Two Fisted RPG Review: InSpectres and ICONS

JL Updated
Two Fisted RPG Review:  InSpectres and ICONS

Ghostbusters and comic books.

These two things have had a pretty profound effect on my life.  I've loved them for as long as my memory goes back and they've continued to give me a tremendous amount of enjoyment all throughout my life.  I bet I could make some pretty strong arguments for them being two of the greatest things to ever be crafted by human hands.  Yet they unfortunately don't get along too well with my favorite hobby, that being board gaming.  A Ghostbusters game would be a humorless affair (and what's the point in that?), and I've talked about my displeasure with superhero games [url=]before.[/url]

Over the last few weeks, I've made a big return to the world of RPGs.  It all started with a game called InSpectres, a game that not only delivered the perfect combination of elements you'd want in a Ghostbusters game, it had me re-examining what I thought about the RPG genre as a whole.  Eager to find more RPGs that put narrative before heavy, detailed rules, I found ICONS, a superhero game that reminds me of the old Marvel FASERIP game combined with the sensibilities of the indie roleplaying market.


InSpectres is a paranormal investigation game, though the system is so loose, I can see it being applied to any number of settings (I think it would make for a pretty killer Doctor Who game).  The setting suggested in the book is that ghosts, vampires, demons, and all manner of unpleasantries exist, and it's up to an upstart company called InSpectres to clean them up and make a profit while doing it.  Players take the roles of these InSpectres agents, as well as specifying what their branch of the franchise is like ans where it's located.  That's about as defined as this setting gets.

Character creation takes about 5 minutes.  That's not for one person, that's for the whole group. You get 9 points to distribute between 4 abilities:  Athletics, Academics, Technology, and Contacts.  Details of what those abilities are totally self-explanatory.  You also choose a "talent," something your character knows a whole lot about, and you'll roll an extra die whenever you can fork your talent into any roll you're making.  So if your talent is collecting spores, molds, and fungus, you'll get a bonus die when you do something like trying to convince a teammate that they shouldn't eat uncooked bluefoot mushrooms.

The core mechanic in InSpecters is that whenever a player makes a roll, they roll a number of dice equal to their score in the appropriate ability.  They find the highest die rolled, and on a roll of a 4+, the player decides what happens.  Yes, you read correctly, the player decides what happens.  This is the chance for the players to grab a hold of the story and guide it in the direction they want to take it.  The higher they roll, the better the effects of their success.  A 4 means it their action just barely works, a 5 brings slightly better results, and a 6 means something really amazing happens.  For example, the player goes to kick open a door to a room filled with zombies.  They roll their Athletics score, with a 6 being the highest result rolled.  The player says, "I kick the door, taking it right off the hinges, sending it flying and knocking out three zombies in the room."  However, if the player rolls a 3 or lower, not only does the action not happen as desired, but the GM decides what happens.  A 3 might mean that the action still happens, just not in the way intended, while a 1 means something truly catastrophic happens.  With this system, the game requires no planning on the GM's part.  The most work they have to do is come up with "The Call" (ie, "I opened the fridge and a voice said 'Zuul'") and who's making it.  The rest of the game is made up on the fly.

The truly genius mechanic of InSpectres is "The Confessional."  Once per game, each player get the chance to make a Confessional.  This is similar to a format used in reality TV shows, in which the character speaks directly to the camera.  Players can use this to define things unseen in the past, guide the game along to where it's going, or add traits about the other players (this is often used for comedic effects).  Say the players meet with their potential customer, a fairly attractive young woman.  One of the players uses their Confessional to say, "I thought we were going to lose the job before we even got it when Joe started hitting on her."  Joe then needs to act flirtatious with their customer.  There's a wide variety of uses for this mechanic, with the most frequently used being someone remembering a useful piece of equipment the group forgot they had.  Effective use of this mechanic is one of the real challenges of InSpectres, and it comes in handy for getting the story back on track when it starts to stray.

InSpectres is a riot.  Its loose, easy to use rules lends itself to the humor that a Ghostbusters board game could never achieve.  My group has enjoyed it immensely, and we love being able to sit down and play it spontaneously.  Yet I don't think it's going to strike gold every time, and definitely not with every group.  The ideal group for InSpectres would be a table of GMs, which makes sense, as that's essentially the role the game asks every player to take on.  The game requires a group that isn't afraid to push the story and knows when to reel it in.  Without that, the game freewheels into a complete mess.  You've also got to be comfortable with no character improvements.  There's no experience to be earned in the game, so you've got to make the growth of your character come in the form of the story.  If you think you have the group for it, definitely check this game out.  It will be very different than what you're used to, but by the time your first game is over, the breath of fresh air will be very welcome.


ICONS is game by Steve Kenson, the designer of Mutants & Masterminds, a game which has sort of become the D&D of superhero RPGs over the last decade.  I appreciate M&M for doing a stand up job with emulating nearly every power and circumstance you can think of coming up in a supers game, but there's always been a few things that really turn me off to it.  The character creation was extremely lengthy, and how powers worked was a bit cumbersome to understand and explain.  ICONS not only uses faster, easier rules, but focuses more on the reasons why superheroes operate and rewards players for exploring the personal challenges they face.

ICONS offers both random and point-buy character creation systems.  Personally, I'm a fan of the random system.  Right from the get go, players are coming up with imaginative explanations for random circumstances.  I'd also argue that it makes more thematic sense.  Peter Parker never chose to be bitten by a radioactive spider, so why should you?  If you do choose to go the point-buy route, you'll find the options to be surprisingly robust.  I've spent a fair amount of time putting it to the test, and I can't come up with any popular comic book hero or villain that the game can't duplicate.

Only the players roll dice in ICONS, which is something I see as a tribute to the aforementioned Marvel FASERIP system.  As the GM, I love this design choice.  Rolling a test is only done when failure would impact the story, and how to roll a test is so easy to understand, my players tend to know what to roll before I can even tell them.  All abilities are rated on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being weak and 10 being on a cosmic scale.  Difficulty works on the same scale.  To make a test, the player rolls two different colored dice, one positive, one negative.  The negative die is subtracted from the positive, and the result is added to the appropriate ability score.  The difficulty of the test is then subtracted, and if the result is still a 0 or above, the test passes.  Higher results means better effects.  It may sound pretty math-heavy at first, but remember that you're often only dealing with numbers no higher than 6.

Where ICONS really shines in with the "Determination" mechanics.  Every character starts with Determination points, and the more powers they have, the fewer Determination points they start with.  The player comes up with a list of qualities their hero adheres to, be it certain people they've sworn to protect, promises they've made, or even catchphrases they'll use when going into battle ("It's clobberin' time!").  Whenever they can reasonably explain how their qualities apply to the current situation, they can use Determination to ensure they pass a test, keep themselves from dying, performing "stunts" (like when Superman turns back time by flying around the Earth) or even "retconning" the story in true comic book fashion.  Players earn more Determination when the GM compels their complications, which are also outlined during character creation.  Complications basically say to the GM, "Uses these as plot hooks."  When the GM chooses to exploit a player's complication, the player has the option to ignore it, but not only do they miss out on earning Determination, they must spend one Determination to ignore it.  This system is great from several standpoints, not only as a plot hook device, but it also manages to simulate why heroes with a wide array of powers seem to have the most complicated lives.  Since a character like Spider-Man wouldn't start with a whole lot of Determination with all those powers, he'd have to take  plenty of complications to make sure he has ample opportunity to earn some.

ICONS, like InSpectres, perfectly fits with where I am with RPGs at the moment.  I don't have time to plan out elaborate game sessions anymore, and ICONS really fits the bill.  I just need a few paragraphs to outline where I want the game to go, and everything else is pretty easy to make up as I go along.  I don't need to come up with DC ratings for every possible situation that might arise ahead of time, I just need to ask myself, "One a scale from 1 to 10, how hard would it be to pull that off?"  The lightweight rules enables the whole group to focus on the story, and with only the players making rolls, enables me to focus on telling it.

Both of these books are available in deadtree and the more affordable PDF format.

I'll be making my return to my usual comic book Trash Culture articles next month.  There's something like 80 gajillion comic book flicks coming out this summer, and not only do I want to talk about them, but I'll be talking about the books that inspired them that are worth reading.

There Will Be Games
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