Monday, 16 November 2015


Anyone who knows me or has been reading this blog for any amount of time knows I'm a sucker for superheroes. I have an embarrassing amount of comic books, and also an embarrassing amount of superhero roleplaying games. Old, new, flashy, gritty. I like them all, for various reasons.

A few years ago, Steve Kenson - a name that should be familiar to superhero gamers everywhere, as he created the superintelligent mechagorilla of modern superhero RPGs, MUTANTS & MASTERMINDS - released a thin volume called ICONS. This non-M&M game was meant to be lighter on the rules and big on old-school action, with random powers generation just like in VILLAINS & VIGILANTES, back in the day. A "pick up and play" game, something that you could dive into quickly and have a superhero adventure that would leave a big grin on your face.

That's for me, I said, plunking down my money so fast it may have bounced off the Flash's head.

Check out that sweet Dan Houser artwork. You're grinning already, aren't you?
We played a few sessions of ICONS, and we had some fun with it, but the more we played the more the rough edges started to show. This rules set was a bit of a departure, and the first edition was in real need of polish. Some of the mechanics were a bit on the clunky side, and they were an irritant during play. What chafed the most were the fact that this was clearly descended from FATE, but it was only a poor cousin, not doing the things my players (FATE veterans) expected from a game descended from those rules. On the GM side, the poor organization of the first edition chafed a lot. The choice to arrange the powers according to what kind of power they were, rather than simply arranging them alphabetically, was a nightmare.

That game fell apart after a while, partly because of the issues with the game, and partly because of a poor social contract created by myself and the players. It had a lot of great moments, but a real sense that it was a game that was going in too many directions. Piles of energy, but lacking focus. That sums up my feelings about the first edition of ICONS too.

But wait, True Believer! There's good news!

In 2014, Steve Kenson released ICONS: THE ASSEMBLED EDITION on an unsuspecting cosmos. And as I was reading it this week, I got a big grin on my face, just as I did with the first edition. Everything that I loved about the original was still there, but it had been improved in many ways. 

Let's start with the things that are the same. The brightly-coloured Dan Houser artwork that gave the first edition its character is back, with piles of new art featuring some familiar characters (like the grinning green behemoth, The Mighty Saguaro!) and a few new faces, both heroes and villains. Houser's art does a great job of helping create the tone of this game, which is what really distinguishes it from most of the other games on the market. ICONS embraces the old school superheroes, clad in dazzling costumes, dealing out justice with their atomic fists and a smile. Dour modern heroes can go mope somewhere else, this is about iconic, classic characters in the mold of Paul Dini's animated DC universe, or the more recent (and overtly melodramatic-comedic) Batman vehicle, THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD. It's a game that would appeal to young players, and the mechanics are sufficiently simple that they would eat this game up.

One of the signature characters in ICONS, Miss Tikal. 
The organizational issues have been corrected. It's an easy enough fix, but it quickly remedies a big, big problem with the original game. The game text grounds readers in rules basics, then explains how to make characters, details powers, and finally a more developed discussion of the rules. The final section of the book discusses the game from the GM's side of the screen, with excellent advice about how to create a series. Throughout, there are detailed examples that really help clarify the whole game nicely.

The game rules are now a lot closer to standard FATE, with Qualities - the game's Aspects-analogue - functioning just as FATE players would expect them to. This helps simplify things mightily. One thing that drives me crazy, though, is that the game feels the need to change names unnecessarily, something that cannot help but create confusion. If you're using FATE-descended mechanics, why not simply call an Aspect an Aspect? The differences here are not large enough to make a huge difference, and I'm not a big believer in novelty for its own sake. (I could punch game designers who feel the need to give GMs a novel title instead of sticking with the standard, invisible "Game Moderator"/"Master". Steve Kenson doesn't, it's just something that bugs me.)

I would love to see a true second edition of this game that aligned it more closely with FATE Core rules, with the language around actions brought into line with the standard "Four Actions" in that game and their usual structure (Failure, Success at a Cost, Success, Success with Style).

In addition to the expansive examples of play, there is additional content here that appeared in other ICONS supplements originally: Villain creation rules, and Universe creation rules. These extras and the clean-ups are worth the price of admission all by themselves.

Minor gripes aside, this is a rousing revision of a game that I liked a lot. It's very heartening to see designers listening to the feedback from enthusiastic players, then acting on that feedback in the most effective way possible. I love MUTANTS & MASTERMINDS an awful lot, and own every edition of the rules, but I'm much more likely to try to run a superhero game with ICONS if I get the chance. If you like comics and superhero RPGs like I do, you will love the heck out of this game.

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