Wednesday, November 30, 2011

ICONS' Appeal To Me, An Old Schooler

What is it about ICONS, a modern rules-lite heroes game, that has such strong appeal to me, a self-proclaimed old-school gamer?

Good question, I'm glad you asked me!

I'm not a big fan of modern table-top RPGs. With but a few exceptions, I think most of the rules are way over complicated, character generation is absurdly drawn out, and the marketing aspect of having to purchase more 'optional' books and crap is, well, just a shitty marketing ploy. I'm a cheap-ass gamer, if I can't get something for a few dollars or less I'll just make it myself. Plus I always felt that the odds of killing some monster are really the same no matter if you're a 5th level Fighting-man battling a room full of Ogres or if your a 5th level Gnome Barbarian who's half Lycanthrope with a +8 quarterstaff of dread and rolling 20d6+3 for dammage battling a room full of Ogres (well, you know what I mean). The game mechanics just scale but the odds are the same just over complicated. Feel free to check my math, but that's my theory anyway.

The same story is told, the same battles take place so why not keep it simple? Who really has the time for all that nit-picking? I just want to have a good time with friends where we all tell a story.

So back to ICONS....

First off, ICONS is a rules/mechanic lite game. 2d6 and the players make all the rolls testing one ability against another. Modifiers are kept to a minimum. Anything goes in combat between heroes and villains but the rules are simple and open enough that with just half a thought rolls can be made. The action and the game is colored by all the players involved. Actions are fully open to the depth of the players imagination, which I think is THE key element to any rules-lite game. The same rolls of the dice my be used to determine similar actions but what the player adds to that action determines the drama. Again, the creativity of play falls back onto the players and not the rules.

Though the layout and production of the rules and supplements may have a Bruce Timm cartoon quality to it don't let that fool you, the game can be played with any mood in mind, from a grim, dark and dirty avenging knight to a Kirby-esque cosmic level world eating threat and anything in-between. The rules give you just what is needed to take it anywhere you want to go. It's a complete game in under 130 pages.

Steve Kenson, the creator of ICONS (and of Mutants and Masterminds) hit the nail on the head with what I feel is a modern old-school style game. There are plenty of references in the rules to 'using common sense' and 'just make it up' which might be alien to some strictly modern gamers but is pure gold for someone coming from an Old School background. In the section that is called Game Rules vs. Common Sense Kenson wryly states:
'...ignore the rules and go with what makes the most sense to you and what
you think will be the most fair and fun for your players; and if one of them should object and say, “That’s not in the rules!” point them to this paragraph and say, “Yes, it is.” '
Beautiful loophole to put rule sticklers in their place.

Character generation is quick and exciting and sparks plenty of imaginative characters. Everything is laid out for a player to flesh out his rolled character with his own creativity. That's a beautiful reference to the early versions of RPGs where the player developed the character based on a few stat rolls and not the other way around. And that's the point, there is plenty of room for developing a well rounded, three-dimensional character based on the players imagination and not dice rolls.

Kenson gives us random charts to create adventure hooks on the fly, a handful (13) of fully fleshed out colorful villains each with origins and three adventure ideas, and even a sample adventure. Did I mention a provided single page character sheet with a full quarter of it left open for you to draw your character?

As I mentioned above, it's a complete game in 130 pages. Adamant Entertainment have the pdf rules on sale right now over at RPG Now for $1.99. So for that price it's worth checking out. I'm not a big fan of using rules in pdf format. I usually need to reference and flip back quickly to clarify and compare elements so I actually purchased the print version of the rules. Now, the cost is a bit steep for what I would pay for a 130 page rule book but I made the exception for ICONS and was very happy with the purchase. A very well produced and printed book, the size and shape of a graphic novel.

So in short, why ICONS appeals to me, an old-school gamer:
  1. Complete game in 130 pages.
  2. Quick and creative character generation
  3. Rules-lite with simple mechanics
  4. An anything goes and anything can happen attitude
  5. Creative game play is left up the the players around the table and not the dice
  6. Adventures and villains included.

One common criticism of the game is that it is limited towards long term campaign play. This I disagree with. It can work fine in long-term play as is or with a couple of simple house rules to allow for character 'advancement' or a point based character creation process. Like many of the games I started out with, Holmes Basic D&D, Traveller, and Top Secret the game doesn't have to 'define' specific rules for 'level' advancement, character development and situations define that. Levels are just a guide.

So there you have it. The mystery of the allure of ICONS revealed.


  1. Thanks for the excellent overview of ICONS. I was checking it out the other day. I want to try out a supers game, but don't want anything too heavy.

    It's down to this or Mystery Men. Another option was Crimefighters (Zeb Cook), but it's more pulp-action than superhero.

  2. Mystery Men! is very good as well but I wanted to try something a bit different than a D&D type of base since we've been playing Swords & Wizardry for a while now. I am using the Shore City guide from MM! as the basis for the campaign city though.

  3. I've been running a campaign for about a year. Oddly enough the subject of advancement has never come up. I think the "it's not good for long term play" criticism is something that people who haven't played it in the long term say about the game. It's just a talking point, nothing more.

    Dude- get yourself a copy of the Character Folio software while it is on sale. Words cannot convey how awesome it is. I can take an adversary from concept to fully statted up in less than a minute- and you can generate random characters with one click of the mouse.

    Anyway, we just had a long conversation this weekend, and as a group we agreed that we're going to keep on playing it for a loooong time.

  4. I've heard many good things about that and just picked it up on your recommendation. Am not disappointment!

  5. Your post convinced me and I made the jump and bought the PDF.
    Really glad I did, awesome set of rules.