Aspects are an important element of the Determination system of ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying—both tagging qualities in order to spend Determination and compelling challenges in order to earn more Determination—but how much does the system (and the game) really rely on having aspects or, at least, predefined ones?
Aspects serve two main functions: The first is their interaction with the system. The need to tag aspects to use Determination encourages players to come up with actions, dialog, and narrative that is “in character” and plays to what that hero is about, as defined by the aspects. Likewise, challenges are shorthand for the Game Master about what challenges the players would like to see introduced in-play for their heroes. It gives an opportunity to weigh-in on those decisions and c0-create them, and rewards players for doing so.
The other function of aspects is encouraging players to think about their characters beyond just the quantified game traits. Sure, a hero may have Incredible Strength, but is he a “Brawns Over Brain” type or a “Force Can’t Solve Everything” type, or something else altogether? Those aspects helps to refine and further detail the character. Challenges can likewise add interesting flaws or difficulties to what can be an otherwise bland or cookie-cutter character. It’s one thing to know the hero can fly or phase through walls and other to understand that he’s afraid of fire due to a traumatic failure in his past, or that she is hopelessly in love and longs for a normal life in which to express it. Aspects add depth to characters, and requiring a minimum number of them encourages (even “pushes”) players and GMs to at least consider these depths in the process of creating the character.
That said, there are times when aspects can become troublesome or even run counter to their intended purpose. Aspects can straitjacket player choices, or at least put them into a rut, and choosing and maintaining aspects can produce a degree of paralysis, or induce “buyer’s remorse” when an aspect doesn’t work out as planned. Lastly, a pre-determined list of aspects can stifle player creativity when the perfect idea for spending or earning Determination in play comes along, but the aspects are just not cooperating. So, are aspects really “necessary” for game-play in Icons? Yes and no.
You could pretty easily eliminate aspects from the game altogether: drop the tagging requirement on all uses of Determination (the only real use of Qualities) and allow the GM to award Determination whenever a hero encounters a GM-created challenge in the adventure, rather than having pre-defined Challenges, and you’ve essentially removed the mechanical need for aspects. Players can still describe their characters however they want, and may talk about how a hero is spending or using Determination in relation to that hero’s traits or personality, and can suggest possible challenges for earning Determination, but neither needs to be written on the character sheet or “enforced” in any way. This is not all that different from how the original Marvel Super-Heroes RPG handled Karma: players spent it as they wishes (without the need for tagging or qualities) and earned it for subplots and heroic activities, without the need for hero-specific challenges. Icons can work the same way, if you want.
You can also simply loosen the nature of aspects if they are feeling restrictive: There’s little reason not to allow players to change around their heroes’ Qualities during play, if better ones occur to them, or existing ones get outdated or prove less interesting than the initially seemed. Likewise, feel free to let players rework Challenges, coming up with new ones on the fly, either temporary ones for that scene or story alone, or semi-permanent ones added to the hero’s list of aspects. You can also ignore the Quality/Challenge split altogether and treat all aspects the same, able to be both tagged and compelled in play.
As with all “aspects” of Icons game play, Qualities and Challenges are yours to do with as you wish. Use them to enhance the enjoyment of your game and, if they’re not doing that, who needs ’em?