Iconic Heroes ~ part 3

A friend of mine asked me why I was choosing to use Icons for the mechanics of this story, seeing as how I didn’t really like aspects of it and consider it ‘not my thing.’ I gave him a long-winded response that boils down to, “I feel that I should give this lineage of games a try.”

As I was watching Heroes unfold before me again, I kept being reminded of Icons. It was mostly the random generation, and the enthusiasm about that process inherent and explicit in the writing which caused that connection, but the focus on defining a character by their power and having the players subsequently build a group was evocative of the show as well.

To be very clear, I do not want to run Heroes as it exists on TV, nor do I wish to include or incorporate characters or storylines from that show into this game. I just want the basic elements of the premise, and the choice of putting that premise in an otherwise normal, modern world.

The premise:

The characters, and others like them, discover over the course of the preceding year that they have a superhuman ability. It may be subtle, such as the ability to read minds, or overt, such as the capacity to generate massive quantities of energy.

Events continue to unfold around the world as they are wont to do, but characters are no longer just regular folk. They may now have the ability to affect a chain of consequences in a way wholly unimaginable to them before their abilities manifested. Where before, they had the same choice to involve themselves or not as everyone else, now they have additional options.

Those options are difficult to differentiate between Choice, Chance, and the Chains of Destiny – but that is the nature of character. Through exercising these new options, characters increase their potential of encountering others like themselves. Is Fate acting to bring them all together at the same place and time in order to cause or prevent something dramatic? Is the Universe scripted with a few pivotal points of choice open to a hapless cast, or is it truly free we are blinded by our biases and predilections to the point where we see walls where there are really doors?

Ultimately, one choice will face all the characters. Choose to act, and thereby become a hero, or choose to react, and thereby become a villain.

The powers:

Like any other potential, the utility and effect of these powers on the character and the game world, lies solely in the choices of how to use, explore, and develop them. A good example of this, which I am sure you can see coming, is the storyline involving Parkman and Sprague.

Parkman, an underachiever with particular hang-ups, gets himself in gear and begins to harness his newfound ability to balance out his personal weaknesses, and improve both his lot in life and that of others. That he has difficulty is the stuff on which stories are spun.

Ted Sprague, on the other hand, devotes most of his time to sulking and teenage revenge fantasies. His waffling between self-destructive guilt, and a sullen sense of victimization pretty much leave him a pawn to be manipulated by others, even when he seems to be in control. He reacts, which means he rarely gets to define his choices. Like the reckless driver of a fast car, or the fool who plays with guns, he harms those around him and survives to wallow in the mess he has caused. That he has difficulties is to be expected.

As this is to be a game, and not a performance, the more bizarre or ostensibly useless powers can be left to NPCs or the mists of ‘not in this story.’ I am not sure that any of my potential players will want to play someone with a power like Zane Taylor’s ‘melting’ ability. I won’t prevent such a choice, of course, but unlike past games where I would let a player’s lack of certainty about a game element slide, for this game, I would like players to have a clearly defined power, a clear idea of how it can be used in the game, and an awareness of how the game works in regard to that power.

As this will not overtly be a classic superhero comic setting, players will also not be bound to powers which are the standard fare for those settings. No one needs to take abilities which have any applicability whatsoever to combat, adventuring, or physical heroism. Again, I won’t prevent it, but it is not an element necessary for the game to fulfill its intentions.

Powers themselves will manifest as a single ability, such as flight, strength, permeability, or the power to command. With exploration and effort, these single abilities can be refined and made more potent. With further exploration and further effort, it is possible that these powers might be expanded into a suite of related abilities.

Dealing with Eugenics and Pogroms:

That people will manipulate others to obtain advantage is a sad fact of life. In the series, this is eventually portrayed by the company and its far-reaching plans and seemingly omniscient representatives. I am not a big fan of this sort of thing unless the players are the ones trying to do it. In drama these devices work because so much of the minutiae of how they would have to operate can safely reside off-screen. In a game, however, that crap just gets annoying. Perhaps I am just burned out by the dime-a-dozen conspiracies and monolithic mastermind organizations of WW games. Perhaps not…  That people would have plots and desire to manipulate others to establish or maintain preeminence is natural. Shadowy NPC groups will not, however, get free rein to just be mysterious, all-knowing, and annoyingly present when the characters least want a kick and a restriction of choice. They are going to have to earn it.

To go with this, I am opting to organize things so that a minority of people would be in the ‘round up those with abilities and put them under a microscope’ camp and have the more liberating enthusiasm and optimism of the pulps and comics permeate the atmosphere of the setting. If, through their action and inaction, the players convince the game world to lock all powered-people up, so be it. It will not, however, be an additional condition under which the characters will have to labor from the outset. This is not to say that ones’ neighbor has no chance to be a gun-toting hate-monger with a hankering for death-camps and water-boarding.

In this setting, I see a justification for selective breeding, and families who in times past rose to prominence for reasons related as much to the onset of superhuman ability as to other, more mundane talents. In the series, it is implied that Peter’s ability is the holy grail of those who would try to breed for these superhuman traits. I would tend to agree.

This leads us to some potential personal issues for the players, however, and should a character wish to take an ability like Sylar’s, or to take one identical to Peter’s it is conceivable that friction might manifest between players. As a result, some form of control may have to be enacted to curtail this.

The simple answer is to restrict these two abilities to NPCs or to being ‘not in the game’ but that isn’t terribly satisfying, nor does it fit well with the themes of the stories. The next simple answer is to ask the characters to discuss if they want those abilities to be present in the game, and if so, have them both have it. This also has an effect on atmosphere, and could very likely shift the focus of the game very far into the spectrum of being all about powers and less about people.

The old-school part of me simply wants to put the option on the list with a very low probability and if someone gets it, so be it. Balance is what the group makes of it, and if balance issues arise it is easier to deal with it by reminding everyone that we are not in competition and reinforcing that ruling with stories that allow for contribution by all – even though one character theoretically has the ability to contribute more.

I suspect that when the game actually rolls around, we will just talk about it and go from there.

Stay tuned for more~

Read the Previous Instalment: Iconic Heroes ~ Part 2

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