Narrating Icon Relationships

Last month Mark wrote about Icon Relationships and how to use them as a GM, but as they are really tools in the hands of the players, I thought it’d also be helpful to talk about them from a player’s perspective.

As you know, mechanically, if you roll a 5 or a 6 on your Icon Relationships, you get an advantage during that session. And generally, you get to decide what that advantage is. It could be receiving a magic item, or auto-succeeding on a skill check, or bypassing a puzzle, or convincing a neutral NPC to swing to your side, or…well, you get the idea. (And to be clear, spending a 5 will also generate a complication, but that’s for your GM to figure out, though if you have something in mind, I’m sure she’ll appreciate it!)

But 13th Age isn’t really about the mechanics; it’s about the story. That’s why there are so many story-generating tools in the hands of the players. So how do you bridge the gap between the mechanics of getting a boon and weaving together a story, especially when it doesn’t make in-story sense for an Agent of the Icon to simply show up and give the boon to you? For example, let’s imagine you and your cohorts have delved deep into a cave and encountered a lake of lava. You want to use your Icon Relationship with the Emperor to get past it, but how would the Emperor provide aid to your character within the story?

The easy answer is to either handwave it aside or force the GM to figure it out. But the better-player answer is to tell the story of how it happens. Take it upon yourself to come up with a reason for how the Emperor’s reach is still felt that deep in the cave. Perhaps you find his seal embedded in a nearby wall that raises a stone pathway (a complication could arise from what also happens when this dormant magic is newly activated). Or perhaps he had previously given you a magic wand that could be used to create a rope-bridge once (a complication could be that the bridge is teleported from another location, causing havoc elsewhere). 

Reaching back in time and placing something into your character’s inventory for an Icon Relationship boon is a perfectly acceptable way to come up with an in-story explanation. And being tasked with providing a brief story for it provides additional benefits of crafting backstory pieces about your character as well as more details about the world. In doing so, you’re leveraging the same concepts that make Backgrounds such an integral part of 13th Age.  

But if you don’t want to always be coming up with the answer on the spot, during Character Creation, jot down a few items that your Icon(s) had given you which reflect the relationship you have with them. Have a positive relationship with the Diabolist? Maybe, for whatever influenced that positive relationship, she (or more likely one of her agents) presented you with a broach. It will sit ‘useless’ on your character sheet until that one time you rolled a 6 and wanted to get a magic item or needed a way to relay a message to/from her. You’d be getting the mechanical boon in that moment, but you’d also be linking it to an in-story reason that shines some spotlight onto your character and their backstory. But if you’re already in a campaign or you’ve run out of those items, you can continue to be proactive in this regard by asking the GM when you search for loot, “What sort of useless or random items do I find?” Those useless items are fodder for future boons!

Pulling items out of your pack or suddenly finding something that had been overlooked aren’t the only ways Icons can exert their influence over distances or in secluded areas. What are some other ways? Again, instead of putting yourself on the spot to explain it, you can make things easier on yourself as a player by proactively thinking of the ways the Icons could exert their influence you, regardless of where you are. To help with this, think about the nature of your Relationships. Why do you have that Relationship with that Icon?

For example, perhaps your conflicted Relationship with the Archmage is because you fear he is abusing his power. That belief could be suddenly reinforced when you use a 5 to get past a guard. When you hear a bodiless voice whisper in your ear precisely what to say to the guard about his family to prompt him to let you by, you’ve received your boon, and now you and everyone else is even more convinced that the Archmage is spying on people Big Brother like (plus, you’ve given the GM a hook to use for that complication if she needs it!)

Icon Relationships are for you, the player, to not only get boons but to influence the story, and while Rules As Written it simply provides a boon, you don’t always have to use them for just that benefit. Many times, the boon you ask for could do nothing but influence the story. I remember one session where several of us players spent our pool of 5s and 6s to simply get word to our various Icons about what was going on. Mechanically, it gave us nothing in the moment, but it was a way for us, as players, to influence the world and story.

When you sit down to play 13th Age, remember that there is a lot of narrative power at your fingertips, and even more so when you roll a 5 or a 6 at the beginning of the session. What are some of the ways you’ve used Icon Relationships to influence your story? And for those GMs reading this, what are your favorite moments when the players leveraged those rolls?

Written by Nick

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