New Centurions, Issue #3: Gang War

After the last session of our ICONS New Centurions game, I wrote a post where I enumerated several problems we had with the system, but went on to say that I still liked the system.

Upon reflection, I’ve changed my mind.

And talking to the other players, and to the GM, I’m not alone. The system just was not working for us, for all of the reasons listed in the previous post.

But we still wanted the game to continue, so Clint, who is running the game, went looking for a different simple superhero rules set. He looked at a few of them, but decided to go with BASH ((As Clint has asked at least once, what’s with all the capitals?)).

So, I spent Saturday afternoon converting S.P.E.C.-T.E.R. ((See what I mean about the capitals?)) into a BASH character and learning the system. I gotta say, I like it a fair bit after one session. It moves quickly, seems a little more flexible in play, and uses a neat mechanic ((To be fair, I’m not sure everyone will think the mechanic is a smooth and easy as I do. I spent many years working a till in a bookstore, so multiplying numbers in my head is very much second nature. For those without that advantage, the the game includes a simple chart to do the math for you.)) to handle all the action. It has open-ended rolls, and a mechanic to improve your rolls that I think works a fair bit better than the Determination points in ICONS, allowing more flexibility and improvisation.

Clint added one house rule: he converted the attribute scale to make it more fine-grained, running from 0 to 10 instead of 0 to 5, basically inserting a separate level between each of the previous ranks. Now, I didn’t have any problem with the original scale, and I thought the system he found and incorporated in the game lacked a certain aesthetic quality to the design that was present in the original, but seeing as I had taken all even-number attributes in the new system, it didn’t affect me really at all, so my opinion is not all that relevant.

We did find that, in play, even though it looked like it should run just as easy and intuitively as the base system, the new scale did not. It caused confusion when integrating with the powers, and necessitated an extra layer of math in calculating outcomes. Somehow, the little change wound up generating headaches in play, and not offering enough extra functionality, causing Clint to decide to go with a different optional scale ((The new scale is basically the same as the one we played with, but doesn’t double the attribute numbers, instead inserting a + or a .5 to indicate a level between the two original levels. Doesn’t seem like much, but I think it’s going to address the main difficulties we were having.)).


This session, we were adding two new players to the game, bring the ranks of the New Centurions up to five in total ((Welcome, Tom and Vickie!)). We muddled around a bit at the beginning until we got the point that we were at a dead end with the investigations into the Century Club, Dr. Methuselah, and the sinkholes, and finally got into the story that Clint was using to introduce the new characters. This involved a speeding SUV, armed gang members, and a suitcase of money, the Five Dragons of a Chinese gang, a crimson ninja, hints about the Mafia, and our little group of heroes promising to retrieve the aforementioned suitcase of money from the Chinese gang and return it to the Latino gang so they could give it to the Mafia and head off a burgeoning gang war ((Clint likes making characters choose between the lesser of two evils. Sometimes, you need to measure them very, very carefully.)).

We found that the system ran very smoothly and intuitively, although we intentionally avoided some of the more complex combat options for our first outing. I ran into a couple of weird things with my character that were the result of not really understanding how the system works in play – specifically, I had overlooked a power that would actually make my Clairvoyance power (which is the BASH equivalent of Precognition) have a chance of working, and I had spent power slots on Armour, even though my Defense roll is high enough that it makes the Armour pretty much redundant. Clint has graciously allowed me to rejigger the numbers a bit for the next game.

I’m glad we made the switch to BASH. It’s just a better fit for the group and the style of game we’re playing. And I’m especially glad that we were able to convert the characters pretty seamlessly – but with what I feel are overall improvements -  to the new system.

I’m looking forward to the next game.

ICONS – The New Centurions #2

Saturday night we had our second ICONS game. More and more, we’re finding that the game is a good starting point, but has some issues that need to be addressed for it to do what we need it to do.

We added another character*, and once again found some difficulty with the random character generation. Beyond the disparity of potential starting characters, and the challenge of coming up with a reasonable framework to explain truly strange groups of powers, it takes far longer than I think it should. The implication I get from reading the character creation section is that it should be fast, to get you playing quickly. I find that it takes about the same amount of time to do up a random character as it does to build one using point-buy, which really undermines any advantage the random method produces.

Now, to be fair, a lot of the time is spent just looking up the powers – again, the book really needs an index, or a reference sheet of some sort – but the extra time one would spend making choices in point-buy is offset by the time you spend in random generation trying to figure out how to fit, say, teleportation, paralyze, and wall-crawling together*.

Another issue that arises in this game that needs careful attention on the part of the GM is the lock-key style of powers. That is, each power* seems to have a very specific application and at least one counter. This means that the GM can easily* build foes that render one or more characters simply ineffective. Now, there are other things that characters can do besides just beat up the villains, but the four-colour style of the game, and the shallowness of the system, really puts the onus for that on the players and GM to come up with pretty much everything except the combats. Which means that making a character ineffective at combat renders a character ineffective at most of what the game tries to do. More support for other things would have been good.

And we’re all pretty fragile characters. Even my robot has no armour or resistance to damage – rolling such a thing on the random table is somewhat difficult. This makes dodging and evading terribly important in combat, because one high-power hit can take out pretty much any of us. Given the prevalence of damage mitigation in the source material, it strikes me as a little odd, not to mention challenging for the characters who didn’t roll high on physical abilities.

One other thing we’re having problems with is the similarity of the game to the FATE system. It’s enough like FATE that we think we understand how it works, but there are a couple of places where it differs enough to really trip us up. For example, using Determination works very differently from using Fate Points, and the flatter probability curve on d6-d6 vs 4dF means that your scores aren’t as reliable in ICONS as they are in FATE*.

That’s an awful lot of complaining, isn’t it? It sounds like I really dislike this game, and that’s not the case at all. I quite like it. But I think it’s important to be reasonable about the strengths and weaknesses of the game.

Anyway, this session had us meet the new character in the sunken ruins of the Century Club NYC headquarters, with six of the Centurions seemingly held in stasis by Dr. Methuselah and his weird math. While investigating the scene and trying to figure out what was going on, we got blindsided by someone else (very shadowy, got the drop on Queen Celeste), who forced us to leave the room for a minute or so. When we came back, he and Dr. Methuselah were both gone, though the Centurions were still stuck there.

Investigating the building, we discovered the archives of the Century Club, talking about their heroics and accomplishments. These archives ended abruptly on September 6, 1933, and since that time, there have been no public superheroes in the world. September 6, 1933, was also the last recorded appearance of Dr. Methuselah.

My (rather naive) robot character then convinced the other two characters that we needed to become the New Centurions, to bring back a sense of hope and empowerment to the embattled citizens of NYC. We agreed, and then went to work reclaiming the Century Club to use as our headquarters.

While we were in the middle of that, another sinkhole appeared along another ley line, and we dashed off to deal with that. Another fight with the stone creatures*, this time with squishy civilians around*. Once we had them on the ropes, a bigger, Kali-esque stone creature rose from the fissure, and asked us why we were invading her realm. She, the Queen of Below, gave us a chance to explain that we had thought she was the one doing the invading, and then she gave us leave to investigate in her realms.

We left it there for the evening, but we’re looking forward to getting together to give it another try. Potentially with another player joining in*!

*And player! Welcome, Fera! Back

*Our solution: gravity manipulation. Back

*With its concurrent sub-system, but that’s another story. Back

*And accidentally! Back

*When you combine these two differences, you can really wind up hosing yourself when using Determined Effort, not achieving the result you wanted and using up all your Determination in the attempt, rather than being able to cut your losses. Back

*And we still didn’t have anyone with the right kinds or strengths of powers to easily deal with them. Back

*One of them had a camera phone, so Queen Celeste’s secret ID may be in jeopardy now. Back

*You in, Tom? Back

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