Steve Kenson on ICONS
To answer some of your questions regarding Adamant’s forthcoming superhero RPG, ICONS, we’ve asked designer Steve Kenson to guest-blog about the game. So fasten your seatbelts, True Believers, as we present…..
ICONS Versus Its Sales Text!
A Clash of Titans!
So, the Adamant Entertainment sales text for ICONS describes it as “a combination of old-school classics … and the new generation of FATE games…” What does that mean exactly? How is ICONS both “old school” and what elements of FATE does it include? There are two answers: the simple and the more involved one.
The Simple Answer
The simple answer is: “ICONS is everything Steve likes about old school pick-up style superhero RPGs, combined with things he likes about FATE.” Now I find that a pretty complete answer, but it’s probably not detailed enough for anyone who’s not inside my head. So…
The Involved Answer
The involved answer is that ICONS starts with various elements fans of what I call “pick-up” superhero RPGs will find familiar, such as:
- A simple 1–10 scale of traits. (You can use Adjectives, if you want, but the rules stick with numbers.)
- A set of six basic abilities, modified by specialties (what other games often call skills).
- A broad selection of ready-made powers. Unlike “toolkit” systems like GURPS, Hero System or my own Mutants & Masterminds, ICONS doesn’t have a lot of fiddly options for tinkering with powers; you get a power, it has a level, and you might have some options by way of its associated stunts or descriptions, but that’s pretty much it.
- A simple, universal resolution system of trait level + die-rolled modifier vs. difficulty level. ICONS is based on 2d6, by the way—like Starblazer Adventures—rather than 4dF using the “Fudge Dice” simply because ordinary six-sided dice are more common and easily accessible, less arcane for newcomers, and the d6-d6 approach creates a somewhat flatter probability curve, allowing for more wacky outcomes on die-rolls.
- An action system of panels and pages (what many RPGs call “turns” and “rounds”).
- Tables for random character creation. Yes, that’s right, random-roll character creation. More about that in a bit.
So, where is the FATE goodness baked-in? Well, some of the game mechanics I’ve mentioned: like the d6-d6 curve and the “ladder” (ICONS calls it a “scale,” but whatever) should be familiar, but where the FATE elements of the system really shine are when you the phase of character design called “Determination.”
- ICONS uses Determination as its “Fate Points” (Hero Points, call ‘em what you will). You use ‘em to do things like improve your rolls and recover faster. You can also spend them to do power stunts (because I loves me some power stunts) and to “retcon” things in the game, what some games call “dramatic editing” or “player plot control”.
- The Determination “economy” is based on characters’ aspects, which are broken up into Qualities (things that describe the character) and Challenges (things that, well, challenge the character). You bring your character’s aspects into play to earn Determination you can spend doing Cool Stuff. The GM brings your character’s aspects—particularly Challenges—into play to nudge you and the story in certain directions, such as when he hits you with your weakness or has the villain kidnap your significant other, giving you more Determination to do Cool Stuff.
- Your starting (or base level) Determination is based on how many powers you have. More powers equals less starting Determination. Know why Caped Crusaders and Star-Spangled Patriots are viable heroes? They’ve got more Determination than everyone else…
- Because your powers help figure your Determination (and really high abilities count as “powers”), the system provides a balancing mechanism so a group of randomly created heroes can still work on relatively even footing. Know why those powerful hero types have all those personal problems and weaknesses? They need them to get some Determination going!
- Oh, and you also get to build your Team’s Aspects and Team Determination, which is a fun lil’ superhero element of things. Plus GMs love to be able to compel a Team Challenge all at once!
Random Character Creation … Really?
Yes, really. If you’re allergic to random character design in RPGs, I’ll just ask you to bear with me to the end of this article before you decide that I’m crazy, having thrown away years of RPG design “evolution” (which is a debate for another time) for the retrograde throwback that is (shudder) random superhero creation.
Like I said earlier, ICONS draws upon the “pick-up game” style of superhero gaming. The idea isn’t to lovingly craft a character precise in every detail, but to be able to throw together a “good enough” kind of “character sketch” and get playing right away, while not sacrificing the creativity and imagination that make RPGs so much fun.
So, ICONS follows the example of prior generations of RPGs with tables where you can, with a handful of die-rolls, whip up a character. (Hell, with a modicum of programming skill, you can probably set it up so you can do it all with one click of a mouse!)
The creative aspect of it comes into play with that aforementioned Determination section. Sure, now you’ve rolled-up your super-strong guy who has some kind of damaging aura, but now you’ve got to ask? Who is he (or she) and what makes this character tick?
The reason I use this specific example is that it has come up twice (randomly, mind you) in various playtest games I’ve run, but produced two totally different characters. On the one hand, you’ve got Volcano, the exiled prince of the Magma Men, who is a super-strong guy made of igneous rock, able to heat up enough to melt metal. He’s imperious, proud, a noble warrior. On the other hand there’s Saguaro, the Man-Cactus, transformed by a scientific accident into a giant, humanoid cactus with superhuman strength and enough sharp spines to make most foes think twice about grabbing him! He’s from the desert southwest (of course).
How many other names and backgrounds can you think up for that thumbnail description of traits? Both Volcano and Saguaro’s players said they would not have come up with those characters on their own if simply instructed to “make-up a superhero.” Part of the fun of the system was it gave them a set of conditions and then they had to invent a hero to go around them! Plus both were able to roll up their characters and play all in the same demo-game session! Not bad, huh?
Now, if that doesn’t sound cool to you, don’t worry; ICONS also includes a short and simple point-based system of character design for those who really prefer that approach. It’s still fairly simple, but it hands all the choices over to the players and starts everyone out with an equal budget. (Who says we don’t deliver on what the people want?)
So, that’s ICONS in a nutshell. I could go on, but honestly, much more than the summary here and I’d literally be recapitulating whole chunks of the game. That’s one of the other things; ICONS is pretty slim, going back to the days when you could put in an entire RPG in a single booklet.
So, look up to the skies! Or at least keep an eye on your website and Twitter feeds for more about ICONS.