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Icons is a super hero RPG based on the FATE system. It is full colour and comes in a graphic novel sized soft cover, weighing in at 128 pages. I paid £19.99 for the book at my FLGS. Lead writer/designer is Steve Kenson and it’s published by Adamant Entertainment and Cubicle 7
For those who don’t know I’m already a bit of the fan of the FATE system having been introduced to Spirit of the Century a few years ago, and I was interested to see how Icons had applied the rules set to the superhero genre.
There’s been a lot of buzz about Icons on rpgnet and other RPG sites and I’ve been looking for a good Superhero game for a while. I was put off by the fact that Steve Kenson had previously written Mutants and Masterminds – a D20 based system that I had tried to read a few years ago but had quickly discarded as being far too crunchy for my tastes.
I’ve also tried Godlike and Wild Talents but found the character creation in both those games so mind numbingly tedious I really could never be bothered to try them – even though I like the ORE system they are based on.
I must say that my initial impressions on flicking through the book weren’t that great. There’s nothing particularly bad about the layout – it has single column text with yellow explanatory boxes picked out from the main body every now and then and the background colour is an unobtrusive blue colour. My main gripe is the artwork. All the art is done by the one artist, which I suppose gives the book a unified look. It’s just unfortunate that it’s really bad. There’s a Saturday morning cartoon feel that I think the artist has tried to portray but, to my eyes, it just looks like it’s poorly drawn. This is an RPG where you’re playing comic book superheroes. If this was a comic book I most definitely wouldn’t be buying it. Also some of the character designs are truly awful – but this is a point I’ll be coming back to later.
Also Icons only has a fairly brief Table of Contents that is practically useless in its brevity and no index – a particular hate of mine.
It’s fortunate then that it’s quite a rules light game. The basic premise is that all abilities in the game are rated from 1-10 with 1 being weak or minimum human and 10 being cosmic or maximum superhuman. 3 is listed as human average with 6 being maximum for a normal human.
Whenever your character attempts an action he is given a difficulty by the GM, The player rolls 2d6 with one die being a + and the other being a – die. The resulting number is then added or subtracted from the ability being used. If this equals or beats the difficulty number then you’ve succeeded.
Only the players ever roll dice in Icons – if a GM decides an NPC attacks a PC then the player simply rolls to evade the attack – and succeeds if he beats the level of the npc’s ability being used.
E.g. Jonny is playing his character that has a coordination ability at level 5. Jez, who is GM’ing, decides that his evil villain has launched an attack on Jonny’s character. The npc is using his blast power, which uses the coordination ability to hit. The npc’s co-ordination is rated at 7.
Jonny rolls his 2 dice, getting a +4 and a -1 for a total of +3. He adds this to his coordination for a result of 8. Jonny dodges the attack and prepares to launch his own assault.
This simple process is applied to pretty much everything in the game and results in quite a fast flowing play style at the table.
Character creation in Icons is totally random (although a points based version is given at the end of the character gen section) and everything from your hero’s origin, through to abilities, powers and specialties being rolled for on a list of random tables.
Some people may not like this random factor and it probably can result in some disparity of power levels between PC’s, but I do think that is fairly true to the source materials in most cases, and you can always go for point buy if it really bothers you.
So I’ve mentioned abilities and powers and stuff, here’s how a character in Icons breaks down.
These list the characters capabilities in broad terms and give a good idea of what a PC can expect to achieve in their related fields.
There are three mental and three physical abilities.
Prowess – hitting stuff in close combat.
Coordination – Shooting stuff, dodging things, all agility related tests.
Strength – I’m pretty sure you can all figure this one out yourselves.
Intellect – inventing stuff, solving problems etc.
Awareness – intuition and perceptiveness. Spotting danger.
Willpower – mental strength and force of personality.
There’s also Stamina but this isn’t tested on and is generated by adding Strength and Willpower together – it’s the equivalent to hit points in any other number of systems.
Areas of expertise within the (much) broader strokes of the Abilities. Specialties come in 3 levels (Specialty, Expert, and Mastery) and provide bonuses to your rolls when using abilities.
The full list of specialties is included below, although it is stated in the book that you’re free to add or subtract any others that you might want. Also some of the broader specialties, (marked with *) are split again when choosing – you don’t take Performance but choose one of the performing arts such as singing, dancing, acting etc.
Aerial Combat Mental Resistance
Investigation Sleight of Hand
Law Underwater Combat
Martial Arts Wrestling
This is all the proper Super heroic stuff that your character can do and Icons has a very extensive list of superpowers. There’s everything from flying to invisibility, alternate forms to time control and the list is split into several categories;
There are far too many individual powers to list here but I must admit that I didn’t see any glaring omissions. There isn’t a mainstream comic character I can think of that you couldn’t re-create using Icons if you wanted to, as far as I can tell.
If you’re wondering where Icon’s version of the FATE system’s Aspects has gone, then it’s here.
A character’s starting Determination starts at 6, however you take 1 off for each power the character has, and also for each Ability above level 6, to the minimum starting Determination of 1.
In my opinion, aspects are one of the best things about the FATE system and Icons has a pretty good section on their use. I’m not going to describe how Determination is tagged and compelled in Icons as it’s all pretty similar stuff – if you’re really desperate to find out there’s plenty of reviews of Spirit of the Century and other FATE games out there that explain it all quite well.
What Icons does well is give good examples of appropriate types of aspects – Catchphrases, Connections, Epithet, Identity, Motivations and Challenges, and explains how they can be used in the game for both compels and tags.
Determination points are used to let you do cool things in the game by either giving you bonuses to a roll, allowing you to use a different Ability than you otherwise would, instantly recover some Stamina, retcon some detail about the game world and/or perform stunts.
Included in the character creation section is a bit about team creation. Teams can have their own aspects and also provide additional determination points (as well as all team members having to put a point of determination into the team pool).
There’s a good section on Games Mastering that includes bits about helping players with character creation and the use of Determination in the game. There’s also a fairly large selection of sample npc’s and an introductory adventure, (more of an outline really, but as adventures in core rulebooks go, it’s OK.)
So, what don’t I like about Icons?
There’s some minor typo’s that crop up through the book – none of which detract from your understanding but they are there and I found them to be pretty annoying – for once I would like to see an rpg that has been well edited. This isn’t it.
The lack of an index, or even a decent contents page, is really bad. The book is by no means massive but even so, I still found myself having to flick back and forwards quite a lot. Also there are several tables throughout that might need referring to in play, indeed some of the powers have their own table for various effects they might have depending on what level you roll when using the power. These could have done with being collected in one place at the back of the book for easy access – instead there are 2 pages of adverts for future supplements for Icons.
The sample npc’s are pretty bland with a couple being absolutely laughable, (I’m looking at you Octofather) – I can’t see me ever using any of them myself. By far the most risible thing though is the sample character used throughout the book – a cactus man. Let me repeat that for you. The best character that the author could come up with to showcase the character generation is a man who is half cactus. There’s a picture of him fighting some bloke who appears to be wearing a costume that makes him look like an asparagus. Another fave is a Thing from the Fantastic 4 rip off who has a volcano for a head.
Perhaps I’m just being picky but this kind of crap just really pisses me off when I’m reading a book. I don’t know if the author thinks that because this system is much more rules light than Mutants and Masterminds, it’s going to be picked up by a younger audience? Anyway, I think the tone of the art style throughout was seriously misjudged and the whole cactus man thing almost made me stop reading a section that I normally find one of the most interesting of any RPG.
Also there has been absolutely no attempt to balance the powers. I’m undecided if I like this or not but there’s quite a good chance that with a few randomly generated PC’s, some of them are going to be a bit better than others. But then this old school method of character creation is very quick and sometimes the best characters can come from the unexpected results.
The thing that bugs me the most is a move from the consequences system of taking wounds/injuries in FATE to the use of hit points. I’m sure it would be pretty easy to add in a consequences system – I don’t really like that characters go from being fully fit and functioning to KO’d, with no in-between.
All that said though, I’m quite impressed with Icons. There’s enough crunch to the powers rules that heroes definitely “feel” different to each other in play, without it ever getting bogged down.
Combat is quick and furious and I can’t think of any situations that might arise that can’t be dealt with by the admirably simple base mechanic.
Running the game is a breeze thanks to the onus being on the players for all the rolls. I though I might miss rolling those bones when playing but the reverse has been true in the play test game I ran. Being able to just concentrate on narrating what an npc does and waiting for the players to respond is really nice!
And another thing – a total novice to roleplaying joined in when I ran the game a couple of nights ago and he got it pretty quickly. As the character gen was totally random there was no need for anybody to try and cherry pick out the best powers and I only had to explain stuff that was relevant to them. 3 characters took us just under an hour – that’s with 1 copy of the book in total and players who had never played a FATE game – let alone Icons.
I’ll definitely be running Icons at Indiecon so if you fancy giving it a try I’ll hopefully see you there!
Reviewed by Jez Grey