Friday, January 24, 2014

Tommy's Take on ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying

So I have reviewed a lot of ICONS products over the years (and you may have seen my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles posts)...but I've never reviewed ICONS. So, today, I'm going to change that.
The villains they are rushing at are on the
Villainomicon cover.

DISCLAIMER: This review has an affiliate link, and using it may provide me with compensation, generally via store credit at No review copy of this product was provided by the publisher.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: ICONS is Fate (by way of Marvel FASERIP)-inspired, rules-lite superhero RPG, designed by Steve "Mutants & Masterminds" Kenson. This review will cover the hardcopy of the rules, as I no longer actually have the PDF on my computer, losing it in a computer crash last year.

Originally published by Adamant Entertainment, but now by Ad Infinitum Adventures, ICONS burst on the scene with much anticipation a few years go, and has proven to be heavily supported by third party publishers, as well as first party support. The book retails for $30, and the PDF is currently available for $10. The book is full of "animated series"-style artwork by Dan Houser, which has definitely influenced the perception of ICONS (whether for good or ill depends varies by the individual).

The RPG is 128 pages, softcover and full color. It opens with a little explanation by Mr. Kenson, who does a nice job of explaining that he doesn't believe in "One True Game" and likes different games for different purposes (like a rules heavy game such as Mutants & Masterminds versus a rules lite game such as ICONS).

The Basics explains, er, the basics...such as how everything is ranked on a scale of 1-10 (including optional naming conventions, harkening back to Marvel FASERIP) and the dice mechanic (which is a d6-d6 mechanic, generating a spread that is similar - but not identical - to Fate Dice. Once you roll, you add the resulting number to an Ability or Power, and subtract the Difficulty, leaving the Outcome: Less than 0 is a failure, 0-2 is a Moderate Success, 3-4 a Major Success and 5+ a Massive Success.

The default ICONS character creation system is a random roll system (there IS a Point Buy alternative), again calling back to the Marvel FASERIP days. You can roll for Origin, with each one providing their own bonus: Trained, Transformed, Birthright, Gimmick, Artificial and Unearthly. Then you roll for your six Abilities (Prowess, Coordination, Strength, Intellect, Awareness and Willpower). Number of Powers comes next, and then Type. Again, the FASERIP influence is clear, as you have the main chart and sub charts. Alteration gives you powers like Alter Ego, (for your SHAZAM shouting folks), Growth and Shrinking (for your Ant Man folks) and Stretching (like Mr. Fantastic!). Telekinesis, Plant Control and the versatile Wizardry are found under Control Powers, while Immortality, Force Field and Life Support are all Defensive adaptations. Mental Powers include Telepathy, Illusions and Possession, with flight, Super-Speed and Wall Crawling under Movement. Blast and Strike are your "common" Offensive Powers, with Danger Sense, Precognition and Super Senses appearing in Sensory Powers. Some powers are built more versatile than others, and take up two of your Power slots.

Number of Specialities are determined next, and you can spend slots to make these Expert or Mastery level instead. Stamina is derived from Strength and Willpower, and Determination is figured by taking 6 and subtracting all powers, as well as any Ability above 6. You also select Fate-style, player defined Aspects, which can be used to apply Determination or attacked in order to gain more Determination.

Team Creation is possible, using Team Aspects, Team Resources and Team Determination.

The Specialities system is pretty straight forward, with each level adding +1 to a relevant test. The number of specialties is largely held in check as well, clocking in at less than 40, though some Specialties (like Weapons or Art) require additional narrowing of the choice.

Powers take up a good chunk of the book (and later their own book), with each power listing additional options if you have the Power Slots (like using Life Drain without touching a target or a character with Precognition taking Danger Sense as a Bonus Power instead of randomly rolling it, that sort of thing.

The Taking Action chapter is pretty much a catch-all of rules, from Slams and Stuns to recovering Stamina to Multiple Targets to rules for mooks. Each of the six abilities are even broken down, with a lot of common actions for each, like Noticing for Awareness or Evading for Prowess. There's even a set of guidelines for how to handle character death and what they return as (because superheroes never stay dead, silly).

The great equalizer for characters is Determination, with your less powerful characters generally having more Determination. This chapter actually tells you how to use Aspects, which are split into positive Qualities like Last of the Nova Corps, Blue Blazes!, The Human Rocket or connections like The New Warriors. You also need Challenges (though you can define many of these in play) like Arguing with The Worldmind or Afraid of Failure. Aspects are used to trigger Determination, which can be used to make small retcons, boost die rolls, recover lost Stamina, generate Stunts with your powers or even shift the Ability you are using for a Test.

The GM section has a lot of standard advice, but also includes different superhero team templates, covering entities like X-Factor, The Justice League and even the Defenders (when Strange, Surfer, Hulk and Namor couldn't get away from each other). A basic adventure structure is provided, as well as a random chart for generating your own (just two simple charts, generally a Verb-Noun combo like Attack Country or Ransom Loved One or Capture Enemy).

There's a small section of Villains, starting with guidelines for building your own (not just stats, but important elements), before providing full sheets from creatures like ConfederApe, The Octofather and the spiderous Recluse. A slew of stock characters are also provided, like Thugs, Police Officers and Cultists, as well as a wide range of animal stats.

An introductory adventure, The Wages of Sin, starts the PCs off in the middle of a fight between Recluse and The Troll, all while a more nefarious villain is working behind the scenes.

WHAT WORKS: Random character creation is FUN. The support for the game is outstanding, especially among third party publishers. It's a nice backdoor in for folks that want to understand Fate, but can't.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Poor organization. Character creation alone has a lot of flipping around, and that could have been alleviated by arranging everything better. Some of the actions and powers are only written from a Front Facing perspective (players rolling to act), leaving them a bit puzzling to suss out and walk backwards in order to figure out how to apply the effect when an NPC is attempting use the power or action against the PC.

CONCLUSION: I've ran ICONS once, for my son, and it didn't go very well. Combat didn't feel at all comic book-like, and the game fell flat, but I've since realized there were a number of factors involved, including him being a bit too young to "get" Aspects, and him needing a visual representative of where everyone was at, even if we weren't using "maps and minis", per se. I had soured on the game at the time, but have since come around to realizing that some of the flaws in our experience may not have been the fault of the game, and am looking forward to a chance to try it again (maybe even with my son, now that he's older).

ICONS has a ton of great support backing up a rules lite engine, it could just use some clarity in writing and organization (and given rumors of a second edition...). Not my first choice for a Supers game (in print or out of), but I definitely put it way ahead of the "crunchier" RPGs, like Mutants & Masterminds and Champions, feeling very much like it fits my style of play much better than they do. Definitely recommended if you are looking for a supers RPG that is both lighter than Mutants & Masterminds and very well supported.