My gaming life began not with Dungeons and Dragons but with the TSR Marvel Super Heroes game from the 80’s. I was (and am) a huge Marvel fan, anyway, so being able to drop one of my characters into that universe was a dream come true. When other people’s first characters were fighting orcs and dragons and saving the princess, my first characters were fighting Dr. Doom and the Marauders and saving the world. While I’ve gotten rid of each version of D&D when the next one has been released I still have almost all my game books from the Marvel Super Heroes game and still have characters I created 20 years ago and would still love to play in a campaign.
Imagine my sense of nostalgia and delight, then when I read Icons. Many games, especially since the advent of the d20 system are just fresh skins stretched out on the skeleton of a rules system that were not designed for them. Icons is just the opposite. Instead of the bones of the Marvel Super Heroes system with a new skin, Icons is the skin of the Marvel Super Heroes system with a new skeleton. Of course, the creator of Icons, Adamant Entertainment does not have the license to Marvel’s characters but that is almost the only thing missing from the old game.
The similarities between the two games are striking. Like the Marvel Super Heroes game, character generation in Icons is almost entirely random. The type of character, ability levels, number of talents (known as specialties,) number of powers, the powers themselves and their levels are all determined randomly. Obviously, just like the game from the 80’s, this could lead to wildly varying power levels in a group of heroes, but that is the fun of the system. After all, the Justice League has both Superman and Green Arrow and the Avengers have both Thor and Hawkeye. It can be just as entertaining for a player character group to have members with just as massively different levels of power.
The abilities in Icons all have direct analogs to the statistics from the Marvel Super Heroes game, though one from the latter (Endurance) is missing from the former. The names are not the same, usually, but traits they describe are. Can there be much doubt that Prowess from Icons is the same as Fighting from Marvel Super Heroes?
Although the ranks in Icons are numerical rather than associated with a word (with a related numerical value) as in the Marvel Super Heroes game, those ten ranks rather closely mirror the levels from that game. In fact, Icons mentions that it is quite appropriate to associate descriptive terms to these ranks and in the list of possible names the ones from the Marvel Super Heroes game are given in the exact same order of power. Anyone familiar with the Marvel Super Heroes game will quickly be able to judge a character’s ability level by translating the numerical rank to the corresponding descriptive rank.
Performing actions in Icons like fighting or picking up a tank is much like doing things in the Marvel Superheroes game as well. Each action has a base target number that must be achieved with higher numbers reflecting more difficult tasks. Dice are rolled and added to the appropriate stat and the results are compared to the target number. Depending on how much (or if at all) the results beat the target number different levels of success are achieved.
Though they are called Failure, Moderate, Major and Massive success, the different degrees of failure and success echo the white, green, yellow and red results from the Marvel Super Heroes game and this is nowhere more evident than in combat. The same attack types from the 80’s game show up in this modern game. Edged attacks, Blunt attacks, even Charging and Grabbing all pop up in Icons and the various results match what was given in Marvel Super Heroes. For instance, a major success in Icons is the equivalent of a yellow result in the Marvel Super Heroes game and both are going to potentially leave their target stunned by an edged attack. Any player of the Marvel Super Heroes game will quickly be able to adjust their thinking to this combat system and will be able to judge the results of their actions just as quickly.
Though they are similar, combat is one of the first places where Icon differs from the Marvel Super Heroes game. While much of it is the same or at least familiar, there is one aspect that is distinctly different. Like most games of the 80’s and 90’s the GM in the Marvel Super Heroes game played the villains and rolled for them in combat. In Icons, the GM never has to roll for the villain. Instead, everything is done from the point of view of the players. Taking a swing at a bad guy requires the player to roll to attack as expected, but when the bad guy takes a swing back, the GM does not roll to attack, rather the player rolls to avoid the attack. This has the combined effect of keeping the players engaged at all times because they’re always doing the rolling, and taking some of the burden off the GM because he’s not having to roll for four or five characters.
The system also eliminates one of the most frustrating aspects of the Marvel Super Heroes game, namely that it was as easy to hit Aunt May as it was to hit Spider-Man. For anyone who has not played the Marvel Super Heroes game, let me explain. The chance of one character hitting another character (and how effective the hit was) was based entirely on the aggressor’s ability. The target’s ability did not affect the results in any way, making it just as easy to hit Captain America as the average man on the street. The level of success in Icons is based on the level of the opposed ability. Someone with a higher Coordination is harder to hit in melee combat than someone with a lower Coordination, meaning that it is much harder to shoot (and seriously injure) Spider-man than it is to shoot Aunt May.
However, this is not the greatest difference between Icons and the Marvel Super Heroes game. The biggest change comes from Icons being based on the Fate system. As such it depends on Fate chips and aspects to give the players an edge and to give the GM hooks to drive the plot and guide the characters. Whereas characters in the Marvel Super Heroes game could be nothing more than a conglomeration of abilities, the inclusion of Aspects in Icons means that it is much easier for them to have a defined personality, theme and back story.
In Icons, a character’s pool of Fate chips is called Determination. Each character has an amount of determination based on how powerful he or she is. A character that is relatively less powerful has more determination than a character that is more powerful. This reflects the tendency of lower powered super heroes to get by through sheer bravery, luck and stubbornness.
Determination can be used for a number of purposes. The first usage of determination is a determined effort. Much like spending karma in the Marvel Super Heroes game, spending determination for a determined effort in Icons allows a player to get better results than the dice provide. A player must declare that he is using determined effort before rolling the dice and must declare what level of success he is trying to achieve. Once the dice are rolled, it is determined how many more points are needed to get the level of success desired. The player may then get a +2 bonus for each point of determination that he spends until he achieves the level of success he declared that he was trying for. There are limitations for using determined effort. The first is that you must spend at least one point of determination. Even if you do not have enough determination to get the result you want or simply do not want to spend that much, you must give up at least one point of determination for declaring that you want to use determined effort. The same is true if you get a result as good, or better than what you wanted simply by rolling. Second, you cannot spend determination to get a better result than the one you declared. If you get the level of success you desired or better you could not spend determination to get a better result. Third, you must tag an appropriate quality to use determined effort. The effort you are making must somehow reflect some part of what drives your character Finally, determined effort can only be performed if the character has already attempted an action and failed or if the character is only going to get one chance to perform the action.
Determination can also be used to make a focused effort. This involves swapping one trait for another when attempting an action. It allows a character who is weak in one area to make a test with a trait that he is strong in. This requires spending a point of determination as well as tagging an appropriate quality that explains why the new trait can be substituted for the old one in the given situation.
One use of determination that fits exceptionally well in the comic book genre is retconning. Retconning, as any comic book fan knows, is the fine art of declaring that something exists after it is needed. A retcon can be a connection to another person, the contents of a room or the color of a person’s eyes. Any small fact that has not been previously defined can be defined with a retcon. It only requires a point of determination to be spent and agreement from the Game Master.
Another use of determination that is very appropriate for comic books are stunts. Stunts are special uses of powers that are not the straightforward directions on might expect. This could be something like flying using air control, building cages out of fire or turning an object invisible. These are all the special tricks that super heroes develop that often push the boundaries of belief and physics. Each stunt requires spending a point of determination and potential stunts are presented with a number of the powers in the book.
Finally, determination can be used to recover lost stamina. By spending a point of determination, a character regains an amount of stamina equal to his strength or willpower. This represents a character digging deep to keep on fighting after they should have been defeated.
Each character has two types of aspects – qualities and challenges. Qualities are features of the character that can be tagged for a bonus. These are traits like “Bast’s Chosen” or “Fist of Vengeance” that are descriptive of the character. These qualities are the driving force behind a character and what make one hero with claws and regeneration different from another. They are the aspects that are called upon to spend determination for any of the assorted reasons given above.
Challenges are the things about a character that keep their lives from being simple and idyllic (beyond the super villains that is.) These are things like secret identities, people who depend on the character, arch nemeses, and codes of honor. It is entirely possible to make a character without a single challenge but challenges are what gain a character more determination and many would say, what makes them interesting. Each time the GM thinks a challenge might come into play, he offers the player a point of determination. If the player accepts, he gets the determination and must suffer whatever dire consequences the GM’s nefarious mind can think up. If he refuses, he has to turn in a point of determination instead to avoid the complication to his life for a time.
While Icons feels like an excellent update and evolution of the Marvel Super Heroes game, there are a couple of things from the original game that I miss. The first is that there was an extremely granular advancement system in the Marvel Super Heroes game. While this system required exorbitant amounts of experience to progress very far, it was also exceptionally satisfying in practice. Icons has no true advancement system. Once a character is created, they essentially stay the same. Changes can be made with the GM’s approval but characters do not really advance, only change. There is a small advancement section that can be implemented as an optional rule but it is not very well fleshed out or definitive. A much smaller element that is missing is equipment creation. Another highly detailed portion of the Marvel Super Heroes game, this is completely missing from Icons. There are high tech devices in Icons, of course, but they are considered integral portions of a character rather than extraneous devices that could be created or improved. This is no doubt a portion of the Marvel Super Heroes game that most people did not care about, but I always enjoyed it.
The only other issue that I do not like about Icons is the relatively flat dice range. The dice mechanic in Icons is simple though unique. Each roll requires two six sided dice, each of different colors. One of these dice is the positive die and the other is the negative die. The results of the negative die are subtracted from the results of the positive die and this is the final result. This system provides a pretty steep bell curve with a result of 0 being noticeably most common and the extremes of -5 and +5 occurring only one time out of every 36. The Marvel Superheroes game was based on percentile dice, on the other hand, making any particular result as likely as any other. Icons dice mechanic means there is only a 10 point range and the results are based much more on the character’s abilities than it is on the results of the dice. While this means that these abilities are more important, it does limit how extravagant the results can be.
Although Icons is strongly reminiscent of the Marvel Super Heroes game, it is not just an evolution and improvement. The addition of aspects gives the characters in the game much more definitive personalities and fits the comic book story style that is being presented much better. Until I read Icons, I never believed that I would find another super hero game I loved as much as the one that started my gaming life, but Icons is truly challenging that belief.