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…