I really liked the idea of 13th Age's Icons. For the ones who don't know, the idea is to have an array of more or less generic characters in the world, interrelated, to whose forces the player characters can have relationships with. You could be a survivor of an Orc Lord attack, a guard in the Archmage's city, a soldier in the Priestesses' one, a cultist of the Great Gold Wyrm...
Those relationships are described with a kind (among three, a relationship is either good, bad or conflicted) and a number, indicating how often it influences your live.
The core book also suggest other uses beside what icons have some interest in each session's play, but I miss a more particular hook into the stories. I mean, a history about a group of heroes fighting against the Orc Lord? Sure, go ahead, but if no character has any relationship with the Orc Lord, Elf Queen, Emperor or Dwarf King it may seem a bit far fetched. At least a bit more than if the characters have such relationship.
What if the first session of an adventure could determine the main icons of the story? Since I discovered Polti's arguments in the GM's survival guide they became a kind of exercise to me. A few stories in this blog are result of such. The thing is to select randomly one or two arguments, maybe a complication, and a style (The argument could be "Disaster", but the story is far different if the style is "Horror" or "Action") and try to get something out of that.
This suggestion means a lot more work to the GM, but it may be worthy. Instead of deciding beforehand who has which role in the story, you just select the argument and style. For instance, I randomly select a Mistery story, with clues, investigation, roleplaying... The argument is Involuntary Love Crime: there are two lovers, and one of them committed an infidelity against the other one, but as results of an error, drugs, a curse or something. Now let's say the icons rolled by your players are the Great Gold Wyrm (positive relationship), the Crusader (positive relationship) and the Elf Queen (conflicted relationship). Just so you know, I just rolled them too. You've got some clues to who the actors of the story are. Let's say that there's a female paladin of the Great Gold Wyrm and her husband is another paladin with a more sinister bent. He belongs to the same order, but it the last months he's been thinking that the Crusader's way of dealing with demons (namely, enslave them and using them against other demons) has its advantages. While he was away, she went with other paladins to share stories and toast to the absent comrades. Unbeknownst to them, one bottle was faerie magic wine, and the next morning the wife and her husband's best friend woke up together in bed. The discovery of the infidelity could be the final straw that pushes the husband to the more violent, more ethically arguably way of the Crusader, besides breaking a marriage, a friendship and weakening that order.
Who got the faerie wine? Was it an accident or an ambush? Were they the intended targets or otherwise? If the real targets were the head of the order and whoever woman he could find under the wine's intoxication, maybe the puppeteer will try again, and the PCs have two problems to solve.
What if the icons where Great Gold Wyrm (positive), Orc Lord (negative) and Emperor (conflictive)? Let's keep the paladin husband. He is tricked by a captain of the emperor legion, gotten drunk, and awakes in a brothel. The captain is secretly in love with his wife - something the wife can know about or otherwise - and he wanted to provoke the infidelity to get them to divorce and get a chance with her. Or maybe he just was jealous of the admiration the people was giving the paladin and wanted to show his moral weakness. Or maybe he wants to blackmail him. The result of all this could be that the captain has to leave the town with the forces under his command a few days before an orc horde attacks the town.
Of course this approach means more improvisation work, but the stories will always relate to a PC's icon. Actually there are chances of no icon influencing a particular story. There's 30% probability a particular PC's relationships don't matter, that makes it about 0.2% in a 5 players group of no icon involved. You'll have to design every adventure giving some thought to which icons could be in every place. If your group has their characters created already, that work simplifies because you only need to consider their icons.
If you can't get any ideas for a particular icon, check its Allies & Enemies section, looking for the simplest way to relate to the icons you got.
What if the Icon's morality depends on the player choices? The core book uses some guidelines to limit the value of PC's relationships with the icons, depending on what kind of icon the icon is (good, evil or something in between) You can let your players choose whatever relationships they want (except for the 2-point negative, that's for the players not to be so single-minded fighters against a particular icon's interests) and then use the relationships to shape the icons:
- Somebody has a 2-point negative relationship with an icon? That icon is not going to be "good"
- Somebody has a 3-point conflicted or 2/3-point positive relationship with an icon? That icon is not going to be evil.
What can result from that?
An ambiguous or evil archmage: Maybe he's more interested in magic than in the preservation of the empire. Maybe he's secretly interested in the Lich King's necromancy knowledge.
An ambiguous or evil Great Gold Wyrm: after so much time fighting restlessly hordes of demons, it could have grown to be more like the crusader in a destroy everyone, just in case, way, unbeknownst for or kept secret by his followers. Or maybe he was corrupted and his goals now are not avoiding demons to pour into the world, but conquered them and then pour them.
An ambiguous or evil Priestesses: Richelieu? Rodrigo Borgia?
An ambiguous or good Orc Lord: Maybe he's fighting for a place for his forces, for long time oppressed by the Empire legions. Maybe most the bad things and brutality they say about him is but Imperial propaganda.
An ambiguous or good Diabolist: The Diabolist could be the one keeping in check the devils. Everyone likes the golden scales of the Great Gold Wyrm and people has learned to relate horns and leathery wings with devils, so the popular opinion still is that she's evil, but she could be a selfless mage looking for a way to keep the world safe, even if that way means she's hated forever.
An ambiguous or good Lich King: For his point of view, the new emperor could be nothing more than an usurper of the throne. In the first age he fought against that time Orc Lord to defend life and civilization, so he could have been heroic. Maybe he used the lich-thing as a last resort method to keep fighting for his people, no matter how many soldiers died, he could raised them to keep the living from the horrors of the war. Maybe he was then betrayed by his sons, who shared out the authority over the people and became the new emperor, the new archmage and the first centralized head of all religions.
Icons need names and maybe other looks. From a generic point of view, the icons work great because they are the "slots" for a lot of characters, but any world needs more customization. Fading Suns's Emperor Alexius is an emperor, Sauron, the necromancer of the Hobbit or Arthas Menedil, are Lich Kings, any Pope or important cardinal of our world aspired to fill the Priestess slot. Elminster is an Archmage, Thror is a Dwarf King and Galadriel an Elf Queen.
I suggest that you decide on the icons names, gender and other traits like you did they're morality, guided by the PCs relationships. Ask the players who chose to relate with a particular icon about how that icon is (to help define its morality), how they see it (maybe they go for an Empress, the dwarven kingdom becomes a matriarchy led by a Queen and the Priestess becomes the Pope) and suggest names for them (keep it serious, thought)
And, of course, things could shift unexpectedly. Star Wars' emperor could be an Emperor or a Lich King, Darth Vader could be a Crusader, Yoda and the "live force" sounds like a Druid or an Archmage... Same roles, different morality, different relationships between them.
And every campaign you play will be more player bent, less generic-flavored and thus more personal for you and your group.