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Ian O'Rourke
United Kingdom
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The ICONS Conundrum
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

For ages, my go to superhero role-playing game has always been Mutants and Masterminds. When I say go to, I mean 'pick it off the shelf when I have random musings that will go nowhere'. This has been the case since the first edition was released in 2002 up until about the last year or so. At some point, things changed while the game sat on the shelf. It suddenly just felt way too complicated and had D20 elements that were irritating (probably not the elements people think). It no longer felt like the right tool for the job.

The problem is, if you look around at the alternatives, you get the same feeling from most games. The older games are out of print and even if you can get them they are clunky. You also find a lot of them fall into the too complex category or are way too simple (or designed to delivery a vastly different play experience). You find yourself looking for something a bit in the middle but you're never exactly sure what that middle is. Then along comes ICONS, promising to be somewhere between Mutants and Masterminds and games like Truth and Justice as well as being FATE-inspired.

What is ICONS? In the first instance, it's a FATE-inspired superhero game. In the second instance, it's pretty much a FATE-inspired re-imaging of the Basic Marvel Superheroes RPG. This isn't a value judgement, it's just the best way to describe it. It shares the relative simplicity, the random power generation, the abstraction over ranges and other criteria, the relatively limited power configurations, the types of combat result (just without the colour coded table, etc). It even has the snazzy names for power levels.

ICONS has some great stuff going on. It has Aspects, which is never a bad thing, but splits them up into Qualities (generally positive and negative) and Challenges (negative) and categories for each. It's quite structured. I love the fact that all rolls are made from the point of view of the player, this was one of the great features of the Marvel Superhero Saga game, it's good it's carried over into ICONS. The player rolls to hit, but when the enemy tries to hit the players rolls to dodge, etc. In theory, the GM doesn't even need dice. No skills list, just a method of denoting specialities. Determination is also great, essentially FATE points, as their use is channelled through Aspects, but they are also used to do the stunt-style stuff featured in the original Marvel game and Mutants and Masterminds after it (the way to access power variations heroes in the comics pull out of their ass or use sparingly). I suspect it'll also play really fast. As in really, really fast. There isn't going to be any 60-minute combats to add to the actual play time in this game. This might also be a good thing, giving the game the feeling of a fast-paced comic, with concentrated stories that fit into a single issue despite having 2-3 fights.

The not so great? Well, I think it call comes down to the simplicity of it. Is it too simple? I find myself not wanting to declare it so but the thought bothers me from the recesses of my brain. The list of powers is far from being limited, but at the same time I'd hardly say it inspired me. I'm also not a big fan of random character generation, it just engenders a disposable feel for me and has too much potential for comedy value (sadly the character creation example is a case in point). It didn't exactly inspire me to create characters. It's also very granular, in that there is only so many powers you can select and very little manipulation you can do with them beyond having a different power level. I realise it's this very 'configurability' that makes Mutants and Masterminds complex in character creation, but it does come back to finding the perfect spot on the complexity scale. In keeping with FATE, it doesn't really offer much in the way of character improvement. There is possibly some deconstruction to do on the character generation front.

Finally, the chosen art direction is terrible. It's not that each piece of art is dire, I recognise the 'cartoon-inspired' feel they were going for, but that style throughout the book just generates a disposal, light, fluffy and not entirely serious feel. Possibly that's intentional, maybe the game is only good for creating a few randomly generated characters and giving them a one-shot or not much longer run? The term beer and pretzels role-playing game annoys me and is an instant turn off. I'd like to think not, but if that isn't true the art doesn't help. It just doesn't engender you to take the book seriously, and if art communicates actual play, that neither.

Final verdict? I'm not sure. It could be the set of superhero rules that is perfect for the mini-series style campaigns we are supposedly moving to. The worrying part of it is reading the books doesn't immediately scream that it is. It just doesn't immediately generate an 'Oh Yeah!' response. The irony is, reading Mutants and Masterminds is more inspiring despite the irritation factors. Possibly, it just changes the irritations. Pity. A part of me thinks it needs to be played not read, but that doesn't really avoid the character creation issues.

Early days. It's only an initial read through and I'm certainly distracted at the moment. So we'll see.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/10/2010 Bookmark and Share
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