Monday, June 7, 2010

Nerdy Saturday

This weekend ended up having the right combination of scheduling openings to allow for a bit of pickup play, so I gathered some friends to try out some newly acquired games, one RPG and one board game.

The RPG in question was ICONS, a supers game from Adamant Entertainment, written by Steve Kenson. Kenson is the brain behind Mutants and Masterminds, and the pitch for ICONS is a similarly broad supers game, but more fast and loose with the addition of elements like aspects. This prospect excited me enough to pre-order, and while the book itself is not yet in print, the PDF came as part of the pre-order, so that was what I was operating out of.

ICONS: Chargen

We had two ipads with the game at the table, and it ended up revealing a lot of strengths and weaknesses of the approach. It was frustrating to not be able to flip through the book casually, but at the same time the ability to use a search to look something up (or fail to look it
up) was convenient. All in all though, I'd have preferred the physical book, and in retrospect I wish I'd printed out a few key pages (like the ones covering damage).

Now, the real point of excitement for the game, at least for us, was character creation. ICONS has a random chargen system, and that prospect was what had us jazzed. We sat down, busted out the dice, and saw what we got.

We weren't disappointed. The first character got the "Highly Trained"
origin, meaning he had fewer powers but more Specialties (Skills, effectively). He rolled well enough to get one power (blast), and the final result was The Sting, a pulp hero from the 40's armed with a lightning gun and stranded in the present day.

The next character got the Unearthly origin, and took the option of rolling two other origins, getting Artificial and Transformed. That was his only real stroke of luck, since everything else was a series of 5's and 4s when the powers came along. This ended up being Crew-10 (Conversationally called "Crouton") - he looked like a humanoid robot, but he was actually a ship from another dimension that had ended up coming through an anomaly into our world. He had a full crew, and many of his aspects were related to drama among them. He ended up with leaping, blast, strike and regeneration, all at 4 or 5. However, because of the two +2s from his origin, he had a 9 strength.

The last character got a gadgeteer background. Now, I should note this last player is what I would describe as "Cheerfully abusive" of systems. She's cheerful about it, and we're all used to it, but if she had been left to her own devices, she'd build something scarily abusive. Which is why it was very strange that the dice did exactly that.

Echo Prime had three power slots, and the first one to come up was Time Control. This is a scary power, one that takes two slots but lets you take a pair of powers within the group. In this case, she took Multi-Attack and duplication. The fact that her other power was affliction 7 was scary too, but it was really the multi-attack/duplication combo that took the cake. She could generate
3 duplicates, and all four of them could make 2 attacks. This ended up being tellingly scary in play. Echo Prime was from the future, having stolen the Chrono Glove under some fairly unpleasant circumstances.

Since everyone was out of time-or-space, we ran with that as the theme for the group, creating "The Improbables", a team committed to dealing with anomalies of time and space from their paradox-driven headquarters.

Finishing chargen, we had a few thoughts:

  • Do not expect balance. You may know this intellectually, but the reality is far more profound than you can expect. Sometimes, this imbalance genuinely problematic, as we discovered.
  • One future house rule we may implement is that if a power costs double, but you can get it as part of another power (as is the case with duplication), it will take two slots within the power. This still doesn't prevent the ugly multiattack/duplicate combo, but it would at least make it cost more.
  • There's some weirdness related to the levels of powers. Some powers are perfectly useful even at low levels (and some, like immunity, seem to not even use their level) but others are harder to gauge, especially movement powers. Crew-10 had Leaping 5, and we really weren't sure what that meant, as the sole guideline was what leaping 7 allowed. That was less helpful than you might think because the progression up the numbers is not linear.
  • A corollary to this is that a lot of powers don't get particularly super until they're level 7 or so (which requires a very good roll).
  • The logic of this seems to be that 7 is when abilities start getting superhuman, but I admit that doesn't really map for me. It allows a bit too much range for being lamely super.
  • The order you get powers is kind of a big deal. Some powers (like super speed) are only so useful, but they let you choose your subsequent power rather than roll again. Kind of lame if you roll it as your last power. More problematically, it kind of messes with the idea of random chargen in the first place.

ICONS: Playing the Game

Gameplay broke down into three scenes of escalating violence. The first was a bank-robbery, albeit one being performed by cowboys. It was finished in one page - Crew-10 lept in an crushed one of the guns, then dodged a hail of gunfire. The Sting stunned one with his lightning gun, then Echo Prime and his duplicates dropped all the remaining cowboys in one go. Slightly anti-climatic.

The second fight lasted all of two pages, mostly because Echo Prime blew his awareness check and was off pushing himself on a swing set when Time Dog arrived riding a T-Rex. The Sting landed a blow or two on Time Dog while the T-Rex jumped on top of Crew-10. Things promptly ended when Echo Prime descended on Time Dog, attacking him some 8 times. Meanwhile, given that the T-Rex was on top of Crew-10, I decided he could grab it for free, at which point, he threw it, and given that he's Strength 9, the Dino ended up in the river.

The last fight was against one of the villains from the book, Rex Mundi, as he attempted to hijack the hero's base. This fight got interesting because Rex was an old enemy, so he was prepared for Echo Prime, and had some tough minions to keep him tied up. Rex is actually a pretty good villain to use because he's simple and badass - Blast, Force Field and Invulnerability. He also is terribly inaccurate and easy to hit (but almost impossible to injure).

The minions originally used a binding attack to try to pin down Echo Prime but after that proved frustrating, they just shot the hell out of him which worked spectacularly well - only the application of determination kept him on his feet. Meanwhile, the Sting and Crew-10 went after Rex. The Sting was basically incapable of hurting Rex, but used Determination to make a blinding attack with his lightning gun, which helped a lot. Meanwhile, Crew-10 could do just enough damage to occasionally do 1 point of damage to Rex, so it was going slow.

Things ended when Crew-10 realized they were fighting in a limitless void swirling between time and space, and he threw Rex as far as he could (which, as previously noted, was very far indeed). The minions went down pretty fast after that in a wave of Echo Prime kung fu.

All in all, it played out pretty well, but it definitely raised out a few interesting issues.

  • In theory, the system of the GM never rolling is pretty neat, but there are some weird awkwardness that comes from it. Most powers work on degree of success, which requires inversions when a bad guy is using a power, which does not always go smoothly.
  • This last fight did reveal where the numbers get rough. The Sting was not terribly useful in terms of actual fighting. The player was creative in his application of determination so he made some use for himself, but it was rough. For big opponents, his damage output couldn't stack up, and against groups of minions, Echo Prime got 8 attacks to his one. As noted, some imbalance is to be expected, but this was definitely sub-optimal.
  • The sample villains are way better built than the heroes. Their numerical values trend higher and their powers are much more synergistic. This is not terrible if the assumption is a whole team fights one villain, but there's a shortage of peer-level opposition.
  • If there's a mechanical effect of blindness we couldn't find it and ended up winging it, calling it a -2 penalty. Had a similar issue handling more than 2 people cooperating.
  • The Determination (think Fate Points) economy is going to require tuning on a game-by-game basis, I think. If you're familiar with Fate, you're familiar with the shape of it, but the potential power disparity between characters may mean some characters will be a LOT more dependent on determination to be effective. Just something to be mindful of.

All in all, it was fun, though the chargen was the real strength of it. I definitely would not recommend the game for a rookie group - there are a lot of assumptions baked into it which will be comfortable for someone who's played supers before but may boggle a newcomer. Additionally, for all that there are problems, they seem the sort of problems that will be fun and easy to fix, and there's a Wiki for just that purpose.

Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island was a much shorter experience, but an excellent one all the same. The game has fantastic production values - metal box with a parts sorter and very distinctive tokens - and costs under $20. That alone is miraculous enough that the fact that the game is great is almost bonus.

The shortest way to describe FI as "Pandemic you can play in half an hour." If you're familiar with Pandemic[1], FI will be almost instantly recognizable, with only a few twists. If you haven't played Pandemic, the slightly longer explanation is as follows.

It's a cooperative game played on a board composed of 20 tiles. Players run around the board trying to build sets of treasure cards while the tiles attempt to sink, making the map dangerous and unstable. If players can build the sets, turn them in for treasures, and get off the island before it all goes down, then they win. Otherwise, they drown and lose.

Looking at it the next day, it turns out we cheated in a way that made the game MUCH easier for us, which is interesting because we *barely* pulled off the win. [2] Of course, getting mauled at novice level at the outset is a hallmark of the pandemic legacy.

All in all, very fast, very fun, with the sole complaint being a limit of only 2-4 players (I like bigger cooperative games).

1 - No shock, as I believe they're from the same designer.

2 - We weren't discarding flood cards, so we had much more margin for error in our play


  1. "We had two ipads with the game at the table"

    Mark that day in history. I agree that having a physical book at the table is handy and tempting - I try to bring mine, when possible - but I'm weaning myself off the flip-through, in favor of the search capabilities in Good Reader. We'll see.

    Random char gen handed Lydia a brokenly-powerful character? That's kinda awesome. Glad Fred and Bryan still had fun with their less-effective characters.

    One other note on Blinding: it is as likely to get as Blast or Fast Attack. One of the many statistical oddities of the random char gen.

  2. Sounds like the game would benefit from the GM rolling up a bunch of random characters himself and making teams out of them, or making some of them solo bad guys (equipped with minions). At least that would address the "villains built better than the PCs" thing.

  3. It might be the year I spent playing 4e, or it might be the fact that Fate's zones were inspired by Marvel Super Heroes (FASERIP), but I found myself really missing the utility of a map. That said it helped that we weren't really a movement powers group at all.

  4. @Fred I kind of feel the same way. part of this was my fault for being mechanics-focused,so the fights were drier than they could be, but a little geography would have jazzed things up.

    @cam That's probably a good fix.

    @semiocity In retrospect, I could have made better use of bookmarking in goodreads.

  5. While I don't need balance, I do think that I need at least something that helps me address the effectiveness gap.

    As a Highly Trained character with only one power (I'd've been worse off if I had none), should it be the case that I should have been spending determination to "stunt" my way to a more effective power every time I shot? Maybe. Versus the cowboys, maybe I should have determination-stunted an "explosion" effect, hitting more than one cowboy at a time. Clearly it was the right idea to determination-stunt my way to that blinding effect -- it made a big impact on the fight. But running around with a "just shoots damage 4 lightning" gun and not spending much determination, I was pretty limited. Single-power characters without a highly rated or versatile power really need to dial in on a power that is one of those "the rating doesn't matter so much as the effect" things, I think. If I had a gun that did Blinding instead of Blasting, that might've done the trick. If I'd made a connection that I needed to put both of my 6'es in Prowess and Strength in order to be an effective fisticuffs guy, I would have been more optimized too.

    But however I slice it I'm not sure that having +3 specialties is in any way an adequate compensation for losing two powers. Losing one, maybe. Consider that a single power can get you a +2 to one of your core six attributes (which will affect your ability to be effective at a lot of things). With 3 specializations in one thing, you can get a +3 to your ability to target with a power (like I did with my blast), but that won't make the fact you're dishing out small-fry damage much compensated for. Etc.

    There's also the fact that I could have been a guy with a Blast power rated at 1 or a Blast power rated at 8, and either way I would have had the same starting determination of 5.

    The simple mathematical disparity -- one attack per page that does 4 points of damage vs. another character able to do as much as 56 points of damage spread across 8 attacks per page -- was incredibly brutal.

    I think determination CAN address that sort of a gap, but I'm not sure that -- in a world where randomly generated characters can swing that widely apart from one another -- that it has been applied vigorously enough to fully achieve the goal.

  6. Just a quick thought about the "bonus" powers in Icons...I'm pretty sure you can generate all your powers, and then, afterwards, drop powers to replace them with the bonus powers you get from something like Superspeed. So you the order you get powers really doesn't matter as much.

    Also, Fred, were you making Determined Efforts to get a certain level of success? Costly in Determination, but you can get a Massive Success- not so useful if your damage was only 4, but you could do non damaging stuff with it... Or if your Int was 6 and you had +3 Science, you can use Focused Effort to "overpower" your gun for a hellacious blast, and sub in your 9 Science for your Lightning gun for one shot. In fact, if overpowering your gun shorted it out for a bit, you could even pull in Determined Effort and do both!

    Sorry, I'm prepping for an Icons game myself, and I'm glad to read what issues are coming up for people, so that I can help my players and myself during the game! Thanks for the post!

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  8. Buddha, that's pretty much exactly what I had to do in order to pull off that "blinding" effect -- I declared a determined roll of +3 (meaning I was gonna hit at a level of 12 total -- 6 for coordination, +3 for Power (Blast) mastery, +3 from the determined roll. But hitting at a level of 12 with a blast that only dishes 4 points of damage wasn't a big deal, so I had to spend another point of determination to "stunt" a blinding effect with the blast. But even so, that's something I'd need to be doing darn near every time.

    Some of my frustration here is really because I was able to be entertained because my character had a fun story, but the fun-of-effectiveness didn't necessarily arise from the mechanics. For my supers gaming I really want a system that reliably vends both kinds of fun. :)

  9. Fair enough! I've got a player with Int 10, and I was thinking what a monster he'll be with the Focused Effort rules! He could spend a Determination to sub that mighty Intellect in for anything! So, if he needs to hit something, he spends a Determination and he calculates the odds of its evasion pattern and... Whomp! rolls with a 10 to hit. Then (and I'm not sure if this is possible with the rules or not) he spends a Determination to sub his Int for damage, too... having seen his friends fight the villain, he's worked out where the weak point in his armor is... and Kaplow! does 10 Damage!

    However, all he really has to do stuff with is his 10 Intellect, so it sounds to me like I'm gonna want to make sure he can use Focused Effort for that big one-two punch! Thank you, Fred, for sacrificing yourself on the altar of play to hopefully make my game better! :D

  10. Yeah, the problem here was really all about the parade of mediocrity. My stats were, basically: 4/6/6/4/4/4, Blast:4, Stamina:10, Determination:5; specialties: Power (Blast) +3, Investigation, Stealth, Acrobatics.

    That's a pretty credible pulp hero... but he just didn't make much of an impact in our (admittedly) fight-centric test flight.

  11. "The minions originally used a binding attack to try to pin down Echo Prime but after that proved frustrating, they just shot the hell out of him which worked spectacularly well . . . "

    Please, please please assure me that at this point Echo Prime's player cried, "Bullets. My one weakness!"


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