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Saturday, March 29, 2014

#MtG's #Zendikar plane as a #13thAge setting! - Icons Brainstorming

It's proving extremely difficult to devise Icons that work in the standard 13th Age way for the Zendikar world.

A bit of background explanation is needed to understand why. Then I'm going to basically propose some "models" and see what you guys in the community think about this.

BACKGROUND: Why Zendikar lacks world-shaping NPCs.

First and foremost, we would be tempted to cut the matter short by stating that Zendikar has never meant to be role-played into. As all Magic: The Gathering worlds/planes, it's just meant to be a backdrop to battles that involve tapping the magical resources that are embedded into the world's lands (and this is also the focus of Zendikar compared to other MtG worlds), and havng creatures and spells summoned in this way.

But Zendikar has everything it needs to be at least a common D&D setting. It has dunegons, it has adventurers, it has sorts of guilds of adventurers, and it has all manner of artifacts and magical stuff, a strange unfolding prophecy and a culmination into an eldritch apocalypse involving three Chtulhu-like aberrant gods that will devour literally all reality unless they are stopped. (Oops, spoiler!)

So what it lacks is exactly the classical important NPCs/factions that the Dragon Empire of 13th Age has. Or doesn't it? It depends on the scale used to measure their possible equivalents in Zendikar

LARGE SCALE ICONS: Zendikar doesn't lack big players, but can they be Icons?

The three apocalypse-igniting alien gods trapped within the very earth of Zendikar are immensely powerful.

The triads of gods that the major religious races (Merfolk and Kor) have in their theologies, are just cargo-cult versions of the long-forgotten appearance of the three mentioned world-enders. That is, technically the "true gods" of Zendikar don't even exist: they are historians' failures in keeping the memories of those old terrors for what the truly were. BUT. But... There still are clerics of these gods that have powers. And there still is a connection between the true Eldrazi (the names of the alien elder gods) and the "theological illusion" gods. So two routes are possible here: either we consider the religons' gods as some kind of spiritual avatar of the imprisoned Eldrazi, maybe become so thanks to the mortals veneration, or we even think that while inspired from the Eldrazi in origin, these gods also became something "kind of real" as separate mystical entities.
In any case, we're still talking of distant entities, in all senses.

And that's the problem with the large-scale players of Zendikar: be them imprisoned, mystical avatars of the imprisoned that became somewhat stand-alone gods, or very abstract deities, they lack a lot of the characteristics required by icons.

First and foremost, it's not at all clear what would it mean for characters to have good or bad relationships with them. If we consider the humanoid gods as separated from the Eldrazi, they do have loose themes that could be associated with benefits of having their favor, but then the question is posed about how to gain their favor, where would these beings reside in the world (somewhat necessary for a standard 13th Age Icon), and who would be their Allies and Enemies.

Even worse comes out of the brainstorming if we think about the Eldrazi as icons. They are utterly alien minds, with no interest whatsoever for mortals except than as food, slaves, or both. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to have a truly Positive relationship with an Eldrazi. So even if the Eldrazi wouldn't lack Allies, Enemies, physical location and "killability", they would lack the very concept of Positive Relationship with the heroes, or even anti-heroes of Zendikar. Because ultimately, even those who have one-way Positive Relationships with them are only helping them devour the world quicker, so it's at the very least a Conflicted Relationship, due to the big conflict of interests, if you can call aiding your world's destroyer like that...

As a side-note, if we consider Planeswalkers as the only powerful enough mortals able to deal with the Eldrazi, and as such consider them also big players and thus Icons in Zendikar, the problem becomes  another one: Planeswalkers are not connected with Zendikar, with the exception of the elf Nissa Revane. And even in her case, they can come and go from Zendikar as they please. So even if Relationships could be much easier with them than with the gods or Eldrazi of Zendikar, and they are supposedly mortal although extremely powerful, they would lack Location and they would all but lack motivations to be truly involved in Zendikar, if not to plunder its treasures, which would put them in a conflict of interests with the Player Characters.

SO... Of the large scale players Zendikar has, only the "fake" gods, if made into not-so-fake ones, and Nissa Revane the planeswalker and to a lesser extent the three planeswalkers involved in the imprisoning of the Eldrazi millennia ago (with one of them missing altogther, one dead/undead, and one vampire and originary of another world), could potentially be Icons, and not even useful ones.

MEDIUM SCALE ICONS: Either organizations or magical entities. Can they be icons?

In my long brainstorming about what else could be icons in Zendikar, at the scale immediately lower after the gods and planeswalkers, came two very different things.

The first was the most obvious route for the icons in Zendikar: the Expeditionary Houses.
They basically are adventurers' guilds, and they don't even lack leaders that might be used as token personifications of the guild, if truly needed from a 13th Age system perspective (that is, being able to actually kill an Icon).

The problem with these organizations as icons, apart from the fact that 13th Age doesn't have such thing (but that's minor: we're making a different setting), is that they are too few, and especially not so differentiated one from the other.
They are localized more or less one per continent of Zendikar, with some exceptions, and apart from being in conflicted relationships among each other, they all have the same goals, the same methods. So what truly would be a problem with them as Icons, is that apart from "patriotism" for their homelands, not much else would motivate a player character to be affiliated with one of them or another. They're too similar, too much at the same level. But still, they at least have the minimum requirements for being Icons.
The Merfolk organizations fare a lot better, and are perhaps the only things that I would never discuss out of the "Icon pantheon" for Zendiakr: the religious Enclave, and the academical Lighthouse of Seagate are two organizations that, apart from a (solvable) lack of clear leader, would at least have interesting and differentiated goals, and are central to the "Zendikar life".

Perhaps even more interesting is the discussion of having the major magical forces of Zendikar as icons. Here we start to lack minimum requirements, but there are much more interesting differences between each other, possible outcomes of relationships with them, and pretty much everything else.

Things like The Roil itself, the geo-magical "gaia force" of Zendikar; The hedrons: the magical floating artifacts that dot the landscape of the world and are meant to imprison the Eldrazi, but end up being exploitable by them, the hypothetical "hive mind / spirit" of the Surrakar; the "ghost council" of the Mul Daya elves or the inferred one for the Kor; the mystical vapors or magical fire entity revered by the Lavastep Goblins, and connected perhaps with the Eldrazi, perhaps with demons; the Umbra: animal spirits that protect heroes that pledge themselves to the protection of Zendikar against the Eldrazi; the hypothetical ancient race that built a lot of the ruins from pre-Eldrazi or first-Eldrazi times (if they were not the vampires under Eldrazi domination)...

These are the mysterious entities that make the game interesting, but at the same time, it's hard to consider them Icons. Most of them are not killable, although they can be opposed. But the biggest problem as Icons that they have, is not much what would come from Positive or Negative Realtionships with them (that's actually among the Pros they have over other candidates), but HOW would you establish such realtionships. It would seem only random luck could make you favored by the Roil, for example, and only "blind studying" could make you able of get something positive out of the Hedrons. Things get simpler when thinking about the "spiritual entities behind races", but then a problem arises, one of the next "scale" of icons:

RACIAL SCALE ICONS: Would they be useful outside of their race's perspective?

While the ghosts of the Mul Daya, the Kor spirits, and the "empathetic hive mind" of the Surrakar might be quite detached from their race, and could very well have world-connected interests that make them... Interesting... When we look at the other "racial icons", such as the leaders of each elven nation, the strange leader/idol of the Tuktuk Goblins (Tuktuk himself, reborn as a magical golem..!), the bloodchiefs of the vampire families... What could the agendas of these powerful individuals be, if not just their personal interest and the survival of their bloodlines/nations/tribes?
The Tajuru are the only ones concerned with the world and other races. But if you consider Speaker Sutina an Icon, then why not considering also the Speaker of the Joraga.

These could be easy things to include in the Icon line-up, the problem is just how useful would they be. It would be a bit too bad if every Joraga elf had Positive relationship with the Joraga Speaker, every Ghet vampirs with his/her bloodchief Kalitas (in the pic), and so on. Too obvious.

SMALL SCALE ICONS: How many monsters and NPCs could be Icons?

Lorthos the Tidemaker would be a great icon representing the mysterious udnerwater world, in various degrees of conflict with the Merfolk icons, with its strange positive relationship with Sutina of the Tajuru, a surely present but hard to devise relationship with The Roil and maybe the hedrons, and why not even ties with the Eldrazi. Lorthos, a "simple monster" (the biggest non-Eldrazi, actually), as perhaps the most interesting icon discussed up to now. But that's not comforting!

Ob Nixilis, The Fallen (or just "The Fallen", to stay true to the 13th Age naming of Icons in general...) is an interesting, demonic, ex-planeswalking NPC/monster that could have a lot of influence, given the right importance and story-time. Sure, it's a villainous Icon, but still not a bad one to have.

Kazul, the Ogre Tyrant, is another quite classic icon, quite similar of course to the Orc King of 13th Age, although much smaller scale, as nearly everything in Zendikar due to the prevailing wilderness of the world.

Anowon, the Ruin Sage, an important vampire who slayed his own bloodchief and became an important player against the Expeditionary Houses.

The inferred church of Ondu, with its kor and human clerics apparently ascending to levels such as that of the Transcendent Master, and offering a possible degree of reality to the Eldrazi-inspired gods, just as the...

Angels of Zendikar, such as Iona, Shield of Emeria. Other possible proofs thats something divine and not world-dooming actually exists in Zendikar, although as angels go in MtG, they are basically spontaneously generated creatures, coming directly from the white mana that is the origin of Good concepts. It could even be implied that the good Eldrazi-inspired deities are actually "dummies" not much linked to the original Eldrazi, but to the angels. In the case of Ula the goddes of the deep, even to Lorthos. And in the case of Cosi the trickster, perhaps even to Ob Nixilis or who knows what. An interesting twist.

Omnath, Locus of Mana. A nice monster/NPC that could cover the most primal-druidic niche, and perhaps even something darker, since it's connected to the Soul Staircase.

Minor guys such as the Ondu Gamekeeper and Ondu Relic Hunter. Here we go really small-scale, with even the player characters very close to their power.

PLACES AS ICONS: Another very Zendikarian alternative...

Being Zendikar so focused on arcane locations, we could even rule that some of these locations count as icons.

Having a Positive Relationship with the Eye of Ugin, or the Khalni Heart (in the pic below), or the Ior Ruins, or the Ula Temple, or Jwhar the Island of Secrets, or the Kabira Crossroads, or Seagate, or Magosi the Waterveil, or the Crypt of Agadeem (in the above pic), and so on and on and on, would be an alternative to the chaos posed by the different scaes of Icons in Zendikar if considering either classic Icons (powerful NPCs), abstract or too-real deities (Eldrazi and Eldrazi-inspired gods), or various organizations. It's not even true that the locations wouldn't have a will of their own or the possibility of being killed, in Zendikar, since The Roil can literally erase locations, or make them alive.

A CONCLUSION: Focusing on a model, or everything goes..?

I'm tempted to say that since Icons are so problematic in Zendikar, the setting could follow an "open model", such that whatever the player might think suits the character, can be an Icon, if the relationship can be explained, can be changed over time, and can bring meaningful events into the game.

The alternative would be choosing to focus on locations as icons, organizations as icons, or monsters/NPCs as icons. And each of these focus would bring something good, and leaving something to be desired.

A hybrid model is also possible, in which not really everything goes, but each player should have one relationship with each type of Icon: a deity-level Icon, a location Icon, an organization Icon, and an individual Icon. Maybe with the latter two fused into one, since there are either powerful individuals, or organizations of not powerful ones. It would still leave a question mark over the "strange entity Icons" and the "Racial icons", but it doesn't seem to be a problem. The problem now seems to be making a true list with details for each Icon, and it surely won't happen right now. :)