Icons, a Fate-based superheroes game, was January’s game-of-the-month. It’s published by Adamant Entertainment and was designed by one of the designers of Mutants & Masterminds, another popular super hero RPG.
Like other games using the Fate system, Icons has relatively light-weight and open-ended mechanics. Most actions are resolved by rolling 1d6-1d6, an alternative to using Fudge dice, and adding that to a character’s level in the appropriate ability, such as prowess or intellect, or super power. These ability and power levels range from 1, ”weak, minimum human,” to 10, “cosmic or maximum superhuman.” Because the 1d6-1d6 roll produces a relatively narrow distribution, the 1-10 range is enough to have target numbers at the high end out of reach for characters with low abilities unless they use determination, Icons’ version of Fate points, to improve their odds.
Speaking of Fate points, the way that Icons handles aspects is a little different than other Fate games that I’ve played in that it expects positive, called Qualities, and negative aspects, called Challenges, rather than having just a single set of aspects. I think this made it easier for my players to come up with ideas, but it also produced a different feel to the game because the aspects ended up being clearly good or bad traits rather than more nuanced descriptions of the characters.
Character creation can be done either randomly or through a point buy system, but the author definitely encourages using the random method. The random character creation system uses a bunch of tables to determine a hero’s origin, abilities, and powers. These tables ended up working well because most of the powers are generic enough that a player is able to describe them in a number of ways. For example, the Blinding power could be pepper spray, a flash of light, or sticky spit that can cover the target’s eyes.
My group ended up consisting of four heroes. The Foreman, a spirit inhabiting a collection of rusty metal, had the ability to create illusions, paralyze enemies, and travel through time. Hellcat, a super-powered army clerk, could make rapid attacks, leap great distances, and read minds. Flare, a movie star transformed by biogenic photons, could blind targets, control plants, fly, and had a small amount of invulnerability. Finally, P.E.a.R.T was a drum-playing robot with the ability to fly, deflect attacks, and resist damage.
I ran Wages of Sin, the short adventure included in the Icons rulebook. The adventure opened up with the heroes rushing to the scene of a brawl between two supervillains, the Troll and Recluse. During the fight, they realized that Recluse seemed to be in a berserk rage. Hellcat and Flare then grappled with the monstrous man-spider and dragged him away from the fight. Meanwhile, the Foreman and P.E.a.R.T struggled to deal with the Troll’s invulnerability and eventually used a subway train to stop the monster. The group then learned that a man named Doctor Sin was behind Recluse’s attack on the Troll and also a museum robbery. They then tracked down the villain and defeated him and his ninja henchmen in a brawl.
Running the adventure was a lot of fun and the Fate system seemed to be a good match for a comic book inspired story. The game makes use of comic book terminology to really drive home that feeling. For example, a turn is refered to as a panel and a round as a page. The mechanical depth of the game also felt about right for superheroes – combat moved fast and powers were vague enough to encourage creativity while having enough rules to make it clear how actions should be resolved.
Enemies That Can’t Be Beat
The fight against the Troll was an interesting test of the game. None of the players had superheroes who were capable of dealing enough damage to overcome the Troll’s invulnerability, so they were forced to pursue alternative tactics. While the fight would have surely ended in all of the heroes dead if they tried a direct fight, they were able to use their other powers and the environment in order to defeat the villain. This seemed to be a good match for superhero comics where victory often involves realizing an enemy’s weakness or finding an interesting trick to give an advantage.
This idea that it’s okay to pit your players against an encounter they can’t beat in a straight up fight can be carried over into any game. In order to keep an encounter like this from feeling unfair, a GM needs to be willing to work with players and reward good ideas and players need to be creative and think outside the box. I encourage you to give an “unbeatable” enemy a try in whatever game you’re currently running, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
If you’re playing Icons or any other super hero game, then this web app could be really useful. It lets you design a super hero by using a selection of body part, costume, and prop designs. I found it too late to have my players create images for their heroes with it, but I’ll definitely be using it the next time I run a super hero game.
For the next game-of-the-month article, I’m running a session of Gamma World set in Sea-At-Ell. Stop by next month to see how the mutants handle giant man-eating crabs, crow-like caws, and other post-apocalyptic horrors.