When I heard Steve Kenson was writing a new superhero RPG, I will admit to being one of the first people to ask myself 'Why?' After all, I reasoned, Steve already nailed the formula for a successful supers RPG with the amazing Mutants & Masterminds. Did the world really need another superhero system?
As I later discovered, Steve had anticipated this critique, and as he himself said in the introduction of Icons, there is 'no one perfect system' for any genre. Icons scores high initially by not trying to be something it isn't. Here you will not see reams and reams of detailed charts for every conceivable eventuality that may occur in-game. Nor is there a definitive list of superpowers or a rigidly defined campaign setting. Instead, what GMs and players get here is a rules-light, fast-paced and just plain fun book with engaging visual style and class to spare, that encourages the player to remember their Saturday mornings as a kid watching DC SuperFriends or the brilliantly Claremont-esque 90s X-Men cartoon, and to take that wonder and enthusiasm to the game table to kick some villainous butt.
A few die-rolls in, you're already on your way to creating an exciting character, guided through the process with easy-to-remember rules and charts that, while random, never try to screw you over or saddle you with an unplayable character. I'm reminded of the character creation charts in the M&M GM's Kit here; make some rolls, write down what you get, and you're ready to dispense some justice! Of course there are options for tailoring a character to your own needs, but as a grognard whose first experience of superhero RPGs was the old FASERIP system, this addition of randomly rolled characters was a sheer joy to try out (And no, I'm not going to tell you what I ended up with initially...shudder).
Most of all, the randomness of character creation is a great tool to jumpstart the players' imaginations, as it encourages you to think about your character's background and personality based on what you roll, which is an exercise in itself. Claws, hyper-leaping and superstrength? Sounds like a modern-day lord-of-the-jungle analog to me! Watching players come up with rationales for the random elements that tie into a cohesive story for their characters is a lot of fun, almost like a game-within-the-game where there are no bad ideas and classic heroic tropes are the rule (a welcome change from the tendency of many publishers towards edgier superhero content).
Once you have a character ready to roll, you can hit the streets and see how much good you can do, and Icons places control for the narrative firmly with the entire group. Players feel like legitimate heroes, with abilities far beyond the norm and a clever, useful Determination mechanic where the motivations and personality of the character can drive them to great feats. This mechanic is a terrific balance, as characters with few or no powers get more intitial Determination and can therefore effect more change on the scene personally, rendering them as valid as the major powerhouses. Watch an episode of Justice League Unlimited and see how the unpowered Batman runs alongside the heavy-hitters and you'll see what I mean. The fact that the author added this as a core conceit of the system speaks to his love of the genre, and made me smile ear-to-ear.
Mechanically, the rules are simple enough that anyone could pick them up in minutes. At most, 2d6 is all you'll need to roll; roll 1d6 and add the acting attribute or power, then subtract the difficulty determined by the GM. This gives you your Effort, which determines how well you succeed at any given task. Previous editions stated that the GM never rolls dice, but that has been changed for the Assembled Edition. All the previous edition's rules are very much in place as options, however, so if you're reading this book from the perspective of a 1st edition player, the transition will be smooth. Another welcome addition is the pyramid test introduced in the Villainomicon, which allows GMs to add tasks the whole group can help to complete in different ways. Anything that encourages a team of heroes to come together in a crisis is a worthwhile idea in my book.
There are sample characters in the book also, but at no point does the reader feel like these have to be part of their setting. Indeed, Icons feels more like a sandbox RPG than a rigid world with no options for players. The ease with which the system approaches everything seems to encourage players & GMs to explore their creativity and populate their world with heroes, villains, organisations, aliens, you name it. As someone who enjoys world-building, especially with the entire group involved, this is a welcome feature, especially for groups with younger players who might have great ideas but find some systems' approach to realising them daunting.
In summation, I agree with Steve Kenson wholeheartedly. There is no perfect superhero system, but there are perfect systems for specific objectives. If your objective is to have fun, not sweat the small stuff and throw cars at cackling evildoers while wearing a cool costume, Icons might just be everything you're looking for. There's a surprisingly deep and elegant system hidden among the reader-friendly text and colourful art style, and newcomers and grognards alike will find something they enjoy here.
So...until Atomic Roach checks in but doesn't check out...Make Mine Icons! I recommend you do too.