I played 13th Age a bit at a local convention this weekend. I had some mixed responses, which of course were shaped a bit by the players and a little bit by the GM. Here though, I want to focus on the 13th Age concept of Icons.
One of the features of 13th Age is the “Icons,” which are built-in factions to the game that each character can have a relationship with. The GM for the game was unclear about which direction the relationships (Positive, Negative, or Conflicted) went. I wasn’t sure whether my character disliked the Orc Lord, or whether the Orc Lord disliked my character, or both. The GM decided “both,” but I don’t much like the mechanic to work that way. The way the Icon relationship seems to work is for external events to occur because of the relationship. Why would there be events that occur based on my character’s internal opinion? I could hate the Crusader, who in turn loves me, and the external events that are originating with the Crusader’s faction shouldn’t care what my internal opinion is, right? This relationship trying to account for both my character and the Icon seems like its confusing two different concepts to me.
So, each character has 3-4 points built into relationships with these established factions. At the beginning of the session, we were asked to roll a d6 for each point we had for each relationship. A 5 meant that relationship had an impact on the game in a neutral way. A 6 meant that the relationship had an impact on the game in a positive way. The way this worked out we had 16 points among the five players involved, and we ended up with four fives and two sixes. This meant that the GM was supposed to come up with six encounters or tie-ins based on the results of our relationships. That is a lot of overhead for the adventure!
As it turns out, in order to try and accomplish this, some of the ‘relationship’ connections ended up being forced pretty badly (almost necessary because there were supposed to be so many!). “I recognize you! You’re that adventurer! Let me loan you this +1 shield, for this session only, because I support your cause!” Others ended up the focus for certain characters, and because of poor planning/execution of their introduction, the new NPCs required over an hour of interaction in order to satisfy the other players enough to move on to the game.
This was the GM’s issue, yes. But it was understandable, since the GM was being asked to ad-lib six about different encounters on short order. The result of all this mechanical overhead is that we didn’t even get started into the adventure proper for about 2 hours. I can’t image doing that in an ongoing campaign!
Another problem with the way the Icons seem to work (this game isn’t even in final print yet, so we’re working off the Kickstarter rules the GM owned, which are still Beta product), is that they didn’t seem to impact anything else. They influenced my decision making in opposing the Orc Lord, but I’m sure my Dwarf Veteran of the Orc Wars would have reacted the same way without the documented negative relationship.
Okay, so here’s what I think about factions. I think that having factions built into the campaign setting is interesting. I also like the idea that, somewhere, a character’s relationship with that faction can be recorded, updated based on the activities of the character and/or the faction, and can directly influence that faction’s interactions with the character. For example, in the Fallout games, you could gain favor or anger certain factions, which would lock or unlock varying dialogue prompts. For an RPG, I like that factions could be formalized and a character’s relationship with those factions can have some background roots and then shift around as they play the game. Those relationships should then influence how the GM handles scenes between the character and the faction, and probably in some way that’s more defined than total GM fiat.
I think to work though, the characters need to be fully aware of the factions, even if that takes some precious game time to invest in providing summaries, back stories, etc. The factions need to clearly impact play in a way that’s interesting, and the factions need to interact with the players. The mechanic should influence how people react to you. It shouldn’t necessarily spawn encounters though, and the amount of overhead it seems to add to 13th Age strongly insists upon itself as a story-building mechanic, to the point I think it interferes with the game. Sure, you can ignore it, or as the GM, you can make the encounters or impacts on the story much less significant, but having the rules insist upon 4-6 story tie-ins per session seems extremely invasive on the GM trying to run the game.
As for what the mechanic should be, or how the relationships should be established and changed, I’m open to advice!