Monthly Archives: February 2015

Let’s Make Icons! (Russian Fantasy, Vol. 2)

Last post still fresh? Great. Let’s keep rolling. Bilibin Night

So when we last left off, it was with the basics for an icon setup: 22 icons (a lot, but it’s not like I’d expect the players to internalize all of them), sorted into a neat balance with 7 heroic, 7 villainous and 8 ambiguous. The next step was clearly to give them archetypes, goals and modi operandorum. For instance, it’s always a classic to have a tyrannical warlord with fanatically loyal troops clad in lots of ironmongery, holed up in a thick-walled citadel and extending a steel gauntlet over whatever maps he has close at hand. That sparks lots of conflicts as players decide to defend whatever locales he’s trying to conquer, sabotage his war effort, or even join with him (though my players are usually playing heroic sorts and wouldn’t do the latter). Very useful icon; is there a card for him? Of course.

As I mentioned earlier, I already had my previous notes on what I wanted to do with a deck setting. I’d run through the cards, divvied them up, and attached generic fantasy mover-and-shaker archetypes with an eye toward who the players might want to work for, flee from, thwart, or engage in intrigue. For the sake of the exercise, here’s a summation of what I started work with:


  • Comet – Card power: defeat monster, get reward. Barbarian king, then, someone roaming the borders wrestling monsters all Hercules-style.
  • Key – Card power: gain magic weapon. This seemed to call for an artificer-type, someone crafting weapons and golems and stuff. A good ally, and people could fight over his works.
  • Knight – Card power: gain loyal fighter follower. Between the power and the image, this seemed like a natural for the Defender of the Realm, someone sworn to a vigil of loyalty.
  • Moon – Card power: grants 1d4 wishes. Someone mystical, maybe an elf queen or enchantress or something.
  • Star – Card power: increases an ability score. This seems to speak to inspiration, so maybe a muse-type, someone associated with the bard/artist/swashbuckler archetype?
  • Sun – Card power: gain beneficial magic item. Not inspiring! But it’s the Sun card, so this is probably your requisite priest figure, holy person, saint, what-have-you.
  • Vizier – Card power: gain answer/solution to any problem. This has pretty much got to be the benevolent archmage to the paladin and priest I’ve already queued up.


  • Balance – Card power: Change alignment: good becomes evil, etc. Maybe some sort of judge or magistrate, sending templar/inquisitors out across the land?.
  • Fates – Card power: avert a disaster. Some sort of oracle figure, ambiguous where the Vizier is benevolent.
  • Fool – Card power: lose experience, draw again. Not a lot to go on there. Jotted down the idea of an ogre king, some rash brute force yet not entirely evil.
  • Gem – Card power: gain wealth. Clearly some sort of major mercantile power.
  • Jester – Card power: Gain experience or more draws from the deck. This seemed to imply some sort of wandering trickster figure, sort of like the Prince of Shadows from the core book.
  • Rogue – Card power: A follower betrays you. Immediate thought is some form of Traitor Prince.
  • Talons – Card power: lose your magic items. I knew I wanted this to stand for some uncivilized primal figure, a druid or werebeast archetype.
  • Throne – Card power: Gain charisma and a small keep. Sounds like an authoritarian emperor figure to me.


  • Donjon – Card power: you’re imprisoned. So a tyrant, then, someone iron-fisted.
  • Euryale – Card power: penalty on saving throws. This screams hags and curses, and I always do like using gorgons or hags.
  • Flames – Card power: gain devil’s enmity. Clearly some sort of diabolist villain, a devil or a warlock of some sort.
  • Idiot – Card power: lose intelligence. This tickled thoughts of sanity-blasting horrors, so some sort of nihilistic cult, maybe living in a sunken city beneath the deeps? Sure, could work.
  • Ruin – Card power: lose all your wealth. I immediately thought “dragon,” something curled in the ruins of a city for a nest.
  • Skull – Card power: fight the grim reaper. Every setting needs an undead lord, and here it is.
  • The Void – Card power: soul is trapped somewhere. Reviewing the other cards I’d picked, this seemed like an interesting call-out for an explicitly subterranean menace, some sort of lightless kingdom below.

Now there were two things I wanted to do: assign some Russian archetypes, and create a sketch map of their territories. The reason for the first was obvious: making sure this all fit the setting. The second reason was so that I could properly have zones of conflict mapped out. For example, it seemed likely that the Comet (the wandering monster slayer) and the Ruin (the draconic King of Monsters) would have an instant rivalry, so I wanted their bases of power to border one another, probably on the far reaches of the realm. Similarly, I wouldn’t want the Skull’s deathless army situated so far from the Sun or Knight that either the Grand Priest or the Peerless Paladin would miss out on undead-fighting action. Another consideration was making sure the distribution didn’t mean all the heroic icons were clumped up in one point or all the villains were fighting each other for territory more than anyone else.

I didn’t really document the evolution of the sketch map, so you’ll just have to take it for granted that I crossed the finish line and had a distribution that I was happy with. (Though my favorite part of it was using those physical cards to lay out potential configurations on the dining room table before I started sketching terrain features.) The conflicts, though — now those are more easily shown in terms of progression.

Succession Struggle: We know that the previous Grand Tsar destroyed the capital (possible block-by-block adventure to come out of that) when he made the disastrous draw, and he went with it. I liked the thought of three rival tsars, one from each “alignment,” each making a bid to be the next Grand Tsar. I already had use for a tyrant attached to the Donjon card, so he became the Iron Tsar — a former nobleman and veteran commander who proclaims himself the only one strong enough to reunite the realm. There would have to be someone with a blood claim, and that sounded right for the Throne — the Golden Tsar, scion of the recently fallen dynasty. Who would my heroic tsar be? All of the heroic icons seemed married to other “day jobs” except the Moon — and I wasn’t really wild about the elf queen/enchantress approach anyway, so it seemed like something to adapt. I’d muse on this one for a while. At any rate, they’d need to be in three separate sections of the map.

Internal Threats: I also knew I wanted some classic villains that came from within the realm. That led to some quick notes like “Skull = Koschei the Deathless,” “Flames = mad monk?”, “Euryale = Baba Yaga”, and so on. These would be distributed a bit more closer to the center, and the fallen capital.

External Threats: And there needed to be things chewing at the borders. The Fool as an ogre king seemed to hold up; so did the Void as lurkers below, though both would need customization. The Ruin as a dragon — yes, that worked very well with Zmey Gorynich as a source of inspiration (and characters like Tugarin resembling its minions). They’d be distributed more around the borders, farther from the capital — except the Void, who could pop up anywhere

At this point I probably had enough to run something about as detailed as a default 13th Age game, but some of the archetypes weren’t quite clicking yet — I wasn’t sure about the Balance, I kind of wanted a heroic or ambiguous dragon, and, the Moon was still eluding me. I think where I was would be enough for anyone to run a fairly standard-feel D&Dish fantasy campaign. But it wasn’t Lokvan yet.

Also, I’d made the disastrous draw central to why Lokva was now a hotbed of adventure and intrigue. I’d wrecked the capital for a reclamation campaign possibility, and clearly pinned the responsible power on the deck. I’d emphasized that the cards made the icons (or rather, the Trumps), and it was clear that they didn’t give literal D&D powers — the holder of the Euryale, for instance, needed to be a mistress of curses, not someone vulnerable to them. So what did the cards do?

Ultimately, it came down to considering each Trump in the context of mix-and-matching a possible card power interpretation with an archetype. So, for instance, when I knew that the Ruin card would go to a three-headed dragon of great cunning and rapacity, it made sense to call the card’s power “Unmaker,” and tie it to bringing down the walls of the now-ruined city where it lairs.

Not all of them would be quite that easy. This is where a lot of the work would go — to say nothing of the fact that now it was time to start naming people and places…

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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Uncategorized


Let’s Make Icons! (Russian Fantasy, vol. 1)

A quick recap: I am formally insane. I am on the cusp of starting two 13th Age campaigns, and I made up a setting and set of icons for each one. For the desert fantasy game, I just started with the out-of-the-box icons, modified heavily, added a couple. For the other game… I’m going more high-concept. And doing more work.

One of the things about icons is that if you’re building your own, you can base them on all kinds of existing sets of archetypes. Some of them might be based on existing fantasy worlds — doing the factions of Planescape, for instance. But they could be any sort of sufficiently diverse set of archetypes. For example, a game where they represent the houses of the Zodiac — Western or Chinese, either one would be interesting, really. The Major Arcana of the Tarot would be challenging but interesting. The major requirement in such things is that you pick a set that can engender conflicts. A Zodiacal 13th Age game would require each House to feud with the others, possibly picking some as heroic and some as villainous (good luck not being one of the bad ones, Scorpio), possibly just saying they’re all ambiguous.

Where I went crazy was when I picked the deck of many things. This is probably a familiar set to anyone who’s ever owned a DMG, or been a campaign that got upended when one came into play. It suits a lot of the same purposes of the Major Arcana, but it’s got that classic D&D vibe. It also has a clear mix of positive and negative images, “beneficial and baneful” being the titular many things. Added bonus: I own a physical deck that came with the 4e adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey, illustrated by the very excellent William O’Connor. This gives me one extra randomizer to play with beyond relationship dice: if I need a random icon (or Trump, as I wound up calling them), I can just draw a card.


Originally I’d thought of just making a straight-up new setting with no real cultural influence other than “sword and sorcery.” The basic idea was that each of the major powers was a person or monster that held a card of the Deck, and gained extra power from it. But Aileen, wise as she often is, recommended that I could just fuse this idea with another setting pitch I was interested in — Russian-influenced fantasy, a realm of bogatyrs and rusalka and chicken-legged houses and firebirds and vodyanoi and such. Two birds, one stone. Done!

Well, no, not done. Just getting started.

But I had the basics of a structure. I knew that I wanted my fantasy realm (hereafter called Lokva) to be divided in a time of turmoil, and you’d have feuding tsars trying to unify it. I picked out a story of a mad tsar who invoked the power of the deck at a time of crisis, demolishing the capital and scattering the cards — each one of which found a new host. Among these hosts (the Trumps) there would be the feuding tsars — one heroic, one ambiguous, one villainous, just to keep it balanced — and a lot of other influences.

At that point the work began. 13 icons is already a lot to design. The deck of many things has either “13 cards, or more rarely, 22” — but let’s face it, I was going to use all the cards. The first step would be making sure that I had a nice mix of heroic, villainous and ambiguous Trumps for optimal player choice. The cards are generally already divided into beneficial and baneful, so some of each would have to become more neutral in tone — or at least go to ambiguous holders. I spent a lot of time with pad and paper making lists, crossing things out, and shifting items from one column to the next. In the end, I had something like this:

Heroic: Comet, Key, Knight, Moon, Star, Sun, Vizier

Ambiguous: Balance, Fates, Fool, Gem, Jester, Rogue, Talons, Throne

Villainous: Donjon, Euryale, Flames, Idiot, Ruin, Skull, the Void

That looked about right! I had already had some notes from the first setting approach as to what they might represent: the Donjon a tyrant, the Talons a druid, the Knight a paladin, things like that. That could still be usable. But now the challenge was making them all feel like they’d fit in Lokva. Which is to say, mock-Russian cultural references were about to abound…

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Posted by on February 9, 2015 in Uncategorized