Opening The Super Villain Handbook


While Icons: The Assembled Edition is already a superb super-hero role-playing game (available from creator Steve Kenson's Ad Infinitum Adventures and in print from Green Ronin Publishing), The Super Villain Handbook by Jason Tondro and published by Fainting Goat Games manages to elevate that system into an even greater game.
Tondro is like the Jess Nevins of super-hero role-playing games in that he combines a depth of knowledge in the field of comic book super-heroes with a scholar's ability to research material more deeply.

What you get with The Super Villain Handbook is an overview of the tropes of the various archetypes of super villains that you will find in comic books, and how to create them under the Icons rules. There is also a conversion the material in this book to the Savage World rules, but I haven't read that.
This book is a boon to the Icons GM, with forty-four archetypes explained and forty-eight characters that are worked examples of the archetypes. Each archetype gets roughly a page and a half of text explaining the origin of the archetype in comics, giving some examples of the archetype from comic book characters, related archetypes (which are helpful in gathering a team of villains) and how to express the archetype within the Icons rules. There is also information on how you can introduce these villains to an ongoing campaign, and make them part of your game world.

The character write ups are robust and follow the Icons rules without any houserules, or need for additional supplements. Each write up has a back story for the character, as well as some suggestions on how to use them in play. Tondro leaves no stone unturned, and the write ups are solid and very useful for when you need a villain for your game and don't have to time to make one up yourself. This can be a lifesaver for the GM who is busy in the real world, and doesn't have as much time as she would always like to prepare for a session.

While there are brief mentions of a setting in the text, there really isn't anything that binds the example characters to each other, or to a specific world. This makes it easier to integrate the sample villains into your home campaign, without having to strip out or change a bunch of references to a setting that your game isn't using. What setting is in the book is derived from comics and genre fiction that have fallen into the public domain, which means that the elements will likely be familiar to comic fans.

If you would like an explicit setting, you might want to check out Stark City, also from Fainting Goat Games. It is a worked out city setting for your Icons games, along with a number of new rules and material for either personalizing the Stark City setting to your own campaign, or for creating your own super-hero city setting from scratch. I don't think that Icons GMs will be disappointed in this book.

Because the idea of the "redeemed villain" is pretty commonplace in super-hero comic stories, it would be easy to use the write ups and rules to make characters in your campaigns who were once villains as well, increasing the utility of the book for your games.

I think one of my favorite write ups in the book is for the Power Corrupted archetype, and features a new spin on the Golden Age public domain character of Stardust, The Super-Wizard. One of the strangest super-heroes of the Golden Age of comics, Stardust, The Super-Wizard was a psychedelic and apocalyptic "super hero" who used his immense powers to mete out justice, primarily targeting racketeers, saboteurs and Nazis with his wrath. The creation of artist and writer Fletcher Hanks, Stardust was probably one of the strangest super-heroes ever created. And considering the existence of characters like Brother Power, The Geek, that is saying a lot. The character of Stardust has also since appeared in one of the volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and a minicomic by writer and artist Benjamin Marra (who is probably one of the few comic creators who could do Hanks' creation justice).

The Stardust in The Super Villain Handbook uses tropes similar to those used in the Marvel Comics character of Starhawk and the DC Comics characters of Doctor Occult and Rose Psychic in that the character is two different people of two different genders who share one body. Using Stardust as a villain isn't a far stretch from his appearances in the comics, his approach to justice bordered on the Old Testament, and getting hero PCs to react to a character who regularly throws thousand of criminals into space shouldn't be difficult. Unfortunately, the character is typically too powerful for most PCs to beat down, so defeating Stardust means getting his female side to come out and take responsibility for what they have done. Complicated, but it is good to see a villain in a super-hero RPG that takes more than round after round of punching to defeat.

There are forty-three other archetypes on top of this one still in the book. From Imp (think Mr. Myxzptlyk or The Impossible Man) to Terrorist to Heir to Lovecraft, there are a lot of villainous archetypes that can enrich your Icons campaigns.

My problems with the book are minor, and neither impacts the usefulness of the book. I would have liked for this book to have been in a 6x9 format, to fit better with the Icons book on my shelves. While the cover to the book is phenomenal, the interior art is of varying quality and the layout is a bit on the bland side. But, like I said, none of these issues impact the usability of the book, or the quality of the material.

The Super Villain Handbook combines a well-written discourse on the tropes and archetypes of comic book super-villains, with an RPG "bestiary." The book gives the GM a number of great NPCs to help build their game world, as well as a number of tools that will help them to create their own villains. This book is invaluable to an Icons GM, and would be useful for anyone who runs super-hero games.
 

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