Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Icons by Adamant Entertainment Available Today

When it comes to super hero game rules design, there are five names that are indicative of the highest quality -- and a deep work ethic. They are Greg Gorden, Ray Winninger, Jeff Grubb, Mike Selinker, and Steve Kenson. These are the designers who have created, or edited, the super hero games I play most often. George MacDonald, Steve Peterson, Bruce Harlick, Ray Greer, and Steven Long deserve mention for their work on Champions (the flag ship super hero RPG), but as important as that game is to the creation of the super hero RPG hobby I find myself playing other games more often.

Greg Gorden's rules set for DC Heroes -- especially after it was revised by Ray Winninger -- is what I consider to be the best super hero role playing game ever designed. It combines the effects based design philosophy of Champions with a focus on cinematic and quick play. Champions is a masterful game when it comes to character design, but it bogs down into a Star Fleet Battles variant when the players enter combat. DC Heroes allows for robust character design while allowing for abstract and narrative combat scenes that don't take up an entire evening. A descendant of his work on the Deadlands and Brave New World games systems can be seen in the Savage Worlds Necessary Evil setting.

Jeff Grubb's Marvel Super Heroes role playing game has a few flaws, like the fact that Captain America isn't a very effective character in those epic Avengers conflicts in the form the game has quantified him, but it is a quick playing game that is a wonderful introduction to the gaming hobby and that has enough source material to keep a gaming group playing for many years. The system is intuitive and its "Karma" system of experience ensures that players are encouraged to role play super heroes in a way that emulates the comics. In fact, Grubb's Karma system is one of the best uses of mechanics to influence play style ever invented.

Mike Selinker's Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game (aka Marvel SAGA) uses card driven mechanics to resolve situations. While still a system of random task resolution, this card driven system empowers players to decide how much effort they want to put into a particular action. It's an ingenious system that solves the "Captain America/Batman" problem relatively easily.

Then there is Steve Kenson. Steve did something I thought was essentially impossible. He took the d20 mechanics of 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons and transformed them into a workable super hero role playing game-- by workable, I mean excellent. His ability to cut to the core of the d20 mechanics and eliminate almost everything that was extraneous resulted in a super hero game that allowed the character design specificity of Champions with some of the free form play of DC Heroes. His 1st edition design work on Mutants and Masterminds is nothing short of brilliant. The second edition of the game is still very good, but it features the return of some of the "flab" that Kenson cut from d20 to make it M&M and tilts a little more into the Champions side of the DC/Champions equation. Combat mechanics become a little to specific for me in the 2nd edition -- but I blame the fans.

Any time one of these creators works on a new system, especially a super hero system, it is news worthy. Kenson is currently at work on a new edition of M&M and an M&M DC RPG, but is also the author of a free wheeling indie super hero RPG that just went live on RPGNOW today. This game, ICONS, is a more free form role playing game than the more granular M&M. Icons has a rules set influenced by the very popular FATE game system. Icons also features a graphic style similar to the work of Bruce Timm, and the animated super hero cartoons of the 90s, as well as the work of Mike Parobeck.

I'll have a formal review of Icons soon, but graduate work prevents it today.

I will say this though. If Kenson's name is listed under "designers," then the game is likely a winner.


Eric Lytle said...

Speaking of FATE, are we going to be trying out the Dresden Files RPG?

The Hopeless Gamer said...

Fantastic history of supers RPGs! If your interested in hearing more straight from the horse's mouth, we interviewed Mr. Kenson about Icons on The Hopeless Gamer. You can find the interview here:


We've had a chance to make characters using the random character generated and play a game, and it's a ton of fun. I love random characters now because of this game. It was fun trying to play a character with the following powers: dimensional travel, drain energy, invulnerability, and invisibility. I was pretty much a badass :)