1. Beer & Pretzels superhero role-playing
I don’t mean that this is a game about Beer & Pretzels in the same way that D&D is about Dungeons & Dragons (though that would be kinda cool. Weird, but cool). ICONS is an RPG you can pick up and be playing in under an hour, though also has a surprising amount of lasting depth when you look under the hood. This is a lite game with drop dead simple core rules that uses only the humble d6 throughout – perfect for those times you left your best dice at home. Prep-time is minimal (create villain, dream up situation, ready to play) meaning it’s an ideal pickup game when you’re a player short in your main campaign too.
I can see this being the first Superhero game many role-players of other genres (I’m looking at you, diehard D&D’ers) play, and it’s solid enough to remain as system of choice. Folks, you’ve not lived until you have said “I pick up the train and hit him with it” with a straight face. You need this.
2. The players roll all the dice
This is one element of the game I, as GM, 100% approve – the players roll all the dice. This leaves me free to concentrate on the story while the heroes’ fates are (literally) in the hands of their owners.
It’s a simple enough concept – the dice always remain at the players’ side of the table. If they attack a villain, they roll to hit. If the villain attacks the heroes, the players roll to defend. That might take a little getting used to if you’re accustomed to everyone using the same rules, but in play it really does speed things up around the table. I like.
The system has a choice of two (mathematically equal) dice mechanics. Either use 2 differently coloured d6s, one for positive, one negative. Roll them both and take one away from the other. Alternatively (and the option we picked), just roll 2d6-7. Either way you end up with a number from -5 to +5 along a bell curve. Apply that to relevant stat, power or whatever to get a result. If it’s equal or higher than the target value, the difference is how much you succeed by (0-2 is a Moderate success, etc). As dice mechanics go, it’s simple, intuitive, and darned fast in play.
3. Random Generation
I know I keep banging on about it, but Random Character Generation rocks. Whilst ICONS does have an optional points-based system as a kind of grumbling afterthought, it’s the random system which truly shines. It brings back hot summer childhood memories of rolling characters up (first in Golden Heroes, later in Marvel RPG) and trying to work out how the heck a character with Burrowing, Shrinking and Telepathy could hang together (introducing Mind Worm, the brain eating superhero!).
Like all the best random character generation engines, ICONS isn’t truly 100% random. Many powers have an optional Bonus Power which takes up one of the hero’s available powers slots but helps give a degree of consistency to the hero. For example, a hero who rolls Stretching could take Invulnerability as well to represent the elasticity of their form. My one complaint is that “Bonus Power” is a misnomer – it’s not a bonus at all as it uses up one of the rolled Power slots. Something like “Optional Power” or “Power Choice” would have been a better term, imho.
4. Determination points
These are ICONS’ answer to Hero or Action Points. They are gained when a role-playing Aspect of your character (your catchphrase, motivation, etc) comes into play, the GM triggers one of your Challenges (your arch enemy, love interest, weakness, etc), for making the GM laugh out loud, etc. In M&M, the game plays at it’s best when the Hero Points fly thick and fast across the table and ICONS is just the same.
As with Mutants & Masterminds, these points can be used in many ways – improving the degree of success on an important roll (Do you stop the train? Be Determined and you do!), pulling off Stunts, shaking off damage and even influencing the story by Retconning in details. For example, a hero could spend a Determination point for there to “just happen” to be a passing sand truck to catch his fall as he plummets to certain death.
Somewhat cunningly, Determination is also a balancing factor in the Character Generation. Those heroes unlucky enough to roll few Powers begin each session with more starting Determination points – meaning what they lack in cool flashy abilities they gain in the ability to really shake things up in-game. Batman, anyone?
5. Team Creation
Generation doesn’t stop when the characters are rolled. It’s Team time! Every superhero team needs a name, home-base and unique set of Challenges (a team-wide group of enemies, in-fighting, government meddling, etc). Spandex uniforms are optional. Each member of the team contributes one point of Determination into a pool, and the GM adds another just because being in a team is a Good Thing. If one of the heroes has the Leadership speciality that also adds more points to the pool. For example, a team such as the Fantastic Four could have a Determination Pool of 8 (assuming Reed Richards has Leadership 3).
These points can be used by any member of the team provided the other players approve of their use. One interesting option is for the group to spend them to gain access to kewl Team Stuff such as the team’s Hydrojet, secret Satellite HQ and the like.
6. Named Levels
These are optional but what ex-Marvel RPG gamer can’t weep for joy at being able to write Strength (Amazing) on your character sheet once more? Each rank from 1 to 10 has three optional names (for example Rank 7 is “Fantastic, Incredible, Wonderful”) which can be used to describe the attribute. The attributes fall into three bands: 1-2 is below human average, 3-6 in human attainable and 7-10 is superhuman. It’s not incredibly granular but perfect for the lighter gaming experience. ICONS isn’t about deciding whether Superman or Captain Marvel is strongest – we have M&M and the upcoming DC Universe RPG for that – but about getting down and playing the game. Named levels help get a rough idea of where existing superheroes sit on the scale though. Rank 8 is Amazing for a reason – Spiderman, I’m looking at you.
This has absolutely no mechanical benefit whatsoever. And I love it.
7. One book gaming
Yet again, it’s a single book (ok, PDF. For now.) containing all you need to play. There’s no DMG or Monster Manual to add on the expense; it’s all right here. While the PDF is 129 pages long it feels much shorter, and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a quick, easy rule system to read through in one sitting. It even manages to include a generous selection of ready-made Villains (my favourite is the Octofather) complete with a selection of adventure ideas for each. Add in stats for Thugs, Ninjas, Zombies, Innocent Bystanders, Animals, Dinosaurs and much more, and you’ve got hundreds (if not thousands) of hours-worth of gaming goodness, right there. Not bad at all, I’d say.
8. Random Adventure Creator
Oh I love these, and there’s one ready and waiting on page 90 of ICONS. Roll 1d6 four times to get a verb-noun pair, pick a Villain and you’re ready to play. For example, a roll of 1, 6, 4, 1 gives us “Destroy Artefact”. I’d pick Baron Kriminel for this one. He has discovered that the original Baron isn’t dead but has his soul stored in a stone jar concealed somewhere in Hope City. Can the heroes find it before he smashes it, releasing his terrible twisted mentor on the world?
9. It’s written by Steve Kenson
Him wot wrote the bloody brilliant Mutants & Masterminds. Yes, him. This is Steve’s lighter, less crunchy superhero option (Lower carbs! Great taste!) – perfect for those folks who feel that M&M is too rules heavy for them, or just want to dip their toe into the superhero gaming genre for the first time.
Need I say more?
Oh yes, I almost forgot….
10. The price
$29.99 is, I feel, a little steep for a PDF product, even one as great as this. For thirty bucks I want to know a tree has suffered, dammit! Happily though, right now ICONS is half-price – just $14.95 gets you all this gamery goodness. Grab it before it’s too late!
This wulf approves. 9/10.
UPDATE: ICONS is now only two dollars! You really have no excuse not to buy and play this mini-marvel of a role-playing game. Go get it!