[Review] Icons

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I’ve been bit by the supers bug again recently (it gives me the proportional strength of a box full of d6s) and was looking about at systems out there. I’m kind of tired of high-crunch systems, which unfortunately the genre leans pretty strongly on.  And I’m just plain done with making my own systems or heavily tweaking existing ones. I’d been hearing some good stuff about Icons from Adamant Entertainment, which had 2 big things going for it right up front: 1) it’s written by Steve Kenson, who wrote Mutants & Masterminds/DC Adventures and 2) my friend Theron had written a module for it and from eight or nine years of internet acquaintance I’ve found his taste to be pretty impeccable.  Added bonus: the pdf of the rulebook is on sale for $1.99. Really, how could I not?

And frankly why had I not picked it up already? Well there were also two strikes against it: 1) I didn’t like the cover art style and 2) it’s based on FATE with which I’ve had some issues in the past. But I understand both of those things are purely subjective and my issues and neither one was strong enough to overrule the positives (this is kind of like FATE dice right here). Or the $2 price tag.

I’ve said in the past that M&M is a love letter to Mayfair’s old DC Heroes system, wrapped in a d20 shell. Icons then is a love letter to Marvel Super Heroes (FASERIP) in a FATE shell.  Which is another check in the plus column. There’s random character creation, there’s Slam/Stun effects for succeeding above the base level, the abilities are more or less the same with the absence of Endurance, and there’s even a suggestion that you name the power levels things like “Incredible” or “Amazing” instead of just numbering them 1-10. Daddy like.

(for those Berts like myself who aren’t down with random character creation there is a very simple point-buy system).

My FATE problems in the past stem from running a Spirit of the Century game and I think are largely related to the organization of that game and its book. SotC bills itself as a light prep game but I (and my group, which may have just been an extension of my own bias) found it nearly impenetrably thick with complex skill and power descriptions and nested levels of prerequisites. Figuring out which skills and powers to take was a chore akin to d20 3.5’s Feat selection, and you had to have pretty detailed notes on what each of them allowed you to do and how they interacted with other things. It was a good game but I felt it was bloated and definitely off-putting for a casual game.

Icons takes the bits from FATE I liked and doesn’t get weighed down by the bloat.  Yes, there’s still a list of skills (handled here as Specialties under the attributes) but for the most part they’re given one or two line descriptions and to what they say on the tin. “Mechanics”? Add the bonus to rolls when building or repairing stuff. “Martial Arts”? Add it to your Prowess (Fighting)  ability and substitute it for your Strength for purposes of slam/stun. Simple. The Powers are, as one would expect, a little more complicated but not terribly so. Most just require a test against a particular ability and then either do damage or have some kind of other effect. It’s presented remarkably clearly which owes a lot to the old MSH system I suspect – it’s been a long time since I read that but I remember the powers being very simple and clear.

As I aid above it’s been a while since I looked at the MSH rules so I don’t know if this next bit is from that or Kenson borrowing from his M&M design but there’s also a clever way that certain powers grant or link to other powers.  Many power descriptions list a related bonus power that you can take for one of your other slots (I suspect this is more useful in random character creation but it helps conceptually in figuring what a character can do either way).  Have Absorption? As a Bonus Power you can use the damage you just absorbed to either boost an ability, blast the damage back, or heal.  Density? Pick up Phasing as a bonus (and be able to use Phase as an attack by taking a bonus of that).  It’s mostly suggestions and the bonus powers aren’t tied to the rank of the original power in most cases but it’s a nice presentation.  For some more complicated umbrella-type powers like Elemental Control you can take any 2 effects (attacking, creating, defending, moving, shaping) for free with the power and pick up any additional effects as a bonus by using one of your power slots.

And the big test of any supers system: can it do Green Lantern and the Flash? From what I’m seeing, yes and easily (GL would be device-based Cosmic Wizardry with Elemental Control – Light (Attack, Defend, Create, Shape), Flight, maybe Life Support and the rest is all done with Power Stunts which allow you to duplicate the effects of other powers. Flash has Super Speed with Fast Attack, Phasing, Defending and Surface Speed as bonus powers).

The FATE system comes in to play with the use of Aspects. These are broken into two categories: Qualities and Challenges. Qualities are how you spend your Determination Points, Challenges are how you earn them back. Qualities are abstract and you make up whatever you want although there are some suggestions of categories (catch phrase, connections, motivation). If you can bring your Quality into play in a given action (or “tag” it) you can spend a Determination Point, which will give you a bonus to your roll or other stuff. If the GM invokes one of your Complications (dependent NPC, secret identity, weakness etc) to, well, complicate your life you earn a Determination point. I’ve always liked this way of handling weaknesses or drawbacks so there’s a reason to have something that’s going to come up reasonably frequently rather than just taking a “Catastrophic Irrational Phobia: dogs with bees in their mouths” for a couple extra points at character creation.

There’s one bit missing from the aspects though, or I missed it in my first read. One of the things I liked best about the aspects in my SotC game was being able to pass your bonus to another character. One character who had no business being in a combat scene could be on the sidelines giving orders and doing social challenges and pass his +2 bonus to another more physically-oriented character who could use it to smack down the big bad.  Teamwork! It’s why Superman and Batman can work together without massive unbelievable disparity. Batman can tag Darkseid’s “Arrogant” aspect (Three batarangs plunk into Darkseid’s arm, beep and explode.  “You DARE touch the being of the great Darkseid, mortal! Suffer my wrath!”) and bounce the +2 over so Superman can lay into the distracted villain with even greater power.  I’d definitely allow that

Now that I think about it, I also didn’t see that you can only use each Aspect once per scene. That gave them a dwindling resource-type feeling (in addition to your pool of points) in SotC. Not sure how I feel about this either way. Probably better to not have them be expendable to encourage lots and lots of point spending and big cinematic results. But again, I may have just missed it as I was kind of tired when reading this.

I’m still not a huge fan of the dice mechanic here – you roll 2 dice with one designated positive and the other negative giving you a result of -5 to +5. I’m sure mathematically it works out and it removes the need for tables and charts but there’s a feeling to it I don’t love.  Can’t describe it any more than that. I don’t recall it being a huge impediment in SotC though.

Overall I’m very happy with what I see in Icons. Still not a huge fan of the art style but I see what they’re going for. This is definitely at the top of my list for the next supers game I run, be it a campaign or just a one or two shot. And again I must emphasize: the pdf is (at the time of this writing) $1.99 so you really can’t go wrong.

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5 Responses to “[Review] Icons”

  1. Dan Glovier Says:

    $2? Going to go purchase and download now…

  2. John Says:

    That is an odd, yet kind of intriguing, dice mechanic. Can’t wait to see it in action and see if it slows down play due to the dreaded ‘maths fail’.

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      So you roll your dice and add/subtract your ability or power level to the result. If you have a 5 Strength (exceptional human) and let’s say are trying to lift a car (weight=6). You roll and if you get a Major success or better (3 above your target, so 8 total in this case) you can lift it (because it is one level higher than your str) . So you need a total of +3 to do it. The maths are really pretty easy.

      I don’t think it would slow things down at all, but the alternate mechanic is to add the dice together and subtract 7. Don’t know if that works easier for some people’s brains.

  3. Rob Says:

    My local group has played a couple quick games of Icons – it was quick and fun and simple, though I admit the system details didn’t really register.

    But I thought Icons used Fudge dice. d6, sides labeled -1,-1,0,0,1, and 1?
    4 Fudge dice do give you a similar range to 1d6 minus 1d6, I guess, but a slightly different bell curve.

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      I’ve been informed by the knowledgeable folks on an internet message board that Icons isn’t really Fate at all. Largely because it lacks the bits that are clunky and no fun. But in a similar vein it seems to use different dice – normal d6s. I honestly have no idea what it does to the curve but I’m sure it means I’m not having fun correctly.

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