Have you ever noticed that having one really beautiful set of mechanics next to another really beautiful set of mechanics leads to lots and lots of friction and unforeseen attraction between them? It’s like the set of a CW show up in this Pelgrane design space, sometimes.
Here’s how to take the wonderful Relationship rules from 13th Age (pp. 35-37, 179-183) and use them to add still more behind-the-scenes action and maneuvering to your Night’s Black Agents game.
At the beginning of the game, each player may spend up to 3 build points (total) on Relationships with … not Icons, exactly, but mighty powers with their own agenda and overweening ego. You know, like the CIA. The Relationships need to be with entities capable of operating at a distance most places in the world, and capable of low-profile, high-power maneuvering: intelligence agencies, multinationals, major NGOs, the Vatican, non-vampire conspiracies, etc. (All right, Icons it is.) All Icons are Ambiguous or Villainous, except in Stakes-mode games, where agencies of the good guys (defined however) can be Heroic. Likewise, the game group’s politics likely determines which are which.
You can put all 3 points in one Relationship, split them up, whatever. (In Mirror mode, you can save them to be “revealed” later.) You then characterize each Relationship, as in 13th Age, as Positive, Conflicted, or Negative. So you might have: CIA (Positive) 1, Mossad (Negative) 1, Royal Dutch Shell Oil 1 (Conflicted). This doesn’t outweigh your Network contacts (or any other spends) with individuals in those agencies; this is a “default” based on your dossier, past, and general rep with the Icon. But a Positive agency asset NPC might be open to Reassurance in a way a Negative agency operator wouldn’t.
Relationship build points come out of the General build point pool.
In Burn-mode games, no Icon Relationship can be Positive.
In Mirror-mode games, starting with a Positive Relationship gives that Icon 2 Trust points from your agent. Each time you get a 6 on a Relationship roll for that Icon, it gets 1 more Trust point from you.
Just like in 13th Age, at the beginning of each session (or if the Director suspects this will introduce too much chaos, at the beginning of each operation), roll one die per Relationship point. 6s and 5s are just like it says in 13th Age: positive boons from the Relationship, or favors with strings very much attached.
However, in the darker world of espionage, you also need to look at 1s. Those mean someone will screw you over — maybe send a wet-worker after you, maybe just rat you out to the locals and raise your Heat (by +1 per 1 rolled), maybe anything the Director’s cruel heart can surmise. And yes, the Director can absolutely save up those 1s for a less propitious time. Who, exactly, is gunning for you depends on your Relationship: If it’s Negative, it’s the Icon or one of its cut-outs; if Conflicted, it might just be extra Heat or unwanted interference; if it’s Positive, it’s not the Icon but its enemies who are griefing you — your CIA (Positive) earns you the enmity of the Chinese MSS or al-Qaeda. (And vice-versa for 6s from Negative Relationships, of course.)
If your Relationship is part of (or has been infiltrated by) the Conspiracy — if, in our example above, Shell Oil is vampire-riddled — that should get some story juice (blood) flowing for sure. Clever players may even be able to guess at such vampiric subversion when a few too many of their Shell favors come with a side of Renfield attacks.
You can also spend Relationship points as a dedicated Investigative ability pool for finding things out involving that Icon. You can also spend 1 Relationship pool point to get a +2 on a related General test; e.g., spending 1 pool point of FSB for +2 on an Infiltration test to break into an FSB facility, or on a Surveillance test to shed FSB watchers. Relationship pool points refresh like Investigative pool points, at the end of an operation.
You can also spend Relationship pool points (1 for only +1) on Network contact tests if the contact is either part of that Icon or actively opposing the Icon in that test.
Relationship rolls are based on ratings, not pools, so “spending yourself invisible” is impossible.
While at Heat 6+ your Relationship automatically shifts to Conflicted or stays Negative; it shifts back one session after the Heat dies back down.
The Director may also shift your Relationship negatively if she senses you’ve abused it too much; conversely, she may just have the Icon demand a favor right now at the most inconvenient possible time in order to “balance the books.”
If you are the sort of teacher’s pet agents who go around doing favors for globally powerful entities (or if in a Stakes-mode game you do something unimpeachably heroic) you might be able to shift a Relationship from Conflicted to Positive. Only in the sunniest possible game can you shift a Negative Relationship to Conflicted, much less to Positive.
The Dragon Empire – Through A Mirror, Darkly
by Aaron Roudabush
The Dragon Empire, bitterly cold and dangerous from border to border — whether in the depths of the wilds or the heart of a city — is as cruel, unfriendly land. The people here have long been oppressed and controlled by a line of power-hungry Emperors and their allies: the twisted, mad Archmage, the cruel and powerful Orc Lord and the dangerously zealous Priestess. The common people have little real freedom and live in fear of powerful nobles, fanatical priests, magical disasters, and bloodthirsty monsters. The ages-old protector of this land, the Great Gold Wyrm, has lost all hope of saving it and now seeks to destroy the world before demonic forces can claim it for themselves.
Still, there are rays of light in the darkness. The Crusader leads armies of rebels against the tyranny of the Emperor. The Elf Queen fights a guerrilla war to weaken and defeat the Orc Lord. The Three counter the otherwise unstoppable destruction of the Great Gold Wyrm. Other Icons, in their own way, resist the Dragon Empire and fight to make the world a better place for all. But, despite their strength and determination, they will need help from heroes, both large and small, to claim their victories.
This mirror Dragon Empire is a variation of the default setting that can play with players’ and GMs’ expectations of the Icons and experience a different sort of relationship with them. They can be used all together, along with the brief overview up above, to change the whole setting or transplanted into a “regular” game to shake things up and keep the players guessing.
Power-mad and obsessed with the accumulation of arcane knowledge, The Archmage and his deranged experiments and followers sometimes threaten the Empire, the world — or even reality itself. But with magical strength rivaled only by Elf Queen, his allies reluctantly allow him to continue in his madness, so that in his rare moments of clarity they can take advantage of his abilities.
Insanity and obsession have not made the Archmage any less intelligent or cunning, although they have made him considerably more difficult to predict and counter. The followers of the Archmage often are little more than unwitting pawns in his schemes, but many still benefit from his vast knowledge, unscrupulous experimentation and twisted schemes.
At the heart of the military resistance to the Emperor is the Crusader, fighting to overthrow the tyrant and return freedom to all the lands of the Dragon Empire. From hidden bases he strikes at the Emperor’s strongholds and fights to weaken the allies of the Empire. Years of hard fighting and harder decisions have made him a hard man, but he knows that in the end, his goals are noble – and that even the greatest of sacrifices will ultimately be for the benefit of all.
The Crusader’s followers come from all walks of life: Betrayed nobility, impoverished peasants and fair-minded merchants. So long as they’re willing to take up against the Dragon Empire, the Crusader welcomes all into his ranks. Iron-hard and rough from their long battle against oppression, there is little room among the ranks of the Crusader’s follower for weakness, but they are as fiercely committed to one another they are to their goals.
The Diabolist plays a dangerous game, making deals and bargains to limit the number of devils who can gain entry into the world. Assuming the role of protector now that the Great Gold Wyrm has gone mad, The Diabolist seeks to trap those demons that do get into the world, and force them to work for more noble causes. The devils hate her for her cunning contracts and agreements, but her knowledge and influence make her almost impossible to ignore — either in this world or among hellish planes.
Those who follow the Diabolist don’t always live up to her noble intentions, however, and the world holds as many devils free to wreak havoc as there are those trapped into aiding the forces of good. But the Diabolist is secretive and plans many steps ahead, so who can say what is or isn’t a part of her plans?
Ostensibly a reluctant ally of the Emperor, The Dwarf King is, in reality, the chief supplier of weapons, armor, troops, and shelter to groups and individuals fighting against the Dragon Empire. He fears the Empire may decide mere trade and tribute are not enough and that, in time, the Empire’s forces may choose to conquer the Dwarf King’s territories and subjugate their sturdy inhabitants the way they did the Queen’s Woods and the elves. The Dwarf King would prefer to go it alone, but he knows that he needs allies until the world above his holds and mines can be stabilized.
The Dwarf King’s followers fully understand the precarious situation they find themselves in, but are as stubborn and unrelenting in their goals as he is. Magewrights, tradesmen, soldiers, lorekeepers, and more devote their efforts to the protection of their homes and livelihoods and, ultimately, the eventual defeat of the Dragon Empire.
The queen without a country, the Elf Queen fights a guerrilla war against the Orc Lord to drive him out of the Queen’s Woods and reclaim them for her people. She is aided in this task by the Dwarf King and the Crusader, as well as (sometimes contentiously) the High Druid. Her political skill is even greater than her incredible magical prowess, as it must be to unite the often argumentative factions of the Elven Court in Exile and placate the High Druid. Her savvy, as well as her immense magical talent, are a large part of what has kept the Court and her people safe since the Orc Lord, backed by the might of the Archmage and Emperor’s forces, took their lands.
The Elf Queen’s followers know they are up against the wall and looked at with suspicion across the Dragon Empire. To be associated with the Elf Queen and her court is to be thought a traitor. But all the arts of the elves, and their many allies among the other races, are bent toward the task of breaking the Empire and reclaiming their homeland.
An iron-fisted tyrant who controls the Dragon Empire, the Emperor keeps its people tightly controlled with his terrifying secret police, the allegiance of powerful nobility and his vast legions of well-trained soldiers. He keeps the populace content, or at least distracted, with numerous arenas filled with bloodsport and other games. The current Emperor is young and, as of yet, relatively untested. The Dragon Empire retains the status quo, but none know if, or for how long, that will remain the case. Hot-headed and temperamental, the young Emperor may well push the empire headlong into even greater conflict than already rages within and without.
The Emperor’s followers believe in the stability and security of the Dragon Empire and are committed to keeping it that way. Traitors, rebels, and spies must be rooted out and destroyed for the good of all the people of the empire.
Great Gold Wyrm
Driven to madness from his long watch sealing the Abyss, the Great Gold Wyrm now seeks to destroy the world to prevent demons from ever gaining control of it. In his times of lucidity, he cultivates groups of bloody-minded paladins, fanatical warriors, and black-hearted assassins to remove all obstacles in his way. But in his times of madness, he seeks only to destroy the world with flame and claw. Wide swathes of countryside have been turned into barren glass from dragonfire and more than one town has suffered at the claws of the Great Gold Wyrm. Even the Dragon Empire rightly worries about what destruction may come next.
Many of the Great Gold Wyrm’s followers are as mad as he is, although some merely find the idea of complete destruction fitting with their nihilistic philosophies. The Wyrm’s cults are terrifying, dangerous and hunted by every other Icon, but not all followers are easily extinguished — and some are deliberately allowed to remain so that their madness and fanaticism can be manipulated to another Icon’s ends.
The High Druid fights tooth and nail (often literally) against the constant militaristic encroachment of the Dragon Empire and is reluctantly allied to a number of other Icons in order to fulfill her goal. Although the High Druid sometimes shelters the Elf Queen and her bands of rebels, the forces of nature often fight alone as her ultimate goals are not always the same as other Icons. However, with all the might of the natural world at her command, her forces rarely fight from a position of weakness. The Archmage, with his unnatural taming of the Midland Sea, is her greated and most hated foe.
The High Druid’s followers are often not as militant in their dislike for civilization as the High Druid herself, but frequently are put in a position where opposing unchecked expansion of the Dragon Empire is little different than opposing farms, roads, and towns. They must not only fight directly with bow and blade, but also must convince the citizens of the empire to work in harmony with nature. It’s not an easy task, but the High Druid and her people know it must be done.
Formerly the High King of the lands now controlled by The Emperor, this fallen monarch was killed and sealed away by the first Archmage over a prophecy that he would one day return to reclaim his throne. From the shadows of death, he and his followers plot to return the Lich King to life and fight to free the land from the usurpers. In his undead state, the Lich King can rarely extend his personal power beyond the Necropolis but his control over the unquiet dead gives him more influence than his opponents would like. After killing The White in life, his power now extends over white dragons, whether dead or alive, and the Dragon Empire fears their sight.
The Lich King’s followers are diverse and frequently at odds with one another. Some are dedicated advocates for the return of the High King and fight the Dragon Empire to break its power. Some are necromancers uninterested in political struggles. And then there are the thinking dead themselves, who have not lost sight of the goals and objectives they had in life. This disunity keeps the Lich King from being more effective, but his followers are generally accepting and protective of one another.
The Orc Lord, along with the Archmage and the Emperor, represents one third of the ruling triumvirate of power in the Dragon Empire. The first Orc Lord helped overthrow the Lich King, then went on to conquer the Queen’s Wood with the help of the Emperor and Archmage – a repayment for their use of his brutish armies. In this, the 13th Age, the current Orc Lord still lives for the thrill of battle, the scent of burning buildings in the air and the taste of blood on his lips. The Emperor and the Archmage keep him reigned in and focused on rebels and traitors like the Crusader or the Elf Queen, but this may well be the Age when the Orc Lord breaks free or their control and finally crushes civilization as we know it beneath his feet.
The Orc Lord’s followers are tolerated, but not exactly liked, within the Dragon Empire. Outside the bounds of the empire, they are even less liked for their tendency towards violence and plunder. Not all the Orc Lord’s followers are mindless berserkers, but outside of a few clans and tribes, honor and intelligence are scorned as weaknesses.
A fierce zealot and firebrand of the gods, the Priestess demands worship, sacrifice, and obedience upon pain of death (or things worse than death). Her aims are supported by the Emperor since they frequently target those who would fight against the injustices in the empire, and in return her sermons and holy texts tell the masses that the Dragon Empire is divinely supported. She constantly seeks out heretics, pagans, and the godless to return them to the fold with blood and fire. The gods, if they exist, that the Priestess represents care not where or how the worship comes, so long that it comes regularly and in great numbers. The Priestess and her fanatical followers constantly ensure that the faithful do not falter in their divinely-given task.
Followers of the Priestess often have the zeal of the true believer and act accordingly. They fight against blasphemy, heresy, and apathy within the Empire and fight to spread the word to the godless outside the Empire. Outside of the circles of fervent believers, the Priestesses followers are often disliked or even hated, but few would say such things out loud where they might be overheard.
Prince of Shadows
The Prince of Shadows is folk hero and symbol of rebellion and freedom within the Dragon Empire. He opposes — and steals from — the rich and the powerful to embarrass them and spread their wealth to others less fortunate. He is a constant thorn in the side of the Emperor and his allies, but rarely acts in conjunction for long other Icons. Or at least, that’s how he presents himself — if the Prince is a he at all. Or even a person. Few know the truth of the Prince of Shadows, and there are as many rumors about his true nature as there are heists, exploits, and assassinations attributed to him. The Prince of Shadows may not exist at all outside of a symbol for freedom … or maybe that’s just what he wants you to think.
The Prince of Shadows has been an inspiration for all the downtrodden peoples of the Dragon Empire, which often makes for strange bedfellows. Thieves and assassins work with idealists and rebels in the name of the Prince of Shadows. Robberies, assassinations, information gathering and more are their stock and trade. Not all the Prince’s followers oppose the Dragon Empire, but the tyranny of the empire frequently chafes the sort of freewheeling and independent sorts who are attracted to the Prince in the first place.
The Three are one of the few things that stand between the Great Gold Wyrm and the destruction of the world. The Red is one of the few beings that can match the Great Gold Wyrm in physical combat. The Blue pits his arcane might against the maddened gold dragon. The Black trains and uses mortal groups to counter the Great Gold’s own cults. As greater dragons, the Three rarely work with other creatures, even other Icons, but the danger that the Great Gold Wyrm represents has forced them to seek allies. The Green was captured and imprisoned long ago by The Emperor. The White turned traitor and was destroyed by the Lich King when he still ruled as the High King. Reluctantly, the Three sometimes work with the Diabolist and, when they find that their goals overlap, occasionally the Crusader, but would prefer to use their own mortal followers.
The Red has no followers. Or at least, none that he openly acknowledges. Those who associate with the Red do so from afar, emulating his devastating physical prowess in their fight against the fanatics of the Great Gold Wyrm. The Blue attracts followers of intelligence and arcane power, who learn draconic secrets in exchange for their service. The Black attracts those of more subtle persuasion, and these followers often serve as spies and assassins in the fight against the psychotic gold dragon.