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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.


Posted by on October 26, 2014 in Uncategorized


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A Thing for Guilds

[Exorcism post: In which I write about a game I may never run, but would like to explore the idea in some fashion in order to get it out of my system.]

First things first: No, it’s not actually about Guild Wars 2. I actually do like the look of the thing, but this has been Medical Bill Month (plus also the auto insurance renewal), and there’s little room for a new video game expenditure and the time expenditure that’d go towards, you know, a new MMO.

No, this is about RPGs. Specifically, back to the well of fantasy gaming. I have some friends and coworkers who are pretty bored of fantasy by now. I can’t be bored with the stuff, just with particular tropes. You know: Chosen of Prophecy, Save the World, Deconstructing Tolkien, things like that. I especially don’t have any real love for hereditary monarchies in particular, especially if the author or setting is set up to validate them and end with some new blah blah bloodline on the throne. But give me an alternate power structure and yeah, things get interesting.

That’s where guilds come in. I’ve been kind of impressed with the core idea you see in some manga where the world is set up with various “guild”-type organizations that have rivalries and wars and such. In fact, you could argue that a few of the biggest manga at present are based around this idea: the organizations being pirate crews, ninja villages, and mage’s guilds. That’s pretty neat.

The other thing that’s been on my mind of late is the Magic: The Gathering setting of Ravnica. Now, I haven’t played Magic in decades — I do still use a few Magic cards I’ve kept as bookmarks, but actually try to play a game? Buy new cards? Nah. But the core concept of Ravnica is interesting. Guilds as the major powers, as above. And it’s more interesting because the core conceit is that each of these guilds is a hybridization of two of the five element colors of the setting: blue + black = criminal house, white + green = conclave of druids, things like that. It makes it accessible quickly as players start thinking about the interesting combinations of archetypes. It’s something I’d steal. But like I said, I’m not a Magic player, and I’d like to use a combination of tropes my players are more familiar with.

So what if you had a setting like Ravnica, but the combinations were the “power sources” that D&D 4e came up with? I’ve always liked how they roughly mapped to class archetypes. They’re actually even kind of similar to the roles the various Exalted play, in a fashion. So let’s say that for now, you had five sources (which may or may not be acknowledged in-setting), and each guild was a combo of any two. Because I’m the one writing this, I’m going to say those five sources are martial, divine, arcane, primal, and shadow — I pick shadow over psionics because (a) I think shadow’s a better match for the rogue/thief archetype, and (b) my wife is violently allergic to the flavor of psionics. And since that violence would be directed at me, we’ll set it to the side for now.

Right, so how would those matchups work? A first pass might be something like:

Martial + Divine: Templar order. Lawgivers. Paladins.
Martial + Arcane: Alchemists and artificers. Indiana Jones-type adventurer-scholars.
Martial + Primal: Wildwalkers. Rangers, barbarians, wardens.
Martial + Shadow: Duelists, thieves, assassins.
Divine + Arcane: Gnostics. Mage: The Awakening types. Librarians.
Divine + Primal: Druids. Thunderers, maybe; I like the idea of a storm motif.
Divine + Shadow: Gatekeepers. Priests of the night.
Arcane + Primal: Elementalists. Traffickers with genies and other elemental forces.
Arcane + Shadow: Necromancers. The spooky side of scholars.
Primal + Shadow: Nightstalkers. Lunar-aspected folk; lycanthropes, maybe.

There, that’s ten basic ideas that could be codified into more complicated societies just like that. They’re a little unformed right now, but a little more effort could show more distinction. And these might be the ten principal factions. What would the players play: members of existing guilds/houses/coalitions/city-states (whatever form they may take) that come together? Or would they found their own?

Of course, you can further complicate things just by adding power sources. Throw in psionics and you have six more possible combinations. What I’d do, though, is add some antagonism to this setup. We need outlaws and heretics, blasphemers and traffickers in vile forces. Enter power source: Infernalism. So what sort of heretic factions does this create? At a guess:

Infernal + Martial: A bloody warrior order. Maybe twisted knights, like the Order of the Fly or something.
Infernal + Arcane: Cabalists. Summoners. Pacters.
Infernal + Divine: Blasphemous preachers. Antisaints.
Infernal + Primal: Apocalyptic barbarians, seeking to release the Great Beasts under the skin of the world.
Infernal + Shadow: Death cult. Assassins hunting sacrifices.

When you establish all these factions, then something exceptionally awesome happens: plots start writing themselves just by picking two factions and asking yourself what an interesting way they might interact would be. Then account for a couple of more factions. Then throw in a renegade faction trying to undermine them. It works beautifully in the World of Darkness of your choice; I’m honestly not sure why more fantasy gamers don’t try it. But then again, only so much time in the day for all these ideas…

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Posted by on August 28, 2012 in Uncategorized


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