Thursday, October 28, 2010
I had the real pleasure last night of participating in a podcast with Mike Lafferty (the self-described "Stephen Wright of gaming"), the highly-entertaining and wonderfully talented Dan Houser, and the distinguished Charles Rice, President Emeritus of Vigilance Press. We talked about ICONS, a relatively new superhero RPG system with a rules-lite, fun-heavy approach.
You should check it out.
ICONS is the platform for my Field Guide to Superheroes project. I began work on this about eleven or twelve years ago while studying at UNLV and I initially had the help of Darren Miguez, a good friend and fellow comics nerd who is now off corrupting the minds of children from behind a librarian's desk in New Jersey. At the time, Champions was pretty much the only RPG out there for playing superhero games, and although I played Champions and its related games throughout my college years, I was tired of watching the eyes of my players glaze over whenever I tried to teach the game. And Champions has only gotten more fine grain over the years, so I feel fairly justified in my desire for something which was more intuitive, which beter simulates thie high-speed and energy of superhero comics, and something which is just plain easier to play. When even Ken Hite calls Champions, "the best game I never learned how to play," I know I'm on to something.
Anyway, my idea was originally for a diceless superhero RPG system, but while I was working on that I started coming up with a long list of superhero archetypes. Many gamers have worked up superhero archetypes since then, and I don't especially claim to be doing anything new, but my approach was different than other authors. I did not want to categorize heroes by their powers necessarily; I wanted to work with story role instead. So, for example, my archetype list did not -- and still does not -- have entries like "Strong Guy" or "Speedster". Because, to my eye, the powers the character has are less important than how he got them or what kind of stories he appears in. That "Strong Guy" could be an Alien Hero like the original Superman, a Mythic Hero like Gilgamesh, or a Spin-Off Heroine like She-Hulk, and the fact that he's from another planet, thinks he's a god, or is a female version of a male hero is far more important than the fact that these heroes just happen to be strong.
Eventually I settled on 40 Archetypes -- not because that's all there is, but because I had to stop somewhere -- and spent a page or so talking about each one. To illustrate the project, I filled it with black-and-white con art depicting all our favorite examples of these archetypes. For this, I owe the internet. And in this state the Field Guide saw a lot of use. Whenever I ran a superhero game, I trotted out the Field Guide to help new players get character ideas. When I helped organize and GM for Crucible City MUX, an online RPG for the Mutants & Masterminds system (now long closed), these archetypes became a game feature. And, since M&M also happened to be a pretty darn good superhero RPG, my need for a system of my own was happily resolved.
About five years ago I set out to publish the Field Guide for M&M. I made up a sample character for each archetype, 40 in all, and in the process created a superhero setting which I call Worlds of Wonder. But, again, the real stumbling block here was the art. I certainly could not use all the internet sketches I had downloaded in the real book! Emboldened by the success of Escape from Alcatraz, I got Bill Jackson to do some pieces for the Field Guide, but it was just such a large project, and I had so many other things going on at the time -- like a dissertation -- that it fizzled out and never was completed. And there the Field Guide sat for years while I finished my degree and became a Doctor of Comics.
When ICONS came out it didn't at first get much notice from me, because I am in the middle of a D&D 4E campaign and I don't expect to have time to run anything else for about a year. And if I was going to run something, it would probably be M&M, which I love, and which worked out so very well in my 2008 POTUS campaign, also in the Worlds of Wonder setting. But Chuck started talking ICONS up to me, and what I realized is that this is a game that doesn't have a whole lot of support already. When I was working up the Field Guide for M&M, Phil Reed had already done dozens of more traditional archetypes (Strong Guy, Speedster, etc.) for the system. But here there would be no competition. I had the opportunity to get into a game on the ground floor. Which is very cool. Then I read the game, and realized it was based on FATE, which I have wanted to work with for a while. And then, after I turned in the first part of the manuscript and Chuck recovered from his, "This is FIFTY PAGES!" moment, he told me Dan was doing the art. This is very, very good news because -- as you have picked up by now -- I can't draw and with Dan involved I knew I'd be getting someone who understands comics, their artistic history, and who would be instantly recognized as the ICONS house artist. When people look at the Field Guide, it will be familiar to them. It will look like ICONS.
The first volume of the Field Guide covers the first 10 archetypes (Alien Hero through Defender) and a good chunk of the Worlds of Wonder setting. It's got 10 fully developed characters suitable for PCs or NPCs, and they all have plot hooks so they're useful to the GM. I've had enormous fun writing the Field Guide, it's been such a useful reference for me when I run or play superhero games, the setting has been tested to success in more than one campaign over the years, and I cannot wait for you all to see it.
My thanks to Chuck, Mike and Dan for giving me a chance to do so.