Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Well it was long enough in coming, I might as well look it over. Honestly I haven't been running much ICONS lately so it wasn't a huge priority. The short version: it's pretty good, verging on to "better than I expected". It's about 100 pages long, full color, and has the same look and style as the original ICONS rule book.

The contents:

  • There is a big section up front that is basically an FAQ. It's good and does clarify a lot of things, many of them related to the DM-never-makes-a-roll concept and the qualities and challenges . A lot of them seemed fairly obvious to me but I have seen a lot of them online so maybe the concepts aren't as intuitive as they seemed to me. There is also the usual power-detail questions you get with any superhero RPG and that's not a surprise.
  • The second section is a whole bunch of variant rules mostly centered around alternate game mechanics. It's a lot like the Mastermind's Manual for M&M 2E. The Pyramid tests get a workout in this section too. It's useful and reads like practical advice based on actually running some games, not just theoretical options.
  • Third is a short section on battlesuits (using a battlesuit as one's origin and tying all powers to it) and military vehicles (stats for tanks, fighter jets, submarines, etc). It's fine.
  • There are a few pages of rules on adventuring in special environments - underwater, space, etc. The underground one had some interesting ideas which is kind of surprising considering how much of my RPG time has been spent underground. I think this kind of stuff is something most GM's would improvise and be fine but if you were planning a multi-session run or arc that dealt with being in space or underwater it can't hurt to have some more detailed guidelines in place. Plus it makes it easier to explain the challenges to your players (if they think to ask) what they are facing.
  • Sidekicks! A far more thorough treatment of the concept and mechanics than I have ever needed for any superhero game I have played or run. Clearly one of the authors likes the idea, but I have not run across anyone burning to play with a sidekick.
  • Super vehicles - this is a sort of mini-great power discussion of how the various super powers would apply to a vehicle. If you want the mechanics for vehicles themselves then you need Great Power - this is really just a discussion of the powers. It reads like the outcome of a group of experienced GM's talking through how to use the powers in the book as something built into a vehicle. Most of them are a sentence or two and are blindingly obvious if you think about the topic for ten seconds. Think I'm kidding? Example:

Wow, so this power works on vehciles in exactly the same way as it's described in the book! It's not a strong chapter at all. The best thing in it is a note on running an intelligent vehicle (think Knight Rider) using the sidekick rules presented earlier - I think that's an excellent idea and the most likely way those rules would come up in my game.

  • Next up is a chapter on bases and it's far more useful than the vehicle section. Instead of getting into a laundry list of powers it uses examples of how powers might be applied to a base. It also spends some time talking about using qualities and challenges on a base and gives more examples of those. Hey, about about some of that same discussion applied to vehicles?
  • The last section of real content in the book is by far the best - "Universe Style Play" - more about it below.
  • The book wraps up with an index that covers all 4 "core" ICONS books. Nice to have and it looks fairly complete to me.
So all of the stuff discussed in detail above is nice to have but not essential. If you're actually running a sustained campaign then I think it has quite a bit of value in solving problems and helping a GM adjust the game to the tastes of him and his group. Even if you're planning a mini-campaign I think it could add some chrome to the basic game. That said the most interesting part to me was in the Universe Style Play chapter.

One of the basic concepts is running a troupe-style game where every player has several heroes of different levels - Premier/A-Lister, Champion, Back-Up in their language. I think Superheroes is one of the best kinds of games for this kind of setup as it is completely true to the genre.This is not just a fluff discussion - there are numbers for how many of each level a player should generate, and some random charts for generating features and ties between characters. the whole chapter is a process on how to design a universe and it looks pretty solid to me. Lots of superhero games have essays on world building, very few have mechanics tied to it and this one does!

Beyond the setup this chapter also discusses the advantages of doing it this way, the "why". A lot of it revolves around being resilient in the face of player unavailability and being flexible enough to have multiple GM's taking turns running games.

There is also a discussion on setting up not to fail - things to discuss with players about assumptions and expectations of this particular campaign since supers is such a wide field. This is something you see in other super games but it's still good and focuses on practical things like niche protection too.

There is also a multi-page discussion on plotting, story arcs, pacing and it's also good stuff. 

I don't know which of the authors contributed to this section but it is the most practical advice on running a superhero campaign I have seen in a long time, maybe ever. 

I am not saying that lightly - I was prepared to hate this book given the mess surrounding it's long-delayed publication, and ICONS is not necessarily my #1 Supers RPG at this time, but this is great material.

One further note: this chapter is not ICONS-specific. There is some structure and a random chart or two but you could use this concept and process with any system. It's about building a comic-book world and running a comic-book style game, not advice on game mechanics.

It's 20 pages of great, useful stuff that actually walks you through building a world, planning out a campaign, and deciding what goes into your first session and how to follow up on them.

If someone was thinking about running a superhero campaign and asked me what one book's GMing advice should they read it would be this one, period. That's as high a praise as I can give. 

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