Fans of animated superhero series may have just found the perfect tabletop RPG. From Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends to Batman Beyond, Icons: the Assembled Edition is designed to help you recreate those bold, colorful, Saturday morning adventures.
Superhero RPGs have a reputation for being heavy on math and packed with crunchy tables and lists of superpowers. This rep is sometimes deserved (Hero System 6th Edition was over 700 pages), sometimes not (Marvel Heroic's dice pools are fast and fun). If you look at the superhero RPGs currently in print, most of them involve point-buy character creation systems that require thought, analysis, and a fair amount of free time.
Steve Kenson should know, since he designed one of them. Kenson created Mutants & Masterminds (and the DC Adventures offshoot), an adaptation of the venerable D20 system for the superhero genre. When I talked to Kenson at Gen Con in August, he told me he wanted an alternative to point-buy systems and math-heavy action, adn that's why he designed Icons.
Icons uses a pair of six-sided dice and a fairly lightweight action resolution system. We could talk about the bell curve of 2D6 probability versus the flat probability of D12 here, but the interesting thing about the Icons system isn't rolling dice. It's Determination.
A lot of what happens during an Icons encounter is a negotiated exchange of Determination Points between the players and the GM. Players can spend Determination Points to use special abilities and make exciting actions, or to avoid certain bad things that supervillains might try to inflict on them. The GM can give out Determination Points as a sort of payment for doing something terrible to the heroes without bothering to roll for it.
This seems anathema to RPGing at first. The whole point is to use probabilities to resolve conflicts, right? But allowing the GM to go ahead and say, "SquidLord summons a humpback whale, and it swallows you whole," can lead to much more interesting encounters than rolling a Summon Animal check, then making a swallow attack with the whale… hold on while I look up whale stats, oh wait the whale rolled crappy so that didn't work out. One of those versions of events results in a crazy story you tell your gamer friends about. The other version, probably not.
Now obviously, this could get frustrating if the GM overuses or abuses it. The players have ways to counteract these maneuvers (with Determination Points), but used appropriately this kind of rule can create adventures with a very fun comic book feel, and it's the aspect of Icons I'm most excited about.
But don't take my word for it. We talked to Icons creator Steve Kenson about the game's goals and origins.
io9: For gamers who mainly know you from Mutants & Masterminds, how is Icons (the Assembled Edition in particular) different?
Steve Kenson: I tend to refer to Icons as a "pick-up" game, since it's intended as an RPG where you can sit down, roll up a character in 15 minutes or so, and be ready to play in short order. Much as I enjoy the detailed character creation tools in M&M, sometimes you want a game you can just bust out and run with. Game play in Icons is similarly intended to be quick and pretty easy for players to pick up.
io9: What did you learn from the design of Mutants & Masterminds that informed the creation of Icons?
Kenson: I learned a lot about the structure of superhero stories from M&M, and brought that same sense of structure to Icons. M&M players will certainly recognize some resonance in Icons' system of Determination (a player-controlled resource) and how it builds up in play and in Icons' approach to things like stunts, which is even broader than M&M in some ways.
io9: Although Icons can support any style of superheroic roleplaying, the rules, tone, and art really suggest to me a bold, colorful, almost Saturday morning cartoon kind of theme. Was there a conscious decision to steer away from the post-modern grim comic book style?
Kenson: Yes, it was. The style (and the work of line artist Dan Houser) was intended to give Icons a "lighter" feel, both as a game and in terms of subject matter. I really wanted to evoke an "animated series" kind of approach, in much the same way animated series like Justice League stripped a lot of the comics down to their iconic elements, I wanted Icons to do the same for superhero RPGs.
io9: What's your favorite superteam of all time?
Kenson: That's always a tough question but I've got to say "classic" incarnations of the Justice League featuring most (if not all) of the seven founding members, along with a lot of the JLA characters from the late Silver and early Bronze Ages of the comics. The X-Men, Avengers, and Justice Society all run close seconds, but the Justice League, when they're well written as the pantheon of DC's greatest heroes, really can't be beat.