Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 21 May 2011

Super Fast, Super Light

The very first thing that you notice about ICONS – Superpowered Roleplaying is its cover. Published by Adamant Entertainment through Cubicle Seven, its depiction of the comic book stalwarts is cartoony and stylised, echoing more the animated work of Paul Dini than say, the realism of Alex Ross. This has drawn the book some criticism both because the artwork is not to everyone’s taste and the RPG is designed by Steve Kenson, who is better known for the more serious take upon the genre in the form of Green Ronin Publishing's Mutants & Masterminds and the more recent DC ADVENTURE Hero’s Handbook. The criticism is born of the fact that ICONS is not a “serious” take upon the genre, but a lighter, faster approach inspired by the same source as its artwork – Saturday morning cartoons. In RPG terms its faster, lighter mechanics and design feels reminiscent of 1980s stalwarts, TSR’s Marvel Superheroes and Games Workshop’s Golden Heroes (more recently made available by its author as Squadron UK), but are more up to date in that they are a variant of the FATE system that has been used in games as diverse as Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures: The Rock and Roll Space Opera Adventure Game to The Dresden Files and Diaspora.

The real “Old School” design element to ICONS is that players create their characters randomly, just as they did in Marvel Superheroes, Golden Heroes, and Villains & Vigilantes. A player not only rolls for his character’s Abilities (or attributes), but also his hero’s Origins, number of Powers and the actual Powers, and number of Specialities (or skills). He also needs roll the level of each of his Powers, which like his Abilities, are rated between one and ten, with three being human average, six being human maximum, and ten being on a cosmic scale. All this takes is two six-sided dice rolled a few times. From the Abilities and the Powers rolled and the Specialities selected, a player is free to create his hero’s background and identity. (A point-buy system is also included if a player does not want to roll for his Powers, but that is the blander option.)

In addition, a player is also free to choose up to ten Aspects that define who the hero is, split between five Qualities and five Challenges. The former are positive descriptors that can also occasionally work against a hero, such as a Catchphrase, a Connection, or a Motivation; while the latter are negative like Bad Luck, Enemy, or Weakness. In keeping with the game’s more contemporary design use of the FATE system, a character’s Aspects define where he can spend “Determination,” its equivalent of Luck or Hero points. Every hero begins a base level of Determination with the greater the number of Powers and high Abilities a hero has, the lower his base Determination. By Qualities being Tagged and Challenges being Compelled during play, a player can earn more Determination and in the process add to the game’s ongoing story.

To gain further Determination during the game, the players can also work together to create a Team and its Qualities and Challenges. Each hero has to contribute one point of permanent Determination to a Team pool that can be drawn from when the Qualities and Challenges particular to the Team come into play. Determination can also be invested in Team Resources, the rules suggesting several ways in which Resources can be handled in the game.

Our sample is Doctor Farland Boring, a doctor and biologist working for an environmental research institute. Whilst working as part of a survey team monitoring the impact of deep sea drilling in the Java Sea, the ship he was aboard was attacked by pirates and he was knocked overboard and into the sea where he was bitten by a sea snake. The venom, tainted from pollutants from the nearby drilling, did more than poison him. It gave him the ability to swim at fantastic speeds, deliver a fast bite, and follow that up with potent venom. With his newfound abilities, Farland trailed the pirates, rescued his colleagues, and in the process, discovered that the pirates had corporate masters. In the past two years he has become an environmental campaigner, supporting causes around the world and making a nuisance of himself to many of the world’s leading oil companies.

Sea Krait
Real Name: Doctor Farland Boring
Origins: Transformed
Prowess: 4 Coordination: 6 Strength: 5
Intellect: 3 Awareness: 4 Willpower: 6
Stamina: 11
Determination: 3
Powers: Aquatic-7, Offensive Power – Paralysis-8, Offensive Power – Strike-5
Specialities: Medicine, Science – Biology, Underwater Combat
Qualities: Catchphrase (By the power of sea!), Connection (ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Baker), Epithet (The Sea’s Greatest Warrior), Identity (Mild Mannered Scientist), Motivation (To help save the environment)
Challenges: Enemy (Big Oil), Personal (Hates to use his strongest Power), Social (Enemy of big business), Weakness (Crude oil)

The base mechanics in ICONS are straightforward and simple. Whenever a hero wants to undertake an action, his player takes two six-sided dice, designating one die as positive and the other negative. After they have been rolled, the dice are added together to generate a number between -5 and +5, and this is applied to the Ability or Power being used. If the end result beats a difficulty number, a hero has succeeded. The most radical aspect of the dice mechanics is that the GM never rolls them, only the players. So for example, in combat, a player rolls to hit when attacking and rolls to dodge when being attacked, the difficulty numbers being taken by an opponent’s Abilities and Powers or set by the GM.

For example, Sea Krait has tracked down the pirates that attacked the ship he was aboard to a drilling rig and dealt with most of them except for the armoured suit wearing villain, Big Oil, who has Sea Krait’s girlfriend, Jennifer Baker, in his grasp. Before Sea Krait can move, Big Oil releases a jet of crude oil at him with his Blast – Crude Oil-8 Power and Co-ordination 6. To avoid this, Sea Krait needs to make a Co-ordination test against that of Big Oil’s. With a result of -5, his player rolls badly and Sea Krait is hit by the jet and takes damage equal to Big Oil’s Blast Power, plus extra for Weakness, reducing his Stamina down to 1, but because his Weakness has been Compelled, receives an extra point of Determination. Knowing that this could be his last chance in this fight to save Jennifer, Sea Krait’s player Tags his Connection Quality to his girlfriend, enabling him to spend Determination. He opts for Determined Effort to increase the likelihood of successfully hitting Big Oil. His player rolls a total of +2, spends a point of Determination to add another +2, giving him +4 to apply to his Prowess. When compared to Big Oil’s Prowess of 6, Sea Krait’s total of 10 is a successful use of his Strike Power, but will not inflict enough damage to stop Big Oil. So he follows the bite by injecting the villain with his Paralysis Power. Enough to stop Big Oil, but too much for Jennifer, who is horrified at what her boyfriend has become and runs screaming!

To an extent, Determination works like ICONS’ currency. Both players and GM are meant to Compel and Tag Aspects not just to gain Determination and an explanation within the game for its use, but also to add to bring story elements into the game. And not just each hero’s Aspects, but also those are belonging to the villains and to an extent the environment around them. When brought into the game Determination can be spent to various effects. Besides Determined Effort which lets a hero improve his dice rolls, Focused Effort allows a hero to use an Ability or Power of his choice, Recover restores his Stamina (this needs no explanation or tying to an Aspect to use), “Retcon” adds details to the game, and Stunts let him do something special with his Powers.

The Powers themselves are divided into seven categories: Alteration, Control, Defensive, Mental, Movement, Offensive, and Sensory. Some like Blast will need further definition, whilst others are more costly at character generation, such as Immortality, Probability Control, Teleportation, and Wizardry. The Powers included in ICONS should cover most types of heroes and villains, and in keeping with the design are fairly broad. Plus a player will need to define the exact nature and flavour of his Powers, but that should be part of his character’s background.

Advice for the GM covers everything from handling character and team creation to individual actions, designing adventures, and dealing with Determination. It tries to cover most situations, but part of the game’s light mechanics and design philosophy is that the GM is meant to adapt them to most situations rather than find a rule in its pages to cover every situation.

Besides the rules support, the GM is given an array of villains to include in his games, all of them with surprisingly detailed backgrounds given ICONS’ intended light style. It would have been nice if some sample heroes had been included as well as the villains, the only given hero in the book being the cactus-themed Saguaro used as an example of character generation. There is also a short scenario, “The Wages of Sin,” which provides a suitable means of introducing the rules to the players and the player characters to each other. Beyond its core rulebook, ICONS is supported with plenty of PDF titles.

Putting aside the fact that the artwork in ICONS might not be to your taste, the book is far from physically perfect. Although it needs an edit here and there, the real problem is the lack of an index. There are few if any rules to ICONS, but having to flip through the book to find them is time consuming considering how light and fast the game is meant to be run. By any means though, the lack of an index in an RPG rulebook in this day and age is inexcusable.

Although ICONS is a light game, it is not suited to be run by an inexperienced GM. It requires too much rules adjudication upon the part of the GM, and that calls for someone with some experience under their cape. Nevertheless, it is suited to inexperienced players, especially if they know the superhero genre, whether that be from the comics or the Saturday morning cartoons. In comparison with other more detailed superhero RPG designs, ICONS places more of an emphasis on the story and the drama through the use of the FATE system and its Aspects that encourage everyone to stick to the genre. Combine that with its light mechanics, and what you have in ICONS – Superpowered Roleplaying is a fast playing supers RPG that does both the genre and pick up and play.


  1. ICONS is a fine game. Personally, it's not the style of the artwork that bothers me; it's the sub par execution.
    I'd highly suggest anyone planning on running the game pick up the ICONS character folio (the character generation software).
    Point buy is only as bland as the character concept behind it.

  2. Dear Aos,

    Thank you for your comments and feedback. I am not sure what you mean though by "sub par execution." Do you mean the artwork or the book itself?

    I have to disagree with you about the Point Buy option. The randomly rolled creation method forces a player to think about a rationale behind his character's Powers and is more inspirational than trying to come up with something original every time.

  3. Sub par execution was a reference to the artwork; I like lots of cartoon style art (Bruce Timm's DC animated stuff, or the art from the new Avengers cartoon, but the art in Icons isn't so much cartoony as it is sloppy and poorly done.

    I'm fine with the random generation, but the player characters in my current campaign we designed from the ground up (we converted over from BASH) and I don't find them at all bland. And for what it's worth I love original characters, but sometimes players just want to be like Batman, and I'm cool with that.

  4. Good review Pookie.
    I'd be curious about a full scale comparison with another Super-Hero rule-light game: BASH Ultimate Edition.
    Have you played it?

  5. I am afraid to say that I have not looked at BASH. Before I get to that, I have several ORE based titles to review.

    In the meantime, thank you for the comment and question.