10 Things to like about the ICONS RPG

1. Beer & Pretzels superhero role-playing
I don’t mean that this is a game about Beer & Pretzels in the same way that D&D is about Dungeons & Dragons (though that would be kinda cool. Weird, but cool). ICONS is an RPG you can pick up and be playing in under an hour, though also has a surprising amount of lasting depth when you look under the hood. This is a lite game with drop dead simple core rules that uses only the humble d6 throughout – perfect for those times you left your best dice at home. Prep-time is minimal (create villain, dream up situation, ready to play) meaning it’s an ideal pickup game when you’re a player short in your main campaign too.

I can see this being the first Superhero game many role-players of other genres (I’m looking at you, diehard D&D’ers) play, and it’s solid enough to remain as system of choice. Folks, you’ve not lived until you have said “I pick up the train and hit him with it” with a straight face. You need this.

2. The players roll all the dice
This is one element of the game I, as GM, 100% approve – the players roll all the dice. This leaves me free to concentrate on the story while the heroes’ fates are (literally) in the hands of their owners.

It’s a simple enough concept – the dice always remain at the players’ side of the table. If they attack a villain, they roll to hit. If the villain attacks the heroes, the players roll to defend. That might take a little getting used to if you’re accustomed to everyone using the same rules, but in play it really does speed things up around the table. I like.

The system has a choice of two (mathematically equal) dice mechanics. Either use 2 differently coloured d6s, one for positive, one negative. Roll them both and take one away from the other. Alternatively (and the option we picked), just roll 2d6-7. Either way you end up with a number from -5 to +5 along a bell curve. Apply that to relevant stat, power or whatever to get a result. If it’s equal or higher than the target value, the difference is how much you succeed by (0-2 is a Moderate success, etc). As dice mechanics go, it’s simple, intuitive, and darned fast in play.

3. Random Generation
I know I keep banging on about it, but Random Character Generation rocks. Whilst ICONS does have an optional points-based system as a kind of grumbling afterthought, it’s the random system which truly shines. It brings back hot summer childhood memories of rolling characters up (first in Golden Heroes, later in Marvel RPG) and trying to work out how the heck a character with Burrowing, Shrinking and Telepathy could hang together (introducing Mind Worm, the brain eating superhero!).

Like all the best random character generation engines, ICONS isn’t truly 100% random. Many powers have an optional Bonus Power which takes up one of the hero’s available powers slots but helps give a degree of consistency to the hero. For example, a hero who rolls Stretching could take Invulnerability as well to represent the elasticity of their form. My one complaint is that “Bonus Power” is a misnomer – it’s not a bonus at all as it uses up one of the rolled Power slots. Something like “Optional Power” or “Power Choice” would have been a better term, imho.

4. Determination points
These are ICONS’ answer to Hero or Action Points. They are gained when a role-playing Aspect of your character (your catchphrase, motivation, etc) comes into play, the GM triggers one of your Challenges (your arch enemy, love interest, weakness, etc), for making the GM laugh out loud, etc. In M&M, the game plays at it’s best when the Hero Points fly thick and fast across the table and ICONS is just the same.

As with Mutants & Masterminds, these points can be used in many ways – improving the degree of success on an important roll (Do you stop the train? Be Determined and you do!), pulling off Stunts, shaking off damage and even influencing the story by Retconning in details. For example, a hero could spend a Determination point for there to “just happen” to be a passing sand truck to catch his fall as he plummets to certain death.

Somewhat cunningly, Determination is also a balancing factor in the Character Generation. Those heroes unlucky enough to roll few Powers begin each session with more starting Determination points – meaning what they lack in cool flashy abilities they gain in the ability to really shake things up in-game. Batman, anyone?

5. Team Creation
Generation doesn’t stop when the characters are rolled. It’s Team time! Every superhero team needs a name, home-base and unique set of Challenges (a team-wide group of enemies, in-fighting, government meddling, etc). Spandex uniforms are optional. Each member of the team contributes one point of Determination into a pool, and the GM adds another just because being in a team is a Good Thing. If one of the heroes has the Leadership speciality that also adds more points to the pool. For example, a team such as the Fantastic Four could have a Determination Pool of 8 (assuming Reed Richards has Leadership 3).

These points can be used by any member of the team provided the other players approve of their use. One interesting option is for the group to spend them to gain access to kewl Team Stuff such as the team’s Hydrojet, secret Satellite HQ and the like.

6. Named Levels
These are optional but what ex-Marvel RPG gamer can’t weep for joy at being able to write Strength (Amazing) on your character sheet once more? Each rank from 1 to 10 has three optional names (for example Rank 7 is “Fantastic, Incredible, Wonderful”) which can be used to describe the attribute. The attributes fall into three bands: 1-2 is below human average, 3-6 in human attainable and 7-10 is superhuman. It’s not incredibly granular but perfect for the lighter gaming experience. ICONS isn’t about deciding whether Superman or Captain Marvel is strongest – we have M&M and the upcoming DC Universe RPG for that – but about getting down and playing the game. Named levels help get a rough idea of where existing superheroes sit on the scale though. Rank 8 is Amazing for a reason – Spiderman, I’m looking at you.

This has absolutely no mechanical benefit whatsoever. And I love it.

7. One book gaming
Yet again, it’s a single book (ok, PDF. For now.) containing all you need to play. There’s no DMG or Monster Manual to add on the expense; it’s all right here. While the PDF is 129 pages long it feels much shorter, and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a quick, easy rule system to read through in one sitting. It even manages to include a generous selection of ready-made Villains (my favourite is the Octofather) complete with a selection of adventure ideas for each. Add in stats for Thugs, Ninjas, Zombies, Innocent Bystanders, Animals, Dinosaurs and much more, and you’ve got hundreds (if not thousands) of hours-worth of gaming goodness, right there. Not bad at all, I’d say.

8. Random Adventure Creator
Oh I love these, and there’s one ready and waiting on page 90 of ICONS. Roll 1d6 four times to get a verb-noun pair, pick a Villain and you’re ready to play. For example, a roll of 1, 6, 4, 1 gives us “Destroy Artefact”. I’d pick Baron Kriminel for this one. He has discovered that the original Baron isn’t dead but has his soul stored in a stone jar concealed somewhere in Hope City. Can the heroes find it before he smashes it, releasing his terrible twisted mentor on the world?

Game on!

9. It’s written by Steve Kenson
Him wot wrote the bloody brilliant Mutants & Masterminds. Yes, him. This is Steve’s lighter, less crunchy superhero option (Lower carbs! Great taste!) – perfect for those folks who feel that M&M is too rules heavy for them, or just want to dip their toe into the superhero gaming genre for the first time.

Need I say more?

Oh yes, I almost forgot….

10. The price
$29.99 is, I feel, a little steep for a PDF product, even one as great as this. For thirty bucks I want to know a tree has suffered, dammit! Happily though, right now ICONS is half-price – just $14.95 gets you all this gamery goodness. Grab it before it’s too late!

This wulf approves. 9/10.

UPDATE: ICONS is now only two dollars! You really have no excuse not to buy and play this mini-marvel of a role-playing game. Go get it!

28 Comments on “10 Things to like about the ICONS RPG”

  1. I do believe that I heard in a PodCast recently Steve said that even in the new DC Adventures (M&M 3E) Superman and Captain Marvel have the same strength. ;-)

    Yes, I’ve been loving on ICONS. There are some areas of the game that I haven’t quite wrapped my brain around and probably won’t until I’ve gotten a chance to play it.
    .-= DarkTouch´s last blog ..Senor Misterioso for ICONS =-.

    1. I heard that too. Won’t stop people from endlessly debating which is strongest and writing up their own versions though (I say Superman) :D

      I look forward to your first playtest report.

    1. Wait until you see my next post – I’ve written a conversion for Iron Man from the Marvel RPG, just to show how it’s done. I suspect you might like it!

  2. The system has a choice of two (mathematically equal) dice mechanics. Either use 2 differently coloured d6s, one for positive, one negative…. Alternatively (and the option we picked), just roll 2d6-7. Either way you end up with a number from -5 to +5 along a bell curve.

    Couldn’t you also choose to roll2 differently coloured dice and just keep the lower as your result, eliminating the math entirely?

    1. No, because that will only give you a number from 1 to 6. To get a range from -5 to +5, either taking one die away from the other (take the red die from the blue die, for example), or rolling 2d6-7 works best.

      1. It works out the same. You declare the Positive and the Negative dice as normal but when you roll you select the lowest absolute die value. So far example -3 and +5 gets you -3, +1 and -6 gets you +1. Duplicates count as 0.

        Its one of 5 trillion variant FATE rolls.

  3. The inclusion of both the random chargen and the point-buy system is actually part of what sold me on ICONS. Not being allowed to make the character I want to make is generally a non-starter for me, but there are times when I don’t have my own ideas or when I don’t plan to get terribly invested, and that’s when the dice rolls and tables come in handy. The random ICONS chargen reminds me strongly of the old FASERIP Marvel system (I don’t think this is a coincidence) and should come up with some interesting results.

    I also like the way it handles Aspects (which I ordinarily do not care for) and I don’t mind the d6-d6 rolling (which, again, I ordinarily do not like). So that’s three things I don’t typically like in a game that ICONS does in a way that I think I can enjoy. That speaks volumes to me. I’m definitely going to enjoy this one.

    1. Agreed. I’m a fully signed up Mutants & Masterminds fanboi but there’s something about ICONS which appeals. It manages to combine the best of both Marvel RPG and M&M and put it together in a light, fast package that just hits the spot.

      Looking forward to kicking off a full story arc soon!

  4. I want to love ICONS but I don’t. I like it for sure but as someone who counts super hero comic book gaming among his favorite genres, I find this game almost too simple. Because there are only 10 ‘power levels’ and very few rules to differenciate one power from another, many of the characters generated with this system seem to ‘taste the same’.

    I’m a big comic book fan and its much easier for me to generate a cool superhero, code name and costume included, than it is for me to create a character for D&D for instance. As a result, random superhero generation is a fun curiousity that’s good for some laughs or to challenge myself but I just don’t know a single player or GM who would use it to play a campaign.

    I eagerly await DC Adventures and M&M 3E!
    .-= Adam Dickstein´s last blog ..Secret Origins – Part II =-.

    1. Our own superhero campaign was born about 30 years ago using Golden Heroes, then Marvel RPG and through several other systems to M&M right now. I guess you could count us as the guys who have successfully run a campaign using random character generation – some of those first random heroes are still very much alive and well to this day :D

      Where random chargen helps is to avoid the Batman/Superman syndrome where every character is either a supertalented normal or a strong dude who can fly and fire blasts of energy. My favourite heroes (and villains, for that matter) began life as a couple of random rolls for inspiration. Sometimes I still use the Marvel RPG to spawn ideas before building the character using M&M. A little randomness keeps things fresh, even though I’m far from short on ideas myself. And it keeps the players guessing.

      Each to their own, of course :D

  5. I’m greatly tempted to purchase the PDF at the sale price. But that there’s no option for print… I can’t legally have this done print-on-demand, correct?

    Greywulf: Tempting Me to Buy Stuff Since 2008.

    1. I know exactly what you mean. I just bought the PDF. Greywulf, you’ve made me buy so many good RPG purchases! I love it!

  6. My problem is that I don’t really have people to RPG with. I own several RPGS, all waiting for the slight chance to be played one day, but the price is a little steep for a “slight chance”

      1. Wow. It was sort of a factitious question, but in the, what, one week since Icons was published someone has already put out this fan supplement. That’s cool.

  7. many of the characters generated with this system seem to ‘taste the same’.

    Moon Knight. Batman. Nighthawk. The Midnighter. Darkwing.

    It’s a feature, not a bug. ;) It’s all about how the character is portrayed, not their statistics. After all, Thor is essentially a variant of Captain Marvel (Shazam!) in terms of abilities, but the trappings and personality are different enough to separate them.

  8. Great review. The random generation reminds me of a supers system that Games Workshop sold in the 80s back before they went over to miniature wargaming almost exclusively. That random generation is one of the things I’ve seen people say they liked, for the same reasons you gave.

    I’m curious though; what upcoming DC Universe RPG? I did a search, eagerly hoping a new DC RPG was forthcoming, but all I found was references to the WEG DC Universe system(and of course the old standby DC Heroes).

    1. That’ll be Golden Heroes. It was one of the first Superhero systems to be released and way ahead of its time in terms of game design. Unfortunately some of the rules (the Parry rules in particular) were incomprehensible, but apart from that it was a terrific game. It’s even still alive, as Squadron UK!

      DC Universe is coming along very nicely. Rules-wise it’s 3rd Edition Mutants & Masterminds (which will also be released as a stand-alone ruleset at the same time) and an evolution of the current 2e system. Some of the rules will change (Feats are gone/altered and stats are now replaced with just the bonuses, etc), but most of the system should be familiar to we hardcore 2e M&M gamers.

      The best source of information about DCU is the main DCU site in which Steve Kenson is posting his design journals and teasers on the run-up to launch. Looking good so far!

  9. greywulf:

    I almost forgot – there’s Icons & Sorcery (pdf), a fan conversion of ICONS suitable for low fantasy gaming. It’s well worth a look.
    So the answer is “yes” :D

    Two things:
    1- Do you know who is doing this conversion and how to get in touch with them? There’s no email/website and the root URL for that file has nothing.

    2- Check out the Icons game I hope to run at Gen Con this year. See the link to my post right below. :-D

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