Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Playtest Review: Icons, The Assembled Edition

At Gencon last August, I had a mission:  to find a super hero rules set that would work well for a game inspired by the anime and manga loved by the kids in the gaming group.  Furthermore, I wanted something that didn't have too many rules, was easy to learn and run, and had a tremendous amount of flexibility to bring to life the crazy trump-filled battles you see in manga-inspired anime shows.

We settled on trying Icons as the rules set, and I couldn't be more delighted.  Here's a look at the game.

As a physical artifact, the Icons Assembled Edition book is nicely done  - it's comic sized, smaller than a typical hardcover, with mid-sized print making it an easy read.  Icons is written by Steve Kenson, the author of Mutants & Masterminds.  You may wonder why a writer would put out two competing super hero rules sets.  Mutants & Masterminds has all the crunchy bits and levers to fine tune character building and optimization for the d20 crowd.  It's a much different experience than the fast and loose character generation and game play of Icons.  The Icons material has a distinctive art style by Dan Houser, reminiscent of Bruce Timm's work for various animated DC properties that brings to mind high-paced animated adventures.

The actual game mechanics are simple, using a scale of 1 - 10 for most abilities and one or two 6-sided dice for the dice rolls.  The core dice mechanic involves opposed rolls, combining an ability and a d6 roll versus an ability and d6 roll from the opponent.  I have no prior exposure to the mechanics of the Fate system, but it's mentioned a few times that Icons borrows from "Fate Core".  There is also a standard list of super powers in the core book, along with a large set of proposed extras and limits to customize the powers.  The centerpiece of Icons is the flexible use of Qualities and Determination Points to fuel creative expansion of character abilities and super powers during play.

Qualities were the most difficult thing for my players to develop for their characters, and after two game sessions, they're still trying to refine them as they elaborate their characters.  Qualities are descriptive phrases about the character - why they're special, or what motivates them,  their catch phrases, things like that.  If you read comics or watch the super hero movies, it's easy to identify qualities for your favorite characters or teams:

  • The Dark Knight
  • The World's Greatest Detective
  • Faster than a Speeding Bullet, Able to Leap Tall Buildings with a Single Bound
  • Last Son of Krypton
  • With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
  • I'm the Amazing Spider-Man
  • Children of the Atom

For the anime fans, a popular character like Naruto could be expressed like this:

  • I'm going to be Hokage someday, believe it
  • I never go back on my word, that's my ninja way
  • I carry the chakra of the Nine-Tailed Fox sealed inside me

A lot of the game play during an Icons adventure involves using Determination Points (a limited, expendable resource) to creatively extend the character's abilities for single-use advantages, and accepting problems thrown at the character by the referee to get more Determination Points.  It's an improvisational, back and forth mechanic, which allows the game to represent an endless number of maneuvers, powers, capabilities, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities without laboriously documenting them in the rules and power descriptions before game play.

Icons has measured up well to our expectations.  As a fan of old school games, I love that it uses a random character generation method.  Nothing forces a player to engage creatively more than having to make sense of a pile of random abilities and super powers.  That being said, the character generation supports tailoring the character once the basics are rolled randomly, so it's definitely possible to nudge them towards a vision.  For the faint of heart, there is a point-buy option.

Icons uses qualitative descriptors for abilities that hearken back to the halcyon days of TSR's Marvel Super Heroes game.  We have characters with Great stamina, Amazing strength, and Incredible awareness.  It's a small thing, but I appreciate the tip of the cap back to the earlier days of the hobby.

The author calls out repeatedly that this was developed as a "beer and pretzels" super hero game - well suited to one-shots and pick up games.  We'll see how it goes for a few weeks before I gauge whether the players want to run a regular campaign with Icons (versus the dungeon crawling we were doing earlier in the summer).  All signs point to yes.  There are some basic advancement rules to support campaign play and character development.  Game balance with the random characters is a consideration for campaigns as well.  We have one character nicknamed "Kid Galactus" - the kids in the group refer to him as "totally OP, man".  A future house rule could be to add a range limit to the character's point totals, so that there isn't a wide a gap between the player character power levels if one of the random characters seems overpowered.

We've run two games in my anime-inspired FFA setting - Future Fantasy America.  I've also been calling it American Ninja Cowboys.  The players have been having a good time.  The 'American Ninja Cowboys' (or Rangers) of "Orca Team 6" from Pine City have been battling the evil Replicant Dioxide, an artificial life form built by the Ancients in the time before the current age.  I'll post game reports and additional notes on the setting later this week to provide more insight into what we've been able to do with the rules.