Sunday, February 9, 2014

Musings on Icon Rolls - Alternatives and the Default Rule

There was a recent post on the Pelgrane Press forums about how to best utilize Icon rolls, with one of the complaints being that despite the fail-forward philosophy of the system as a whole, why should failing a roll connected to one of the most influential PCs in the game world (the Icon system being a major innovation of 13th Age) do nothing?  Two posts down Guurzak responded that he'd changed Icon rolls to a single d6 to determine which of your Icons is involved.

The Single Die Icon Roll
The rationale for this is pretty simple - if you're hoping for a 5 or 6 (odds are 1/3) but you're rolling 3d6, on average each PC will benefit  from one Icon relationship per session.  For example, your first relationship triggers on a roll of 1 or 2, with 1 being the equivalent of 5 and 2 being the equivalent of 6 (and so on).  The advantage to this system is that every PC gets some benefit from one of their Icons every single session, preserving the fail-forward feel of the system.  This does, however, restrict possible combinations since a single PC with two different relationships can never see both of them come up in a single session.  Likewise, a PC with 3 points in a single Icon will force that Icon to come into play every single session.  I can see this getting repetitive pretty quickly.

An extra wrinkle is the fact that some talents grant additional relationship points, and as a PC levels they gain an additional point at each tier transition.  There are two possible solutions for dealing with this.  One is to increase the die size, having someone with 4 relationship points rolling a d8.  This keeps the number of Icons being triggered consistent, but makes each individual relationship less potent.  This may be ok with some groups, especially if the GM is trying to keep from getting overwhelmed by too many Icons.  It does invalidate the idea that PCs become more influential as they move up a tier, though.

The second solution is to roll the first 3 Icons with one die, but use individual dice for any additional Icons, hoping for a 5 or 6 as per RAW.  While this is no longer a single-die system, it does preserve the relative strengths of each relationship point and continues to guarantee that each PC will benefit from at least one relationship per session.

Another potential problem with this system is that it messes with talents like the Bard's Storyteller.  Using the Icon rules as written, this talent is valuable for re-rolling a relationship that came up dry, but using just a single die you're merely swapping out Icons.

The New Art Sidebar
I've actually seen this single-die solution offered before online (though I can't remember where or when), as well as some other alternative mechanics that I can't quite remember.  Clearly this is the type of thing that the "New Art" sidebar on p. 179 of the core rulebook is talking about:

Often, when an RPG introduces a new mechanic, such as our icon dice, soon enough the fans figure out how to use that mechanic better than the designers ever did.  Designers are too close to their own creations to get it 100% right.  Check the internet for the latest advice on using icon relationship dice.

But I'm not convinced such solutions are "better," or that there even really is a "better."  If the published rules lack consistency session-to-session it's because they're an improvisational story tool, and stories shouldn't be repetitious from session to session.  Sometimes a PC will get shoved into the spotlight by 2 or 3 Icon results, while another PC gets nothing.  But being in the spotlight for story-driven reasons and being in the spotlight because you're given the opportunity to act are very different things.  Bob can still make decisions and take actions in response to the current situation even if they're in the situation because of Jane.  And over the course of a moderate to long campaign, everything should average out in the end.  In the end, I think the published rules work really well, and in practice I think they allow for more organic results than any of the alternatives I've seen online.

An exception worth pointing out is convention games and one-shots.  In such scenarios a single-die Icon roll is absolutely appropriate because there's only one session to get spotlight time in, so every PC's relationships should come up at some point.

Mechanical Benefits
Another alternative rule for Icons that I've seen posted online is for results of 5 or 6 to grant some kind of one time use mechanical benefit.  The player can invoke their positive result for a re-roll, a -5 reduction to the DC of a skill check, or something of that nature.  This has cropped up a few times in the inevitable "how do I use Icon results?" threads on various forums, and while there's certainly precedent for it (the suggestion that Icon rolls can grant magic items is, after all, a mechanical benefit), I'm not sure if that's necessarily a good use for the mechanic.

Essentially, such an add-on is trying to fit a plot currency device like Bennies (from Savage Worlds), Fate points (from Fate), or Destiny Points (from Edge of the Empire) into the Icon framework, but to me this seems like a square peg in a round hole.  I have nothing against Fate Points, Destiny Points, etc., but they're pretty easy to add onto most systems as-is, and if you want them in your 13th Age game you should just do that.  Using Icon rolls as the vehicle for "bennies" disassociates them from the fiction unless you can come up with an explanation for exactly why the PC gets a mechanical benefit from their relationship every single time, and in an interesting, unique way.  Ultimately they work really well as an improvisational story tool, but they become less flexible if you have to inject story into a routine mechanical benefit, and the narrative impact is probably reduced as well.  And then when you have a really good story-driven use for an Icon roll, will a player feel cheated if you use that instead of giving them a mechanical benefit like the other guy whose Icon roll you didn't have an obvious use for got?  In other words, sometimes using them as a narrative tool and sometimes using them for a mechanical benefit might seem to lighten the load, but it could also mess with the expectations of the players and cause some friction.

While Icons as more of a GM's tool vs something that a player can invoke will vary from group to group, ideally the end result will be some narrative element.  The location of the upcoming adventure is somehow tied to a PC's icon, NPCs that are tied to a PC will come into play, etc.  A PC might be able to use a 5 or 6 as leverage during the adventure, but reducing that to something as simple as a re-roll seems like both a cop-out and forgettable.  It's far less memorable than telling one of the players "ok, so these guys that outnumber and outgun you, you recognize one of their faces.  You remember him from the Emperor's court; remember the Emperor giving him orders to infiltrate this group and act as a double agent.  You lock eyes with the spy, and with a simple nod you see his crossbow go from pointing directly at you to pointing at his leader's throat."  That provides the PC with a concrete link to the campaign world, and in my opinion that's the primary function of the Icon relationship dice in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Brian,

    Great post, it got me thinking. I've personally felt there is something slightly mechanically off about icon rolls - they are a great idea, but I've always felt there should be a mechanically more satisfying way of implementing them. I'm just not that taken with fishing on the d6, However I haven't found a solution I think is more elegant.

    I like the theory of the one roll "what icon this week" roll; but still it's not quite there (for the reason you mentioned above). Perhaps using a larger dice (d% even) and weighting it based on icons but include other icons.

    Still the idea I plan to use is the core rulebook, but with an additional tweak: If you generate no icon results (1 to 4 on all dice) randomly determine an icon you have no relationship with: you count as having scored a "5" on a conflicted relationship with this icon.

    Obviously this wouldn't draw a character into a story - but it would serv to bring unexpected bumps into a story; the elf-queen's agent staggers round the corner covered in blood and thrusts a package into your hands etc. The effects of it could open up reasons for any new Icon relationships taken at a later point (from feats etc.). What do you think?