Friday, October 10, 2014

Character Generation for Icons - the American Ninja Cowboys campaign

Earlier in the week we I posted a review of Icons, a superhero RPG.  We're taking a short break from dungeon crawling to give the players a chance to play super powered soldiers in my anime-inspired 'American Ninja Cowboys' campaign.  It takes place thousands of years after the apocalypse.  In the wake of the great fall, the barriers separating the magic and spirit realms from Earth are weakened, and humans have developed the ability to perform spirit-crafting.  The 5 Nations of future fantasy America (FFA) have each developed a super-powered police force to maintain peace between the nations and combat the threat posed by the giant, lumbering spirit monsters (kaiju) that wander the wastes between nations.  At the start of the game, the players are all citizens of Pine City and members of the Pine City Rangers, the elite fighting force that helps protect the wooded northwest.

Most of the players rolled characters randomly using the Icons random generation method; one of them was fixated on a character concept and opted for the point buy.   Here's how it went.

The group leader is Tex, an ex con-man criminal from the Earth Nation that is turning a new leaf (haha) in Pine City.  Tex has the ability to become immaterial (the Texas two-step), create clone duplicates of himself (summoning the Republic of Tex), and can increase his density to add strength and damage resistance (because everything is bigger in Texas).  Unbeknownst to Tex, shadowy forces in the Earth Nation arranged for him to be in Pine City and join the rangers - he's an unknowing sleeper agent!

Inazuma is one of the Five Legendary Swordsmen of the mountains.  He uses the sword lightning style, which gives him a touch of super speed and electricity control (he electrifies his swords into lightning blades) and he's a master swordsman.  He can also leap multiple city blocks with 'lightning leaps'.  This character was made by one of the kids using point-buy.

Haruki's parents were agents for Pine City and perished on a mission, leaving her a pair of enchanted iron fans and a kabuki style mask.  She's a talented martial artist with enhanced strength, but she can form an impenetrable barrier with her fans (called something like 'Iron Tower Fan Defense') and can even reflect ranged attacks back at the attacker.  Haruki's defenses are a handful for the referee.

Trapper Keeper (TK)
TK also possesses an enchanted item, it's something like 'The Cursed Jade Mask of the Oni' or similarly named - I don't have the sheets with me.  He appears like a smallish man wearing a heavy cloak and hood with only the Oni Mask visible.  He can drain strength from opponents with the Evil Eye and manipulate their fears.  The mask grants immunity to mental attacks as well.  The player got the name when he was brainstorming… "Well, I see myself hunting and trapping dangerous occult beings, and then keeping them…"

Kid Galactus
The character's actual name is Kodama the Forest Spirit, but I've been referring to him as Kid Galactus because of his power level.  He's not of this world, an unearthly creature of the spirit world that believes it's a human and was raised by animals in the forests.  He can transform into an energy being and gains the ability to absorb magic attacks.  He flies, shoots magic energy, and also has super strength.  He's the over-powered heavy hitter of the team.

Black Russian
We don't know a lot about this character yet - he always wears his cloak and stays in the shadows.  Highly trained, he's focused on stealth skills and martial arts.  He can manipulate darkness and shadows, and is accompanied by Sergeant Ruffington, a talking, highly intelligent spirit hound that can slip between the real-world and the spirit world, and turn invisible.  Black Russian isn't very smart, but Ruffington is a genius and has a suite of super senses.

The core group is 3 adults, 3 kids; GPL's player is technically a 4th kid, but I don't think he's going to keep playing.  He's wandered off through both game sessions after about 45 minutes and then completely disappeared.  Apparently I'm just that good of a referee!  His character can control air currents, which provides a blend of air powers and telekinesis type effects.  He wears one of those anime-style 'swords too big to hold and swing' on his back, and lets his telekinesis swing it around.

Officially, the player's group name is Orca Team 6 to their commanders back in Pine City, but their unofficial name is something like the Northwest Otter Patrol.  I was really happy with how character generation went and some of the concepts created by the players; score another check mark for random generation inspiring creative concepts and backgrounds.  It took until the first game session for most of the players to land on the Qualities they wanted for their characters; I'll work those into the game reports as appropriate.

Next up, a look at how the game sessions went.

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.