Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Warlock's Review: "ICONS--Superpowered Roleplaying" (A Playtest Review)

I've been excited to do this entry since first hearing of Icons, back in April. However, I only recently received my hard-copy of the rules, so I held off. Besides, I had more than enough to blog about, with all of the chaos of Origins! But, with the madness of the Big O behind us, I can finally get down to brass tacks.

Icons is the brainchild of Steve Kenson, the lead designer on Mutants and Masterminds, and its forthcoming expansion, DC Adventures. Upon looking at the Icons rulebook, it immediately becomes apparant that Kenson is a guy that knows his capes. The cover is a pastiche of several send-ups of classic heroes, swinging into action, while the book itself looks and feels like a comics trade paperback. Kudos are especially due for artist Dan Houser and layout man Gareth-Michael Skarka.

So, on the past weekend, six of the Witt-Gamers pulled out their dice to give
Icons a whirl through the sample adventure: "The Wages of Sin!" To say the least, we were not disappointed.

Icons relies upon random character generation, which may not be to everyone's taste. While rules are given for "point-buy" char-gen, it's strongly encouraged for players to throw down their d6s and see what comes up. Our group came up with the following:

Doctor Ohm: Intellectual genius extraordinaire and master of electricity. (Powers: Gadget Wizardry--replicates Electricity Control and Resistance: Electricity)

Fast Food Frenzy: Superstar celebrity chef and mind-control maven, FFF's brute strength is only further augmented by his legendary Sammich Strike! (Powers: Mind Control and Strike)

RoboRoo: A bionic kangaroo, programmed only for truth, justice, and the Australian way! (Powers: Fast Attack, Leaping, and Animal Control--Marsupials)

Murphy's Law: The unluckiest person ever to stay alive! (Powers: Probability Control--Bad Luck and Absorbtion--Kinetic Energy)

The Grey Lady: The victim of a seance gone wrong, she walks the line between life and death. (Powers: Mind Shield, Life Support, Super Senses)

Out of the characters, Doctor Ohm was hands down the most powerful. Ending up with Wizardry at a power level of 10 (as high as it goes!), he was able to duplicate nearly anything that anyone else at the table could do. While the player didn't abuse this level of power, I did have to adjust a few things in the adventure to keep him from breaking open the plot. I did feel bad for The Grey Lady's player, though. Her stats were abysmally low, and she had almost no combat ability and very little health. I didn't realize until later that the system encourages re-rolls for players who roll a power-set that is so close to identical. Life and learn, I suppose.

As a gamer disillusioned by the complexity of most supers-game rules, Icons was really a breath of fresh air, rules-wise. Based in part upon the FATE system, Icons uses a d6-d6 system, which provides a modifier to one of its six base stats. Want to punch someone? Roll d6-d6 to get a modifier to your Prowess stat. Exceed the mook's Coordination stat (his ability to dodge and the like), and you hit. Succeed by a certain margin, and you can stun him or even send him flying across the street.

The simplicity of the dice mechanic definitely aided my group in terms of roleplaying. While we're a rowdy lot to start with, the ability for players to narrate their own actions and describe their own combat maneuvers allows for a great deal of flexibility. Most of my group had a blast with this, but Fast Food Frenzy's player was probably the most imaginative, slinging explosive sandwiches against Doctor Zin's ninja mooks.

What really appealled to my group the most were the ideas of Aspects and Challenges, especially as they concern Determination. Ever wonder how Captain America can hang with Thor and Iron Man? Determination's the answer, at least as it applies to Icons. Since the player of Murphy's Law had Probability Control as a power, she received a huge pool of Determination, which she could use to alter the plot, providing horrible luck for her foes. Determination has a ton of uses in Icons, but my players seemed most interested in performing Power Stunts (offbeat uses of their powers) and in creating RetCons (changing the plot to add in or alter minor elements).

In using Determination, I'd definitely recommend using poker chips or some other method of tactilely representing the points. We began the game without said chips, and few people, even Murphy's Law, used Determination at all. After doling out the chips, Determination came in droves.

The thing that really put Icons over the top for me was the simplicity. My group, knowing nothing of the rules (or even of its FATE-based origins), were able to make characters, get a handle on the rules, and play through the sample adventure in 4 hours total. That really says a lot about the system itself. While the book itself doesn't go into much detail about specifics--you won't find the damage stats for a sword or a pistol, you won't find how far someone can run in a round--it leaves such things within the realm of the GM.

However, such simplicity can be a double-edged sword. You see, there's no "Initiative" system in Icons. Instead, I ported in a version of Savage Worlds' system, using playing cards to determine turn order. Luckily enough, that worked well for us, as we were all pretty familiar with SW. Further, while there are stats for "mooks" in the core-book, the stats are left intentionally generic, so that they can be used in multiple ways.

Overall, Icons is the sort of superhero game that really appeals to my table. It's quick to pick up, quick around the table, and allows for massive variety, even within "standard" power sets. While some may not care for the random character generation or the lack of specifics in certain aspects, Icons is well worth the sticker price in all aspects.

(Icons is published by Adament Entertainment, and was created by Steve Kenson, Gareth-Michael Skarka, Walt Ciechanowski, and Morgan Davie. Icons retails for $29.95 USD.)


  1. We love Icons around these parts, of course it doesn't hurt that Dan Houser lives 12 minutes away and had us playing before the game was released.

    One other thing I want to mention - Dan's constantly putting together custom heroes for folks in the design of Icons. Check out the ad in the back of the book.

    These are really great personal play aids. Also I 100% endorse random character generation in this game - it makes everyone more interesting, and min/maxing in Icons is a poor plan.

  2. Icons was definitely a breath of fresh air for our little group. It's definitely an improvement over Heroes Unlimited (my old, nostalgic favorite), and even over Mutants and Masterminds (despite the fact that Kenson designed both).

    I did take a look at the custom hero art but, while I was impressed, it's not really in the price range for what I'm looking for, especially considering I probably won't be running Icons as a campaign any time soon.

    That said, I agree wholeheartedly on the random char-gen. It definitely brings an "old school" feel to the game, while encouraging creativity. Besides, there are enough options with bonus powers and swaps that it's not as if Everything is relegated to the dice.