch black through ash grey to ivory white and that some of them glow or have stars moving beneath their skin. I’ll keep the high elf/wood elf/dark elf split but make it one of tradition rather than race, but there’s some quality of the elves means that anyone who can see them can instinctively tell what tradition they belong to.
Having made that decision, I made the Queen of Stars an impossible-to-predict, mysterious Icon who embodies the spirit of the elves, wears masks and over-the-top costumes, and is an immortal mistress of divination and enchantment magic who takes an impossibly long view of everything but is probably benign. And almost certainly not Yog Sothoth because minimal tentacles.
Also unlike the dwarves there’s a lot more than just elves in her Court of Stars. Medusa, aranea, driders, pixies, sprites, satyrs and the like all hang out with her and maybe it’ll turn out that they’re all really just elves with different outfits on. I dunno how much of this will come out in play, but New Port isn’t that far from the Queen’s wood, but my gut feeling is that most of this “elves are weird” stuff will be for my amusement and the odd peculiar encounter rather than anything front-and-centre so I won’t spend too much time on it.
The Warlord leads the numberless hosts of the goblin nations, and for the first time since the fall of the Wizard King has turned his attention to the Dragon Empire.
I switched the Orc Lord to the Warlord, and basically recast the entire Icon and his followers as the ghaal’dar from Eberron. Instead of an obvious team-evil invading army of savage orcs, the Warlord leads an alliance of goblins and any others I fancy who are here to claim a Dragon Empire they believe is rightfully theirs. In the histories, the first Warlord killed the Lich King, and was then betrayed in some fashion by some or all of the Empress, Archmage, the King Under the Mountain, and the Queen of Stars.
Invasions give you someone to fight, sure, but if they’re only things to fight you’re missing out on so much. So instead of ravening savages, the invading force are sophisticated and relatively civilised. This means they can send diplomats and spies to places their armies can’t reach, and they can fill the roll of an antagonistic neighbouring nation that threatens the stability of the Dragon Empire.
I could have done that with orcs, but I already knew I had an orc player character and that cemented my initial feelings about making the invaders goblins. I had a different role in mind for orcs anyway.
The High Druid
The High Druid is the champion of the resurgent Wild, and his coming threatens to shake the Empire to its very roots.
I made the High Druid an orc, and I ripped off Eberron again by making the orcs an elder race equivalent in some ways to the elves and dwarves. Then I played up the legitimate concerns of the druidic community about the way the Dragon Empire and the Archmage in particular have yoked the natural world to the will of humanity in a deeply unnatural way.
Rebalancing the scales before everything catches fire and falls into the sea probably means destroying a couple of cities, tearing down the powerful magical wards that keep all sorts of elder evils at bay, and replacing all the nice gardens and farms with trees. But in the long run if you don’t do that what happens instead will be worse. So say the druids, anyway.
Unlike the King Under the Mountain and the Queen of Stars however the High Druid is not an orc-rights fellow. He’s the figurehead of the Nature First movement, and most of the orcs the party meets will be fellow Imperial citizens.
Given the proximity of the High Druid’s place of power to New Port, the druidic faction is likely to play a significant role in the campaign. And by that I mean I definitely want to use him, his druids, and a bunch of shapechanging animal terrorists to make life difficult for the players.
The (Mostly) Black Hats (Kind Of)
As I’ve said before I’m never very interested in obvious, uncontentious evil. There are three icons who are quite dubious, but one of the things I wanted to do was find ways to make them ambiguous. To give players reasons they might want to cooperate with them against their own better instincts. While still leaving them space to be a bit villaionous.
The Shadow Prince
The Shadow Prince is a trickster whose exploits are more about shaping the politics of the world through the careful revelation of secrets than they are about redistributing its wealth. Although, that said, they still put a lot of effort into redistributing its wealth.
The Prince of Shadows in standard 13th Age is a bit of a cipher. A (possibly) romantic but slightly annoying trickster-thief figure who maybe runs all the thieves’ guilds. With the power to steal anything, any criminal anywhere might be one of their buddies.
Running a campaign with a theme of espionage, I knew the Prince was going to be significant. Two of the party took positive relationship dice with them, and that meant their faction would be relevant to any given plot as a supporter about a quarter of the time (maybe? I can’t be arsed doing the maths so I’m just going to double down on quarter).
For this campaign, the Shadow Prince has their finger in many pies. They’re involved with thieves, sure, but where their real interest lies is in information. They run independent espionage operations, and sell information to the highest bidder. They may also be selling information to people specifically to push an agenda of their own but nobody knows what that is.
I kind of envision the Shadow Prince as being Tzeentch from Warhammer but without the over-the-top daemon world-destroying agendas. Or the mutants. Or the blue-and-pink horrors or the flamethrowers or … actually not much like Tzeentch. But also like.
The Lich King
The Lich king is the lord of the undead, the fallen tyrant who intends to conquer the Dragon Empire and restore his ancient kingdom.
The actual 13th Age Lich King is a bit Vecna, complete with missing eye and hand. He often seems to be presented as a somewhat vaudevillian cackling evil villain. That’s fair enough, and I certainly don’t want to make him sympathetic. But I also want him to be a bit more interesting than two-dimensional evil, not least because that makes it easier to see how the party relationships will work.
So this Lich King is a plotter and a schemer, who actually has some grounds for being pissed off given he was pretty much the rightful ruler of the Dragon Empire before a bunch of traitors stabbed him in the back. He’s the master of necromancy, and he’s kind of subsumed the power of the gods of the dead which will bring him into conflict (?) with John’s medium/Necroscope character. Steve also has a relationship die with him, which means he’ll turn up involved in plots at least as often as the Shadow Prince and the Empress.
The immediate “point of agreement” with the players will be that the Lich King wants to rule the Empire, so he’ll oppose anyone who wants to stop him doing that. This means that whenever the party is opposing the High Druid, the Warlord, and the demons they’ll be on the same side (technically) as the lord of the undead.
Given John’s themes and ghosts and wotnot, I’ll also be foregrounding the idea that Imperial citizens need to propitiate the Lich King, or he can legitimately extend his power to take over cemetaries and graveyards. Having an uneasy relationship with the sinister master of necromancy will be fun!
The Diabolist wields magic perhaps best left unwielded, and binds the forces of chaos and uncreation to her whim.
The 13th Age Diabolist could be a villain or she could be more ambiguous. I know she’s going to be a marked presence in the campaign thanks to Mark’s One Unique Thing (the diabolist’s greatest mistake), and my interest in doing some stuff with demons. I rejigged her a little, stealing some of the conceptual ground from the Prince of Shadows in the process.
In this campaign, the Diabolist uses demons, but she explicitly does so because what she’s really about is power and freedom. her power, Her freedom. She wants to be powerful for… reasons… and she won’t let anyone tell her what she can and can’t do. She encourages other people to ignore rules and do what they really want to. I have a vague feeling she probably reads Ayn Rand from time to time and has a good chuckle.
She’s the personification of selfishness in the campaign, and she’ll alternate between being an antagonist and an uneasy ally if the party are prepared to accept her double-edged boons. She’ll be acting through cultists and agents, but she will probably make at least one personal appearance to talk to Mark about… stuff.
The last two icons are both dragons. I have an ambivalent relationship with the alignment-and-colour-coded dragons. There’s way too many of them for a start – who needs ten different types of dragon? One would arguably be sufficient, but I’ll grant you that in d20 fantasy games the five-dragons-with-five-breath-types is cool.
By which I mean the five chromatics are a lot more interesting than the five metallics and you could run a perfectly servicable campaign with just them.
The Great Gold Wyrm
The Great Gold Wyrm is the world’s protector. Although his physical body seals the gap that prevents the Abyss from erupting into the world, his dreams and agents still move through the world helping those who will fight and die for what is right.
I nearly cut the Great Gold Wyrm for being dull – he feels a bit one-note compared to some of the other Icons – but I was talked out of it. In the end I kept him, but decided to focus on the fact he’s trapped in the Abyss, and that his sacrifice is holding back the demons and stopping everything getting much, much worse.
I’ve also leavened him with quite a large helping of Eberron mysticism which I will not say too much about – he was very nearly replaced with the couatl but that was just too obvious. I did not that there are no other gold dragons anywhere in the world, however. There may have been some once, but there are none now. For some reason which may not come up in play but makes me happy to think about.
The way he will make an appearance will be through his followers, who will mostly be paladins and will be tired all the time because being a hero as your day job sucks. I want at least one recurrent character who does the right thing all the time, and to whom the players feel the need to justify why they sometimes have to do the wrong thing for the greater good or what have you.
(If I were starting again, I might well remove the Great Gold Wyrm and replace him with the Shining Silver Wyrm, the Great Gold Wyrm’s best mate who spends a lot of time telling people what they think the GGW would have done and shaming people for not being better after the sacrifice Goldie made for them. It’d make for a very different type of paladin for a start, although I don’t think the Path of Passive Aggression will catch on.)
The Three were among the first dragons to walk the world. Once they were the Five, but now their power is greatly reduced. On the other hand, they are still ancient dragons and smaller creatures underestimate them at their peril.
Together the Three are a bit of a wild card, and they’re one of the Icons I like the most. They’re also all over the history of the default setting as they dwindle from Five to Three. The White is dead at the hands of the Lich King, and the Green is the prisoner of the Queen of Stars. So they have some specific other icons they automatically oppose, one of whom is also the enemy of the players’ characters.
The Blue is incidentally a powerful sorceress who rules one of the seven cities as Imperial Governor – a city that incidentally the ancestors of a bunch of the people of New Port used to live in before it was overrun by monsters. The Black and the Red are cool, but it’s the Blue who will representing their weird trine in this game.
I did nearly make one change – I was very tempted to have the Red dead at the hands of the Lich King, and rework the White as the engine of unstoppable destruction mostly because I think white dragons get a bad deal. Then i would make the Black the prisoner of the Queen of Stars (potentially giving the Queen a slightly different feel as well), and the Green the subtle infiltrator of the Three.
In the end I decided not to make the change, because it needed a bit more work than I wanted to do, and because I was sold on a particular interpretation of White Dragons that I wanted to play about with. Although… I dunno. I have until they first make an actual appearance to make that decision and I do like white dragons and green dragons.
Bloody colour coded dragons, making me think about stuff. It’s not right.
This actually started off as a “short” article about world building but as I wittered on about icebergs, and Chekov, and Marie Kondo, it got longer and longer and it felt less like an introduction to the Icon tweaking and more like an entirely seperate bit of writing. So I cut it off and will tidy it up a bit and you’ve now got that to look forward to.