The Ashen Coast - Creating Icons for 13th Age

One of the first considerations you have to make when adapting your own setting to 13th Age is the icons. In an ideal world, you'd build the setting around your icons. They are, afterall, the driving force behind the game and can and should influence every aspect of the game world in some way. Adapting them to an existing setting requires a little more consideration.

Wade Rockett's superb article is a great resource for some general information on creating icons. In short, they've got be social (or at least have followers who are), goals (that the PCs can either assist in or be the foils for), and should exert their influence in the region(s) your game is set in. I think that's all really solid advice and well worth checking out.

The Ashen Coast

The Ashen Coast
The Ashen Coast is the setting that my last major campaign was played out in. It's a part of our group's much larger world that I have inherited and made my own. Named for the strange ash grey sand that makes up much of the beaches and dusts the cliffs of the region, the Coast is but one part of a land that once comprised a evil and villainous empire and although its dark past is now well within the annals of history, relics of that time can still be found throughout the coast and it’s culture.

The region stretches from the mountainous Duchy of Arromere to the north, home to Valgan’s Passage and the dwarven Thanedom of Isminak, down into the enchanted highlands and woods of the Duchy of Warrenchester before ending in the great lowland Kingdom of Thun. To the very south are the wilds of the Stonefang Plains, where various orc and other monstrous tribal and nomadic communities lie. Finally to the southeast, although never formally considered either part of the Empire or the Ashen Coast, is the Carrodale Forest, where the elven baronies are found.

Play with the Archetypes

None of that information helps me create icons though. How do I even begin picking icons? The best place to start is with the archetypes. Fortunately (and deliberately) 13th Age's icons represent the most immediate fantasy archetypes and tropes. There's a powerful wizard, an emperor of men, an elf, a dwarf, a thief and so on. So the first thing to do is think about your setting, and see if any of these archetypes fit powerful NPCs or organisations already in your world. Chances are, they do, even if those ideas are somewhat or even radically different to the basic ideas behind those archetypes.

In the Ashen Coast, for example, I didn't have a trio of dragons suitable to be an icon, but I did have a powerful red dragon that was known to terrorise the Coast. I also had a King who would easily fill the 'leader of men' archetype. I quickly wrote these down for my initial list of icons.

You can easily make your own mark on a setting by playing with these archetypes. Maybe the King is evil - or maybe there is no King, leaving a power vacuum the other icons are striving to fill. Working on a low magic setting? You'll probably not want a mage icon then. By simply altering the default assumptions of the archetypal icons you can create a set that's unique to you and your group. 13th Age is a game that thrives on this kind of experimentation - especially when done in conjunction with player input.

For my part, I knew fairly early on that my Elven Baron wasn't going to be much like the Elf Queen from 13th Age. He's the brother of a player from my last campaign, and has returned home to rule the barony in the wake of his mother's murder. He's also a paladin and torn between his responsibilities and his need to deliver justice (or, perhaps, revenge!) Yet, he still fills the 'elf' archetype happily, being as he is the leader of the elven baronies.

You don't have to have your icon be a single individual either - sometimes an organisation would fit perfectly. In the Ashen Coast, I don't have an Archmage or single powerful wizard (at least, not that's reached iconic level), but I do have the Wizards of Thrinn, who are a collective of wizards who practise magic from their towers in Arromere.

Of course, your icons don't have to emulate the archetypes either! On the Ashen Coast, the Dread Pirate doesn't fit any of the archetypes established for 13th Age's icons. 

Get the Scale Right

The icons in 13th Age's Dragon Empire are influential over vast distances, towering over mere mortals and achieving a near demigod status. Yours don't have to be. Icons, as influential, goal driven, characters need only fit their geography, as Wade Rockett points out. The important part is that they fit your geography - if you're planning a game set over a whole continent, the elders of a local village probably won't do. However, if you know your game is never leaving that village, then the village council members could be perfect. Of course, so could continental scale ones, if they still exert their influence over that village! Icons don't have to be larger than life, just influential and goal driven and able to exert that influence over your entire setting. You don't have to think big - this is especially helpful if you're converting existing material.

The King of Thun and High Thane of the Dwarves merely rule lands within the Ashen Coast, for example. Neither speaks for their entire species, as there's a whole world beyond the Coast. Maybe one day my players will venture beyond it - that's fine, I can come up with whole new icons if I need to!

Heroes and Villains

One thing I found, working on my icons for the Ashen Coast, is that I had a disproportionate number of villainous versus heroic icons. This was a result of my desire when initially fleshing out the Coast to seed it with as many plot hooks as possible, combined with a love of monster manuals. In the end I had:

  • The Red Dragon - a powerful, greedy, dragon with a fondness for pirates.
  • The Ice Titan - a force that wishes to seal the Coast away in glacial permanence 
  • The Devil - a devil sealed away by the players in my last game, now scheming for freedom
  • The Tenebrae Cabal - a cabal of worshippers of the dark gods, plotting the return of the evil empire - or worse - from behind the plague bulwark.
  • The Dark Knight - A Paladin, fallen to the dark gods, who has seen the prophesied end and would do anything to stop it. 
  • The Dread Pirate - A mad mindflayer captain, whose true goals seem unknowable. 
Of those, only the Dark Knight was a new idea - I intended to emulate the Crusader archetype from 13th Age. Compared to the number of heroic icons I had come up with (three - the King, the Dwarf King and the High Priestess of Vadomer) this was far too many. 

Looking at the icons in the 13th Age book, four are heroic by default, five are ambiguous, and the final four are villainous. While you can play with this (perhaps the world is overcome by evil) most of the time it's a good idea to keep a good balance. Some players will be more comfortable defining themselves by their chosen allies, others with their vilest enemies (and just as many will revel in the shades of grey between!) 

Finally, don't be afraid to have your icons straddle categories. Motivations are rarely so clear! In 13th Age many of the icons could be at least a little ambiguous, or maybe unexpectedly good or evil. Don't let the idea of heroic or villainous icons be a straightjacket. 

With that in mind I had to decide who to cull. In the end, I could only bring myself to get rid of the Dark Knight, who wasn't established, and was just my attempt to fit the Crusader in. I didn't need him - the more established Tenebrae Cabal filled the 'dark gods' niche. Still, it's only a minor upset to the harmony of the icons - and a lot of my icons have potential to fit in more than one category. 

Move Things Along

If your setting doesn't have enough potential icons then one idea to consider is moving the timeline on along some. By adding a decade or two (or even longer; be brave, move it along a hundred years!) of missing space you give yourself room to elevate an NPC who to icon status, or bring in new icons that have risen to prominence in the intervening time. 

The Corsair (filling the thief archetype) certainly wasn't at iconic power levels at the end of my last campaign. The Corsair was just a fairly minor NPC that I never quite got to do enough with. By moving things on a decade I gave him an opportunity to spend some time carving a niche out for himself as a pirate lord, opposing the Dread Pirate and being grudgingly endorsed by the King. 

Going one step further, if you're really wanting to mix things up, you could have a world changing event occur. Perhaps the gods walked the world for a time, siring icons as they went, or maybe a civil war erupts, giving some opportunity to rise to new levels of power; for good or ill.

Just How Many, Anyway?

There is no wrong answer to this, as long as you keep some balance. However, choice is no bad thing for your players to have. 13 is the game's magic number and, honestly, I like that level of choice (and I had a lot of potential icons). I think at least two icons per player in your game is a good number to start with. That gives your players plenty of choice. You don't want too many - you want the players to share some allegiances or enemies, as it helps tie the party together - so don't go completely mad. Sometimes you have to kill your babies.

Living Plot Hooks

Treat your icons like living plot hooks. Got an idea for a scenario, or campaign? One of the greatest things about icons is they let the DM know exactly what style of game and types of stories the players interested in. That doesn't mean it can't work both ways though! Turn your idea into an icon and see if any players bite! Chances are at least one will, if it's as good as you think it is!

Over the next few weeks I'll be showcasing the Ashen Coast's icons; starting with the Corsair! Along with their write up, I'll also discuss how I made them iconic, where they came from and what archetype, if any, they fit into.