September 12, 2014

Hex Crawling with Icons

I talked about hex crawls before.  Let’s take them up a notch by pumping them full of hooks using icons, an idea borrowed from 13th Age.  I'll discuss how to apply this technique in 5th edition D&D and in Pathfinder as well.

I was inspired by a conversation with a friend about hex crawling in 13th Age, and came to the realization that the bounded number of icons and icon relationships in that game could make for very tight story-focused hex crawls.  By story, I mean the story that develops out of the players’ characters’ actions, as usual.  I also realized that you could get the same result from any RPG (even outside the fantasy genre) by using a technique I talked about last week in my hooks article.

If you’re new to 13th Age, the key mechanic I’m going to reference here is the Icon Relationship.  Every character has three points worth of icon relationships – so they all have one to three relationships of one to three points worth of usefulness – with the thirteen icons in the game.  The icon relationship rules are pretty neat, but you don't need icon relationship rolls to use icons.

Icons are emperors, demigods, great dragons, and walking legends in the setting – not gods per se.  They have real influence over the world and actual plans and agendas.  They also have relationships with one another.  Check out the core 13 icons for inspiration.  I'll also be using them in the example at the end.

You can have Positive, Negative or Conflicted relationships with these icons.  Your relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be with the icon herself; you might just be wanted by the Crusader’s army for desertion, or a sworn deacon of the Priestess’ church.  But there are no limits – you could be the Emperor’s former mistress, or the Prince of Shadows’ twin brother.

Icon relationships are sown hooks.  Last week, I talked about sowing hooks by listing hooks that the players should take for their characters.  Icon relationships give you 39 hooks (three kinds of relationships times 13 icons) into 13 plots (the 13 icons).  If you create conflicts between the icons to drive the story, that condenses it further.  Say you have three conflicts among the icons, and all 13 are involved in at least one conflict.  Now you have just 3 plots with 39 possible connections into them, and every character will have between one and three of those connections.

What if you don’t play 13th Age?

The largest competitors to 13th Age are Pathfinder and 5th edition D&D.  If you play another fantasy RPG, it’s likely what I wrote for Pathfinder applies.

In Pathfinder, you’re going to need to use the sowing hooks idea from last week’s post.  But instead, list a set of factions and icon-style NPCs and ask each player to select between one and three of them and list what her character’s relationship to them is.  Either leave it at that, or reward good roleplay by granting a Hero Point at the end of any session in which the character brought their icon relationships into the story in a significant way.  See more about Hero Points in Pathfinder. 

5th edition D&D uses Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.  Players use these traits to guide their roleplay and in turn generate Inspiration.  So they’ll be happy when you ask them to add between one and three new Ideals, Bonds, or Flaws because that means it’ll be even easier to get Inspiration. 

First, create your icons.  Then ask them to write at least one extra Ideal, Bond, or Flaw that describes their relationship with one of the icons.  An ideal might be a goal to destroy an evil icon, or restore a good icon to its former glory.  A bond might be membership in a faction or a feeling of loyalty or fraternity with an icon.  A flaw might be enmity with an icon, or an irrational vengeance or hatred toward that icon’s supporters or minions.

Finally, Fate deserves some honorable mention here.  In a way, Fate already has a system for tagging locations and connecting those tags to the players' characters.  If you play Fate, you already have location aspects.  Just key the location aspects to the PCs' aspects that relate to iconic factions and NPCs in your game.  Use their aspects for awesome compels when they enter POIs that have location aspects that refer to their own aspects.  And remember to change the location aspects when the PCs take actions that change the point of interest (say, by clearing all the pirates and vampires out of a ruined temple and re-consecrating its altar).

Hex Crawling with Icons

In my original hex crawl article, I described putting Points of Interest (POIs) on a map with a hexagonal grid.  Using icons with a hex crawl, you also ascribe icon relationships to each POI.  In the example hex crawl in that post, there are some factions and NPCs, and we can apply the 13th Age icons in relationships with these sites.

As the PCs adventure through the map, they will take actions that will shift the icon relationships on the POIs.  For instance, if the PCs discover the pirate spy in the village and interrogate him, the village loses its Negative relationship to the Lich King.  If the PCs explain what they’ve done to the fishermen in the village, they might add a new icon relationship (such as Positive: Emperor if they work for the Emperor).

And when the PCs shift the icon relationships on the POIs, these interact with their own icon relationships.  Say the PCs capture the spy in the village.  This harms the Lich King’s agenda in the area.  If you’re using the D&D 5th Edition or Pathfinder rules, above, any PC with a negative relationship with the Lich King should get rewarded for doing this. 

If you’re playing 13th Age, it works almost in reverse.  If a PC rolls a 5 on her Negative Lich King relationship, she might feel obligated to kill the spy instead of leave the spy alone and feed him false information.  If she rolls a 6, she will get a benefit, such as when interrogating the spy, she will realize that the pirate king has been made into a vampire, from the spy’s description of the situation.

Icon Relationships for the Example POIs

Here are some ideas for 13th Age style icon relationships for the different example POIs (from my original Hex Crawl article):

Village and Wizard’s Tower
  • Positive: Archmage – The wizard who guarded this town was an apprentice of the Archmage
  • Negative: Lich King – They don’t know it, but the pirates have a spy in town, looking for any way to bring them down.

Ruined Riverfront Temple
  • Conflicted: Elf Queen – The Eladrin Lord led the pirate king here to make him a vampire, which would draw the wizard out of his tower and into the Eladrin’s trap.  But despite being given a band of river pirates to serve and feed him, the vampire lord here resents being used.
  • Positive: Lich King – The vampire lord here is loyal to the Lich King.
  • Negative: Priestess – This temple to the Gods was desecrated long ago by the vampire lord.

Abandoned Gold Mine
  • Negative: Dwarf King – This mine was lost to the Dwarf King’s people centuries ago, and was only recently re-opened and populated with lizardfolk.  The lizardfolk don’t want dwarves coming to reclaim it.
  • Negative: Elf Queen – The Eladrin lord has unleashed fey Displacer Beasts, which have taken over the lizardfolk’s hunting ground.

Ruined Coliseum
  • Positive: Elf Queen – The Displacer Beasts were brought here from the feywild by the Eladrin Lord.
  • Conflicted: High Druid – There is a portal to the feywild here that was created by druids.  They keyed the door to the Rowan Staff, which is now in the hands of the Eladrin Lord, who moved fey displacer beasts here to keep people away from the portal.
  • Conflicted: Crusader – A century ago, a Crusader build coliseums in populated areas.  The new Crusader seeks to return them to their glory and re-establish gladiatorial bloodsport and slavery.

Mysterious Palace
  • Positive: Elf Queen – The Elf Queen’s Unseelie Eladrin Lord caused the mysterious palace to manifest here out of the feywild so that he could take over the valley.
  • Negative: Archmage – The wizard’s familiar, a wily cat, has hidden here and might give the PCs clues for how to get through and reclaim the Rowan Staff.  The cat, the familiar of an apprentice of the archmage, despises the Eladrin lord for killing her master.