The Plain People of Gaming: Iconic Poles

Robin Laws’ multi-award-winning Hillfolk is a great game in its own right, but its DramaSystem engine includes a toolkit for describing and dissecting characters that can be used in other games. One of these tools is the concept of dramatic poles.

To quote Robin: Driving any compelling dramatic character in
any story form is an internal contradiction. The character is torn between two opposed dramatic poles. Each pole suggests a choice of identities for the character, each at war with the other. Events in the story pull the character from one pole to the next. Were your character’s story to conclude, her final scenes would once and for all establish one of the identities as the dominant one… In many cases, you can conceive your dramatic poles as your desire, on one hand, and, on the other, the character trait that makes you least likely to attain it.”

In 13th Age, the player characters have relationships with one or more Icons – rulers and other powerful NPCs who shape the world from behind the scenes. As a relationship can be Positive, Negative or Conflicted, a well-designed Icon is always divided on some level. Even the most heroic Icon needs a little hint of darkness; even the vilest villain needs some redeeming quality. In the Dragon Empire setting, for example, the Lich King may be an undead tyrant who wants to conquer the lands of the living and restore his lost empire, but he still thinks of himself as the rightful ruler and has some sense of obligation towards his prospective ‘subjects’. The Priestess may be the mystic champion of all the Gods of Light, a shining vessel for their blazing kindness, but her overwhelming niceness might be hiding a secret agenda.

A well-designed Icon, therefore, is torn between two dramatic poles – usually, one that might draw the player characters to serve or support that Icon, and another that makes the Icon seem suspicious, dangerous or destructive. Evil Icons flip that around, so they’ve got one pole that makes them villainous and ghastly, and another that doesn’t redeem them, but makes them more nuanced and interesting than straight villains.

For the default Icons, I usually go with the pairs of poles below. Your own interpretations may differ, of course – and if you’re creating your own Icons, then you may find these helpful as inspiration.

Archmage: Benevolence versus Hubris – is the Archmage building a utopia, or a house of cards?

13th Age icon symbolsCrusader: Necessity versus Humanity – what does it profit a man to raze Hell to the ground, but still lose his soul?

Diabolist: Power versus Self-Interest – does the Diabolist have the courage of her convictions, or it all just a game?

Dwarf King: Tradition versus Friendship – can the dwarves move past the grudges and debts of their ancestors?

Elf Queen: High versus Wood versus Dark (yep, three poles) – which aspect of Elvendom holds sway?

Emperor: Law versus Truth – can the Emperor save the Empire from the intrigues and double-dealing of his courtiers and governors

Great Gold Wyrm: Heroism versus Sanity – mainly for the Wyrm’s followers, when does divine inspiration become indistinguishable from madness

High Druid: Nature versus Humanity (the concept that of Icon – and its followers – being pulled between elemental forces and humanity shows up a lot in my games).

Lich King: Death versus Obligation – what do the dead owe the living, and vice versa?

Orc Lord: Destruction versus Destiny – is the Orc Lord a disaster, or an opportunity?

Priestess: Divinity versus Humanity – can a mortal embody the gods and remind human?

Prince of Shadows: Anarchy versus Civilisation – what’s beneath the Prince’s mask?

The Three: Hunger versus Intrigue versus Malice (three poles again) – which head of the Three is dominant?

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