Super Hero Role-Playing Games seem like a strange habit in my game purchases. Over the years, I’ve owned quite a few: Marvel Super Heroes being my original favorite. From there I’ve dabbled in Heroes Unlimited (which is now traded off, despite my love of Palladium), Mutants & Masterminds 1E (which I loved, and ran a short series of games for.) Never grew into the other editions or supplements; I felt satisfied with my original core rule book, which is currently in exile (I think I leant it to a friend?) I also own both Necessary Evil and Super Powers Companion for Savage Worlds….which I have yet to actually play. I think I wanted those more for the power mechanics to be re-skinned for non-supers type games (like overpowered sci-fi or kitchen sink settings.) I did recently purchase a hard copy of Hearts & Souls, which I used to have draft copies of and a preview PDF of. It has some cool elements to it, especially for playing a game like a comic book…. but, for my tastes, was a bit too “lite” and abstract for me. It’s not off the burner yet, though….
But the point I’m trying to drive home is I have a tendency to pick up Super Hero RPGs (and supplements for supers settings in other rules systems) yet hardly EVER run them. Last supers game I actually played was the M&M 1E game I ran in ’05….just to give an idea. I blame two things: One, super heroes or comic-book style seem to be an awkward genre to push for my regular gamers. Which is funny, since running 4E and even World of Darkness, I have a tendency to go into “cinematic” or “comic-book” style combat descriptions to keep things moving and feel exciting. So, really, I game in comic book format already. I just think a chunk of my gamers can’t seriously take the idea of spandex and capes for a long term game.
The other issue I have is simply finding the “right” RPG system: I believe super heroes and comic book style should have plenty of fun crunchy bits to feel awesome by, but not too many rules to where we have to pull out a calculator to figure out the physics of a 300 mph fight scene over The City, if you catch my drift. Mutants & Masterminds came very close…it was a fun adaptation of the d20 mechanics, had a lot of flexibility and really was easy to run. But the character creation felt a bit much….so much to take in and consider, spending points on your stats, skills and powers…..sometimes having too much choice and still needing to research what stat or power effects what can make it steep to pick up and play with newcomers. Which, since I’m usually 99% of the time the GM, that’s usually “always.”
Enter the Newcomer: ICONS
Okay ICONS has been out for a while now, but with Adamant Entertainment’s new “App Pricing” experiment (with all of their PDFs currently priced at $1.99) I figured it couldn’t hurt to break down and try this little game I’ve heard so much about. I’ve had an interest in it for a while, since it was written by the amigo that originally brought us Mutants & Masterminds, as sort of his version of a “rules lite”, fast-playing supers game. My thinking: If it has the flexibility of M&M, but can make character creation easier to pick up and faster to play, it should be pure win in my book. In theory.
I printed off the book (which was only 128 pages, 64 front and back in B&W barely put a dent in my ink catridge), gave it a few reads and then sat down with my fiancee’ and my roomate to test drive this puppy.
ICONS actually has two methods: a random character creation at default, and a point-buy system for those who actually want to design their own heroes or concepts. I’m a fan of having both…this means for instances like our playtest, the players can come in without a clue and slap together a functional hero. And if I decide to run something a bit more serious and long term, then we have the guidelines for everyone to design the characters they want to play. Character creation is explained step by step, with adequate tables to roll on using 2D6. I went first, just to get familiar with the process, and was surprised it only took me about 5-10 minutes my first time. The others were equally quick to walkthrough, the longest parts being looking up how specific powers worked. But everything from character origin, ability stats, number of powers (and the power choices) are handled randomly. You also have to roll for “specialties” (skills) but you get to choose them from a table, after powers have been picked. I thought that was a nice touch, since it allows you to tailor your character after seeing what all he or she is capable of.
One thing I noticed is this system seems to favor the “average” roll, even with stat generation. On 2d6, 7’s are the most common roll, and rolling a 7 gets you a 5 in a particular power or ability level. That’s not bad by any stretch, considering the scale caps off at 8 at character creation, but the scale for the whole game goes up to 10. Just an observation there.
Aspects & Determination:
An interesting concept in ICONS is the use of FATE-inspired Aspects. In this case, there’s two different kinds: Qualities and Challenges.
I think this is a concept that was a little easy to read over and not fully grok until it came game time and you see the game in action. The character creation guidelines require players to pick at least one Quality, at most 5, and optionally tack on Challenges. Qualities can be anything from catch phrases, motivators (such as love, justice, revenge, etc), personality quirks etc. Challenges, on the other hand, are personal phobias, disorders, bad habits, handicaps or anything that can hinder the hero in a situation.
They seem minor, but are actually pretty damn major in play. A lot of what drives ICONS is the use of Determination Points, which can be spent on anything from increasing chances of success on an action, “retconning” a scene in the character’s favor (essentially giving the player a chance to write in an element previously unknown to the scene), performing Stunts and even restoring Stamina (which is pretty much the “Hit Points” of the system.) The way the rules are set up to use these Determination points requires “Tagging” your Qualities to an action…for instance: When things look bleak and there’s no obvious way out of a burning building, your character may “tag” his catchphrase “Never Say Never!” to blow a Determination point to say he found a hidden elevator shaft for them to hop down and escape.
I bring this up, because my players took very simple qualities and challenges, and really only picked a couple each. It was kinda my fault, since at the time I didn’t fully understand how this would affect play, and I didn’t really adequately explain their use in the game. Knowing this now, though, I will say that I really do love the concept. I’m hoping next game these mechanics get more play.
As For the Rest of the Mechanics……..
The short one-shot I ran was still pretty damn fun. Shel rolled up a pretty impressive Aquatic hero, and Josh threw together an Android from outer space that could interface with machines like a telepath and infest people with his “Nanobot Virus.” The backstory I shoe horned them in was they were former Navy Intelligence Special-Ops, currently on vacation to “Habitat Island”…..a random tourist trap somewhere in the Pacific. While attending a beach side celebration….the Yacht of a wealthy weapons dealer was suddenly taken captive (in a very goofy, Cartoon Network-style cartoon way) by “Octobot” henchmen and the Beach was terrorized by Ninjas. Also, giant mechanical tentacles emerged from the water to grapple the yacht.
Combat is very quick paced in this game, with its use of abstract timing, spacing and pacing (huh huh, that rhymed.) Combat is broken up into “Pages” which is broken up by giving each participant a “Panel.” Heroes act first, then the villains respond. One interesting quirk of the game is that the GM never rolls dice here. This is different from how High Valor uses no GM rolls…..in HV, players declare their actions in response to their opponents, and failure generally meant success for the foes while success meant they accomplished their action. ICONS, on the other hand, is more of a trade back-and-forth. Players attempt to smack the foes around, roll against them, and either succeed or fail. Then, the foes strike back or retaliate, and the players roll vs. the opponents stats to dodge, disrupt or thwart their actions.
I actually enjoyed running combat with this system. It took a little practice, but a clever GM could have fun trading blows back and forth with their players this way. The best part is everything is done with the player’s involvement…having them roll for their actions, then their reactions, means combat isn’t just a case of watching the GM roll dice and telling the players how much damage they took. Even more fun is playing the opponents strengths against a player’s weakness (and vice versa.) When it’s clear that a foe is just too good for regular attacks, it’s time to get creative and start trying to thwart them using the surroundings or alternate tactics. When Dr. Adwater (Shel’s super aqua-marine) was dragging my main villain (Doctor Octagonapus, JR) under water by one of his plant-like tentacles (don’t ask….), I suddenly realized he had an equal Flying ability that put him on par with her swimming speed. He vaulted out of the water, flew to match velocity with her, and then attempted to use his grappled tentacles to instead attempt to choke her. It was a crazy trade off fight, that ended in a stalemate and Adwater having to break off and change her personal tactics.
One final note….I found the dice mechanic itself very interesting, especially since it can be played 2 different ways: The default method is “D6-D6”, meaning rolling 2D6 and one of them is a negative result. The alternative method is flat out 2D6-7. Either way, you get die results of +5 to -5, with 0 being the average. This added to an Ability or Power Level (with modifiers from Specialties where applicable) and then applied to the difficulty number of the challenge. Just matching the number is a success, but the higher the result spills over the higher degree of success (and being under is always a failure.) It may sound a little complicated, but it’s pretty straightforward and simple to pick up on.
For a $1.99, it’s a pretty damn sweet rpg to pick up. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite….but so far it’s leaving a good impression. It was easy to setup and run, character creation was quick, and the requirement of only 2D6 for the players makes it not only cheap accessory wise, but also keeps a low table-economy (which has become an important thing to me.) Next session I run I plan on putting more emphasis beforehand on players choosing Qualities, as well as playing off the player’s challenges. Also, I think I’m becoming a fan of systems where the GM hardly touches the dice and the players live and die by their own dice rolls.