RPGPundit Reviews: Stark City Campaign Setting & City Building Toolset
This is the review of the Stark City Campaign Setting & City Building Toolset, a setting/sourcebook for the ICONS RPG. Stark City is written by Mike Lafferty and a host of other people, and published simultaneously by Fainting Goat Games and Stark City Games, which I suspect are in essence the same entity.
If this matters to you, the game has a stamp on it that says "ICONS Compatible", and it has a foreword by Steve Kenson.
The book itself is about 185 pages long, softcover, full colour cover, full colour interior. It has a great deal of fairly good art in the comic-book style, a less cartoony and more Marvel/DC style than the art in the ICONS game itself, which is a blessing. The art here is actually quite good, though I doubt it will win any Eisner awards; but in some sense this only adds to the sense of not-quite-rightness that I'm going to talk about below.
First of all, I'll explain that this book is pretty much what it advertises: it presents a very detailed and complete city-guide to an (imaginary) city for Superhero campaigns, along the lines of Metropolis, Gotham, Coast City, Central City, etc. In this case, Stark City is a city that has had a very long history of superhero involvement, which is a choice that has both its advantages and disadvantages.
Really, it would have been pretty pointless to make a superhero city that didn't already have superheroes in it; otherwise why not just use a normal city? But on the other hand, having a city full of a pantheon of supers and a long background story of the same creates a steep memory curve for players. It ties into another problem I've already talked about before when it comes to these kinds of products.
I myself never use Supers sourcebooks created for supers RPGs; they all suffer from one important problem: they can't be DC or Marvel superheroes. This means they have to react to this legal limitation in one of two ways. They can, in the first instance, try to create a setting that feels more or less like the DC or Marvel universes (which, in spite of the important differences that I'm sure comic-nerds will be coming along any second now to remind me about in the comments below, are really not that large), having characters that are vaguely familiar: the pseudo-superman, pseudo-captain-america, pseudo-batman, pseudo-wolverine, pseudo-spider-man. Or, in the other instance, they could try to make something radically different, a universe that feels nothing like the DC/Marvel type of supers settings.
Either way, the result is unsatisfying. In the first case, you are left feeling like what you've got is a bunch of cheap copies, sufficiently different that you aren't able to quickly familiarize yourself for play, but similar enough that you're left thinking they're a faded xerox of the real thing. Meanwhile in the second case, your big problem is that you're not actually playing a game that feels sufficiently "Supers" in terms of common tropes. Sometimes you might want the latter, if the idea is cool enough and you don't mind that what you're playing is far from the hallmark of typical super-heroing. You almost never want the xerox-heroes options, though.
In the case of Stark City, what you have is a xerox-heroes scenario. And the setting, the book, the characters, all are clearly both a labour of love and created with attention to detail and a keen focus on playability. There are tons of interesting locations, organizations and characters. Unfortunately, none of them are actually Wolverine or Spider-man; instead we get near-copies like the "Sable Lynx" and "Frogger". What we do get, though, is a complex continuity and set of pre-existing history ("canon", you could say) that no one in your gaming group will actually know. So if you're the GM, you're either going to have to constantly tell them things they'll need to know, and they'll all have to pretend as though "The Sentinel" is a hero they already knew and cared deeply about the way one might care about Captain America, or they're going to have to read through the book themselves to get all the details about an imaginary city they had never heard of, unlike, say, Gotham, that they'd been reading about all their lives.
To me, the cost is just too great. The result, just not enough. The publishers of ICONS books can't set their material in Gotham or Metropolis, or use Batman or Wolverine, but players certainly can, so why would they bother with a knock-off? It seems like a book like Stark City is competing with the greatest RPG Supers-setting ever written: 70 years of Comics History.
This is my way of thinking about it; but I'm willing to concede that maybe there will be someone out there who will prefer to play in Stark City rather than Central City (or just setting his game in Baltimore or wherever he's from, which is another popular option), and use the Sable Lynx instead of Wolverine (or their own tough-guy hero with claws). Alternately, there might always be gamers interested in taking a scalpel to Star City and slicing it up for ideas.
In that sense, there will be plenty of interesting ideas to be found in Stark City. Yes, there's some very imitative material and characters, but there's also some very interesting details. For a start, the city itself and the way its laid out: we're provided with maps, neighbourhood details (even a flier at the end that looks like a real municipal promotional pamphlet), all the stuff you'd find in a tourist guide (entertainment venues, museums, places to eat), and dozens of specific adventure-setting-type locales organized by neighbourhood. You even have an underground area with a paved-over street and sealed-up subway tunnels. Part of what makes the city work in the sense of being credible as a city is that the authors were smart enough not to just try to invent it from nothing: the city is clearly inspired by the layout and style of Chicago. By taking the basic background of a real-world metropolis (pardon the pun) they were able to make it have an air of credibility or authenticity that they'd never have gotten designing it from total scratch.
The various locales in the book are constructed along a set of what the authors call "ICONIC Setting Rules", though they seem more "guidelines" than rules to me. These rules involve thinking up a setting, giving a number of descriptive traits that help explain the setting, providing a theme for that setting (a phrase that summarizes what the place is all about), then having players create places of significance with concepts that create connections between the locations and the overall theme, as well as qualities that could be tagged. These rules suggest that places should have purpose, should be useful in some way to the richness of the setting. Places should have hooks and their own aspects, and ought to have specific people associated with the place. "Settings" can be built along different scales; a neighbourhood, a city, a nation, a world, a universe, or a whole dimension.
Place aspects can be tagged just like any other aspect, and places can have challenges that can be compelled by a GM.
I can see how these guidelines might prove helpful to certain GMs. For my own part, I find them un-necessarily detailed. Of course, by default I'm more of an old-school random-tables type of guy; and the idea of players creating the setting, though not exactly something outside the limits of what can be considered regularity in RPGs, does not sit well with me. In any case, this doesn't add anything to me in terms of utility. But again, other people might need more structure and less improv in their lives; you can't all be the Pundit.
There are even a few ideas so amusing or clever that I had to give the authors credit for thinking of them. For example, the "Teslacracy": a league of Alternate-universe Nikola Teslases (is "Teslases" the plural of "Tesla"?) who are bent on conquering the entire multivese. Likewise, that a cross-dimensional invasion wiped out or caused the disappearance of most of the significant heroes of the city some time back; plus left behind some unusual characters (including "The Monarch", a kind of villainous version of Iron Man who's actually a prince from the other reality). Then there's the ruthless CEO who's actually a werewolf.
Finally, I'll note that one particularly good point in this setting's defense is that it presumes the heroes will be the foremost super-team in Stark City; there won't be a group of NPCs that make their very existence redundant. Just a huge load of backstory for the players to try to process and pretend they care about.
To conclude: this is a book with great production values, clever layout (even some ersatz versions of the old "hostess twinkies" ads in the back of old comics; though this too only reinforces that sense of being asked to care about an imitation), and dedicated attention to detail in the writing. I just can't find any use for it, personally. What I can say is that IF you are running an ICONS (or possibly other supers rpg) game, and IF you are not interested for some reason in using the canonical DC or Marvel universes or any of the various lesser universes from the comics themselves, and IF you nevertheless want something similar and not radically different from those types of universes, and IF you also don't want to try to make such a setting yourself and would rather rely on someone else's attempt at it, then this book could be for you. But that's quite a lot of "ifs" (four "ifs", in fact). Otherwise, you may still want to get this book just to mine for ideas. Within a genre of RPG writing that I think is just one step above "Volo's Guide to the Realms' Best Fishing Spots" in terms of pointlessness, its a particularly good exemplar of quality.
Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Oversize + H&H's Beverwyck