I’ve played (and run) a few more sessions of 13th Age since I wrote my first preview, as the rules became more solid and filled out from those first playtests. I was initially more guarded, but since then, my opinion of 13th Age has only gone up. The actual books are making their way into the wild now, which should expand the audience and those playing.
One of the many great ideas embedded into the text is that of the icons. Icons, in the default 13th Age setting, are powerful figures in the world, who are embedded in the history of the setting. Going along with 13th Age’s concept of a “love letter to D&D,” the icons serve roles analogous to ones you’d find as tropes in a lot of D&D settings: the Archmage (for your Elminsters and Mordenkainens and such), the Dwarf King, the Elf Queen, and so on.
However, the more I think about what kind of campaign I’d run in 13th Age, I find myself drawn back into existing D&D settings, and I think the icons could easily be swapped for those in many of those settings, and in many ways, integrate the PCs further into those settings as a result.
What Role Icons Serve in a Campaign
Icons in the game rules serve a few important functions:
- They help round up a character’s backstory, and bring it directly into the game, as also supported by the One Unique Thing and Backgrounds.
- They are either positive, negative, or conflicted, which also makes a statement about the role they’ll play in the campaign: even an Icon generally considered “good” can become a terrible foe if one of the players declares the relationship so.
- They help set the stage at the start of an adventure, if you call on the rules on page 179. All the players roll their icons at the beginning, and any that come up are the ones that influence the adventure. They can also come up for in-game dramatic events or to discover a new facet to a plot element.
- They explicitly can be called on for assistance by the players, regardless of whether the relationship with the icon is positive, conflicted, or neutral. (I’ve used this for a bonus, introducing useful equipment like a magic item, or granting a very specific story advancement in a way that goes beyond just making a background check.)
All of those things can be applied not just to powerful characters, but also organizations/factions/forces that have a very real power in the world of a campaign setting. Neverwinter is one of these where the concept can be applied quite easily.
Neverwinter Campaign Setting
Neverwinter Campaign Setting is an under-appreciated campaign setting, coming at the tail end of 4e. Focusing on one specific, well-developed area of the Forgotten Realms, it uses the theme rules to incorporate characters into the fabric of the setting and throw the PCs right into the middle. Those different themes can be directly translated into icons, changing them from singular individuals into groups and forces that the PCs can call upon (and be mixed up in.)
In some cases, this requires a bit of changing in the way they are presented in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting book, since those themes are more “out of the box” with their positive/conflicted/negative status. Being able to decide what the relationship is does open up more possibilities with each one.
Here’s how I’d look at each theme from the book through the lens of an icon:
- Neverwinter Noble: In one way or another, you are mixed up with the lineage of the rulers of Neverwinter. A positive relationship means there are forces who seek to put you on the throne and watch out for you. A negative relationship might mean that other potential heirs or political forces are out to, let’s say, remove your claim. A conflicted relationship might mean both.
- Oghma’s Faithful: Serving the God of Knowledge via divine visions makes an easy positive relationship, and might serve as your party’s own Q. However, if your visions were more of a curse, sending you off in unexpected directions when plagued by images you don’t understand, a more complicated or negative relationship might unfold.
- Harpers: The traveling force for good is an easy one to have a positive relationship with, as an agent or occasional ally. A complicated or negative relationship, however, might mean that you have been wrongly accused, or otherwise pegged by the Harpers as a danger (which might couple well with a dangerous One Unique Thing or a relationship with a more sinister icon.)
- Dead Rat Deserter: Wererats and thieves guilds, oh my! A member in good standing might find allies willing to help steal or share all kinds of shiny useful things. (Calling upon the Icon successfully might lead to a rat delivery useful information.) A figure of law & order might oppose them on principle, or a deserter like originally implied by the theme might have earned the guild’s wrath, and have the character panicking at every rat they see on the street. Who is really watching?
- Iliyanbruen Guardian: This is your role for the influence of the fey in the world, in much of the same way as the Elf Queen is in standard 13th Age.
- Uthgardt Barbarian: Having a positive relationship with a barbarian tribe out of town can be very helpful, and can mean some serious backup in a pinch, if what you are doing aligns with their goals. If you have a more mixed or negative history with the Uthgardt tribes, though, they may be more unruly and a constant threat to the safety of Neverwinter.
- Pack Outcast: Taking this probably mean you’re a werewolf, or at least have some werewolf lineage, which has all kinds of possibilities for backgrounds. Whether the tribe is an ally you can call on, or they want you dead for an insult to pack honor, depends on your Icon relationship.
- Heir of Delzoun: Ancient Dwarven ancestor ghosts can lead to all kinds of fun. Having a relationship with this Icon is akin to the Dwarf King, but can lead to crossing paths with the local nobles and those who would see Gauntlgrym remain lost.
- Renegade Red Wizard: Ah, the Red Wizards of Thay. A Renegade may be pursued by the Red Wizards simply out of spite, or those who possess something integral to the Red Wizards’ schemes have an easy negative relationship. On the other hand, maybe their plans involve helping you, and you have a positive relationship with them, but aren’t quite sure why…
- Scion of Shadow: The otherworldly shadow Netherese have their own mysterious agenda involving the ancient ruins and magic near Neverwinter. I’d play up the alien nature of being raised in a shadow world of conquerors, trying to find the way in the world. There may be others who view you as the only hope to stopping the Empire of Shadows, or perhaps you are just an advance scout in the world before reporting back.
- Devil’s Spawn: Like the Diabolist in 13th Age, there’s power available in serving Asmodeus, and there will be a price. Depending on how you view your attachment to the infernal lord and his plans for Neverwinter determines your Icon relationship, but the end result is usually the same: great power is always there for the taking.
- Spellscarred Harbinger: You are spellscarred, infected by the magical plague sweeping the Realms during this period. The best way to view it as an Icon is not necessarily as a sentient organization, but as a force of nature or an actual plague. Your relationship with it probably indicates how you feel about your spellscarred nature (though I imagine conflicted is pretty common.) When you call upon your Icon, it may manifest a strange new ability that helps in the situation (but may also come with a cost!) It may also make its presence known in a story by infecting others and causing issues: look at mutants in X-Men stories for some ideas of how a random magical power out of nowhere may cause problems the heroes have to deal with.
- Bregan D’Aerthe Spy: As a Drow whose house has become out of favor in Menzoberranzan, your career options above ground were limited. Relationship to this Icon could imply a connection to the Bregan D’Aerthe organization, which can supply steady work and information (although both are likely underhanded). On the flip side, those who shun the organization may find themselves with no end to enemies, or this could simply represent your connection to the Drow world and those who would tangle you in their spiderweb.
From there, once the PCs are created, you’ll have only the connections to groups that the players care about, and can largely ignore the rest- or at least, not make them into the driving forces of the setting. One of the great things the Neverwinter Campaign Setting did was so tightly integrate the characters into the history and fabric of the setting right away (instead of just being another group of adventurers who just wander into town) and the rules for icons help drive that connection for very tangible effects. This same technique can also be used with other settings that have major organizations influencing the setting, like Planescape or Ptolus. Like most of 13th Age, you could steal the icon rules and attach it to your fantasy game of choice. However, I think the way the two concepts dovetail so completely here, this is a 13th Age campaign I’d be highly interested in running, and probably my first in the Forgotten Realms at all.