ICONS #1 – Spectacular Origins Issue!

I was planning to try the Battlestar Galactica boardgame this past Saturday evening, complete with the Pegasus expansion. Unfortunately, I left the invites too late, and only two people were free to take me up on the offer. Three players is sub-optimal for BSG, so instead Clint offered to run a game of ICONS so that we could check out the system.

He and I had both read ICONS in .pdf format, and both had sought the hard copy version out at GenCon because we liked it so much. This was easier for me than for him, because it was just on the other side of the black drape divider between Pagan Publishing (where I was) and Cubicle 7 (where it was). So, we had picked it up, and read it, and were both very intrigued by the random character creation, the pared-down FATE-style rules, and the four-colour superhero defaults.

He, Penny, and I got together to roll up characters – Clint made one along with us, even though he was running the game – and for Clint to run us through a short adventure.

We spent the better part of two hours working out characters, which seemed like a long time for the quick-start, random style of the game. But it was the random style that threw a couple of problems at us. Here are a couple of issues that arose:

  • As with all random character generation methods, there is a significant chance that one character is going to wind up being just plain better at stuff than the others. Or worse. Yeah, you can play with a character that has fewer powers, or lower powers, or lower stats, but we wound up with a situation where one character had less everything than the others. By about 25%. Now, there’s a point-buy method you can use to avoid this problem, and we came up with a simple house rule to avoid the boned-character syndrome (basically, allow the character to buy up extra levels in skills/abilities to meet the minimum point-buy value), but it’s still something you need to be aware of. And then there’s the flipside: what do you do with someone who rolled significantly better on everything than everyone else? Scale the character back? Doesn’t seem really fair. While I don’t worry too much about character balance in games, I do worry about whether the characters have equal chance to be cool in game.
  • The random power distribution can cause some strain in coming up with a good theme for your character. This is offset at least a little by the idea of bonus powers, but it can be easy to forget about those. Gotta remember them. On the other hand, I wound up with a character concept I would never have come up with on my own, and am pretty happy with my character.
  • The book needs an index, or at least a more complete table of contents. Or at least an alphabetical list of the powers, with the page they appear on. You spend a lot of time in character creation and in play looking up your powers, and they’re not arranged in a very useful manner. Well, they sort-of are, but it’s not the best choice. The powers show up in the table where you roll for your powers subdivided by power type. In the Powers chapter, they are again subdivided by power type, then listed alphabetically within that type. So, you need to remember that Precognition, say, is a Sensory power, and not a Psychic power. A reference list or index would have made looking stuff up soooooo much easier.
  • The section on calculating Determination says that each ability above 6 counts as a power for purposes of calculating starting Determination, while the example says each power above 7 counts as a power. It would have been good to have this clarified.

Those issues aside, I really enjoyed the character creation phase. It reminded me strongly of the old Marvel Super Heroes game from TSR, with the random rolls and interesting surprises along the way. As I mentioned I wound up with a character that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own, one that I quite like and am finding interesting to play – a prototype emergency rescue robot with advanced probability predictive algorithms to help him get to emergency scenes prior to the emergency actually taking place. Think RoboCop with precognition, but licensed to fire and ambulance services, and no weapons beyond his strength.

After character creation, Clint led us through a quick setting creation phase. He gave us a short paragraph about an alternate NYC, where repeated terror attacks, the declining economy, and a couple natural disasters had turned it into an urban war zone. We added some ideas about the widened gap between the corrupt, wealthy haves in their fortified townhouses and the desperate, despairing have-nots, resorting to a feudal gang allegiance to stay safe and alive. The New York Restoration Authority, consisting of some remaining civil government along with a few police and emergency workers, bolstered by the US Army, were trying to reclaim the city and bring it back from the brink, but feudalism and anarchy had taken root in the neighbourhoods, and the corruption among the wealthy residents made the outlook bleak.

This gave us a place filled with potential adventures, but with a slightly darker, grittier outlook than standard 70s-style four-colour comics. Think Batman with a slightly-more-friendly version of the No Man’s Land storyline.

The adventure threw together my robot and the voodoo queen of Manhattan (Penny’s character) to figure out what was causing a series of sinkholes to show up along the ley lines of the city, apparently excavated by earth spirits inhabiting bodies of rock and concrete. We chased them down to an underground site where we found a group of people in outmoded clothing trapped in some sort of stasis – the members of the Century Club from our Spirit of the Century games. And that’s where we left it for this session.

With our familiarity with FATE, the system was pretty easy to pick up, though the way you can spend Determination works quite differently from Fate Points, and Aspects are also used somewhat differently. And you’ve got stats! The wider numerical spread using d6-d6 rather than 4dF also threw us for a bit of a loop, and we had trouble coming to grips with what the change in the probability curve meant for our stats and powers.

The combat worked pretty quickly and easily, though it’s easier to take someone out in combat – unless they’re pretty buff – than we expected. Because neither of our characters was a real brick, we had some real problems with the earth spirits in the concrete bodies, especially as they could sandblast us when we hit them. It took some quick thinking and Determination spending by Penny to save our collective butts.

The biggest thing that was different was that all the tests were rolled by the players. The GM didn’t roll to hit; the player had to roll to avoid being hit. As someone who GMs a fair bit, I really like this idea, though I’m not sure if it’s easily exportable to other games where so many things are handled by opposed rolls.

We all had a great time with the game, though, and I think it’s going to wind up an ongoing, if irregular, feature of our group.

Oh, and if you’re interested, here’s the character I came up with:


Strategic Probability Evaluation Computer – Tactical Emergency Response

Prowess: 7               Intellect: 4
Coordination: 6     Awareness: 6
Strength: 7              Willpower: 6

Life Support 3 (Breathing, Heat, Radiation)
Precognition 4
Danger Sense 7

“I am here to help.”
Wired Into the Emergency Network
Official Emergency Vehicle

Public Servant On Call
Inexperienced With Emotions
Shannon Murphy, Maintenance Technician
Archenemy: Infrastructure Network Control Intelligence

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3 Responses to ICONS #1 – Spectacular Origins Issue!

  1. Barry says:

    The BSG game is pretty awesome. I’ve only played the base game once, however, it was TENSE.

  2. Fred Hicks says:

    Yeah, we did a ICONS one-shot a while back and it didn’t really gel for me.

    We ended up with a supergroup branded as “The Improbables!” — I was in essence the pulp-era Sandman guy, only with a lightning gun instead of knockout gas; B was a robot, but not a robot but actually a man-shaped exploratory vessel populated by a few dozen mini-sized crewmembers; L was from the future, with limited temporal powers that enabled her to age someone into incompetence in 3 seconds flat, and loop back on her personal timeline to create many duplicates of herself. In the first case (me) I mainly danced around a lot and occasionally got off a mediocre shot with my zap gun. In the last case, Future Gal created a bunch of duplicates of herself, all of which either karate-chopped (superstrongly) or age-ified the opposition into the dirt very fast. Three fights, two of which were over very fast, and the third wasn’t as fast when the master villain showed up and had his minions glue-gun Future Gal to the spot so she couldn’t pull off her extreme danger explosion effect so much. The upshot was that the random character creation REALLY goosed us, and the Determination rules did not provide nearly as many points of Determination, I think, to balance out the skew in power levels.

    The somewhat fraught referenceability of the text then compounded things a bit on top of that. I had reasonable fun, but exited the affair feeling like I could have had more playing something else. Which sucks; I really like Steve and wanted to like his new thing that played around with some of the stuff from my Fate toolbox more than I did.

  3. I think the game goes too much for simple math in balancing the issues of random-rolling. The 6 – # of powers = Starting Determination is a simple, but skewed, formula for addressing balance. For the same game, another player rolled up a character and came up wit a total of 66 levels of power. She would have starting with only 2 fewer Determination than the character with 35 levels. I think that there are some fairly simple ways to redress the imbalance but they are not put forward in the book. The rules do not even acknowledge the fact that such might be a problem or suggest that it should be fixed.

    One of the things that I noticed in ICONS, as different from Fate, is that the character are often far more, and far less, fragile, depending on the powers rolled. A strong defensive power is a HUGE advantage when you are hit, while anything that does not have a defensive power can be one-shotted by a decent attack. Also, because of the way that Determination spending differs from Fate point spending, the characters can not always succeed if they ‘need it enough’ just by invoking aspects, as is often the case in Fate.

    I think it is much more important for the GM to choose enemies appropriate for the PCs, tailoring powers and defenses to the characters, because the powers system is more ‘key vs. lock’ than in Fate, where aspects can work as a universal key, if you know what I mean. In the session I ran, I inadvertently used NPCs that had very high defenses vs. just about all the things that the PCs were strong in, and high powers where the PCs were weak. I had a few excused for having done this [not knowing the game that well, having just worked out the PCs a few minutes ago, having very little time to prep, choosing the enemies before PC creation] but the upshot was a pretty hard slog for the players and playing a little fast and loose with Determination spending.

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