Icons:Game Mastering

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It is the Game Master's job to oversee the creation and running of an Icons game, from the creation of the heroes to take part in the story to the design of their potential adventures, and linking those adventures together to make a series. The actual stories of the series come out of the players interacting with the adventures the Game Master creates, but the GM has to design the adventures in the first place.

This section looks at the job of Game Mastering and offers some advice on how to do it well. The most important piece of advice is to just relax, remember it's all just a game and, most of all, have fun!

Running Hero Creation

Part of the Game Master's job is overseeing the process of the players creating their heroes and approving the designs they come up with. This is more art than clear-cut science and involves asking yourself: Does this hero fit into the kind of adventures I plan to run? Will this character be a good addition to the game overall and fun for both the player and the rest of the group?

If the answer to either of these is "no," politely ask the player to adjust the character or come up with a new one. It's better to do this in advance than be forced into it after play has begun with an unsuitable character.

New Traits

While Icons covers the majority of traits needed to describe superheroic characters, no game can cover every possible trait. Sooner or later, your players may come up with concepts requiring a specialty or power not described in the rules. So long as you and the player are agreeable, feel free to make it up! Use the existing specialties and powers as guidelines and examples and write up what the new trait does, assign a level to it, and you’re ready to go!

Creating new traits is even easier when you're dealing with non-player characters like villains, since presumably you have your own permission to come up with new things! Feel free to give villains whatever traits you see fit to make them fun, interesting, and challenging for the heroes. This may include assigning them traits you wouldn't normally allow for heroes; things that would make heroes too effective can make for good villains, since they allow a single villain to take on a group of heroes and encourage heroes to be creative in overcoming the bad guy.

Be aware when creating new traits that they are sometimes more powerful or capable of affecting the game than they seem at first. If what seems like an obvious trait is left out of the game rules, consider: might there be a reason for that?

Customizing Traits

Rather than needing an entirely new trait, sometimes an existing trait just needs a bit of adjustment to fit a player's concept of a hero. Keep in mind that the names and descriptions of the traits in Icons are mostly suggestions. You can allow players to call certain powers by different names and to give them different "special effects" describing how they look and feel in the context of the game.

These things don't necessarily change the numbers or rules about how the traits work, but can make a big difference in terms of how they are perceived, and what makes a good "fit" for that character.

Similarly, you can customize traits to a degree by how you "calibrate" the scale (see The Basics): the rules provide some general guidelines for where different levels of ability fall, but you can shift things around changing, for example, the superhuman end of the Strength scale to better suit your ideas of really strong characters in your setting. This doesn't change the actual numbers or how they work in game-play, just what they mean in descriptive terms.

Determination & Stunts

The relationship between Determination and powers in Icons is intended to provide a degree of balance between different types of characters, namely those with a great deal of power or flexibility and those who rely more on ability, skill, and raw determination to succeed.

Essentially, heroes with a lot of powers (which include very high abilities) have less starting Determination and have to rely more on compels from the GM to earn more. This is why powerful heroes in the comics often lead such complicated lives: they need the compels those challenges give them!

Conversely, heroes with few, if any, powers have more Determination to start with, allowing them to succeed by sheer grit and, well, determination. In essence, having a lot of starting Determination is their "power," which fits with a lot of comic book archetypes.

The same is true for the breadth of a hero's powers. Characters with lots of developed and established stunts effectively have more powers than those who come up with their stunts on-the-fly (and spend Determination to use them). That's why it is a good idea to balance what is an established (and therefore always usable) element of the hero's powers and what is a less often-used stunt the player is willing to spend Determination to use.

Running Team Creation

Roleplaying games are a group activity, and in supers games, groups mean teams. Following are a few common kinds of teams, and suggestions for managing a team of that type in your game. Sitting down together as part of character creation to discuss what kind of team you'll use in your game is a really good way to lay the foundation for a successful supers campaign.

On the most basic level, creating a hero team is as simple as the players deciding that their heroes act together. Whether that grouping is a one-off "special team-up" issue, or the start of a group is up to the players.

In the comics, superhero teams often fall into one of several recognizable archetypes. If your players are interested in creating a continuing team, you should encourage them to think about what archetype best embodies what they're going for.

The Elite Team

This is the big one. In any game universe, there will usually be only one team like this, made up of the big hitters, the best of the best. These are the guys you turn to when the fate of the world is at stake. They have accepted the responsibility of being Earth's best and last hope. Everyone aspires to match them. Every villain fears them. Almost nothing can stop them.

An elite team is almost always established by the supers themselves, when two or three big names see the value of assembling a group to deal with those threats that are too great to face alone. The founding members of an elite team will usually have a special status within the team, and the tone and attitude of the team will spring from the perspective of these founding members.

The heroes will probably not be novices or amateurs. The team will develop substantial information resources, battle tactics and back-up plans. Personal disputes will, of course, occur but they will generally be talked through between missions; members of a team like this will almost certainly be too professional to let disputes interfere with their action out in the field.

Alternatively, the Elite Team could be presented as aspirational -- perhaps the heroes hope to become members one day, and in the meantime seek the approval of the Elite Team, or perhaps a mentoring relationship.

Elite Teams rarely end or fall apart except in the most unusual circumstances. If they do, then eventually another Elite Team will emerge to replace them.

The Employee Team

For some, supers work is not a calling -- it's a job. Governments, companies, private security agencies, non-governmental organizations and others sometimes see the benefits of putting a squad of supers on the payroll. The Employee Team has a boss and a mission statement. They try and do what’s right, but they do it from the perspective of their employer.

Employee teams vary a great deal depending on the nature of the employer. A city council hiring a supers team to provide support to its police and emergency services will result in one kind of team, whereas a multinational company hiring several heroes to promote its brand and protect its interests will produce quite a different team.

There will almost always be tension between the team members and their employers. Managers will make decisions that seem senseless or counterproductive; directives will be received that seem morally repugnant; orders will be handed down to stay out of affairs that intensely interest the members. Whether or not members can undertake any activity on their own is a key point to establish with this kind of team. In some situations, a hero who does some personal work might end up facing a disciplinary committee.

The players and GM should work together to hash out the details of the employer and the relationship between heroes and their boss. It is not necessary to work out all the details in advance, but it is crucial that players know how to run their characters while on the job. The group should also consider what general type of mission assignments will be appropriate for this sort of team.

Alternatively, an Employee Team could be created by a secret patron, whose true intentions may be straightforward or mysterious. In this case, the details of the employer-employee relationship may never be determined, and any decisions by the patron may remain inscrutable.

Employee Teams are fragile. If the team ever becomes perceived as a liability to the employer, its future will be in doubt. If it ever acts against the employer, it will certainly be discontinued. If the employer goes out of business or changes hands, the terms of employment might be radically changed and members might no longer wish to be part of the team.

The Purposeful Team

Some teams assemble for a particular purpose. Perhaps it is to explore the multiverse, or to oppose a criminal syndicate's activities, or to protect a particular city neighborhood. Whatever the purpose, all members of the team must subscribe to it (some more than others perhaps), and all activities by the team will ultimately serve this purpose (or, at the very least, not work against it).

The key question is, what is the purpose? Deciding on the team's mission will set the tone of the game more than anything else. All the characters will be built in relationship to the purpose, and all the adventures will bear some relationship to that purpose.

Alternatively, a Purposeful Team could be created for a purpose that is secret or mysterious. Maybe only one or two of the members know the team's purpose. Maybe none of them do and the team's missions are given to them by a magical talking stick or a supercomputer from the moons of Jupiter. Discovering the true purpose of the team's existence should be the central ongoing plot point in the campaign.

Purposeful Teams are sturdy as long as the purpose still exists. Until the reason for being plays itself out, a Purposeful Team will probably keep going through thick and thin. The purpose is bigger than all of them.

The Outsider Team

Life is tough, sometimes, and banding together is a good way to cope. The outsider team forms from those who are hated or feared by society, or on the run from the government or some evil power. They live life on the fringes, rarely understood, helping each other keep going, making tough choices every day, trying to do the right thing for no other reason than it's the right thing to do.

The players and GM need to decide why the team are on the outside, and how harsh life is for them -- are they constantly on the run and scrabbling to survive, or are they outsiders due to a low level of prejudice and misunderstanding?

Alternatively, an outsider team could be on the outside because of its goals. Perhaps the team is made up of anarchists determined to overthrow the government, or true patriots determined to uncover corruption amongst the powerful.

Outsider teams are always fragile. They could fall apart for any number of reasons. Personal relationships are frequently strained due to the pressures of being outsiders. The forces acting against the team have plenty of ways of weakening and undermining the team's viability. Few outsider teams last for long.

The Bound Fates Team

Sometimes characters don't have a say in who they're on a team with. Maybe the meteorite that gave them their powers gave them all a permanent psychic link to each other. Maybe the demon they fought when they first got together is always going to keep going after all of them, and they have to stay together to stand a chance against it. Maybe they all share a mysterious sigil on their shoulders, the true meaning of which remains unclear. In all these cases, the team is bound together by fate.

The players should decide what the nature of their bound fate is, how much is known by the characters, and how their characters feel about this forced co-operation.

Alternatively, a Bound Fates team could have chosen this course. Perhaps they all completed a blood brothers ritual? Perhaps they made a mystical vow to each other? What if one member chose but the others had no choice?

Bound Fates teams are incredibly strong, by their very nature. They resist any attempt to tear them apart until the fate that binds them is resolved.

Running Adventures

An adventure is a series of chapters, making up a single issue, like an issue of a comic book (as described under Time in the Taking Action! section). Some long adventures may span multiple issues, a "mini-series" of sorts.

The bulk of the Game Master's job in Icons is actually running the game; creating and narrating exciting superhero adventures for the players. This section looks at some things to know when running Icons.

Adventure Structure

Comic book stories tend to follow a standard structure, and because Icons is a comic book game, its adventures should follow a similar format. It breaks the story down into a series of chapters: the Threat, the Investigation, the Challenge, and the Comeback.

The Threat

The Threat gives the heroes an indication something is wrong and needs their attention. It might be as straightforward as a bank alarm ringing out over the rooftops of the city or the police commissioner picking up the red phone, or as subtle as sinister shadows watching the heroes from the sidelines of a parade or a ceremony where they accept the key to the city or the like. The threat is a "hook," a call to action, getting the players and their heroes engaged and involved in the story.

The Investigation

In the Investigation phase of an adventure, the heroes look into the nature of the Threat and what they can do about it. This might be as simple as rushing to the site of an alarm or as involved as piecing together clues from multiple crime scenes, or following up on a series of mysterious disappearances to see if there are any connections.

The Investigation phase may involve some tests, particularly of investigative abilities like Awareness, and is when the GM imparts a good deal of information to the players about what is going on. It may also involve some other tests or challenges, even combat, as the heroes run up against opposition, have to shake down informants, and so forth.

Keep in mind that although the Investigation is intended to be challenging and exciting, drawing the players into the story, it should also be informative. Don't structure it so that if the players fail a single test they will miss a vital clue, sending the story off on a tangent from which it might not recover. It's not much fun chasing down dead-end leads and casting about trying to figure out what the heroes should be doing, after all.

The Challenge

The Challenge phase is where the action really starts happening. It is when the heroes have some idea of what they need to do and they try to do it. The Challenge often involves combating the villain(s), but it can include other sorts of tests of the heroes' abilities.

Often heroes face a series of challenges to get to the final confrontation or climax of the story. Some of these initial challenges might be failures or setbacks, such as the heroes initially being unable to stop the villain or falling into a trap and having to escape. These sorts of additional challenges are opportunities for the players to rack up Determination for the final part of the adventure. Multiple challenges may be interspersed with investigation phases as the heroes follow-up on clues from each challenge.

The Comeback

In the end, the heroes come back from apparent defeat and win the day, overcoming challenges and taking down the villain(s). The Comeback is the dramatic final confrontation of the story. It is often a big blowout fight but it can just as easily be a dramatic debate or a clever plan that wins the day without a single punch being thrown.

This is the phase of the adventure where players want to spend the Determination they have earned to get the job done, just like the heroes come back more determined than ever to succeed.

The Comeback is often followed by an epilogue of some sort, where the GM ties up loose ends and the heroes get to bask in their success for a few moments before the close of the story.

Adventure Structure Examples

Here are a couple examples of the comic book adventure structure in action:

The Bank Heist

Criminals are robbing the First National Bank! The Threat comes when the heroes are alerted to the robbery by the sound of an alarm, an announcement over the police band, or the like. They investigate by arriving at the bank and checking out the situation, discovering the criminals are holding the customers and employees hostage. They must overcome the challenge of getting in and securing the hostages' safety. Only then to they discover the additional challenge of the supervillain working with the robbers! After the bad guy gets a few good licks in by attacking from surprise, the heroes rally, stage a comeback, and take down the bad guys.

The Mastermind's Island

A master villain is blackmailing the world with a doomsday weapon from a hidden island fortress. The Threat comes in a broadcast across the worldwide networks. To prove the authorities are helpless, the villain challenges the heroes to a battle to the death against his loyal minions.

The heroes fight a villain team working for the master villain, but manage to defeat them. From their foes, they learn the location of the villain's island lair, allowing them to infiltrate and attempt to stop the doomsday device. Unfortunately, the master villain is prepared and captures them, only then revealing that they are the necessary final component of his doomsday weapon! Of course, the process will also destroy them as an added bonus.

In the Comeback, the heroes have to escape the villain's trap and defeat him. Perhaps their escape and battle triggers the destruction of the island lair, leading to the villain's apparent demise (from which he can, eventually, return).

How to Test

It is up to the Game Master to decide when to ask players to test their heroes' traits and how difficult the tests will be. Some general rules of thumb when it comes to asking for tests:

  • Only test when there is a chance of failure and that failure matters to the story in some way. A test should always matter, otherwise don't bother. It just sets the players up for possible failure with no real reward otherwise.
  • Try to limit things to one test per situation. If, for example, a hero has to sneak into a building, ask for a single Coordination (Stealth) test. Having players make a series of tests to accomplish one thing generally just increases the chances that they'll fail and is unfair.
  • Only test things you want the players to be able to use Determination to accomplish. Remember that a character must attempt and fail at something to make a Determined Effort, unless there is only one chance to succeed.
  • Speaking of which, if the hero only has one shot at a test, be sure to tell the players that so they can choose to use Determined Effort, if they want.
  • Remember that only the players make tests. When it comes to GM-controlled characters, you either determine the outcome of their actions based on their traits and the situation, or call for a test from the players to determine if their heroes are able to avoid or resist the effects of the other character's action.
  • Keep in mind that a test with a Difficulty equal to the hero's trait has roughly a 60% chance of success, one with a difficulty 2 higher is about half that (a 30% chance), and a difficulty 4 higher is less than a 10% chance, but just one or two points of Determination can shift the odds back in the hero's favor.

Benchmarks

Icons has a fairly loose system when it comes to rating and describing things in game terms. Basically, it all comes down to the 1 to 10 scale and the question "on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate that?" Something either falls somewhere on the scale, or it is simply off the scale altogether and probably not worth worrying about (see Off the Scale in The Basics section).

Still, it can be helpful to have some "benchmarks," points of reference for quickly determining where something falls on the scale while running the game or designing adventures for it. The level descriptions under the Levels and Scale header in The Basics provide some benchmarks where abilities are concerned, while the sample materials under the Bending and Breaking header and the sample weights under Lifting in the Taking Action! section do the same.

As given under How to Test, remember that a trait at a level equal to a given Difficulty has about a 60% chance of success, half that for a 2 level difference, and about 10% for a 4 level difference.

Here are some other quick benchmarks to keep in mind:

  • Damage: A damage level of 3 to 4 is about that of a hand weapon, 5 to 6 a heavy weapon like a machine gun or chain gun, and 7 or more a military weapon like a missile or torpedo. Truly massive damage like a nuclear weapon is pretty much off the scale.
  • Speed: Speed levels for movement powers are deliberately vague, rather than in exact miles or kilometers per hour. Remember that a speed of 4 to 5 is that of a typical car, 6 is a sub-sonic plane, while 7 or more is super-sonic.
  • Toughness: The material strength levels show the toughness of various substances. You can use them as benchmarks for objects as well, keeping in mind that complex or mechanical objects (like vehicles) are going to be less tough overall than their material, being both hollow and filled with relatively delicate moving parts. So most vehicles will have an effective Strength of 5 to 6 when it comes to taking damage.

Game Rules vs. Common Sense

The rules of Icons give you the tools to handle most common situations likely to come up in a superhero story. However, they're not one hundred percent foolproof, and no set of rules can anticipate every possible thing that could happen in a story. From time to time, you'll encounter a situation where the rules don't provide a clear-cut answer, or worse, provide a clearly wrong answer. In these cases, ignore the rules and go with what makes the most sense to you and what you think will be the most fair and fun for your players; and if one of them should object and say, "That's not in the rules!" point them to this paragraph and say, "Yes, it is."

Random Adventure Creation

If you are pressed for time or just looking for some inspiration for a new adventure, it is as simple as 1... 2... 3!

1. Create a Villain

Using the same guidelines given for creating heroes, create one or more villains for your adventure. You can use the random roll approach for inspiration, but don't feel restricted to what you roll-up. If you get a better idea, or need the villain to have a certain trait or level, just assign it. You can also create villains simply by choosing whatever traits and levels you think the character should have. Barring that, pick a villain from the samples given in this book!

Be sure to give your villain some aspects, particularly things the players can figure out and tag!

2. Choose a Plot

Roll on the following tables or just choose a suitable plot for your villain.


Plot Element 1
d6 d6 Element
1-2 1 Attack
2 Steal
3 Manipulate
4 Murder
5 Control
6 Destroy
3-4 1 Create
2 Infiltrate
3 Ransom
4 Rob
5 Extort
6 Seize
5-6 1 Escape
2 Conquer
3 Study
4 Possess
5 Eliminate
6 Capture


Plot Element 2
d6 d6 Element
1-2 1 Rival
2 Creature
3 Country
4 People
5 City
6 Object
3-4 1 Artifact
2 World
3 Hero (or Team)
4 Treasure
5 Loved One
6 Wealth
5-6 1 Power
2 Celebrity
3 Head of State
4 Invention
5 Resource
6 Enemy


Take the combination of terms as inspiration for the villain's plot. So an initial pair of rolls of 3 and 4 yields "Rob" while a second pair of 1 and 5 gives us "City". Clearly, the villain intends to rob the city blind! But how? Perhaps by literally "robbing the city blind" -- a plot to temporarily blind everyone, allowing the villain and his henchmen free rein!

You can use the style and aspects of your chosen villain to help you fill out the plot. For example, if you roll-up a "Control Power" plot and your villain is a mystical mistress of Wizardry, perhaps she intends to steal all magical power in the world for herself! "Escape Invention" could be about a mad scientist who has created a super-powerful android that now has a will of its own and wants to destroy its creator! Alternately, it could be the designer of an engineered super-virus trying to escape before it is released on an unsuspecting populace.

Feel free to twist around the meanings of the words as you see fit and play with different ideas to see what they inspire. Again, the rolls on the table aren't intended to lock you into a particular outcome, just to "kick start" your imagination and get you thinking of different possibilities. Take notes! Even if you don't use a particular idea you come up with for your next adventure, who's to say when you might want to use it somewhere down the line?

3. Add Complications

Kick things off by giving the heroes a threat, as described in the Adventure Structure section, and then use the heroes' and villains' aspects to provide some complications to the basic plot. Do two or more characters have a rivalry? Is there romantic tension? Opportunities to threaten a hero's secret identity or compel a weakness? Adding these elements into the adventure help to both personalize it for the players' heroes and award the players Determination they can use to help their characters prevail in the end!

Put it all together, and you're ready to go!

Managing Determination

Icons Characters start the game with 6 Determination points minus their total number of powers (with a minimum of 1 starting point). These points may be spent to affect the outcome of events in the game (see the Determination section for details about how).

Judging Determination Use

One of the Game Master's jobs is adjudicating the more open-ended uses of Determination, particularly retcons and stunts. You want to encourage the players to be creative, without bogging the game down in a lot of discussion or debate about how things are going to work.

Keep in mind the general guideline about retcons being unable to directly contradict established information. It's one thing for a player to spend Determination to find a convenient item nobody noticed before, but quite another to ask for a retcon that (for example) completely removes a character from the scene, when it has been established that he is there.

Similarly, try and encourage players when they're being too modest in their Determination spending. It is a limited resource, so don't require players to spend it for things that should be taken for granted, like finding a fire extinguisher in a public building, for example. Help the players along, perhaps with a suggestion about a retcon or stunt you think would be cool and fit the adventure. After all, you're trying to create a story together.

Try to be flexible when it comes to the requirement to tag qualities in order to spend Determination; so long as it fits the general parameters of the quality, and the player can come up with an in-game reason to justify it, it should be fine. Spending the points is the primary limit on Determination, the tagging just helps to ensure it follows the character's overall theme and gets the players thinking.

Determination is a GM's Best Friend

Remember, when you want to allow a particularly clever idea or maneuver from a player but you feel there should be some "cost" to it, asking the player to spend a point of Determination is your best option for both encouraging creativity, but also limiting overly effective tactics or options players might otherwise use all the time, if it weren't for the associated cost.

In short, one of the best answers you can give while running the game is, "Sure, spend a point of Determination and you can try it!"

Challenges

An important Game Master job is compelling the heroes' challenges and bringing them into the game, providing the players with additional Determination to spend, while also making the story more interesting and, well, challenging.

Challenges are essentially a way for players to tell you: "I want to see this happen to my character in the game." Since players get to choose their characters' challenges, they can pick things they want to deal with in play. It's your job as GM to compel those things and bring them into the game. Players can (and should) suggest opportunities to compel their characters' challenges, but it is ultimately up to the GM.

Part of the reason to make use of characters' challenges is to keep the flow of Determination going, since it helps to make the game more fast-paced, creative, and exciting. If the players are regularly running out of Determination points to spend, then you are probably not giving out enough during the game.

Temporary Challenges

Of course, a hero's standard challenges are not the be all and end all of possibilities. You can also provide temporary challenges, lasting for a single chapter or issue of the game. Perhaps an old flame comes back into a character's life, or a relative is visiting out of town. Something from a hero's past may come back to haunt him briefly, or circumstances may cause something to happen to the hero's powers. All of these are potential challenges worth awarding the players Determination when you incorporate them into the game.

Determination Awards

In addition to Determination from compelling their aspects, you can award players bonus Determination points simply for good game play. When a player comes up with a great idea, clever quip, or pulls off an impossible die roll that gets everyone at the table excited, give the player an extra point of Determination as a reward.

As a general rule, the more Determination you hand out, the more fast-paced and wild the game gets, and the bigger the difficulties you can put in the heroes' path. There's no exact formula for it; calibrate how many points you give out to the flow of your game, supplementing it when you feel things are getting slow or unfairly difficult for the players.

Option: Hero Improvement

In the comic books, characters don't generally go through gradual change and improvement: they change radically, gaining or losing powers, changing names and costumes, dying and returning to life (often with new names, costumes, and powers).

One area were you may improve characters is increasing their starting Determination (the value that refreshes at the start of a new issue).

At the Game Master's option, players can then spend starting Determination points to improve their heroes, lowering the starting value. Players cannot lower their characters' starting Determination below 1.

Adjust the costs as you see fit, increasing them to make improvement slower and more difficult, or lowering them (or providing more for the same cost) to encourage improvement.

Levels: Increasing an ability or existing power's level by one costs two starting points of Determination.

Specialties: A character can improve an existing specialty by one level at the cost of a starting point of Determination, or acquire a new specialty for a starting point of Determination.

Power Stunts: After successfully performing a power stunt ten times, you can choose to not regain the spent Determination, lowering starting value by 1. The power stunt then becomes a regular part of your hero's repertoire of powers and you no longer have to spend Determination to use it.

New Powers: A character may also gain a completely new power -- with its level determined randomly -- by spending two permanent points of Determination. This new power must have an in-game explanation (be it an accident, a new gadget, super serum, or any other means approved by the Game Master).

You may also institute whatever requirements you see fit in terms of training, practice, or the like for heroes to implement improvements. They might happen "off panel" or "between stories" or a certain amount of time or effort may be required. Heroes might even need to seek out particular teachers or assistants and gain their aid in making the desired improvements.