Steve Kenson isn’t a “new geek on the block” but – like with so many other independent projects – Kickstarter has allowed him to successfully fund his current project, ICONS: Great Power, a supplement for the ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying game originally published through Adamant Entertainment and continued through Kenson’s own Ad Infinitum Adventures. Currently working for Green Ronin Publishing, Kenson is probably best known for designing the seminal Mutants & Masterminds system, the current holder of the DC Universe license and soon to celebrate its 10th anniversary on the market after three successful editions.
According to his Kickstarter site, “Great Power presents dozens of powers, new and old, along with power stunts and limits, more details on how to use powers, and how to look at renaming (or “reskinning”) them to make “new” powers with the same essential mechanics,” with “an expanded chapter on Devices (items that provide powers) including weapons, armor, shields, cybernetics, robots, and vehicles. The material remains true to the fairly ‘light’ style of the game – you’ll find a page and a half of vehicle rules, not ten or twenty!”
“If folks want to get in on that, right now with the stretch goals, it’s a pretty good deal,” Kenson said when I spoke with him last week. With only two days left, “folks are going to be getting the equivalent of three or four products for the price of one. Those things are going to be separate once the Kickstarter’s over and done with.”
“Don’t miss out on that,” he said.
In the first half of this extended interview with Steve Kenson, we discussed the differences between character design in ICONS and Mutants & Masterminds, the successful superhero games of the past that influenced him, and the obstacles of playing licensed material …
TE: You designed Mutants & Masterminds, and you designed ICONS. What did you feel needed to be “improved” over Mutants & Masterminds, if that’s the right word?
SK: I’m not really sure that it is. It’s a commonly asked question and I don’t necessarily think it’s a matter of improvement, as such. ICONS had a very different genesis from Mutants & Masterminds and a very different intended purpose. Although they’re both superhero role-playing games, Mutants & Masterminds started out with the intention of being a game based on the D20 [System Reference Document] because that was particularly popular at the time, and was particularly designed to support a broad, point-based system of character design. ICONS started out with a couple of things in mind: First, it was based on the idea of randomly rolling up superhero characters, which was something I had always been very fond of back when I first started gaming. I cut my teeth on superhero role-playing games like Villains & Vigilantes; my friends and I would spend all this time with all of the random tables coming up with characters with these combinations of powers and try to build a superhero around them, and that turned out to be a lot of fun. Later on, in my own gaming experience, I dropped the whole idea and was very much focused on the idea that character creation should be very choice-based and that it should be all about being able to carefully construct and model these types of characters. As time has gone on, and more in my adult years when I and my gaming friends have less free time to call upon to devote to our gaming hobby because we have mortgages and families [laughs], I’ve come around again to the idea of enjoying what I like to refer to as “low intensity” games that are relatively easy to throw together. You have a quick system for rolling up a character that’s fun and relatively easy, and you’ve got a game system that’s not overly demanding in terms of prep time and things like that.
ICONS came out of that impulse to put together something where a group of friends could say, “Hey! Let’s play a superhero game,” sit down at a table with a book, roll up a group of characters and be ready to go in pretty short order. From my early playtesting of the process, just the idea that randomly rolling up the characters was fun, and it gave people an interesting kick-start to their inspiration. I had people tell me at the table, “This character that I rolled up for the game that we just played is not something I would’ve ever thought about in a million years if I had just sat down at the table cold and somebody said, ‘Create a superhero.’”
TE: The power structure of Mutants & Masterminds is very effect-based. Players choose what they want their powers to do, and adjust the way the powers look to the effects, similar to [Hero Games’] Hero System. From the Kickstarter page, it seems the Great Power supplement approaches more powers from their descriptions and variations, as opposed to the effects-
SK: That is largely true, yes.
TE: So do you feel that, especially in the superhero genre, that it’s a more exciting to have a vast array of powers – that have already done most of the math for you – as opposed to working backwards from the effects?
SK: The powers in ICONS, and particularly in Great Power, are effects-based in the sense that I tried to make sure they were internally consistent from a games mechanics perspective. In that regard, their effects were certainly taken into account. You’re completely right in the sense that Great Power takes more of the approach, if I want my character to be able to throw fire from his hands, for example, probably the first place I’m going to look under in the book is under “F,” for powers that begin with “Fire.” There are a number of instances in Great Power where you’re going to find a header, not necessarily a power description per se, but a touch of that effects-based element where it’s going to direct you to another power. There are a number of cross-references in the book; for example, if you want your character to have a poison attack, if you look under “Poison” the book will tell you that the Affliction power is effectively useful for creating the effects of poisons. So you won’t see a separate “Poison” power, but you’ll see a header [under “Poison”] that says, “Go to the Affliction power. That does what you want it to do.” An Affliction may be a poison, or a disease, or a similar type of thing.
ICONS and Great Power, and Mutants & Masterminds take two different approaches to superpowers and character designs. Mutants & Masterminds is a much more construction-based approach; the idea that you can build the power you want that has the specific effects that you want and then layer the special effect “skin” description over it, and that certainly appeals to the players who want more precise control over how they’re going to create their characters and what their characters can do, in game terms. Great Power is much more from the idea of [having] a big catalog of powers. They’re intended to be more inspirational because, again, chances are you’re going to be randomly rolling up these powers, and turning to that power description and saying, “So, what does this mean for my character?” They’re much more thematic, in the sense that they’re all clustered with all of their various stunts and expansions, the various things you can do with the powers. They’re intended to be useful guides in play, being able to look [up] powers and say, “What other things can I do with this? I’ve got some Determination Points to spend. What am I going to do with that?”
You’ll see a certain amount of crossover of those two different approaches in the Power Profiles series I did for Green Ronin this past year, which was an ongoing, weekly powers supplement for Mutants & Masterminds that took that more thematic approach, essentially. That’s where we took the power creation system inherent in the core game and provided all the worked examples. The Fire Powers profile said, “OK. You want a character that has ‘fire’ powers? Here’s a whole range of 15 or 20 fire powers, how they’re built, and what they do.” If you’re not the power-building type, and you don’t want to go through the process of creating a particular kind of power, all the work is done for you.
TE: To me, the ICONS system was very reminiscent of the old TSR “FASERIP” system-
SK: Marvel Super Heroes. Sure.
TE: -and there’s a page early in the ICONS core book that suggests assigning words to numeric stats: “Poor,” “Typical,” “Good,” “Excellent.” Was that an intentional callback?
SK: Oh, absolutely [laughs]. One of the original building blocks of ICONS [came from] combining elements from Marvel Super Heroes and FUDGE, Steffan O’Sullivan’s original game system, now better known for its cousin, FATE. Years ago, I was messing around with how to mix and match both of them, and wrote a number of notes – sketched out some mechanical ideas – that became the initial basis for ICONS. The suggestion for naming the levels was very much a callback to the old Marvel Super Heroes. I played a lot of Marvel Super Heroes back in the day [laughs].
TE: Did you ever play the old Mayfair Games’ DC Heroes?
SK: I did. I didn’t play as much DC Heroes as I did of Marvel [Super Heroes], but I’m a big fan of Greg Gorden’s game designs. You have to admire a lot of what went into DC Heroes. I did actually write for [West End Games’ short-lived DC Universe Roleplaying Game]. Unfortunately, the larger pieces I wrote for it were never published, because West End cancelled the line. I did some material for the Justice League and Justice Society sourcebooks, primarily focused their headquarters as I remember. And I did some larger pieces for the unpublished Green Lantern and Flash books. I wrote a section for the Green Lantern book about how to run, if you’re going to police space, basically, how to run an intergalactic police organization, and I was particularly happy with the informational sidebar on the top 10 Green Lantern oaths. Sadly, it never got published. I got to dig up all of the old Tales of the Green Lantern Corps [laughs] and write down all the various oaths the characters had been using.
TE: Was there ever an attempt to get a license with ICONS, or was it something you wanted to keep, sort of, “free and easy”?
SK: No. There wasn’t. ICONS, really, was – and I hate to put it in a way like ICONS is my poor, orphaned offspring – but one of the things you run into is the question of expectations when you create a game, or a game line, of what people [want it to be]. I always got a lot of questions like that, where ICONS was concerned: Would there be a license? Would there be an official setting? Et cetera, et cetera, and one of the things I really wanted to do with ICONS – and still, basically, want to focus on – is the actual play experience. My experience, on both the play side and design side of licensed games is that, at most, people are interested in the setting of the license and having some sense of what the stats for the major characters are but, generally as a rule, aren’t all that interested in playing those characters. Whenever I’ve run various licensed games – especially licensed superhero games – my players are almost never interested in playing characters from the comics. They want to make up their own characters, and they’re super psyched to have their characters meet those guys and co-exist in the same universe with them, but are rarely interested in actually playing them.
Where ICONS was concerned, I really wanted to hearken back to the early days of [role-playing games], where the primary products you were going to get were the core game, which is how you play, and adventures; things you actually play with. The rest of it would arise out of the play experience, like, in the early days of superhero games like Champions, Villains & Vigilantes and [Chaosium’s] Superworld, you would have the core game, and you would have a whole series of adventures. Even in the early days of [Dungeons & Dragons], it was just the rulebooks and adventures. There were years of adventures before even the first World of Greyhawk folio came along. The idea was there would an implied setting; if you took the totality of all the ICONS adventures published to date, and assumed they all took place in the same world – that all these characters co-existed – then, well, you kind of have a setting. Take the modern world, add all these guys to it, and “Boom!” it’s a setting. That’s pretty much what any comic book world is: Just our world with a bunch of superheroes and villains running around in it. So I really wanted to avoid giving ICONS a license, or an official anything, really. I wanted it to be a fairly straightforward experience.
In Part Two, Steve discusses character and campaign creation, some thoughts on the value of role-playing games in today’s economy, and the genre he doesn’t think he’s particularly suited to write. Be back on Thursday for more with Steve Kenson!