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Let’s Make Icons! (Russian Fantasy, vol. 3)

Uncle Misha and Gena after Battle of CorshuAt 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.

Heroic

  • CometHetman 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.
  • KeyGrandmaster 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.
  • KnightCommander 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.
  • MoonTsaritsa 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.
  • SunElbeska 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.

Ambiguous

  • BalanceZirzakh 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.
  • FatesQueen 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.
  • FoolKing 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.
  • GemGuildmistress 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.
  • JesterThe 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!
  • RoguePrince 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.
  • TalonsUrska 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.
  • ThroneTsar 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.

Villainous

  • DonjonTsar 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.
  • EuryaleGrandmother 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.
  • FlamesRukvaas 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.
  • IdiotThe 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.
  • RuinVilich 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 VoidThe 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.

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Posted by on June 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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

With two games about to wrap up their seasons, it’s time for a bit of a break. I’ve been interested in trying out 13th Age, and it seems both groups are interested in trying it out as well. (Yes, this means the wife had better be interested, as she’s gonna be stuck with it.) To avoid going into an overlong derail, I’m definitely interested in seeing if the mechanics work out in that “descriptive/streamlined but still not wholly abstract way,” but the real things I want to play with are Backgrounds, One Unique Things and relationship dice.

Backgrounds are great — and they’re pretty much defined by the player. The One Unique Thing is great, too. They’ll allow players to come up with concepts like “phoenix whose egg was corrupted and was reborn into humanlike form,” should they be so inclined, and have some support for doing that. Relationship dice seem also great — but there we run into an issue, as they imply much more work on the GM’s end. Well, ordinarily they wouldn’t, of course.

If you’re not familiar with 13th Age, the icons are essentially major powers in the setting. They’re rival factions whose maneuvering and ambitions shape the events of the campaign, and players select relationship dice with a few of them. It’s a way for a player to say “I am opposed to the Lich King and in good with the High Druid and have a weird bargain with the Prince of Shadows,” thus allowing their connections to influence play. The game comes with a default setting and a list of 13 icons ready to go.

So when I floated it past the alternate-Thursday group, they were quite amenable to just about any setting, but one player in particular would like something Arabian in theme. Uh-oh. Or, well, I say “uh-oh,” but I really mean “well, that’s a lot of work to do but I think I’m going to enjoy it.” Because, you see, the default icons are really bog-standard fantasy, meant to emulate that classic sorta-Tolkien, sorta-sword-and-sorcery D&D feel. But you look at something like “the Dwarf King” and… that doesn’t exactly say “Arabian Nights.” (Or rather, sorta-Arabian-Nights-inspired, because I admittedly make major changes to the feel just by including, say, institutionalized gender equality. Cultural appropriation? Possibly, but I do my best to avoid the exoticized Other and orientalism, so, we’ll see.)

I welcome the work of making new icons, even though it will be work! Because the thing about icons is that they’re not just a chance to establish the politics of the setting. They’re about establishing archetypes. Choosing “City of Brass” as an iconic force means an emphasis on ifrit; not having any dragon-type icons means you’re not assuming dragons are a core stylistic element. And because I’m feeling kind of like doing this exercise in public, let’s start doing it here.

Shotgunning Archetypes

I started with asking how many of the 13 default icons suggested something out of the Nights. Answer? …Not a lot. But we could start with those 13, and start drawing equivalencies. The other thing was thinking of big mythic-seeming archetypes that could become icons. The latter idea actually will feed the former, so here’s where I started with that part of the brainstorm:

  • Jinn/City of Brass
  • Malicious nobleman warlord
  • “Forty Thieves” as inspiration for organized crime syndicate
  • Sorcerers transforming people into animals
  • Elephantine ogres
  • Alamut/order of assassins
  • Brass man/artificer who makes brass men
  • Old Man of the Sea
  • Sleeping threats from buried, lost civilizations
  • Lawgiver
  • Benevolent shapechanging serpents
  • Talking animals

Reworking Icons

Next step was taking a look at the 13 icons and figuring out rough equivalencies. Could the essence be kept? Let’s get to work on the first draft.

The Archmage: Sound enough concept — a mage/wizard/sorcerer of great power but also great wisdom. Like having King Solomon still around and active. I want a setting that’s more feuding city-states or a rough confederacy of kingdoms and emirates than a unified empire, though. We’ll keep the idea of a heroic icon who is also the Best Wizard. I don’t want to get too specialized with a magic style (which is the opposite of how I normally operate), so we’ll consider him a reclusive but influential person. I’m thinking something like The Immortal Sage.

The Crusader: Okay, that name would have to go. But the idea of someone using dubious means toward an ostensibly good goal is sound. The Crusader is ambiguous, and I like that. Here I’m thinking that a force of legalistic judgment might be appropriate — so let’s consider the idea of someone attempting to bring law to the various quarreling city-states by force. We’ll jot down The Lawgiver.

The Diabolist: Infernal forces suit the setting, with a bit of a tweak. My first thought is to have this be “the Shaitan,” but upon reflection that’s a little generic. I look back at the list of archetypes and the “sleeping threat” seems to have legs. So what if it’s a powerful shaitan, but one conjured into the world and bound by a Solomon-like figure long ago? Then the icon could represent his devilish followers (999 of them sounds pretty cool) and the cultlike types trying to bring back The Slumbering King. I like it; we’ll see if I still like it later on.

The Dwarf King: Way, way too Tolkien. The intelligent benevolent serpents might be more interesting creatures to tie into the wealth below the hills. Of course, they’re benevolent and the Dwarf King is more ambiguous, thanks to that archetypal greed. So let’s hold the snakes back. While tying the brass men to a wonder-crafter of no real moral certainty is interesting, I can’t type “brass” without thinking of The City of Brass, which definitely deserves a slot. We’ll put that there for now. Can’t get more ambiguous than ifrit (unless you want them totally malevolent, but I find them less interesting that way).

The Elf Queen: Similarly, completely Western. Ambiguous fey types have their place in pretty much any myth structure, though. For now I’m going to accept that I probably want bird maidens in the game, and that someone’s got to do all that turning relatives into animals. We’ll throw out The Queen of Birds as an ambiguous fey force for now.

The Emperor: I know I don’t want an empire. I also have my personal biases against hereditary aristocracy as something that works for very long. But Harun al-Rashid shows up in the Nights as this benevolent figure, and there’s an argument for that. I would ordinarily go with switching him to ambiguous, but we’ll see if The Enlightened Caliph can work out, or if it’s too boring.

The Great Gold Wyrm: There’s arguably room for dragons in this style of game, even if the argument is “remember the Harryhausen dragon in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad? That was cool!” I don’t know that I want one as an icon, though. This is a clearly benevolent slot, so let’s go back to the serpents we didn’t use for the Dwarf King slot. The Serpent Emirs? Will have to kick around a structure for their organization.

The High Druid: This one is hard. Undeniably I want something for more primal characters to feel a connection to. Unquestionably the word “druid” is terrible for this kind of setting. I think of living wilderness and talking beasts and how people would want to play actual ranger and druid classes. For now I slap down The Voice in the Wilds. This will almost certainly be one of the ones to change during Pass Two.

The Lich King: Famous Arabian undead = ghuls. The Ghul Queen. Smart, organized. So quick, easy and obvious there must be a flaw with it, but for now I’m feeling fine.

The Orc Lord: Once more, says “Tolkien” too readily, even if I think half-orc mamluks are a nifty borrow for the setting. Ogres are more archetypal. Calling him The Ogre Khan for now to avoid too many kings and queens, though may have to ruminate on whether that has unfortunate cultural implications.

The Priestess: This one could almost work as is. My first instinct is to make her The Prophetess instead, mostly because an icon that hands out prophecies and interprets the hand of Fate seems to imply more adventuring-style intrigue than holding religious services might. I am actually contemplating relationship dice with Fate itself, which would suit some of the inspirational stories, but that would probably be so much work to adjudicate in an interesting and not-lazy fashion.

The Prince of Shadows: Honestly, I feel organized crime syndicates belong in almost any setting. Instead of having one single supernatural master thief, a brotherhood might be more appropriate. The City of Thieves has a neat ring, though maybe it implies too many members? I’ll stew on this one.

The Three: As with the Great Gold Wyrm, I’m not feeling dragons as a pillar of the setting. The Three do have an assassin’s guild working for them, though, and that’s something I could use. I’m awfully tempted to combine the Old Man of the Mountain with the classic sword-and-sorcery serpent people like yuan-ti. It would be a good counterbalance for the benevolent serpents. The Brotherhood of Vipers goes down as a villainous icon. It may cause problems, though, because Aileen prefers an ambiguous assassin organization (understandable if you have placed any of the Assassin’s Creed games). She has a point, but if I flip the assassins to ambiguous I need another villainous icon, with or without the serpent-men attached.

It’s a Start

So there’s 13 icons. Not bad. I would not call them ready for publication even as core ideas. Next step will be to go back and refine them — see if there’s anything problematic, anything weak, any super ideas I’m missing out on. (I already wonder if I should change The City of Brass to something involving a wider variety of jinn, and let players taking it choose which elemental faction they’re allied with/opposing.) I’ll likely do a blog post on the second pass, as long as I’m favoring this behind-the-curtains writing.

Still a long ways to go before I’d be happy with this set of movers and shakers, but I’m already liking how going to this effort better sells the flavor of a setting. It just feels so much better drawing on the specific cultural myths. If everyone voted to play Arabian-style 13th Age once the current game’s season winds down, I think I’d have something good by then.

Oh, did I emphasize that I just did all this for a game I might not ever run? Yeah. Where GMing and world-building is concerned, I may have a problem. But I can quit any time, I swear.

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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