Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Obligatory 13th Age Post - Icons and Relationships

Well,  this is the hot new thing among the D&D Alternatives. The big release (like so many others) is next month.  I've glanced in on it a few times over the past year but was not in on the playtest and haven't played any of it. Now I have picked up a copy of the playtest rules and reading through them I am interested.

Mechanically it seems like a pretty good mix of traditional D&D stuff with most of it tied to 3E or 4E type resolution. But it clears away a lot of the 3E clutter while moving sideways from 4E in other places. Keeping races, classes, a skill system of some kind, feats, and the general d20 + modifier seems almost essential. Dropping the grid-based assumptions clears a lot of the mechanical complications away, and less rigidity on the balance front lets some of the flavor that 4E gave up (consciously) come back in. I'm going to spend a few posts looking at some of the aspects of the game that caught my eye and started some thinking here.

The Icons and the relationships with them is a great idea, codifying something that's been floating around in some other games but never really incorporated into D&D. The idea is that there is a set list of powerful entities in the campaign and a character has a few points to spend to identify relationships with those entities. These are categorized as "heroic", "ambiguous', or "villainous" and a character could have a "positive", "negative", or "conflicted" relationship with their chosen icons. Specifically a starting character gets 3 points to spend here and they could concentrate on a single icon or spread them around. The mechanical effect is that when desired a character can roll a d6 for each point and each "6" indicates some kind of benefit from the relationship and a 5 indicates a benefit with a complication.

The "High Druid" - one from the book
I won't get into the specific Icons used in the book because to me they are heavily setting-dependent and I'm more interested in some existing settings than the one included with the game. For a Greyhawk campaign this would let players define relationships with say, the Grandfather of Assassins, The Overking of Aerdy, The Circle of Eight, etc. with an actual mechanical effect which could liven up sessions in a fun way. It would work for the Realms as well, and could be very effective in a Dragonlance or Dark Sun game.

In the rules these examples are specifically powerful individuals, leaders and rulers of nations and races. I can see experimenting with using this with organizations, though I think making the focus the leader of an organization keeping it more personal. I can also see adding a layer for the gods, or their high priests or temples to help bring out the religious elements of the campaign world.

As an old Champions player this looks like a simplified Hunted/Rival/Ally/Sidekick system which is a good thing for any game! It's not as mechanically involved as that but it accomplishes similar goals in helping the players tie their characters to the world and tell the DM what kinds of friends and foes they want to see in the game.

I can see some fun with a system that expands by level/tier - starting out the "icons" might be the ruler of the local town, the head of a local temple, the leader of the local elf kingdom, the head of the merchants guild - keeping the focus more local and keeping things more in line with the way a lot of old school campaigns run at low levels. At the next tier that might expand to national figures, then finally to world/planar figures like the king of the fire giants or the princes of elemental evil. Mechanically it might be handled by giving a new pool of points at each tier to define relationships with the new group of icons.

The "Lich King" from the book
Now I can see this whole idea being out of step with some old school principles, mainly that it assumes a starting adventurer is important enough to have come to the notice of the movers and shakers of the world before the game begins. That's not how it worked in the old days - you were a nobody and had to earn your way to fame and hobnobbing with the powers of the campaign world. I've been slowly moving away from this view myself but I do understand it. I think this system still has a place though. I would just adjust it so that instead of having a pool of points at 1st level I would award one when hitting certain levels - maybe one at 3rd, one at 5th, then one at 7th (this game only goes to 10th level so the range is compressed a bit compared to classic D&D). This would keep the characters as relative nobodies at the lowest levels and let them gradually come to the notice of the bigger fish as they earn it by leveling up during the game.

This approach would reverse one important element though: selecting these relationships during character creation lets the players drive some of the campaign focus right from the beginning. Choosing them during the level up process means that the campaign will be driving the choices as I suspect players will spend their points on the icons that are already a factor in the game rather than trying to drive the campaign in a direction of their choice. It shifts things from a proactive approach to a reactive approach, from the player perspective. That may be a desired result for some groups but  it's worth considering before implementation.

I do think there needs to be a set list of icons for the campaign and it needs to be a fairly small number. In the rulebook there are 13 and I think that's a good number to target. If you expand it too much or leave it open-ended and let players choose whatever they want then it dilutes the focus and lessens the impact. This is where the DM gets to lay out the potential focus of the campaign by deciding what's on "the list" and the players get to narrow it down with their choices from that list.

Other Uses

  • Star Wars: The middle version of WOTC's Star Wars d20 game had a Reputation system that let the DM track player relationships with a bunch of organizations from the Empire to Black Sun. This kind of thing seems tailor made for a Star Wars game and would be easy to add on to any version of the rules, from d6 to Saga. I think a list of icons would be easy enough to generate and off you go.
  • Star Trek: Maybe not as obvious but I can still see a niche for it. Star Fleet Intelligence, The Klingon Chancellor, Section 31, Q - just watch the show and the possibilities bloom. This would give the players a nice hook beyond career history and current assignment and explain why they keep getting certain kinds of missions...
  • Marvel/DC: SHIELD, the President, Congress, Stark Industries - I might take a more organization-based approach here but you could certainly make it personal - start with the illuminate and work down a list of powerful individuals,. DC would be similar. It's a looser alternative to the Champions approach and lets relationships have a mechanical impact outside of the usual powers found in a superhero game.
So it's a cool idea that works outside of the D&D style game as well. I think that's a strong indicator of goodness. I have some desire to link this to Dawn of Worlds to build a brand new campaign world from the ground up with my players. It would be an interesting exercise at least, nailing down the icons for the RPG campaign during the world-building game.


WQRobb said...

I did do a demo game of 13th Age, and just wanted to chime in here about some of what you were talking about.

First, there isn't a skill system in the classic sense. You take essentially professions at a certain level (e.g. "Pirate 2") and the level is added to a d20 roll when a task resolution is required.

I found the whole "patron" idea an intriguing idea, but I too wondered if it was too closely tied to a setting.

Blacksteel said...

I have another post up about it today but that's a lot of what I've seen: quite a few one-shots and short runs but not many sustained campaigns. I'm curious how it holds up over 15-20 sessions over 6 months or more.