How I Arrived at Using Fate
The Daring Comics Role-Playing Game was a lot of fun to create, and I have a blast GM’ing it with my group. Although it uses the Fate system as the engine, that wasn’t always the case. I originally started designing it around early 2008 or so, and it actually went through several system iterations before I’d settled on Fate. And once I settled on Fate, I almost dropped the whole idea after a certain other super-hero RPG was announced in 2010.
I’ll get to that a little later.
There are, and were, a lot of good super-hero role-playing games out there. When I decided to create Daring Comics, I had a couple of design things in mind. First, I wanted it to focus on emulating comic books, not simulating real world physics. Two, I didn’t want the zero-to-hero issue with character advancement. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that type of system, but I never cared much for character advancement in a super-hero game where a character could go from being Robin to being Superman, simply because a campaign went on for a while. That just never sat right with me.
But I also didn’t want no character advancement, or even extremely slow character advancement. What I wanted was a system that would allow for some sort of horizontal advancement, or at least one that made horizontal advancement faster than vertical advancement. After all, despite characters pretty much remaining the same for years or decades in comic books, players expect some sort of advancement/reward system in a role-playing game.
For those not familiar with those game design terms (and they’re used quite often in video game design), let me explain.
In vertical progression, the character’s powers or abilities increase on an upward scale. That means they directly get more powerful. It might be the raising of a power rank, the increase of skills ranks, or an increase in attributes. As characters increase vertically, so too must the challenges they face. You see this most often in video games like MMOs, and in a majority of role-playing game systems.
A horizontal progression means that the character isn’t necessarily increasing their power, skill, or ability ranks, but are expanding their abilities with powers or other traits. This might be in the form of new special effects for powers, new Edges/Feats/Stunts for skills, or sometimes it might mean a new power either linked to an existing power (such as a blast power now being able to also daze an opponent), or under a themed power set (such as adding Regeneration to a power set focused mainly on healing others, representing the character’s healing ability expanding inward). Here they aren’t getting better on an upward scale, but expanding their capabilities on a horizontal or lateral scale.
As an example, the Savage Worlds RPG does a great job with horizontal progression. In my years of playing it, I typically see the players expanding their characters with more Edges during an Advance than they increase skills and attributes.
So now we understand where I wanted to go with Daring Comics.
My first system choice was a modern interpretation of the old MEGS system that was used in the DC Heroes RPG from Mayfair Games back in the 1980s and 1990s. I always liked the way the math scale worked in that game, and for a very long time it was my go-to super-hero system when I ran a lot of the DC Universe. In this case, I would use the same style of math scale for time, distance, weight, et cetera; but I would translate it to 3d6 instead of 2d10. It worked out about the same, die average wise, as 2d10 average an 11 (5.5 per d10 die) while 3d6 average around a 10.5 (3.5 per d6 die). I’d drop the chart/wheel concept for target numbers, and instead do kind of the Marvel SAGA thing with a base opposition included for all rolls against passive and active opposition. Of course, MEGS had a vertical progression system, but I was redesigning that a bit as well.
Anyway, it play tested very well (and all the math worked out), the character creation was really fast (players made Superman and Shazam level characters in roughly 20 minutes), and emulated a lot of what I wanted. For the crunch folks out there, the math scale also handled simulation when wanted, such as how far a Superman level character could throw a tank, or how long it would take a super-speedster to race around the globe along the equator.
The next design was going to revamp and modernize the old FASERIP system. On this one I even went as far as to talk to Jeff Grubb about it. Although he couldn’t freelance on the project due to his time commitments at ArenaNet, he gave me his blessing.
Although I love FASERIP and have used it for my Marvel Universe games for over 25 years now, I never got too far into the design on this one. I had the base mechanics down, the new attribute names, and about half the powers. Something just wasn’t clicking with me, though, so I shelved it and looked again at the first system version.
The first Daring Comics continued to play test very well. I liked it. But for what I really wanted, the math system just wasn’t doing it. Don’t get me wrong, maybe one day I will release that super-hero RPG, but it just wasn’t what I wanted at that point in time.
Now, I’d been familiar with Fate for a while. My group and I played it on occasion, and we understood how it all worked. Somewhere in the back of my mind since this whole project started, I kept thinking that Fate would do exactly what I wanted for the game. It handled genre emulation very well, and I really liked the idea of Milestones for super-hero character growth.
Finally, at some point in 2010, I started designing the Fate iteration. I was going at it pretty steadily. It did what I wanted it to do, though I knew from the start that a skill pyramid wasn’t going to work, and we decide to go with a column.
And then ICONS was announced.
Curses followed, and I kicked a puppy (just kidding on the puppy part).
Of course, once ICONS released, I saw that it wasn’t actually Fate. So all was right with the world once again.
Back to work with the Daring Comics RPG, I went. At the same time, I was also working heavily on War of the Dead and some other products for Savage Worlds, so design slowed down for a while. I believe it eventually hit initial play test in 2011, though it could have been very late in 2010 for the alpha testing. I never kept a record on when it actually started, and I was working on a lot of different material back then, so the timeline blurs more than a little.
Fate always had a core base system to it, even if it didn’t have a “central rulebook” until Fate Core. So, basic system mechanics weren’t an issue. The designs had already been done elsewhere and were OGL. The powers were the most time intensive part of design, and they went through somewhere around 14 different manuscript/design versions over the next couple of years. When Fate Core came out, we also revamped them one, final time to account for the Fate system changes.
Okay, so let’s talk a little about how the powers system came about.
Powers and Daring Comics
As I designed the powers for Daring Comics over the years, I drew inspiration from several sources. Obviously, I first looked to how Stunts and then Mega-Stunts were created in Fate, and kept that as my baseline design. For the different ways powers could actually function, I looked at versions of them from things like early M&M, Marvel Heroic, Smallville, MEGS, and even The Ultimate Powers Book from the FASERIP system.
As an author, I don’t like to only look at how others might have handled something. I prefer to do my own research in conjunction with that, and that research is much more important to me. It carries more weight. Not doing so, I firmly believe, is a disservice to my readers. So along with all that, I kept reading a ton of comics from Marvel, DC, and even BOOM! Studios. The local libraries have a phenomenal Graphic Novel section, and keep fairly current with the latest collected releases from Marvel and DC. Along the way, I also read a ton of super-hero fiction, from Marvel and DC novelizations (current, and dating all the way back to the 1990s, thanks Amazon Marketplace), to independent settings like Soon I Will Be Invincible, the Wearing the Cape series, the Ex-Heroes series, and beyond.
I also rewatched a lot of the DCaU, the 1990s X-Men and Spiderman animated shows, Wolverine and The X-Men, The Batman, Young Justice, and whatever else I could get my hands on through Netflix and Hulu. Not to mention that if it’s a super-hero live action or animated film, I own it. That’s not an exaggeration. I just picked up the latest two, Justice League vs Teen Titans and Deadpool, last week, and am awaiting The Killing Joke this summer.
Anyway, I’d jot down notes on powers and how they were used in the stories. I also closely watched the combat scenes to see what each character did, or how they reacted defensively. How characters sometimes interacted with each other, and where I could imagine an interaction skill being used. Basically, all the things I knew I’d have to tackle in the game mechanics.
The question I had to tackle, naturally, was how to translate all of that into Fate without losing Fate, so to speak.
Starblazer Adventures was one of my earliest places to look to for ideas on how some of it could be handled, since they dealt with some power concepts. Early designs toyed around with using similar design concepts, but the problem I ran into was that Daring Comics was going to have so many powers, that if I went that route the mechanics between all of them would get overwhelming at the table.
The place I remember looking to next was the Smallville Role-Playing Game. That was a highly narrative system in the vein of Fate, and did a good job of providing me with some baseline inspiration. Naturally, that later evolved into checking out the Marvel Heroic Role-Playing Game upon its release, which provided even more inspiration. I ran both games for a time, and seriously enjoyed them. I still get torn every so often between running a Marvel Universe game with FASERIP or Heroic. The FASERIP systems usually wins, but that’s typically because I have a heck of a lot more NPC stats available. I don’t have a lot of time anymore to do things like statting-up the Marvel Universe for a personal game.
Wait. Let me backtrack a little. When I first started toying with the powers system, I used the power write-ups and designs from the original incarnation of Daring Comics, which was in effect a new version of the old MEGS system. Some of those concepts actually survived into the current, retail version of Daring Comics, in the form of the skill benchmark descriptions, the Resource skill chart, material strength of objects, lifting difficulties for physique and super-strength, the way I did power special effects, most powers having a flat cost, Complications vs Power Limits, and the idea behind super teams having a team mechanic. Of course, they were redesigned to work in Fate, but the original design ideas came from that Daring Comics incarnation.
So, I guess my work on doing a MEGS-style RPG provided inspiration for this game. And of course, some powers from over there did not make it into Daring Comics (Fate) simply because it wasn’t about converting them, but redesigning them from the ground-up and making them work in the Fate system. A couple of those power examples are: Age Shift, Language Comprehension, and Power Reserve. But they’ll probably be appearing in a Daring Comics Spotlight at some point. I’m still working on their Fate designs.
Then of course, some of the powers from that original design were simply better handled as Create an Advantage actions on a power, or maybe just as a special effect for a power. The idea behind a Dynamic Power in that original design actually got redesigned into the Reroute Power special effect over here. The idea of linking some powers, such as blast and daze, simply became a Create and Advantage action over here using the Blast power to place a Dazed aspect on a target. And taking the Advantageous (Dazed) special effect would even grant the hero a +2 bonus to the attempt. So Daring Comics (Fate) didn’t need linked powers or power arrays like some other RPG systems did.
Like I said, it wasn’t a matter of just converting the powers to Fate. I redesigned them using Fate.
So, I had my powers list. I knew which powers needed to be redesigned to work in Fate and play the way Fate played. I knew that using the Stunt and Mega-Stunt designs as the baseline was going to be the power design foundation. Next, I wanted to see how some powers could be handled using the narrative-first focus of Fate. After all, Fate is not MEGS nor a MEGS-esque system. And I had no interest in trying to make it that way.
Here’s where I looked at several sources to see how they might be handled. I already mentioned Smallville and Marvel Heroic, both of which gave me great inspiration and really got my mind moving in the right direction. The other source of inspiration was the Dresden Files RPG from Evil Hat Productions. They were basically super-powers with a combination of narrative conceit and traditional crunch.
Smallville and Marvel Heroic, as I said, formed a baseline for me on how narrative powers could play out. But ultimately, I needed something a little different. Smallville’s powers were designed around a constant expenditure of Plot Points to fuel more than the basic power effects, and fate points carried a lot more use thanks to aspects. So that baseline wouldn’t work. Meanwhile, Marvel Heroic ran each power along a d6 or d8 through d12 ranking, and I didn’t want each power to require multiple levels. That was something I’d moved away from in the original Daring Comics design, and I wanted to keep it that way.
So that’s where some Dresden Files, Starblazer Adventures, and a little M&M also played a role. I knew I wanted the powers to have narrative weight, but I didn’t want to go the full-blown narrative conceit on them. I needed a little more structure. Now there’s nothing wrong with the narrative conceit engine for super-powers. There are some good Fate super-hero power systems out there that do just that. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a middle ground between that engine— somewhere between Marvel Heroic and Dresden Files (to use an analogy). I wanted the powers to have an established base effect or two, but I wanted the player to be able to expand that through special effects and limits, and I wanted aspects to play a pivotal role in really opening up the power.
That’s where I ran into my next play testing issue. Originally, an aspect was created for each power. And between the character aspects, situation aspects, and individual power aspects, we were choking on aspects. More than half of them never got used in play, simply because there were too damned many!
This is where Marvel Heroic really helped me out. One of the main things I liked about that game was the concept of Power Sets. For example, being a Wolverine fan, I really liked the feel of how they gave him two power sets: one for his feral mutant abilities, and one for his Weapon-X stuff. That just felt right to me.
So to handle the idea of powers and power aspects in Daring Comics, I borrowed the design idea. Powers would be broken down into thematic power sets, and the power set as a whole would have an aspect, not each power. That allowed me to keep the narrative conceit that I wanted, with the power set aspect being used in all the fun ways we talk about in both the rulebook and Daring Comics Spotlight #2: Powers Unleashed.
The final part was simply redesigning all the powers to function like stunts and mega-stunts, and designing power special effects to basically be stunts for a power.
Play testing ensued, tweaks were made here and there, and we were eventually ready for prime time.
So there you have it. Several years, a ton of research and redesign, lots of sources of inspiration, and the Daring Comics power system was born.
Next week in Part 2, I’ll talk about why I went with the skill column instead of the skill pyramid, and also discuss a few things about the system for those who haven’t picked up the book yet.
Meanwhile, got comments, thoughts, or questions? Feel free to post ’em!