Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Review - ICONS: Superpowered Roleplaying

I mentioned before that I wanted to try my hand at reviewing, perhaps establish some 'cred' before trying for 'press' badges if I ever manage to get going to cons. Besides, it'll give people a reason to rip into me if I ever get M.A/C.C into stores. My intention here is to be honest and objective. The first few reviews I do may be a bit 'wonky' as I get a feel for where my scale is going to be, which is partially why I chose a good one for my first game. If nothing else, it will hopefully set a base line for what is going on. Anyhow, without further ado, here is the "Official Reality Refracted Review" of...ICONS: Superpowered Roleplaying.

Just The Numbers
Presentation: 9.5/10
Layout: 9.5/10
Rules: 8.5/10
Character Creation: 8.5/10
Provided Material: 9.5/10
Final: 91/100 (A-)


Right off the bat ICONS grabs you as a comic book game. The size of the book is perfect, an even match for the graphic novels you'll buy at comic stores. In fact, when I was sitting down to read my new copy of the book, one of my house mates wanted to know what comic I was reading. Even after showing him the cover, it took a few moments for it to click that I was reading an RPG and not a comic book. I like the choice of color on the cover, the fade of a dark maroon (I suck at colors!) to brighter red on the cover is nice, but still eye catching. The character choice on the cover is also great, very clearly 'borrowing' from some of DC's more popular...icons...but done in a way that a close examinations hows it is clearly not DC's characters. An homage, not a rip off.

Speaking of art, as you flip through the book you'll notice it spaced out fairly nicely. The art is consistent, showing the benefits of being a smaller project with only one artist. It helps to bring the book together, especially with the distinctive style that is used. The art does give the book a bit of a light hearted and cartoony feel, which may throw some people though. Especially if you're more a fan of the Iron and Modern ages of comics where they can be "serious business". This trend is continued with the light coloring of the pages, which really just seems to give the whole book a 'softer' feel to me.

Page wise, the lettering is clear, and easy to read. Which is nice, especially considering the little patterns that run on the pages. The side bars pop off the screen with some nice contrast that won't attack your eyes. My only complaint on this aspect is that the optional rules don't grab you as clearly as the side bars full of tables. I think I would have preferred them boxed off as well. Just to make it that much clearer that whatever it is talking about is an optional way to take things. As it was, a couple of times it took me a moment to catch on that the header for the information was a light gray than the usual black, and thus was optional. This may be more a shot on me, the header clearly states "Optional", but a bit more would have been nice.

All in all, considering the size of the book, the presentation is nice and smooth. A good job all the way around on the art side of things, with that one exception of the pop out. It's not perfect, but it is - overall - a great example of how to do it.
Score: 9.5/10

Following up on the presentation, I'm going to go into the book layout here. By layout I mean the ordering of chapters, and the way in which information is presented to the person running the game. For my tastes, they have once again done a great job here. It's possible, if you don't mind doing some of the specifics of power selection until later, to run the game for the first time by simply reading from the beginning to the end of the book for the first section. Then, while people are choosing powers just going over the basic mechanics for it. I like this way of doing the layout, because it lets you make a couple characters yourself, and then play the game a bit solo to get a feel for it. All with only minimal flipping back and forth on things.

That being said, and at the risk of dinging them twice for the same thing, there are also a couple places where the Optional Rules are very easy to just coast your eyes into without realizing it. Mostly as they look like all the normal text for things you are supposed to be reading. Other issues I have with the layout though are primarily personal issues, and not things I'm really going to hold against the game.
Score: 9.5/10

Perhaps the most important part of an RPG system, and ICONS clearly shows that it has a veteran behind the wheel here too. The mechanics are quick and fluid. They work well, and I like the idea of the GM never having to roll dice, even in combat, for things to happen. The incorporation of Aspects and Tagging is done seamlessly. If I didn't know better, I'd believe it was made just for this game. As is, it fits in snugly and does its job well while helping to give more of a comic book feel to the whole thing.

Combat, however, does get a bit confusing. Granted, this is probably true for a lot of RPGs, but some of the options that come up - things that really help give the feel of a comic book - are  a bit weird at a first reading, and will no doubt take a new group some getting used to to feel out. I'm also not sure how much of a fan I am of finding out after you roll whether or not you can make something a targeted shot. It is just order of operations, sure, but it strikes me as weird that you roll the dice and then choose if it was an aimed attack all along or not. I could also be reading things wrong here though.

My other issue with some of the rules comes down to semantics. It feels weird to me to have my roll deciding how much effort I am putting in. Perhaps its the micro-manager in me, or the heavy amounts of L5R and Mutants and Masterminds, but I like feeling like I'm choosing that. This is just semantics though, and I want to point out that I am griping about them for lack of something more to get my teeth around.

On the other side, there are mentions in the book of weapons, and other gear, but I didn't see where it is mentioned how you get it or what it does, aside from spending some Determination to use a car, and a mention that you use powers and then say it is gear that is doing it. Maybe that is it, but it still feels a little lack luster, especially when it comes to one of the very ICONS of comic books. Though, I suppose you could handle the Bat with Determination and the 'Aspect' of Utility Belt. I just know that some players feel that they shouldn't have to spend points for 'basic functionality' of certain things, and it may grate on some groups.

One thing I didn't like is the seeming lack of a progression system. While it does mention giving out permanent Determination, there are no guidelines for it, and the game even seems to be suggesting against it. Maybe the idea is that your character is capable enough as is to manage, but it seems weird to not be able to make your character grow as time goes by. perhaps even stifling. I can easily see even a very liked character growing stale after a few months of game if there was no mechanical development at all.
Score: 8.5/10

Character Creation in ICONS is fast and fluid. It is also, if you haven't heard from any of the quicker reviews, a Random Generation system. Making characters is fast and easy, just go through a few steps, roll some dice, and voila: instant character. You get some very interesting characters, though something that did kind of sadden me is the game seems slightly tilted towards generating characters with 'mental' abilities. I did some minor number crunching which seemed to give it a slight edge, or at the very least not a truly even chance for all powers. I'm not sure it was intentional (I doubt it), or just a limitation of the dice, but it is there. I could also have made a mistake, and am just reading too far into the primarily mental characters I got out of my test builds.

Building Teams is also quick and easy, and a part of character creation. Meaning that ICONS is a game that wants you to have everyone make their characters together. I could see a fun first session coming out of generating random characters, and then making the team decisions together. This also clearly marks the game as for "established' characters though, which could be off putting. The Team building section references 'previous adventures' several times. This is probably easy to work around, but is worth noting that the game is initially against running origin stories.

Finally, the point buy system provided is very quick and dirty. I don't mind it, but it clearly was an after thought being added on to the system. A good idea, but it seems kind of strange. Like it is just tacked on there in a bit of passive aggressive rage. Not that the wording or anything suggests that, but it was a feel I got. "This isn't how you're supposed to do it, but you can...if you want to". Maybe I'm reading into it weird?
Score: 8.5/10

First off, let me just say that the book doesn't come with a provided setting. Personally, I am fine with this, but having heard so often how important a setting is to a new game, it did catch me a little by surprise. I am not taking points off for no setting though, because there is nothing to review for it so at best it would be a Not Applicable. That being said, what ICONS does have in spades is provided characters.

Near the back of the book you'll find about a dozen provided characters. They have powers, stats, aspects, challenges, and the whole nine yards. They even have origin stories, and a variety of names from the super corny to the much more 'cool'. Best of all, they come with a collection of adventure ideas for using them in your game. A few of these, like Diamond, really caught me in a "hey, that's kinda cool" type moment. Sure, maybe it's not anything new to the established comic fan, but they are interesting uses, and twists, of the normal comic book-ie plots. The characters, like their names, run the range from silly to more serious, which should help with letting you find at least one to fit into your game. Definitely some good stuff here.
Score: 9.5/10

Overall, Icons is a quick and fun little game with a whole lot of heart. It does a good job using its mechanics, which are very inventive, to capture the feel of a Superhero world. That world may favor the more Saturday Morning Cartoon feel rather than Kingdom Come, but that is perfectly fine as well. The book stays consistent throughout, showing that it is a veteran effort by a skilled game designer. There is very little fat on the system, which could be good or bad for you.

On the down side, the lack of setting may throw some people off, and as said, in a couple of places I got a bit lost on the whole 'optional rule' thing. The Random Generation for characters is fast and quick, and I can't help but wonder if the game would do better without the tacked on point buy. People can always find ways to make their characters the 'normal' way on their own. Though, I suppose if it hadn't been tacked on, someone would wonder why not too, so I can't fault them too hard for that. Finally, the lack of progression makes me feel like this is more a game for short, contained, stories rather than a long running campaign. Alternatively, something you go back to every now and then to do another story in.

Still, ICONS is definitely worth the price of admission, and worth at least a test drive or two.

Final Score: 91/100 (A-)

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