Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Musings on Forgotten Realms Icons for 13th Age (Archmage Engine)

A discussion came up on the Candlekeep Forums (a Forgotten Realms fansite) asking about 13th Age (Archmage Engine) Icon implementation for the Realms setting. There are some differences between FR and the 13th Age setting that would make a 1-to-1 correlation between Icons less than precise.

I hadn't thought about the topic with any earnest effort, so instead I pointed them towards the Icon system applied to Kobold Press' Midgard campaign setting (Link) written by Wade Rockett. I hoped it would provide an additional example to show the flexibility that could be introduced to the Icon system. Whereas the 13th Age Icons are almost entirely individuals, Midgard Icons introduced a few more councils and secret societies.

After a brief search, I found this topic was discussed briefly before on Candlekeep with one participant providing a comprehensive outline of options. The different threads and examples got my brain jumpstarted on the topic and I came up with a list of my own. Of course this is not a formal write-up in the proper format, but just a quick list with some thoughts on the matter. If one wanted a gameable summary, there's enough lore floating around for each proposed Icon on the FR Wiki to make a worthy "official" Icon write-up.

There are a multitude of rulers, archmages, liches, ancient beings, and clergy leaders to choose from, but not all of them fit the Icon role. With some archetypes lacking an equivalent in the Realms, I choose a best fit group or figure followed by my explanation. I held the obvious 'Icon-ability' of Realms figures or groups above their suitability as a direct match to an existing 13th Age Icons (as the Midgard Icons played loose with the direct matching). Overall I tried to avoid actual deities (as both 13th Age and Midgard have avoided) or most of the traditional Chosen (of Mystra), given their unusual roles in the setting. Also, I gave an attempt to spread the Icon allotment out amongst the different alignments.

Using the 2E/3E era Realms (Because.) I would short list the following as Icons of the Realms with the intent of treating them as "universal" setting-wide Icons, rather than more regional Icons as suggested in some of the above linked discussions.

The Lords of Waterdeep: Few cities are as indicative of the Realms as the setting's preeminent city and a hallmark of Waterdeep is its council of masked rulers. The city is a setting unto itself, but even then, the city's reach of trade is long and its influence relatively widespread. Plus the Lords have a board game themed around them. ; ) The Lords of Waterdeep also incorporates the machinations of Khelben/Blackstaff, Laeral, and the Moonstars.

Queen Amlaruil: The archetypal elf queen. Though she is aloof and isolated in Evermeet, she has agents promoting the elven agenda throughout the Realms. She is technically/nominally the ruler of all the elves. She is also the chosen of the Seldarine, making her something of a proxy or demigod, right at the boundary between mortal and deity.

The Princes of Shade: Though we could easily single out Telamont Thanthul. Love them or hate them, there's no denying the Shades are striving to be a major power in the setting (with the capability to accomplish that goal) and the princes are suitable iconic faces for the Shadovar.

Purple Dragon of Cormyr
King Azoun IV (or later the Steel Regent Alusair): After the events of the the Tuigan Horde, Azoun had expended and reacquired a considerable amount of political capital and fame. He is the leader of one of the most stable longstanding kingdoms in the Realms, and is a central figureheads for law and order, but also good. After his death, Alusair is a capable successor for the role. 

Sammaster, the Cultist: He IS the Cult of the Dragon and through the cult, he is everywhere. Cult leaders have the proper cult of personality for Iconhood. Plus he holds great personal power and finds a way to return every time he's destroyed. He has a lot of unique things going for him being the most well known (only?) ex-Chosen. He's been a mainstay villain of the setting since the beginning.

The Magister: Ideally Azuth is the Archmage Icon role, but we're drawing the line between icons and deities. The various chosen could work, some better than others, but their actual role in the setting is controversial. The next logical choice is the office of the Magister, sort of the poor man's Chosen. The Magister has been sort of ignored in all the hubbub revolving around the monolithic Chosen, which is good for gaming flexibility, plus it's an official title with rules of succession rather than the more freewheeling Chosen.

In this Icon role, the Magister would be responsible for promoting and protecting magic, possibly to the exclusion to traditional 'goodly' notions. We can substitute in the Blackstaff here, but his role is more limited than the Magister's general focus on promoting magic, even if he is a more manipulative and interventionist figure. It also doesn't matter who the Magister is, though there's no reason to remove Talatha Vaerovree from the office.
The Zhentarim

The Black Network (the Zhentarim): As opposed to Manshoon or Fzoul since leadership is shared, split, or exchanged between them at various times. The one constant through the different renditions of the Realms is the Zhentarim itself in one form or another.

Tchazzar, the Dragon Tyrant: Hand waving this one a bit. There are many powerful dragons in the Realms, but few with a noticeable influence beyond a small local region. While that holds true for Tchazzar, he is one of the most historically active dragons in the setting and one with actual skin in the game amongst mortal nations. In this Icon role, Tchazzar would take on something of a more active draconic and nation-building agenda. Doesn't matter that he's dead through much of the 3E era. Magic can fix that. He also doesn't need to be the absolute ruler of Chessenta.

The Emerald Enclave: Also another hand waving bit. There are localized druid orders throughout the Realms and the Emerald Enclave is one such sect, but they're probably the most powerful. Their influence is also spreading beyond their traditional turf as they've enforced their presence in the Realm of the Purple Staff along the Dragon Coast and much of the Vilhon Reach/Chondalwood area.

The Red Wizards of Thay
Szass Tam, the Red Wizard: The Red Wizards are a logical choice, but they're still an unwieldy and disparate lot. Tam, on the other hand, is the most powerful Zulkir and supposed true ruler of Thay and thus the de facto leader of the Red Wizards (whether the other Zulkirs realize or admit it). Stately and surprisingly cordial, he is also the only overt lich to rule a powerful nation.
There are liches more powerful than Tam, such as Larloch, Aumvor, and Ioulaum, but they are withdrawn and unknown to most of the world. Others like Shoon VII and the Twisted Rune prefer working from the shadows or have still yet to make their presence known to the wider world. 

The Demon Lord: Here we'll go with Eltab, being one of the better established Realms-specific demon lords with a long history in the east between the time of the Nar Demonbinders and his activities in Thay and beyond. His presence in the Citadel of Conjurers revitalizes the Narfell as an ever active threat to neighboring kingdoms of which there are many (Impiltur, Rasheman, perhaps Damara, Narfell itself, even Thay and the Endless Waste/the Raumviran/Yaimunahar).

We could go with Malkizid, but he seems more concerned with elven affairs (likewise Wendonai with the Drow). Many of the other elder evils mentioned in Champions of Ruin are not quite as coherent as Eltab (some are closer to forces of nature than sentient antagonists). Alternatively we could exchange Eltab with a version of Errtu if we're looking for someone with roots in the North. Another alternative is a return of the Trio Nefarious (but elf focused again).

The Harpers
The High Harpers: Few groups have their meddlesome hands in the affairs and secrets of the world like the Harpers. This is a good compromise between the Harper semi-secret organization as a whole and the few Chosen who take up the inordinate amount of spotlight within said secret society. If one likes, the remaining Chosen (El, Dove, and Storm) can be rotated out (not a new concept seeing as Khelben, Laeral and Alustriel departed) and replaced with new members, or the non-Chosen members can be emphasized. Pre-schism, the Chosen are mostly accounted for here.

The High Lady: Alustriel is not only the leader of the Silver Marches, she holds sway over the complex alliance necessary to keep such a confederation together. She also maintains a network of consorts, lovers, relatives, friends, children, allies, and apprentices ready to act as her agents. She can also stand in for the interests of the Chosen and the Seven Sisters, giving those concepts a focal point rather than having them seem to meddle overmuch across the entire setting.


The above makes 13 Icons. Here's my rough break down of where they fit on the Heroic/Ambiguous/Villainous spectrum:

Heroic: Usually the Lords of Waterdeep, King Azoun IV, Queen Amlaruil, the High Lady; possibly the Magister, and the High Harpers

Ambiguous: Usually the Magister, the High Harpers, the Emerald Enclave; possibly the Lords of Waterdeep, Queen Amlaruil, and Szass Tam

Villainous: Usually the Black Network, the Princes of Shade, Sammaster, Szass Tam, Tchazzar, the Demon Lord; possibly the Emerald Enclave


The list is not comprehensive, but attempts to serve as a quick snapshot or summary of what the Realms has to offer in terms of power groups and movers-and-shakers (without letting deities and Chosen dominate the list).

There are some major holes in my list: 

- There is no Dwarf King icon equivalent, but that sort of holds true for Midgard (and they have Dwarves up the wazoo), so they resorted to a dwarven secret society. The dwarves of the Realms are in a more disarrayed state than those other settings.

- There is no Orc Lord icon, but King Obould of Many-Arrows or Sythilis/Sothilis ogre-mage ruler of Murandinn don't quite have enough far-reaching influence. 

- The lack of a good CN ambiguous Icon (or generally more neutral Icons), which the Simbul is suited for as mentioned below.

- There is a Northern bias as most of the Icons have their power base north of the Sea of Fallen Stars. 


The following few can work in the Icon role, but I feel are a bit more limited than the above for the various position.

The Blackstaff: Easy to slot into several Icons roles, but I covered above why I would select others over him/her.

The Witch-Queen: The Simbul has a fierce reputation, the raw power to back it up, and she commands the resources of a nation, but is restrained by the interests of the very nation she protects. She is somewhat less influential than Alustriel, in my opinion, even if I think she's a more interesting character than her sister. If there was one replacement I would make, this would be it, especially since the High Lady archetype overlaps with Queen Amlaruil's Elf Queen archetype.

The Sunmaster: Daelegoth Orndeir is basically a cult leader as fanatical as Sammaster after casting the Eternal Sun over Elversult, just with less dracolichdom and murder (maybe not by much, depending on who's at the receiving end). His influence is a bit limited in geography and theological scope (Amaunator is still a dead god or a Lathanderite heresy at best in the 3E era).

The Lord Who Watches: The Hidden Lord Gargauth represents the diabolical influence in the setting (replacing Asmodeus' role as given in the 4E Realms). This move magnifies his current status in the 3E Realms. As a demipower and former archdevil, he fits perfectly in that middle ground. However, we already have a LE Icon in the Black Network and their close association with Bane, we also already have a fiendish Icon in Eltab.

The outline given in the other Candlekeep thread linked earlier in this post provides good additional options (and more of them), some better tailored to certain games (especially regional ones or those looking for a direct 13th Age Icon match) than my outline here attempting broad setting-wide icons. 

* One more idea before concluding, take the malleable 13th Icon role (occupied by the Prince of Shadows in 13th Age, who doesn't make it onto the d12 Icon die) and make it swappable with any of a number of alternative Icons to cater a game to a specific region. Or keep it open to show the gradual shifts playing out across the complex relationship between the power groups. In this way, it's not the 13th Icon himself who is unknown, but the position of the 13th Icon that is ever fluid.


(Image Credits: Organization emblems (Waterdeep, Cormyr, Red Wizards, Harpers) from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, 2001; except the Zhentarim emblem, which was obtained from Candlekeep's archives and cropped from the original.)

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