At this point, the last polish pass on my Russian-derivative 13th Age icons has taken place. Out of necessity, because it’s taken so long that I’ve actually started running the game. This was a process that happened off-and-on, where I’d write up a possible entry for the icon in Googledocs and then transfer it to the wiki. There were some fun bits of borderline obsessive behavior involved here, such as making sure that I didn’t have too many names starting with the same letters.
So! Let’s see where the icons are now, as opposed to where they were before, and then we can see how the players are using them. I’ll warn you, the Russian stereotypes ahead are egregious.
- Comet – Hetman Tarska the Slayer. A nomadic champion of the Volyar tribes, who slays monsters for fun and profit. A wanderer whose organization is full of “barbarians” and other rangy folk. I wanted a hardy steppe people subculture, and Aileen was kind of interested in a “bear cavalry” concept, so the Comet embodies the positive side of that culture.
- Key – Grandmaster Brussenweld Giftgiver. A genial dwarven hermit whose tower is filled with clockwork wonders. He’s inspired by Drosselmeyer from The Nutcracker, if you hadn’t guessed. Good source for clockwork characters, and of obvious function as someone who could create highly sought-after things.
- Knight – Commander Anrikka Valyevna. Military commander dedicated to the realm, whose power lies with her oath of loyalty. She isn’t a direct ripoff of any folklore character; she’s more the disciplined and stable counterbalance to the wandering Comet. “Benevolent military” connection, strong theme of guardianship.
- Moon – Tsaritsa Kascha Silverchild. One of the Big Three potential candidates for a new Grand Tsar. Her hook is that she’s basically a fairytale heroine: probably a youngest daughter, who mastered the Trump’s power because she’s faithful and clever and pure of heart. She has a kingdom where she overthrew a tyrannical tsar, and she’s accompanied by various adventurers and talking animals who are pushing her to rule.
- Star – Illyira the Incandescent. A firebird. I knew I wanted a muse for the city of art and culture… and I made it a wise, talking firebird. Probably vain and gossipy, but also a force for beauty and laughter.
- Sun – Elbeska the Unascended Saint. As expected, this is the big “saintly divine” icon, who protects the Cathedral in the shattered capital. Again, no specific inspirations other than lavishly ornamented religious vestments and temples. An obvious choice for good-aligned divine servant PCs.
- Vizier – Alsvedun the Magnficent. Yes, a fairly standard spin on the archmage, but with elements of Saint Nicholas to him — kindly but powerful, a bit of a sense of humor, generous in a canny way. Maybe a touch of Dallben of Prydain to him, a bit of Vainamoinen. The sort of archmage who knows a lot of secrets and can exert powerful influence, not the sort who keeps the order by threatening a rain of meteors.
- Balance – Zirzakh the Grandmaster: A dragon, whose goals are restoring law and order to the realm. I wanted a non-evil dragon icon in case players wanted to play dragon templars or draconics or spartoi, and it fit here. The inevitable Russian stereotype is the chessmaster, which plays well off clever, long-lived dragons and also off the Balance’s themes.
- Fates – Queen Norevna. Here I couldn’t resist the ice witch archetype; always liked Snow Queens (even though I still haven’t seen Frozen). So we have a queen in her glacial tower-citadel, full of scrying mirrors. A sorcerous power neither benevolent nor malicious; cool and calculating in the purest sense. She’s not seeking to rule the whole realm, but absolutely sets intrigues in motion to ensure that she is strong enough that she’ll never be ousted by her rivals.
- Fool – King Svarog. Kept the idea of the ogre king. A nice chaotic brute that could be swayed to help but could also be loosing rampaging ogres on the land. Very loose-knit organization.
- Gem – Guildmistress Marcadda Manyrings. Another dwarf, this one our merchant queen. Like Svarog, she comes more out of logistical considerations than pillaging specific Russian references. Could employ anyone at any time for any reason that could turn a profit.
- Jester – The Jester. Real name unknown. A pure trickster figure, and a wild card I can define only when I have a really good idea (or a player does). Least work necessary!
- Rogue – Prince Casivir the Betrayer. I ran with my original idea of a prince who turned on the Mad Tsar, and then fled the capital when chaos erupted. So we have a disgraced prince who runs a sleazy roguish trade city on a major river. Ambiguous for sure: did he act for the good of Lokva, or for selfish reasons? Probably tied into a spy network and likely a criminal enterprise.
- Talons – Urska Tragoshka. Your High Druid archetype, and to nobody’s surprise she is the Great Bear. (At least I’m not overusing wolves again.) Again, an obvious link for primal-focused characters.
- Throne – Tsar Barakir Torevich Tyurinov. Here’s the second of the Big Three players looking to reunite Lokva under the Grand Tsardom. I needed someone with good blood claim to the throne, and because I’m critical of hereditary rule, he’s an ambiguous figure rather than heroic. This guy would be the foremost survivor of the Mad Tsar’s dynasty (or so I would think — more on that later), though I’d leave it to the players to decide if he’s worth supporting.
- Donjon – Tsar Doryevni Gorinstal. And the third of the Big Three. Gorinstal is the Iron Tsar archetype, the ruthless military leader turned claimant to the Grand Tsar’s throne. He would absolutely be an iron-fisted tyrant if he got it, and he uses his Trump power to enforce absolute loyalty from his branded servants. Maybe he looks a little like Ivan the Terrible? But it’s a very cosmetic parallel. He is his own guy, as are most of the more human icons.
- Euryale – Grandmother Yedza. From “loose connection” to “outright ripoff/homage,” Yedza is the inevitable Baba Yaga figure. Arguably the Little Grandmother should be more ambiguous, but I’m skewing villainous human-eating monster here — though she’s still a civilized being, and she’ll still keep her word if you can trick her into giving it.
- Flames – Rukvaas the Damned. The grand diabolist, and Team Evil’s resident sorcerous figure. Some nods to Rasputin here, as he’s a hedonist and probably has a great beard. Also a nod to Night on Bald Mountain, and Fantasia‘s wonderful imagery of a demonic Chernobog and his legions.
- Idiot – The Doomsayer Prophet. A cult worshipping a mad star. Not very Russian, but a nice subversive foe with some interesting brain-horror elements. Not many notes on personality here — it’s not about a single guy, it’s about a creeping, infectious hive mind-like mentality.
- Ruin – Vilich Valyask Vozmei. I for sure needed a dragon, and a three-headed one at that. Kept this idea right down to the dragon nesting in the ruins of a city it razed. I find triple-V particularly effective because the heads can have different agendas: one runs a dragon-cult with firebreathing priests, one is interested in dark magic, and one is just plain avaricious.
- Skull – Prince Kulyich the Deathless. The “Deathless” probably gives away immediately that my lord of the undead (every setting needs one!) borrows a bit from Koschei. Which is fine, he’s a great villain. Kulyich is more skeletal, but that doesn’t stop him from falling in “love” with particularly beautiful girls — he is more of a creepy sexless collector than an actual sex offender, which keeps things from getting too tasteless.
- The Void – The Kingdom of the Blind. A subterranean menace that schemes to extinguish the sun and moon — not derivative of specific Russian folklore, but hopefully still heady with fairytale otherworld. One of those external threats that has loose-to-no allies among the other icons, but has enough numbers in their own right not to seriously needing them.
That sums up the icons — or rather, the Trumps. I was pretty happy with them. Next step, though, was seeing if they could survive contact with character generation. A couple of character generation sessions (not everyone could make it to one — seriously, 13th Age characters don’t take that long to generate!), and I had my start.
Gennadiy, a traveling author/instructor to noble gentlemen (human fighter). One Unique Thing: He was the one who first held the Knight card, and he passed it on to the current holder. Relationship Dice: The Knight (2 dice, positive); the Donjon (1 die, conflicted).
Gena’s player got interested big-time in icon intrigue. His character carries a torch for the Knight, who in turn is a bit unattainable — her oath sets the realm before any possible suitors. He’s friends, sorta, with the Donjon, and taught the Donjon’s son in happier times. If said Iron Tsar ever finds out that Gena had the Knight card in his hand and gave it to the woman keeping the Donjon from the Grand Tsardom — instead of to, say, the Donjon’s son — it’s gonna be awkward. I expect the doors to open when things move to champion tier and it’s time for another relationship die.
Anfisa, a gamekeeper’s daughter who rides a mysteriously tame bear (human ranger). One Unique Thing: Her father and brother were transformed into bears by a witch; her brother is her animal companion. Relationship Dice: The Comet (1 die, positive); the Euryale (1 die, negative); the Ruin (1 die, negative).
Anfisa’s player wanted to play a bear-riding steppe hardass. She’s a member of the Volyar people, so the Comet, as the heroic Volyar champion, is her aspirational model. (The player would like Anfisa to be the holder of the Comet someday). The Ruin is there as the number one enemy of the Comet, and because fighting dragon-priests is fun. The Baba Yaga witch-figure is, of course, tied into the curse of her transformed relatives, and hence a Euryale die, and a Background of “Witch Hunter.” (She did not run with my suggestion of “Witch Puncher.”)
Mika, a scraggly young priestess of the goddess of cold, undeath and vengeance (human cleric). One Unique Thing: She’s actually the surviving daughter of the Mad Tsar. Relationship Dice: The Fates (1 die, positive); the Rogue (1 die, conflicted); the Donjon (1 die, negative).
Somewhere along the way Mika’s player swapped concepts, originally from “a witch stole my shadow” to “I survived the Disastrous Draw, and am a noble’s child in hiding.” I noted that she could be the daughter of the Mad Tsar himself, and why not? So we have a fairly ruthless and witchy take on the Anastasia legend. The Donjon die indicates that the Iron Tsar has heard… rumors and is investigating them. The Fates die — the player loved the ice witch archetype, and so that’s Mika’s patron. The Rogue also ties into her heritage, and raises the question of whether Prince Casivir might be an ally or not. With both Mika and Gena having a Donjon die, for sure the Iron Tsar is going to play heavily into the game. How long until Tsar Gorinstal learns that Gena not only empowered the Knight — the woman sworn to keep him off the throne — but is also protecting the girl who could make the preeminent blood-claim to the Grand Tsardom?
And Kazimeer, an astrologer and mage made of strange metal (forgeborn sorcerer). One Unique Thing: A comet appeared over the capital before the Disastrous Draw, and Kazimeer is that comet, now curiously transformed into humanoid form, a herald of a strange prophecy he doesn’t even know. Relationship Dice: The Vizier (2 dice, positive); the Idiot (one die, negative).
Kazimeer’s player decided to go weird, and I encouraged it. The Vizier is clearly interested in the comet thing and determining what it meant, and so he’s keeping an eye on Kazimeer, who has turned out to be a moral enough being. The Idiot is a natural enemy, as the cult is a force of mad astrology doomsaying, only for nihilistic purposes. They make a good “evil opposite.”
So a thing I’ve learned from both this and my Arabian Nights-inspired 13th Age game is that generating icons is immensely rewarding. Lots of work, too, let’s not kid ourselves. But going to the work of designing them means a connection that makes them more fun to use. I don’t know if I could get excited about someone taking dice with the Elf Queen, but when you’re looking at the Queen of Birds or Queen Norevna the Ice Witch, then it’s shifting into archetypes I know I like. The drawback, of course, is that a group of four players can’t take relationship dice with every icon, and that means some of the personalities you devise are going to be left on the back-burner. Always sad when you’re an undead aficionado like myself and nobody wants to mess with your Koschei the Deathless undead master. But it’s a mild ego sting, easily balanced by the knowledge that the players are choosing the things they are most interested in, and that bodes better for enthusiasm in the long run.