Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Examination of the ICONS RPG

Today I’m evaluating the ICONS RPG, a superhero RPG that is based on the FATE RPG system.

ICONS differs substantially from the FATE system. It is not, like the other FATE role-playing games I’ve looked at (Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures), an expression of the FATE system adapted for a specific genre. Rather, the designer took the FATE system as inspiration and tinkered with it to create a new game system. My particular interest today is in calling out what changes the designer made.

First, what I found most entertaining about ICONS is that as I read the rules, I realized it was actually a merger between the FATE system and TSR’s old Marvel Superheroes RPG, and most of the variation from FATE can be explained in this context. I have a sentimental fondness for Marvel Superheroes, and I was very amused to see its old rules coming back again.

However, I should note that while there were certain aspects of Marvel Superheroes I thought were pretty cool, even when it first came out I was never too impressed by the way it played; I found it clunky and primitive compared to Champions. So being amused by the parallels doesn’t necessarily mean I think that they make the ICONS system good.

Pretty much all of the significant game rule variations from FATE which I want to call out are based on making it more like Marvel Superheroes. Here is my list:

The system for ranking skills and difficulties is a 1 to 10 scale instead of the –3 to +8 scale of FATE, and each ranking corresponds to an MSH rank from Feeble to Unearthly. I’ve always had a peculiar fondness for the MSH ranks and I’ve used them in my own games on occasion, so this really amuses me. I also like how ICONS improves on the system by matching each rank with a sensible number from 1 to 10, and how ICONS renames the top two ranks (I was never too fond of the naming of the rank “Monstrous” in MSH).

A big change from the FATE system is that ICONS is attribute-based rather than skill-based, and the attributes are based on the Marvel Superheroes FASERIP system, but with different names. Psyche has been replaced with Willpower, which incorporates the Presence statistic from Champions. Endurance has essentially been merged with Strength, and the new Stamina value replaces the old Health value.

If you look at what this change from FATE really means, it is that the medium-sized skill list from FATE has been merged into 6 uber-skills. You can then buy Specialties, which like Skills in MSH, increase your attribute by a fixed amount in one specific area, equivalent to a single FATE skill. But basically, the ICONS system is much more coarse-grained than FATE; the team genius is the unquestioned master of all intellectual skills, rather than splitting the skills more evenly among the party as you might expect in the other FATE games. I think the assumption is that your characters will be defined much more by their superpowers, and skills are streamlined and relegated to a secondary role.

The recommended character generation system is based on random rolls and has nothing to do with the skill pyramid system of FATE. I don’t recommend random character generation as a way to create balanced and personalized characters, but random character generation is fun to do and can give you interesting ideas.

The combat system is more traditional and less abstract than in the FATE system. Instead of just opposed rolls, you actually roll to hit on your turn and have separate accuracy and damage values. The most interesting part is that it pretty much exactly replicates the old MSH system of having 3 different success levels which mean different things for different damage types. It just does so by using the value of your roll rather than the silly color table of MSH. So, for instance, a bashing attack can slam or stun the opponent.

Mercifully, it does not imitate the MSH quirk that all characters are equally hard to hit. But it does imitate the annoying MSH feature that “body armor” type powers are incredibly effective and can make you nearly immune to normal damage.

I find the movement system confusing and I don’t understand how to use it. It appears to be abstract, like FATE, but it also has references which seem to refer to moving increments of distance, which is a tactical movement concept.

Fate points have been renamed Determination. You earn and spend them using Aspects, just like in FATE. But the way they work has been modified to match how Karma worked in MSH; you declare what you are trying to achieve before you roll, then the amount of Determination you spend is based on the discrepancy between your actual result and you desired target, with success guaranteed if you have enough Determination.

The way that Aspects work is mechanically identical to FATE, but the suggestions for how to choose them are significantly different. In the FATE systems I’ve looked at, it is pretty much up to you what kinds of Aspects you pick, the primary advice is to emphasize that every Aspect should have clear negative consequences – ideally both postive and negative consequences. In ICONS, the recommendation is that some of your Aspects are Qualities, which are mostly positive, and some are Challenges, which are purely negative. Challenges are equivalent to Disadvantages / Complications from Champions, as the list of examples makes clear. Qualities are divided into helpful categories with suggestions on how to pick them – you can pick a Motivation, and Identity, and Epithet, and so on. Seems nifty, I like the suggestion of thinking up an Epithet for your hero.

Finally, the tone of some of the GM’ing advice is a little bit different. Something I’d call out is the note that, in ICONS, the concept of tagging Aspects to do things is really “just for fun”, to add a bit of color to the game; you only need to tag one Aspect to spend as much Determination as you need, and the GM should be lenient in allowing characters to match an Aspect to the action they want to perform. A bit different from FATE advice, which tends to stress Aspects as important mechanical elements, and emphasizes the importance of the GM adjudicating attempts to tag Aspects to make sure he or she considers them appropriate.