The Unending War
ICONS House Rules
The UnVerse Protocols
“It’s hard for me to use a game system ‘out of the box’ without tinkering with it in some way. So I like systems that don’t hinder this.” – Steve Kenson, creator of Mutants & Masterminds and ICONS
These are the house rules we’re using for the current ICONS campaign, “The Unending War,” and in all UnVerse campaigns.
Note – This is a “living document” and is subject to semi-frequent change and ongoing play helps us develop new ideas or figure out what does and does not work.
“… and knowing is half the battle” – G.I. Joe PSAs
ICONS relies very heavily on vague, interpretive values of such things as distance, time, and such. This is a great thing for many players of the game, but there are those of us who just really enjoy a bit more information about what our characters can actually do.
So I am “stealing” from Steve Kenson’s previous work to give some more information in regards to the 1-10 scale of his newer game. I am using the “Extended Range,” “Time and Value Progression,” and “Carrying Capacity” charts from Mutants & Masterminds (2nd Edition) to give some informative values for some of the powers in ICONS.
* – Number in yards or meters, as preferred. Used for ranges for ranged powers, as well as stretching and leaping distances.
“It cuts like a knife!” – Bryan Adams
“Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame…” – Bon Jovi
There are times when a hero just doesn’t have enough power to hurt the real tanks among the villains. Teaming up can be one way to do it, but that’s not always possible.
As a “Bonus Power” for Blast and Strike, a hero can take the Piercing effect. This reduces the value of a target’s Invulnerability (or Armor) by 2. Piercing has no effect on Force Field (or any defensive effect that acts like Force Field, which includes the potential to be reduced or lost due to being stunned or knocked out). The GM is the final arbiter on what counts as Invulnerability and what counts as Force Field.
“There can be only One.” – Conner MacCleod
Immortality as a Power has no indicated difference between Level 1 and Level 10. So here’s a mod to give the rank some meaning.
Subtract the level of the power from 10. That’s how many days it takes to come back from the dead (yes, someone with Level 10 Immortality essentially gets back up in a few minutes).
“Regeneration makes a lousy primary defense.” – Albert Deschesne, veteran superhero gamer
Regeneration doesn’t quite have the “oomph” one hopes for in a supers game, so we’re trying this variant in the Unending War campaigns.
Regeneration gives you a pool of Determination points that can only be used for Recovery, but these points can be used throughout a combat (as opposed to only one time). The number of “Recovery Determination” points is equal to the Regeneration level. These points refresh after a conflict ends.
(For villains, simply give them the Determination points for this purpose only.)
“I’M THE GOD[bleep] BATMAN!” – the God[bleep] Batman
The uber-trained or combat-gadgeteer characters are cool. Period.
As a clarification of the rules (under Origin – Trained, it says “powers” come from superior training or gadgets, while at the beginning of the Powers section, the rules indicated Powers only come from Devices), the UnVerse version of ICONS allows some limited Powers for Trained or Gimmick heroes that can be inherent.
- Ability Boost (1)
- Danger Sense (7)
- Fast Attack (7)
- Immortality (3)
- Invulnerability (1)
- Leap (1)
- Mind Shield (3)
- Strike (1)
- Super-Senses (4) [Enhanced Only]
- Super-Speed (1)
“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” – Albert Einstein
The concept of amorphous, comic book time seems like a fine idea, and I’m certain that there are plenty of groups for whom that works.
Mine isn’t one of them. I suspect there are others in the same boat.
As such, here’s an Initiative System for ICONS, one that playtest has already proven out to work pretty well.
Initiative = Coordination + Awareness + Power Mods + Dice Roll
So the players add their Coordination and their Awareness together, then add in any Levels from the Powers below:
- Danger Sense
- Fast Attack (but only from the raw Power, not from any Bonus Power versions)
- Super-Senses (only from levels applied to Enhanced Senses)
Time Control by itself does not add, but if Super-Speed or Fast Attack are taken via Time Control, they both add.
Each “Page,” the players do a dice roll and modify their Initiative rating accordingly for that Page. Ties are broken first by unmodified Initiative Ratings, and then by Intelligence.
“You’re so very special.” – Radiohead
Specialties are a wonderful part of the game. Nice and simple, yet some elegant applications are afoot. The following are some modifications and addenda to the rules as written where they are concerned.
Athletics – The bonus adds to Strength for the purpose of determining when a character dies. For example, a character with a Strength of 6 and Athletics Expertise (+2) won’t die until reaching -8. As well, Athletics is added to any relevant Strength tests, including Blocking (see below).
Martial Arts – In addition to the listed effects, Martial Arts also adds to Prowess for the Evade maneuver.
Military – The bonus is added to Initiative in battles that primarily deal with minions (GM’s call). It is also applied to the use of anything considered a heavy weapon.
Science – For any character with an Intelligence of 7 or higher, the Science Specialty becomes “Science!” This means the bonus applies to any scientific situation, including inventing things.
In addition, where non-combat Specialties are concerned, the GM can allow more than one Specialty to be applied to a test.
“Let the bodies hit the floor.” – Drowning Pool
A classic of the superhero genre, whether it’s Golden Age Mystery Men vs Nazis or modern Earth’s Mightiest vs Alien Armadas, is the “mowing down the minions” part. While ICONS has a decent approach to this, I’ve decided to come up with what I think will make things even easier.
Minions (and the average “non-important” character) have Stamina equal to the lower of their Strength or Willpower (instead of the total of those values). Thus, a Nazi soldier with a Strength of 4 and a Willpower of 3 will have 3 Stamina.
Furthermore, if any super strikes such a person and scores a Major Success (and is capable of dealing at least 0 Stamina) automatically knocks the minion out. That’s that.
“I SAY THEE NAY!” – Thor
Blocking, as it reads, is difficult to figure out the timing on. The best alternative seems to be to allow it as a regular Focused Effort for “bricks” to use their Strength in place of Coordination and Prowess. Any character with at least a 7 Strength should be allowed to use this without invoking a Quality first (though a point of Determination must still be spent).
“It’s Not Who You Know, But WHAT You Know.” – Sean Patrick Fannon
Riffing off of “Ron’s XP House Rules,” I’m experimenting with a system that both separates Determination from character advancement (thus making it a more fluid in-game economy) and helps control advancement a bit.
Experience Points are awarded at the end of each session, somewhere between 2 (short session, only minor stuff done) to 5 (mega-epic event!). They are not tracked as a permanent marker; there are no Ranks or overall Character Levels. They are simply points that can be spent between sessions to buy things. Once spent, they are gone.
You can spend Experience Points in the following ways, depending on which Progression Style the GM wants to use. The Standard Progression is recommended; use the Fast Progression if you want to simulate “hero academy” or “upstart newbie” stories, and use the Slow Progression if you’re keen to keep the heroes relatively static (as with most Justice League members and Avengers).
Note – some might suggest that leftover Determination Points should be converted to XPs. This is a bad idea, as it not only encourages Determination “hoarding” (which violates the spirit of the game), but it also lets those who do and risk less get ahead of others in terms of progression.
However, one thing you can do with those leftover points is let your players use them as “tick marks” for stunted effects. The assumption is that they are practicing their new ideas and abilities in their down-time, and this is a nice little way to give them something for those times when they just didn’t need that many D.P’s, yet all the good roleplaying got them some. So someone who finishes a game with three unspent Determination Points can put three more tick marks next to that “area effect Force Field” stunt he’s been working on, putting himself that much closer to being able to buy it as a permanent effect.
“Missed it by that much…” – Maxwell Smart
(This one is thanks to Daniel Perez, friend and colleague, who ran the only game at Gen Con 2010 I got to actually play)
The rules for spending Determination are pretty cool, but can take a bit of reverse-engineered thinking to use, at least where the Determined Effort is concerned. As an additional option, players can spend a Determination point to simply add a +2 to their Effort; this can be done after the roll, but before the GM indicates the result.
“And the nominees are…” – Countless award show presenters
The GM has a lot to keep track of. So much so, in fact, they often forget to award Determination when it would be appropriate. As a way to mitigate that lack, the players will be given a Nomination Token (usually a poker chip) that they can spend at any time to award a Determination Point to another player. This needs to be for a good reason – excellent roleplaying, awesome idea, heroic sacrifice, great one-liner, or similar reasons.
As with all things, the GM has veto power over this.
“Hit me with your best shot!” – Pat Benatar
Having Slashing damage on a different “track” from Bashing is not only an extra headache for some GMs and players, it also tends to encourage Slashing attacks due to the easier path to knockouts.
This, in my opinion, is not a good idea; it says you should be Wolverine instead of Captain America every time (roleplaying reasons notwithstanding).
For simplicity’s sake as well as encouraging folks to stick with Bashing attacks where appropriate, this campaign uses the Bashing Major and Massive results for all attacks. The only difference is that being knocked out by Slashing means you’re in that Dying mode as described.
“I am DOOM!!!” – Victor von Doom
There is no indication that Villains have their own Determination Points (though this has been debated at some length in various forums). There are times, however, when a Villain really is Determined to accomplish something, and there are times when it is dramatically appropriate to give them an extra “oomph” to truly challenge the Heroes.
Borrowing once again from “Mr. Kenson’s Other Superhero Game,” the idea is this: Villains don’t have a pool of Determination, but they can invoke Determination to accomplish the same things. The only option they don’t have is Determined Effort (as that actually requires rolling dice, and we GMs don’t do that in ICONS; it’s just not cricket).
All of the other effects – Focused Effort, Retcon, Recovery, Stunts, and now the “+2 Option” are available for Villains.
There is a cost, however; each time a Villain invokes Determination, the Heroes gain a Determination Point. If there is a Team, it goes into the Team’s pool. Otherwise, the Determination goes to the Hero most affected by the invocation. If multiple Heroes are equally affected, the Hero in the most need of Determination gets it.
“Never give up. Never surrender.” – Commander Peter Quincy Taggart
There are some “all-or-nothing” powers that, while awesome for the user, can be pretty devastating for the victims if they are successful. Such powers include Mind Control, Possession, Alteration Ray, and Paralysis.
I’ve decide to allow players (and key villains) the chance to get out of them by using Determination.
By spending a Determination point (on your Initiative, which is why you keep rolling it even when affected by such a power), you can choose to spend a Determination Point to make a Willpower test (or whatever Trait the GM approves of) to try and break free of the power, using the level of the power as the target. Additional Determination can be spent to do a Focused or Determined effort.
This makes such powers still effective, but it doesn’t necessarily leave players to sit out the rest of the combat scene (and it also means the GM has a decent rationale for getting his key bad guys back into the fight).
There are more rules governing these and other powers below.
“Bring balance to the Force…” – Obi-Wan Kenobi
After considerable play and evaluation, and some excellent feedback and observations by some very smart folks (thank you Marty Nix and Brandon Shiffler), I’ve decided to tinker some powers. Some need to be more fun (read: less lame), and others need a bit of regulating to be a little less dominating.
Some powers have already been modified by previous Protocols and are not repeated below.
Power Groups vs Powers – It is important to note that Power Groups are not Powers (or “power effects,” as sometimes referenced in the rules). As such, they can’t be used to replace a Power in any way. For example, Time Control cannot be taken as a “bonus power,” nor can an Elemental Control be put into Wizardry.
As with all things in this document, the following is subject to change as it is played with more.
Note – With all Powers that are “all or nothing” when they hit, a second test will be applied. The Power Level will be tested against either Strength or Willpower, as appropriate, before the effect happens.
Ability Boost: Just add the Level of the power to the Ability, straight up. The max level is 10; any levels left over can be applied to another Ability in the same category (Physical or Mental).
For example, a character with a Strength of 4 and Ability Boost (Strength) of 8 will boost his Strength to 10. With 2 points left over, he can boost either his Prowess or his Coordination up 2 points at the same time. He can’t affect Intellect, Awareness, or Willpower though, because they are Mental abilities.
Ability Increase: This power raises the affected Ability up to 6, or it adds +2 to the Ability, depending whichever option gives the best result.
Alternate Form: You can take Optional Powers as appropriate to the form.
Chameleon: As an Optional Power, you can take a form of Transformation that only affects yourself and allows you to change your form to look like other people (a kind of “super disguise”). Awareness checks to see through your disguise still apply.
Duplication: As is, it’s really just broken; no GM in my group wants to allow it.
The revision uses the Fast Attack chart to determine how many Duplicates can be created. As well, you must adhere to the “Batman Rules” indicated above, regardless of Origin. In addition, no Abilities should be allowed to be higher than 6 (not counting the Ability Boost power). The GM is highly encouraged to be restrictive on what kinds of gadgets can be “duped” at the same time. This allows Duplication to be functional without overwhelming the game.
Note – If the Power comes as a Bonus Power from Time Control, the Time Control power itself doesn’t fall under the “Batman Rules.” However, the GM should subtract one duplicate for each Bonus Power acquired through Time Control.
Power Theft: The attacker must first hit their opponent, either with Prowess or Coordination (depending on if they took the ranged Optional Power). Then the victim makes a Willpower test against the Power Level to determine the effect.
If the power thief gains a Moderate success, the victim gains a free Willpower test (vs the Power Level) to regain their powers every Page. With a Major Success, the duration is as stated in the book. The “Never Give Up” protocol above also applies.
Alteration Ray: With a Moderate success, the victim gains a free Willpower test (vs the Power Level) to break free of the power every Page. With a Major Success, they are stuck for a number of pages equal to the Level. With a Massive Success, they are stuck until something can be done (per the GM’s determination). The “Never Give Up” protocol above also applies.
Animation: You can animate, one at a time, as many objects as your Power Level.
Elemental Control: This is a highly popular and strangely common Power Group, one that grants an amazing amount of versatility and depth to characters. In order to balance this a bit, any character with an Elemental Control can have no Powers or Abilities above Level 8 (not counting specialties); this makes it versatile, but more focused characters can shine a bit by having greater potential.
Plant Control: Just assume the Level of the power can be used in place of Coordination and/or Prowess avoid being hit.
Probability Control: In addition to the as-read options, you can use the Determination to invoke the “Maxwell Smart” Protocol (above). You can choose to do so after discovering the results. For Bad Luch, simply invert it by giving the enemy a -2.
Telekinesis: If the user wants to attack without gaining the Attacking Optional Power, consider it a Supplemental Action to pick something up to hit the target with, or to pick the target up and slam him into something.
Wizardry: Like Elemental Control, the sheer versatility of the power can be a bit off-putting for other players. The same rule applies; those with this Power Group are limited to Level 8 (not counting Specialties) in all ratings so that more focused characters can revel in a bit more power potential.
Force Field: First, a clarification – the Piercing Effect from the “Bon Jovi” Protocol above does not affect Force Fields. As well, as a Bonus Power, Force Field can be projected to cover someone else within visual range. As another Bonus Power, it can be increased to cover an area roughly equal to the Level x20’ in radius.
Life Support: Additional needs or conditions can be acquired as Bonus Powers.
Emotion Control: When using this Power, if you only get a Moderate Success, the victim gets a free test every page, using Willpower, to break free. With a Major Success, the effect lasts for a number of pages equal to the Power Level before another test can be attempted. With a Massive Success, your control is more complete and lasting. The “Never Give Up” protocol above also applies.
Mind Control: With a Moderate Success, the victim gains a free Willpower test each page to shake free of the control. With a Major Success, the effect lasts for a number of pages equal to the Power Level before another test can be attempted. With a Massive Success, however, the control is for much longer (at the GM’s discretion). The “Never Give Up” protocol above also applies.
Possession: Same rules apply as for Mind Control.
Telepathy: This Power has a reach equal to ESP of the same Power Level (see the “G.I. Joe” Protocol Chart above). The telepath has to have a reasonably clear idea of who he is trying to find and read.
Teleportation: As a Bonus Power, you can carry up to your level in Teleportation additional people with you; they are subject to the same effects as you are. A typical stunt would be to create an actual gateway that any number of folks can pass through.
Wall Crawling: You can make a test against damage done to resist Slamming results. You can also test against Strength or Telekinesis levels to resist being moved by either force.
Life Drain: In addition to the “to hit” test, the target also gets a Strength test against the level of the Life Drain before it takes effect.
Paralysis: On a Massive Success, the Paralysis lasts for a number of days equal to the Power Level; the “Never Give Up” Protocol applies here.
Strike: Like Bashing, Slashing Strikes now do either their Level or Strength+1, whichever is greater.
Detection: This power can be used to target enemies that act as a strong source of the Type being detected. As well, you can make an Intellect test (GM sets the target) to analyze the source for detailed information.
Interface: Interface also works like Mind Control against intelligent systems, robots, and similar devices. If used against another characters gear (such as a Battlesuit), the test will be against the user’s Intellect.
“There is no ‘I’ in team, but there is in win” – Michael Jordan
Here’s a more generous and, for some, fun approach to the Team Determination system. Once a team bands together, a Determination Point goes into the Team Pool for each member; these do not come from the player characters. An additional point goes in on top of that, and the team leader adds points for their Leadership Specialization level as well.
However, this pool does not refresh at the beginning of each session. Whatever level it is at at the end of a session is the amount in the pool at the start of the next, with the exception that the Leadership score does go in each session.
The team can increase the pool by donating any awarded Determination Points during a session into the team pool; in this way, the awarded points can be prevented from going away at the end of a session.As well, whenever the GM invokes a Determination Point for the villains (see “I Am DOOM!” above), this goes into the team pool.
All art on this page is the copyright of its respective owner; it is used without permission, except in the case of Storn Cook, who permits such use under the Creative Commons license. No challenge of copyright is made and no profit is sought from the use of this art; it’s just pretty pictures for my friends and players to look at.