Mechanics: Relationship Rolls Revisited
The 13th Age icon relationship system is one I feel has a lot of potential, but is really too vague to be of significant use to a long term, non-improvised campaign. I’m not the only one to feel this way, but I think I can come up with something a little more in the spirit of the thing than just changing it to work with d20s.
It forces plot points, but not in a way I really feel merits a roll. Surely just stating “I know these guys, they’ll help me out – I have a +2 relationship” would be enough? Not so because 2/3 of the time per dice nothing happens. Those guys forget who you are or aren’t in a position to do anything, in which case it’s a waste of everyone’s time. In addition, there’s not a whole lot of information on what exactly a conflicted relationship gets you? Does it just mean it can go either way? Why is there no way to determine which way it goes? Why am I asking you when I’m writing this with the intent to come up with my own solutions? Hell if I know, let’s get to it!
Part 1 – What are Icon Rolls?
When you invoke an icon and tell the group why that relationship is going to help you, it should. Assuming you haven’t said something stupid (in which case it’s probably not going to work anyway) you should be met with some result instead of none. Something I greatly respect about the philosophy of 13th Age is the “failing forward” attitude – where a failure shouldn’t just be a dead end. It’s odd then that for some reason there’s really no guidelines on how to apply that to icons, so my solution is – every result is a success, but the number you roll determines complications.
On a general level, positive relationships will get you bonuses, insight or support form the icon or their allies, negative relationships will get you bonuses, insight and support from the icon’s enemies, conflicted relationships could have the potential to get you both. These relationships connect you and your party to the world, and allow you to achieve goals you could not normally achieve through skill alone. The idea behind them is solid and doesn’t need changing, what’s lacking is the execution. So let’s start by seeing what we can do with the rolls first – we’ll deal with the consequences later.
Part 2 – When to Roll and Why
Relationships give you two types of resources – a ‘potential success’ or a ‘banked success’. A potential success is awarded upon an extended rest or a full heal up, and may be rolled at any time during the game – it’s less frequent than “roll at the start of each session” but to be fair you’re getting better results so hear me out. A potential success represents the opportunity to roll your die in order to ‘bank’ the result. Any successes you’ve banked can then be spent during the session at an appropriate time. Usually you just roll for a success, but my version is a bit different:
Option 1: Standard Roll
Bank a potential success.
When invoking a connection with an icon, you roll a certain number of d6es equal to your relationship roll. So far so standard, but the difference her is that the number on the d6 corresponds to the kind of success you can get. The advantage of multiple rolls is not that you get multiple successes, instead you may choose which roll to go with when you spend it, so a high relationship with one gets you lots of options, a low relationship not so much. For example, you may roll a 3 and a 4. When you cash in that success you may choose which number you use. This is in keeping with the idea that icon relationships are about utility, not strength. So you don’t get more successes, you get the ability to choose how you succeed.
Note that it may be simpler for players to decide on a number to keep ahead of time, or they may get a 6 so why take any of the other numbers? That’s totally fine – just ignore the other possibilities and bank the one you want.
Option 2: Combining Rolls
Spend a potential success to pool your relationships with the same icon.
If multiple players have the same kind of relationship with the same icon (ie, both are positive) they can add their die together (up to a maximum of 3 at any one time or 4 at epic tier) and each contributing player one may use any of the results. Each player spending a potential success may contribute any number of their own die to the pool, so long as the total does not exceed 3 (or again, 4 at epic tier).
Option 3: Altering Rolls
Spend a potential success to make another player’s dissimilar relationship with the same icon closer to your own.
A player may spend a potential success to allow another player to alter the nature of their icon relationship in the direction of their own. So a player with a positive relationship may spend a potential success to turn another player’s negative relationship to conflicted, or a conflicted roll to positive. A conflicted roll may make any other relationship conflicted, while a negative relationship may make a positive one conflicted or a conflicted one negative.
Option 4: Favoured Enemies
Spend a potential success to make an inverse, weakened roll with an opposing icon.
If you have two or more points in a single icon, you probably associate with them well enough to know something about their enemies. Subtract one from your relationship, and invert it’s nature (positive becomes negative and vice versa, conflicted stays the same), then make the resulting roll with one of that icon’s enemies. So a rank 2 positive roll becomes a rank 1 negative roll with someone the icon has a negative relationship with. Conflicted relationships may simply subtract 1 and roll as normal.
Part 3 – The Rolls Themselves
So you’ve managed to bank a success, what does that number get you? Well that depends on the kind of relationship you rolled. Things are straightforward for a positive or negative roll, not so much for a conflicted one. Often, rolls have other consequences associated with them. Any time you cash in a roll, you need to be prepared for the stated consequences, even if you’re just using it to help someone with their roll.
Positive rolls are about aid and support – they should get you allies, but might cost you to do so.
- Limited Success – Your relationship with the icon can not solve your problem, but it can help. This will get you a cut down version of what you wanted to happen.
- Split Success – Your relationship alone cannot solve your problem, you’ll need the aid of another, allied icon to do so. This means you or one of your party members needs to spend a banked success with one of the icon’s allies to get a full result, or you’ll just get a Limited Success.
- Costly Success – Your relationship came through for you, but there’s a short term price attached.
- Fateful Success – Your relationship came through for you, but one of these days you’ll have to pay up.
- Straightforward Success – Your relationship got the job done! Congrats!
- Overwhelming Success – You didn’t just succeed, you got something extra – a bonus to your success. This kind of success grants you more than you asked for. It may not be much, but even the goodwill of an icon goes a long way. Think of it like a success plus an additional limited success.
Negative rolls are about conflict and spite – they should help you deal with the icon, but might cause retaliation.
- Limited Success – Your relationship isn’t helping as much as you hoped. This will get you a cut down version of what you wanted to happen.
- Assisted Success – Your relationship alone cannot solve your problem, you’ll need to enlist another of the icon’s enemies to get what you want. This means you or one of your party members needs to spend a banked success with one of the icon’s enemies to get a full result, or you’ll just get a Limited Success.
- Alarming Success – Your relationship served you well, but the icon’s forces will redouble their efforts to stop you.
- Infuriating Success – Your relationship came through for you, but the icon won’t forget this. They might not strike back today, or the next day, but they’ve got it in for you.
- Straightforward Success – Your relationship got the job done! Congrats!
- Profitable Success – You didn’t just succeed, you got wind of something extra – a new opportunity to profit off your foe. This kind of success grants you the opportunity to get something special during the process of screwing over your foes. It might take some extra effort but the satisfaction alone will almost certainly be worth it. Think of it like a success with the opportunity to get a second success later – a bigger reward than an overwhelming success, but with a bit more effort.
Why did I leave conflicted for last? Well conflicted is a wildcard. You don’t just roll a conflicted relationship – it’s too unpredictable for that. Instead you flip a coin first. If it lands on heads, you get a positive result, tales gets you a negative result. You proceed to roll the relationship as normal, and take whatever you get. Conflicted relationships should be unpredictable, but offer up a greater variety of rewards for the more adventurous players.
Part 4 – The Results
This is all well and good but what does this stuff get you? Why would you need to roll an icon result? Well ultimately you can spend relationships wherever you think it’s appropriate in the story, this is often like giving players an envelope full of money, dropping them in a mall and telling them to buy something without opening it. Successes don’t have to be rewarded immediately, and often the icons work through intermediaries, who might be alerted by the players attempts. Ideally, some successes will get help more quickly, but even the complicated ones can be efficient, provided the drawbacks are equally swift. Also note: You don’t ever have to show your hand – the player can cash in a relationship, but if there’s a complication the result might not be immediately obvious. Sure the players know what to expect, but especially with long term consequences, the suspense is in not knowing when to expect it.
If you’re still confused as to what you want your roll to mean, feel free to roll 1d6 to determine exactly what kind of favour you got.
So here are some suggestions for what to spend your banked successes on:
Option 1: Success through experience
You may spend a banked success to reroll a d20 once for each point you have in a relationship, and then take the highest number.
I actually do like Adam Dray’s solution and encourage you to read more about it on his blog. This is fairly self explanatory, the key difference being that here, the consequences are tied to the d6 roll, not the d20 roll. On an overwhelming success you may want to roll another d20, while you might want to roll one fewer on a limited success. If this means you aren’t rolling any extra, give the person the opportunity to take 10 even on a roll they couldn’t normally do that on. Feel free to use this in combat against a named foe for for that climactic finishing blow!
Option 2: Success through equipment
Your connections came through, giving you an icon-appropriate item of equal to or lower than your level.
An overwhelming success might get you something slightly better or more than one of whatever you need. You aren’t going to get super special magic items like this, but extra health potions, adventuring gear, weapons or armour are fair game. Stuff that fits thematically for your icon might be of better quality than generic items. If you cash this in upon arriving at a new area, feel free to throw in a “by the way, I ran into some friendly faces/loyalist scum who gave me this item when I had a friendly conversation with them/pried it from their cold dead limbs”. Use whichever applies.
Option 3: Success through aid
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know – you’ve managed to get a shortcut or a distraction necessary for your quest out of one of the icon’s followers.
This is pretty simple – sometimes it’s dangerous to go in unprepared, but if you know a guy (or gal) who can help out, they can pave the way for you, either metaphorically or otherwise. Again, bludgeoning the important information out of a hapless stooge is a perfectly acceptable way to use a negative relationship. This can range from opening a door to paying off a guard – anything a specific person can do to aid you.
Option 4: Success through favour
It’s a one in a million shot and it’d be great for someone to tip the odds in your favour.
All the icons are powerful, and even the ones who aren’t inherently magical have access to it. As such, you might find yourself blessed by someone who has taken an interest in you. The icons need adventurers to succeed to further their own agendas and they’re not totally above giving them an intangible benefit to do so. You’re not going to get this from a negative relationship, but the right distraction might cause them to turn their eyes away from their own forces, cutting off their support and making them easier to deal with.
Option 5: Success through wisdom
The difference between a fortune cookie and an actual prophecy, is one of them is a cookie, the other is useful.
Sometimes, the best gift is that of words, not deeds – a flash of inspiration making sense of an old cryptic rhyme, or a dream providing meaning to a confusing sequence of events could be the difference between a hero prevailing and floundering around in the dark for several days, hopelessly lost. Luckily, the icons tend to run ancient, expansive orders with eyes everywhere, so chances are someone is going to know someone who has something to contribute.
Option 6: Success through information
Knowing is half the battle and a luxury adventurers are rarely afforded.
Rather than solicit the ongoing aid of an icon’s agent, you call in a one off favour for a piece of information. This can range from a map, guard schedules, the combination to a safe – a piece of vital information that can make your quest that much easier. This is rarely going to provide you an outright advantage the way a shortcut would, but instead offers up various opportunities for a player that likes to plan ahead.
Part 5 – Summary
Ideally this system should flesh out the icon relationships for both players and GMs. With this, players know ahead of time the kind of results they have to expect, the advantages they can get, and can try to plan accordingly, while GMs know the tools at their disposal and can try to anticipate the results. While the rules-light nature of 13th Age is one of its biggest strengths, having suggestions like this should be able to keep the game flowing for less experienced players, or those less comfortable with improvisation. The mechanics allowing rolls to affect one another or pool together are designed to encourage players to work together as a group, help them establish shared histories and generally turn the relationships into a more useful, reliable tool in their arsenal. In doing so I’ve had to ration the points more than usual, but it fits that not every adventure will have every icon so consistently involved at all times, so I think this is a more natural way of doing things. In a campaign that’s high on improv and deals with multiple icons on a regular basis, the GM might be happier to award them more often – indeed doing favours for an icon should be a viable way of recharging your potential successes, but this should still alleviate the problem of 2/3 failures that can make icon rolls disappointing in the main game.