What about ICONS? A review…

ICONS RPG is a new superhero role-playing game by Adamant Entertainment. It has been enthusiastically received by the role-playing community, if blog posts and sales at RPG Now/Drive Thru RPG are any indication. Since first hearing about it I was excited! It’s designed by Steve Kenson who has worked in some of my favorite RPGs, I own various PDFs by Adamant that I’ve enjoyed very much, on top of that it integrates elements from FUDGE/FATE, which I’ve become interested on recently. So this was a no brainer. I did miss on the pre-order offer for various reasons, but as soon as it came out I snatched up a copy of the PDF and began to read. I was NOT disappointed.

In a nutshell ICONS is an easy to play, easy to pick up superhero game that harkens back to the classic superhero role-playing games of the 80s, specifically the old Marvel Superhero RPG, also called the FASERIP system, that got retro-cloned with the 4C system. It has all the charm of those old time games with a modern, simple and elegant mechanic with great touches that enhance the role-playing aspect of the game.

If you are a fan of superhero games, do yourself a favor and pick up ICONS. There is one caveat, if you are looking for Champions style granularity, or something like Mr. Kensosn’s Mutants and Masterminds, ICONS is not that. It’s light on rules but big on hearth, and believe me that is a good thing.

Want more details? Read on…

The first thing that struck me was the art style. The whole book is done in a very particular style by Dan Houser, reminiscent of the animated style often associated with modern superhero cartoons, like the Justice League or the more recent Batman team up series The Brave and the Bold. Art is abundant, the layout easy on the eye, the font easy to read. The tables take up a lot of the real estate, and I think some slight changes in the layout might have made the book even shorter (its 128 pages long including the ads) but I’m no expert on this. I’ll say this, I read about half of the book directly from the computer or on my iPhone and I had no trouble reading it.  The original PDF is a 9MB file, but I received an e-mail form Adamant letting me know a higher resolution copy is available for download where I purchased my copy.

In all sincerity the art took a little getting used to. I found it whimsical at first but eventually it became a little distracting. I would have loved other styles of art. I know what they were going for but I believe the system is strong enough to support all styles of superhero gaming, from over the top cartoon fun to more serious Watchmen style game and somebody who casually looks at the book in a book store or game store may dismiss it based on the art style. Don’t get me wrong I loved what Mr. Houser did, I just think the book would be better represented by a variety or art styles.

But that’s cosmetic, what about what’s under the hood? The game opens with an introduction to a very simple game mechanic and I think the discussion of the statistics and what results to expect is a strength that helps the reader understand what to expect from the system. The Determination mechanic, a resource available so characters can improve their chance of success, perform power stunts and other in game effects, seems a great balancing factor between super power houses and more down to earth heroes. The more powers you have the less Determination, so Superman has all the powers, but Batman has all the points to make his crazy plans work.

The idea that characters earn Determination through the complications and disadvantages (called Challenges in the game) they established for their characters enforces the tropes of the superhero genre. And I think this is one of the things the games does particularly well, emulate not only the superhero, but the situations and events typical to comic books. From Determination, to creating a team and how the Determination heroes contribute serve as resources to the members, to the role of leaders in hero groups, to catchphrases heroes utter,  all these elements emulate comic books, are quantified in the game, and reinforce the type of adventure that feel, well, super heroic!

Character generation is random, from assigning attributes in the order rolled, to rolling for the origin of the hero and number of powers. I’ve said it before; I’m NOT a fan of randomly generated heroes. But I did give it a chance (and the result is the topic of my previous post) and think it works. It harkened back to the days when I rolled characters using the Marvel Superheroes RPG, but the game has tweaks built in, like allowing you to swap two attributes and the inclusion of complimentary powers (called bonus powers in the game which can be confusing) within power descriptions that you can choose instead of rolling for the next random power, that lets you create a character with some internal consistency. If you don’t want random generation, there is simple point buy option in the book.

Power selection is varied enough that you can cover most powers you can think of. Undoubtedly someone will come up with some power that cannot be represented using the rules, but I can’t think of one for now. The descriptions are very general and some will require interpretation or house ruling, but I think this fits the style of play the game supports. This is a game that wants you to have fun first and foremost and worry about rules later.

My least favorite part of the book is the Taking Actions chapter. It lists the rules, attributes and what you can do with them like attacking and facing challenges and some of these concepts are important enough to have been explained with more details, perhaps a few additional examples. This alone may make the book a little harder to pick up by a newcomer which is a pity since this would be an ideal entry level superhero game. Character advancement is covered very briefly, integrated into the Determination mechanic, but this is one area of the game that could be expanded in future supplements.

The book could have been organized a little better, for example, an earlier discussion of what determination is. Reproducing important tables like material strength level and such in an appendix for easy reference. Some rules refer to other parts of the book and could have either been consolidated in one place or simply repeated. An index is something I always look for in a book. ICONS is small enough that you don’t get lost looking for things but an index would have been a great addition.

But these are minor complaints on an otherwise excellent book. The Game Master section is short but it contains solid advice on running the game and superhero campaigns in general. The sample villains are varied, colorful and fit many of the typical roles to be found in any superhero comic. The short sample adventure illustrates the concepts put forth in the Game Master chapter.

The game also includes some stock characters and creatures, enough to extrapolate much of what you will need. There is some discussion on weapon damage in the rules but I think some tables with real world items and their game effects would have been a good idea.

ICONS is not a game for someone looking to have every detail spelled out for them. It requires Game Master Interpretation, player trust and participation. So many modern games try to quantify every aspect of play and end up becoming endless lists of rules and exceptions. Not ICONS! ICONS is meant to be played by people who trust each other and want to tell a fun story together. That is the best recommendation I can think of for this game!

All this comes from reading the game, I’ve yet to put it to the test, as soon as I get to play I’ll come back and let you know how it went.

Go roll up a character and have fun! I want to hear your stories playing ICONS…

PS – Adamant Entertainment recently announced that all proceeds of ICONS for Kindle and iBooks will be donated to relief efforts surrounding the Gulf oil spill. Kudos to them for this! This is the kind of company to support.