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!

Steve KensonSo, 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.

ICONS coverSo, 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.



  1. Dave Martin says:

    I think this game is one of the most exciting new games I’ve seen in a while. The focus appears to be on the actual playing of the game and not on the mechanics of the game.

    Looking forward to it!

  2. Very simply: nice. Sign me up right now.

  3. Myles Corcoran says:

    Excellent stuff. I’m genuinely excited about ICONS and its potential for pick-up games.

    When do we see it? *froth, froth*

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by AdamantEnt: Steve Kenson guest-blogs about ICONS, the forthcoming superhero RPG, at our website!

  5. GMSkarka says:

    ICONS will hit stores in June of 2010.

  6. Just tell me I can get Mollusk Control or Fungi Powers.

  7. Mike B says:

    It does sound like an interesting game. Hopefully by June I will be employed and able to afford the game.

  8. David 'Blue' Wendt says:

    ICONS due out in June?!? Excellent! Will we be able to pick it up at Origins?

  9. GMSkarka says:

    @David– My print partners, Cubicle 7, will be at Origins — sharing space with Mongoose, I believe. The game should be available by then, and so should be at the table. I haven’t 100% confirmed yet, but I may be there as well.

  10. Fred Hicks says:

    Man, I am so going to have to break away from the Evil Hat booth to get my grubby mitts on this if it’s going to be at Origins.

  11. GMSkarka says:

    @Fred: I can probably manage to bring one over to you when I’m lining up to get DRESDEN FILES. 🙂

  12. Dave Weinstein says:

    Any idea on when PDFs will be available?

  13. GMSkarka says:

    Same time. Also, the print edition will feature instructions for downloading a free PDF version.

  14. Tyler says:

    Steve Kenson designs a FUDGE-based game. Color me interested.

  15. Sim says:

    Looks interesting, you gotta love random character generators. WFRP, Cyberpunk 2020, Twilight 2000 – that old school feeling is classic!

  16. JJ says:

    Sounds very cool. I like that it is focused on quick startup and minimal prep. The randomness of superheroic PC doesn’t bug me like it once did. I enjoy the challenge of tying together different elements into a cohesive image. Looking forward to it.

  17. The Butcher says:


    That is all.

  18. David says:

    This touches me in places that in any other situation would be inappropriate.

    Oh, and:
    “(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!)”

    You dirty, dirty tease.

  19. Dispari says:

    WoW! As a big fan of BASH (another pickup-animated style Superhero System recently re-release in a “Ultimate Editon”) I’m very interested in Mr. Kenson take on Old School/classic superheroes RpG!

  20. […] Kenson talking about ICONS. […]

  21. Sketchpad says:

    Any need for playtesters? 😉

  22. GMSkarka says:

    I’m afraid playtesting was completed last year for this project…. But thank you for the interest!

  23. […] another iconic (heh) character, displaying a different take on the Aura power that he mentioned in his guest column a couple of weeks ago: Volcano! (Click the image for a […]

  24. […] Steve Kenson’s ICONS has got me taking Skyjack off the back burner. ICONS is a lightweight super hero system using a […]

  25. S. Rune Emerson says:

    Oooh… new toys! Very cool. I’m an utter M&M fan, but this sounds like it could have potential…

  26. […] Icons: I’m actually getting together a game of this starting in July, a gritty take on superheroes called “Needs Must.” There’s a wiki for Needs Must up on Obsidian Portal, although it’s still pretty rough at the moment. I haven’t run a game in a while, and Icons looks to be a good balance of entertaining fun and low-prep that I need at the moment. I’m curious how the idea of putting all dice-rolling into the player’s hands will work in practice, though. […]

  27. Mark Widner says:

    What I have not heard or read about is how does the GM create and stage the fights? Would we just roll up characters the same way the players would? Sounds a lot like arena style combat. Which is cool but I am trying to decide how much work I would need to do in order to stitch up a quick game.

  28. GMSkarka says:

    You should go to the main forum at RPGNet, there are a number of different threads with gamers discussing ICONS — that should help.

    To answer briefly — you can roll up villains or use any of the sample villains provided in the book. You’re not limited to “arena style combat” — there are adventure hooks for each villain, as well as a sample adventure provided in the book, and Adamant will be releasing PDF adventures (starting next week) as well.

Comments are closed.


February 2010