Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #14 - Icons
I have a mixed record with superheroes. I love superhero comics, but my success rate with superhero campaigns is rather limited. That said, there will be some superhero entries on this list - games I have had the opportunity to play and enjoy.
I had the opportunity to clock some time running an Icons campaign and definitely had a lot of fun. It's clearly a relative of Fate, though with a good dose of TSR's old Marvel Superheroes RPG in the mix as well.
Icons does a good job of emulating what you see in a comic book. Characters can slam foes and send them flying. By using Determination, characters can activate Qualities (like Fate Aspects), avoid Trouble, and up their effort to retry failed tests. A character who dies is out of play for at least an issue, but after which may make a miraculous return based on an explanation come up with by the GM and player. No, this is not a gritty simulation of realism. Superman, Captain America, Phoenix, Bucky, Professor X, Doctor Doom, Magneto, the Joker and countless other comic book characters are shocked, shocked I tell you that it is so easy for a character to come back from the dead.
While Icons allows for deliberate character building, it assumes random character generation - again calling to mind the old Marvel Superheroes RPG. Characters might not turn out balanced and there can be some really odd assortments of powers, but in my experience that's half the fun of the game.
My Icons campaign was pretty brief, but nothing I ran into suggested it would be inappropriate for a longer term game. It's probably not a good game for simulating Alan Moore's Watchmen or Neil Gaiman's Sandman. But for someone like me whose favorite comic books are from the Bronze Age of Comic Books, it's a super-fun game. It requires minimal prep time - indeed you could block out say 30 minutes for character generation and still have time for a full adventure.
Interestingly, Icons was created by Steve Kenson, who had previously created Mutants & Masterminds, another, far more crunchy (but also fun) superhero RPG. Kenson in the introduction discusses this, pointing out that there's no "right" way to do a superhero RPG. I can see times where I'd want more detail, something I could get from Mutants & Masterminds or Champions. There's also times where I might want to stretch the genre quite a bit, something I think games like Wild Talents are great for. But sometimes I just want some superheroes to save the city/planet/universe, and Icons is great for that. I also want to call attention to Dan Houser's art, giving the game an attractive, consistent "look" which really adds a lot to the game.