Steve Kenson and Adamant Entertainment’s Silver Age New Superhero RPG
My first reaction when I heard Steve Kenson was designing a new Silver Age inspired superhero rpg, I wondered if we hadn’t been down this road a time or two. Then I realized the Icons role-playing game was going to be a rules-light, fast-play game, so I decided I would at least give the sales pitch a listen. When I learned the Icons RPG would be based on (or at least inspired by) the FATE game system, I was sold. I’d played in a Spirit of the Century campaign a few years back and came away impressed by what the FATE system could do. I figured if a system could mimic pulp adventures so well, comic book action wouldn’t be too much of a hurdle.
How the FATE System Works
In Spirit of the Century, combat is quick and simple, but stunts and aspects gave players enough options that combat feels tactical. Aspects are simple phrases, sayings, or descriptors that can be activated to give your character bonuses (or sometimes, negatives). In SotC, if you played a Shadow type hero, you could tag an aspect named “Mysteries of the Orient” to boost your character’s mind control powers or a roll to see if you knew some long-forgotten mystic lore. What makes aspects great is that it gave character’s a chance to delineate themselves and hint at their background.
Obviously, given the fun way character creation works in Spirit of the Century (where you write the title, villains, and guest appearances by other player character in your character’s “novels”), I looked forward to how characters would be built in Icons.
Icons Character Creation
To my dismay, Steve Kenson decided to emphasize random character generation in Icons. This seems like a throwback to the 1980s, when many RPGs (especially superhero games) featured random generation. I don’t like it, though.
For one, this creates unbalanced games. I’ve never seen a superhero rpg where all powers and all character builds were equal. Some powers are just better than others. People wanting to play heroes want to have an ongoing comic, but playing the guy with Plant Control and Color Control isn’t the same as playing the guy with Sorcery and Invulnerability.
While random characters forces a certain amount of creativity, I’ve found it stifles the imagination in just as many cases. Sure, having the aquatic guy with fire control might sound novel at first, but try to explain that one in any reasonable fashion (later answer: underwater lava vents). Besides, superhero games are escapist fun. You want to escape whatever circumstances your life gives you for a few hours…you don’t want all-new lousy circumstances. It’s different if you plan on a long campaign where you get a chance to build up your stats (and choose how you allot your points), but that’s not always the case.
The Combat and Task Resolution System
Combat and task resolution in Icons uses a modified FATE roll. In Icons, stats and talents are based on a relative chart of 1-10. A stat of 2 to 3 is considered average for a human, so a Strength 6 character is superhuman. You roll two six-sided dice, each of a different color. The results of this die roll is added to the relevant stat or skill, but one is a plus-die and the other is a negative-die. This means you might get +5 or -5 on a dice roll, or somewhere in between. A character with 6 strength who rolls a +6 and -3 ends up with a roll of 9. Strength accounts for damage, while things like force fields and invulnerability take off from one’s Stamina stat.
If you don’t have a defense power which to reduce damage, your stamina burns off in about two hits and you’re out. That’s why the random generation iffy, because a character without force field, invulnerability, or healing factor is going to get knocked out quick all the time. That gets old quick, especially if you don’t have a massive offensive power to give you a fighting chance or a power (like Time Control) which offers you clever ways to help your group.
The base build for Icons is 45 points in non-random character generation. If you roll up a character, the rolls tend to be a little over 45 (46), but I saw a 31-point character rolled up (and rolled up a 49 point character–whew!). If you roll under 35, rules allow for a re-roll, though the guy in my group (wall crawling, datalink) insisted on playing the character…then complained all the time. Six abilities include strength, willpower, intelligence, charisma, so this isn’t much different than D20 roleplaying. One deviation is a pair of stats which divide the ability to hit in melee with the ability to hit on ranged attacks. Characters tend to be good at one or the other.
Points that don’t go into stats go into powers and skills. One spur for random generation is the random origin, which sometimes give additional abilities. The origin options are birthright, trained, transformed, artificial, gimmick, and unearthly. Steve Kenson added “determination points” to account for low power characters like Batman or Captain America. You add up your powers (including stats of 7 or more) and subtract this from a number in order to determine how many determination points you have. The low-powered characters get determination, which act much like hero points in Mutants & Masterminds.
Aspects are one way to use determination points. Example aspects include catchphrases, motivations, connections, and epithets. When you call out your catchphrase and tag it (using determination points), you get a bonus to your next action. When you use your epithet (examples include Son of Odin, Man of Steel, Earth’s Mightiest Mortal, The Dark Knight), you get a bonus. If one of your connections is your informer on the street, you get a bonus to skill checks based on information gathering. If your connection is a love interest or family member, you might get bonuses to rescuing them from the villain. Motivations like championing justice are quite open-ended, while those like saving the environment or championing the cause of Atlantis could be quite limited.
Players build up determination points when challenges are tagged. Challenges are the negative counterpart to aspects, but they serve a purpose in the game. You’ll find yourself hoping a challenge comes up, so you get more determination. Challenges include enemies, weaknesses, social challenges, and psychological drawbacks. The game encourages role-playing based on these challenges, so that’s good.
Team Aspects and Challenges
Teams can have aspects and challenges, too. You get team determination points, which only work if everyone agrees to use them in a certain way. This makes the disgruntled team member a real liability and simulates team conflict pretty well. Our group had a player who was always grousing about decisions.
Gamemasters don’t roll dice in Icons, so any conspiracy theorists who think their GM fudges rules should like that feature of the game. Instead, villain or antagonist abilities are set at a number by the GM. Players thus roll against difficulty classes even when playing against villainous NPCs. This gives the GM less to keep up with once a session begins. That’s good, because the game master has to determine when a player deserves a determination point, so that’s a little extra work.
Icons works well for low-level and mid-level characters. I found that cosmic level play breaks down, especially if you have a bunch of power-gamers in your group (ours does). The FATE mechanics work well for superhero role-playing. I found the powers could have been a little more differentiated, but I come from a Mutants & Masterminds and Champions background, so crunchiness is in my blood. Ultimately, Icons does what it’s supposed to do, so I give it thumbs up. The execution wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped when I heard it was a FATE rules for superheroes, but it’s a good alternative to the more rules-heavy superhero rpg games.
See also: Marvel Super Heroes