ICONS: Aspects, Who Needs ‘Em?

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?

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ICONS: Initiative

A common question about ICONS is its lack of an initiative system although, technically, it does have one:

“Typically, the conflict starts off with the panels of whichever side initiates: if a villain launches an attack, start with the villain’s panel. If the heroes spring into action, begin with their panels. Once one side’s actions are resolved, go to the other side, then back and forth until the conflict ends.”

— Conflict, ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying, page 55

So, there’s no system for it other than “Whoever goes first, goes first.” Usually, that will be fairly obvious. In situations where it is not, or if a group prefers a more detailed or mechanical initiative system, here are some options:

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ICONS: Determination Damage

Here’s a variant for handling damage and contests via Pyramid Tests for ICONS that ties in Determination:

Increase starting Determination to 10 minus the number of the hero’s powers (and abilities above level 6) with a minimum starting Determination of 4. Use the guidelines from the Different Damage article, except that the degree of success by the attacker subtracts from the hero’s Determination, as follows: 1 for a moderate outcome, 2 for a major outcome, and 4 for a massive outcome. If Determination drops below 0, the hero is defeated. Non-heroes (without Determination) follow the usual success guidelines from the Different Damage article. Heroes can use Consequences to negate the Determination loss due to damage.

This adds a “give-and-take” element to Determination, making it both the fuel of a hero’s success, but also the thing that keeps heroes going. Players will need to balance spending Determination to succeed and conserving it to deal with damage (and possibly other kinds of stress) in conflicts. It reflects the idea that “pushing” to succeed is draining, and fits the genre element of heroes giving all they have to pull off some massive stunt before losing consciousness.

This variant makes it more imperative than ever for the Game Master to award Determination (and create challenges) liberally, otherwise, even with the initial bonus “bump” players will run out of it fast. It also means heroes with fewer powers (and more starting Determination) can absorb more “punishment” than their more powerful counterparts: the dark detective or super-soldier type has more “hit points” than the superhuman powerhouse or cosmic herald!

If you give this option a try in your own Icons game, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email about how it works out!

ICONS: The Trouble Pool

In Icons, while the players spend Determination to give their heroes various advantages, the Game Master technically does not have or spend Determination at all. Instead, the GM uses compels of the heroes’ Qualities and Challenges and the creation of temporary Challenges, both of which award Determination to the players. Some of these uses may be essentially identical to player Determination use (giving a villain or other Game Master character an advantage, for example) but do not draw upon a fixed pool of Determination points, like the players; the GM may compel or create challenges at will, as often as desired.

Some find this difficult to conceptualize, or simply unfair, and prefer to idea of the Game Master also working off a pre-determined and fixed amount of points. For those who prefer such a variant, there is the Trouble Pool.

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Moral Victories

Recently, I was watching “Patriot Act” one of my favorite episodes of Justice League Unlimited. It’s terrific because it has a WWII scene with Nazis and Spy Smasher (in black and white, no less), the General, Green Arrow being a smartypants, Vigilante being his good ol’ Wild West self, and Seven Soldiers of Victory and Newsboy Legion homages, but what really makes it one of my favorites is the final confrontation between Sir Justin, the Shining Knight, and the General, and it’s scenes like these that inspired some of the additional game-system tools I wrote up for the upcoming Icons Team-Up sourcebook, notably pyramid tests, maneuvers, and the idea of using them for alternate types of wins. Let’s take a look at the scene in Icons terms with these options in play, shall we?

Warning – Possible Episode Spoilers

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Re: Animated • Avengers “This Hostage Earth”

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Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the Avengers episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“This Hostage Earth”

It’s the start of the final three episodes of Season One on Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and the culmination of many of the plot threads woven through this season as the plans of the mysterious patron of the Enchantress and the Masters of Evil come to fruition. Continue reading

The Untouchables

A new Icons Narrator posted the following (paraphrased slightly) on the Icons Yahoo mailing list:

I have a problem: enemies with a Prowess or Coordination so low it doesn’t even matter if the player rolls the dice or not: even with a –5 roll, the hero can’t be hit! I get that superheroes are superior to mere thugs, but even Spider-Man gets punched once in a while. Knowing he didn’t need to roll to avoid a hit wasn’t fun for my player.

There are a number of solutions to this problem, although I’ll note up-front the only reason it constitutes a problem, in my opinion, is that it’s interfering with the player’s (and, apparently, the Narrator’s) fun. If you’re dealing with an “untouchable” hero, somebody with a defensive ability of 8 or more (putting them 5 or more above the average ability level of 3), here are some things to consider:

Challenges: This is the main one. Spider-Man (and other extremely capable heroes like Batman, Captain America, etc.) don’t routinely have trouble dealing with normal human-level thugs, but they do run into trouble from time to time. When that happens, it is usually more in the form of a challenge than a poor die roll; that is, the GM decides a bad guy gets a “lucky break” or the hero has an unlucky moment. So a thug manages to get the drop on the hero, he is momentarily distracted by something (usually thinking about some problem or the like), there’s an unforeseen accident, and so forth. These are all good examples of temporary challenges (Icons, p. 92) or compelling one of a hero’s existing challenges (“You’re concerned about wrapping this up in time to get to the hospital to see you sick aunt, so much so that you’re off your game and a thug tags you! Here, have a Determination point.”)

Teamwork: Lesser opponents might combine abilities (Icons, p. 57) in order to have a better chance against a hero. Even just the usual +1 may shift things from no chance at all to a slight one (on a +5 roll only) but enough to keep things interesting. You can even allow for greater teamwork bonuses for larger groups of foes, but probably not more than +2 or +3. You can even consider “overwhelming numbers” (or some similar aspect) an aspect you can tag to apply a +2 bonus for the foes, giving the player a Determination point when you do so.

Criticals: This is an optional rule for GMs looking for a bit more variability: a +5 roll (that is, a die roll that results in a +5 modifier) is always at least a moderate success, regardless of difficulty, and a –5 roll is always a failure (again, regardless of ability and difficulty). This means any test has at least a 2% or so chance of succeeding or failing, regardless of the normal odds. That’s not a lot, but may be enough to keep players on their toes, knowing there’s at least some chance. Now the “untouchable” hero always has to roll to defend, since there’s still a chance of that critical –5 coming up.

Cheat! Finally, do things to liven up the combat that don’t rely on dice or Determination points, but description and—frankly—manipulation of things behind the scenes. After all, the player doesn’t necessarily know his character cannot be hit, especially if some of the aforementioned options are in place. Even if you know there’s no chance of failure, make the player roll anyway and “interpret” the results to maintain a bit of tension. Describe a “near miss” or “grazing hit” that has no real effect other than some in-game color and to keep the players guessing. Apply modifiers to the situation or change the circumstances to make them more challenging. Would the hero walk all over a group of thugs in a straight-up fight? Give them hostages as human shields or a superior tactical position. Given them better weapons (supplied by a mysterious benefactor, as in the new Gangbusters! adventure), or put one of the heroes’ friends or loved ones in the line of fire (perfect challenge opportunity).

In using any or all of these ideas, keep in mind: an “untouchable” hero should get the opportunity to enjoy being such a superior fighter, just as an invulnerable hero should get to bounce some bullets or a super-fast hero should get to ignore the mundane limits of time or distance; that’s part of what being “super” is about! Spice it up to keep things interesting for you and your players, but also allow them to enjoy being able to take on hordes of lesser foes, secure in the knowledge that they can handle it … most of the time.

Planet-busting in Mutants & Masterminds

Some superhero settings feature truly cosmic levels of power. While, in my experience, it is most often easier to simply treat such massively powerful beings as plot devices, sometimes it’s fun to consider the limits of the game system in terms of modeling them. Case in point: how many ranks of Damage would you need to destroy the Earth in the third edition of Mutants & Masterminds?

Now, a lot of it depends on how we define “destroy.” For the sake of discussion, let’s stipulate the following:

  • The Earth is an “object” in game terms (albeit a big one). So it is subject to the rules for damaging objects.
  • While made of a variety of materials, we’ll consider the Earth’s base Toughness that of stone: rank 5.
  • The “thickness” of the Earth is its diameter: 7,901 miles. That’s technically a distance rank of 20, since it’s shy of the 8,000 miles value of rank 21. Since an object’s Toughness equals its base rank + (distance rank + 7), that would make Earth’s Toughness rank 5 + (20 + 7) or 32.
  • Let’s say that the Earth’s Toughness is also Impervious, so nothing less than Damage 17 even has a chance of damaging the planet as a whole. Anything else might mess up the landscape, but that’s all.

So, the minimum Damage rank (17) has a resistance DC of (17 + 15) or 32, the same as the planet’s Toughness value, meaning the resistance check pretty much can’t fail.

But wait: let’s assume the “attacker” is going to take the option of making an attack check, since the Earth is a pretty massive object. It’s not like he’s going to miss! That’s good for a critical hit and +5 Damage. Likewise, let’s assume the attacker goes for a Power Attack for –2 to the attack check and +2 Damage.

That ramps the Damage up to 24, or DC 39. Now the GM needs to roll a 7 or better for the planet to suffer no serious damage. A 6 or less means a Toughness reduction, while a 2 or less (for a Toughness check total of 34 or less) actually means two degrees of failure: the attack blows a hole clear through the planet! While that doesn’t shatter the Earth in one blow, it probably means the end of life as we know it as the molten core bursts out and floods the surface.

(Indeed, if we were being really pedantic about this, we could probably stipulate the Earth’s “thickness” as that of the rocky mantle—mere tens of miles—since any attack that blasts through that will unleash the high-pressure molten magma from the core. But I digress…)

Ramping things up further, a Damage 20 attack, made with a successful attack check, a full Power Attack (+5 Damage), and some extra effort (for +1 Damage) does a whopping Damage 31, DC 46. The planet needs a die roll of 14 or better to avoid damage altogether. A roll of 9 or less means a hole punched right through the planet, while a roll of 4 or less shatters the entire planet in a single blast! So it’s quite possible for some high-level characters to at least threaten Earth-sized planets, to say nothing of smaller moons or the like. Take the Damage rank up by even 5–6 and the attacker has even odds of smashing planets with single attacks!

SAGA System: Fighting the Good Fight

[This article originally appeared in the Legends of the Lance newsletter.]

In the SAGA System rules for Dragonlance: Fifth Age, heroes use their Strength to perform actions in melee combat, like hitting their opponents. Characters with high Strength codes are also better trained in the use of melee weapons.

This approach causes difficulties with some hero concepts players may have: What about the wiry swordsman who’s deadly with a blade but not particularly brawny, or the strong hero who can’t hit the broad side of a barn? Additionally, some players may have difficulties equating combat skill with brute strength.

Worse yet, based close combat ability on Strength makes physically powerful monsters in the game nigh-unbeatable, due to the massive differences in Strength between, say, a human and even a small dragon.

One option for handling these concerns is to introduce a new ability to the SAGA System: Fighting (or Prowess, or something similar). Fighting takes the place of Strength and is aligned with the suit of Swords. It measures the hero’s training in melee combat, both armed and unarmed, and the ability to use different weapons effectively. The Fighting ability code works the same as the standard Fifth Age Strength Code; an “A” means the hero is trained with all melee weapons, a “B” is all but very heavy weapons, and so forth. If a hero does not have training in a particular weapon, the hero suffers a one level increase in difficulty when using it.

To make room for Fighting, the Strength and Endurance abilities are collapsed into one ability (called Strength), measuring the hero’s overall muscle and stamina, and aligned with the suit of Helms. It is used for actions involving brute Strength (like breaking down doors and bending bars), as well as all actions Endurance is normally used for.

Fighting is used to make melee attacks, and it is also used to avoid melee attacks, representing the hero’s skill in parrying and blocking. So attacking in melee combat is an average Fighting (Fighting) action, as is avoiding an attack. The Narrator may also wish to allow heroes the option of using Agility to avoid melee attacks, giving nimble heroes a better chance of getting out of the way. If the attack hits, the hero’s Strength still determines damage normally.

Strength is still used as the action ability for close-in unarmed attacks like wrestling, representing the advantage greater Strength provides the attacker.

The Narrator should choose the Fighting score for characters and creatures in the game. Creatures may have Fighting equal to their Physique, or the Narrator may choose to give them a lower fighting score to represent creatures that are physically very strong (high Physique) but not particularly swift or accurate (lower Fighting). This also gives heroes more of a “fighting chance” when going up against larger, more powerful creatures.

Gamma World: Gamma Grass

Ever since first edition Gamma World I’ve been fond of this “monster” because it embodies the setting’s ethos of “even the landscape is out to get you”. I’ve updated it for the current edition of the game, with a little added benefit/story hook to encourage characters to actually brave the risks involved, making it a bit more than just a random hazard.

Gamma Grass: Known as “zeeth” in the language of the seer lizards, this purple sward reproduces by teleporting its seeds into the guts of nearby creatures. The seeds release a deadly neurotoxin, killing the host, which decomposes and fertilizes a new patch of gamma grass.

Mature gamma grass is a hazard that attacks any animal creature that begins or ends its turn within 5 squares of the patch. Seed teleports that miss materialize in the air nearby with a sizzling “pop” as they burst harmlessly.

Attack: Ranged 5, +7 vs. Fortitude. Targets protected by force fields are unaffected.

Hit: 2d6 poison damage, plus ongoing 5 (save ends). If target drops to 0 hit points or fewer, it dies and a patch of gamma grass sprouts from the corpse the next day.

If mature gamma grass is harvested, dried, and smoked, it grants a particular type of alpha shift: the smoker may draw the next two Psi mutations from the alpha mutation deck and choose to retain one, gaining a +2 bonus to overcharge that mutation for the next encounter.

Because of its benefits (along with a mild euphoric “high” from smoking it), serfs, sleeth, and some badder tribes use slave labor to harvest patches of gamma grass. Those that do not survive the process simply ensure a bumper crop in the following season.