My Story Outlining Process

There are a wide variety of ways to go about the outlining process for a story, and each writer handles it in their own way. Some prefer to just sit down and write with no pre-development except the ideas in their head, while others like to outline scene by scene in great detail. Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle.

One thing to keep in mind is that everyone outlines their stories. I know . . . I know . . . the pansters out there are about to grab the pitchforks and start rattling the palace gates. But trust me, even those writers who don’t do any real pre-writing work on their stories are still outlining. How is that? Simple. Even as characters and scenes pop into their minds and begin stringing together on that great mental movie screen, they’re outlining, they just might not realize it. Despite what a lot of writing books claim, I’m not of the school of thought that all outlining must take place by putting words to paper (or a screen) in order to record and track it all.

Some of the most beloved writers out there don’t outline in the traditional fashion, one notable such fellow to science fiction and fantasy fans being Roger Zelazny. From what Roger always told me, he jotted a few notes down about the characters, jotted notes here and there about his three major Plot Points, but generally wrote the story as he went along, and discovered things as the characters did. He once talked in interviews, as well, about discovering the world of Amber at the same times as the story’s main character, the amnesiac Corwin, did.

One thing that Roger did that was kind of unique, however, was that he would write a short story for each of his major characters. The story would be about a situation or event that had nothing to do with the novel he was going to write, but would function to solidify the characters in his mind and show him how they would react to completely unrelated situations. Such stories never saw publication, except in one instance where he was tight on time and a story commission had come in from a publisher.

I was lucky enough, thanks to my association at the time with the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (of which Roger was a member when he lived here in the 1960s and 1970s) to get to know Roger via letters and the occasional phone call. I bring him up because his advice and guidance helped shape my writing habits, so I wanted to give a nod back to the man responsible.

When I outline a novel, I tend to do so in a slightly freeform method. It was a method I’ve used since I first started writing and understood the underlying formula, even before I discovered that Roger did things in a similar fashion. What I do first is consider my characters. As I said in the last post, that usually involves developing my Story Premise and going through a series of What If? questions that further flesh things out for me. When it comes time for the story, I usually create the opening scene first. I’ll write this scene, which usually starts the hook and the right questions being asked (for more on the Hook and those questions, see a previous post on the topic HERE).

Once I have that, I tend to put the thing aside and consider what my three, core plot points will be. Those things I jot down, including at about what page/word count they should be dropped in for the expected length of the story. If you don’t know about the three Plot Points and why they’re so absolutely vital to any successful story, check out my post on it HERE.

Once I have that, I’ll start writing. Since I know my characters, my premise, what the story is to be about, and my main plot points, I have a lot of my required structure already accomplished. Now I let the story flow. As subplots and further ideas come to me, I’ll jot down notes about them so I understand where I’ll want to place them in the story.

Now, I write about three to four hours a day, and for fiction I’ll hit about 3k to 4k words for that on average. Some days more, some days less. I could probably pen even more words, but I have a certain writing style where I’ll edited that day’s work as I go, or at the very least at the end of my writing time. I like to have what I consider Next to Final Draft done with each section as I go. I polish sentence structure, look at verbiage, watch my descriptions, and look at pacing and characterization. Once I’m satisfied, I put it away and repeat the process the next day.

I say Next to Final Draft because I always go over a manuscript again after the entire thing is completed and I let it sit for a week or two. That gives me a fresh perspective on it, and I can find any flaws that still remain. After that, it goes to Beta Readers, then the editor.

For a novella series, the process alters slightly. After I decide how many novellas the series is to be, I create the three Plot Points that will span the entire series, and where in a particular novella it has to appear. Then, for each individual novella, I break them down into their individual triple Plot Points. I also make notes on all the interpersonal relationships between the characters, as well as all the necessary subplots and where they overlap (if they do). In that sense, I do a lot of the same prep work one would associate with a television season.

So that’s basically how I handle the outlining process: characters and story premise, the three core plot points, and jotted notes on scene and subplots.

Remember, there’s no right or wrong method to handle writing a story. Find a process that works best for you, and let the story flow.

Premise and My “What If” Questions

Last week I talked briefly about the Premise of a story, or what is called the Elevator Pitch. It’s the concise one or two of sentences (preferably one) that summarize your story, or something you could toss out in an elevator if pitching the story to someone, as the old cliché goes. The purpose is to quickly and succinctly give the core idea of your story, whether you’re pitching it to an agent or publisher for traditional publishing, or to potential readers for self-publishing.

The Premise is not the same as the back cover blurb. A back cover blurb typically goes into more detail, and is much more of a marketing flare tool to get folks to buy the story. The Premise is something different.

An amnesiac prince of another realm must struggle to regain his memories while trying to stay alive in a war for the throne against his own siblings. (Nine Princes in Amber)

A mother and father must choose between letting their children die or committing murder, when a strange disease forces the children to consume increasing quantities of blood to stay alive. (Suffer the Children)

Unlike the back cover blurb, a Premise should state the protagonist, goal, and conflict. That’s it. It’s the central point of your story.

Before I can write my Premise, though, I wind up going through a series of What If questions to hammer out the story. The reason I do this is because while I’ll have a story idea at first, the idea is not a Premise. To get to the Premise, in other words the solid foundation of protagonist/goal/conflict, I have to first drill down to see who the character is, why he has that particular goal, and what the conflict is to resolve it.

Let’s take my upcoming novella series: Prize Not the Mask.

The idea was that a street level vigilante would be framed for a murder as part of a greater conspiracy (which I won’t explain, as it’ll give away the overall series plot). He’s convicted at trial, and sent to Solitaire Island Federal Penitentiary— the primary prison for anyone with powers, or who used super-advanced technology to commit crimes. The initial idea was that I would explore both character and setting through the prison. We’d see how our hero both changed and held on to who he was while in the prison, while exploring the interpersonal relationships, conflicts, group dynamics, and corruption within its walls. Naturally, the hero means to facilitate an escape from a prison that has only ever had one successful escape (and it resulted in the original structure suffering a lot of damage), but that goes into the overall conspiracy plot and some supposed allies he makes while inside, and I won’t spoil them here.

Just picture the story as something like: super-heroes meets 24 meets Prison Break.

The next step I took was to find out the “who” of my protagonist.

I knew the hero would be Nathaniel Westfield, aka Night Sentinel. He wasn’t rich nor super-trained like a Batman type. He lived in a typically low income area of the city, and had a low to low middle class income, himself. What he had was two gravity-controlling gauntlets that he gained from the alien race that resides on the moon known as the Lunarians (their human-given moniker), and an, unknown to him, ability to see roughly 5-seconds into the future. It isn’t something he can control at the start of the story, isn’t even something he knows he can do. It comes to him on an instinctive level, and happens a lot when he’s in personal combat, which is where he gets his edge.

Pretty basic. More of a character sketch.

So then I started asking my What if questions. Not every answer I came up with made it into the final story, but here’s a little of how the process went for me.

One of my first questions was: What if Nate was framed for this murder, but had actually committed murders in the past?

My first inclination was that maybe he was also some type of Punisher template, but I quickly squashed that idea. For the type of story I wanted to tell, that took things in a different direction. It now begged the questions of how he should be wanted by pretty much all levels of law enforcement, of how his being framed for murder would be a footnote, or even be seen as poetic justice, given the fact that he brazenly killed anyway. It also didn’t add any depth to the character.

Instead, I decided that he was once a criminal, though not a publicly known one. Even most law enforcement never knew “who” he was, just the results of his handiwork. I decided he was once a professional assassin. Someone who could get in, get the target, and get out. Someone trained at infiltration and not leaving evidence behind. And it was something that also played into his current role as a vigilante/hero. It’s how he was able to do what he did.

What if Nate had a son or daughter to worry about?

That question brought with it a lot of possibilities. What if Nate changed his ways from criminal to hero because of his child? Naturally came from that second question, and had me delve deeper into his past.

I decided that Nate stopped being an assassin about six years ago, when his son was 12 years old. I wanted to make his son 18 years old in the story simply because it stopped me from having to deal with endangering an actual child in this story, but at the same time the son was a legal adult while not yet knowledgeable enough to not be at risk. I could still make the readers care.

What if Nate’s wife was murdered? That question came up because in the back of my mind, I wanted him to be a single father. I also wanted it to play a role in why he eventually became a hero. But with his past as an assassin, I didn’t want it to be a random mugging or whatnot.

What if her murder was a result of a hit that Nate did in the past? This naturally played into a what if question about someone out there having discovered who he really was.

What if her murder was retaliation for a failed hit?

There were a lot of other questions that arose as I drilled down into that one, but I’ll summarize it all.

As I drilled down, I learned that Nate had been hired to do a hit on a Lunarian diplomat. The hit failed, and Nate was captured by the Lunarian security forces. Although they kept his presence and the attempt secret from human law enforcement, and had even let him go, the Lunarian Diplomat (since they’re also priests of the aliens’ strange religion) saw a path for redemption in Nate. Naturally, Nate refused the offer and was sent on his way. The aliens were now on to him, so he knew the hit was a bust.

Although he did his best to protect his family, retaliation from those who hired him came swift and hard. His wife was killed and his 12 year old son badly injured. Nate knew he was outmanned and outgunned against those seeking to kill him, and had nowhere else to go. One event led to another, and he and his son were eventually taken in by the Lunarian. When everything was said and done, he was Night Sentinel. He was fulfilling a vow to protect the innocent and shutdown the very criminal types he once worked for.

Along the way, I also discovered that Nate had a history with a current superhero or two. One young hero was the target of an assassination back in Nate’s past, when he was hired to kill the man’s girlfriend as a lesson. Another current hero worked with Nate during his criminal past, and has her own secrets from her current team.

The same heroes (and their teammates in the Sentinels of Society) that will have to find a way to find and protect Nate’s missing son while he’s in prison.

Then there’s the whole What If question series that led to the reasons for Nate’s framing, and why he was specifically wanted inside the Solitaire prison. Him getting framed and put inside the prison is a key element of the conspiracy.

In the end, I had this Premise: A hero’s dark past as an assassin catches up with him when he’s framed for murder, and must escape from an inescapable prison to both protect his son and stop the return of an immortal criminal mastermind.

And I had my nine-part novella series’ central premise. Thanks to all the drilling down of the What If questions, I also had characters, main plot, goal and conflict, and many subplots to explore.

Well, it’s slated for nine-parts, anyway. Sometimes a story will end up being a little shorter, though right now I’m fairly confident in it being nine novellas. That puts it at three novellas per section of the overall story, with three novellas also being the length of an average 100k to 120k word novel. So in essence, the nine novellas equate to a novel trilogy in length.

Next week, I’ll discuss how I outline something of that length, when there are individual novellas involved as opposed to a straight-up novel.


Handling the First Story Ideas

Every author has their own way of going about getting ready to write a story. Some outline in a bit of freehand, noting only vital plot points, character notes, and perhaps a few scenes that popped into their head; while others meticulously outline every scene and character point; and some don’t outline at all— they get an idea, a character, and start writing immediately, watching everything unfold as they go. There’s no right or wrong way to go about the storytelling process. It’s always a matter of what works best for each writer.

This week, I’m going to talk about how I handle the beginning of a story idea. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to expand on how I prep for a story, including which outlining process I use, and when. Some facets will depend on the type of story I’m telling (such as short story, novella, novella serial, or novel), and some parts are universal across the board for me. Not everyone out there is going to give a damn about my writing habits, but for those of you who are interested, or have contacted me over the past year asking about them, this week starts a return of those blog entry themes.

For those folks more interested in my RPG related writing habits, don’t worry: I’ll be jumping back and forth over time between fiction related posts, RPG related posts, and posts that could be applied to both styles of writing. Hit the RSS feed button if you don’t want to miss anything.

When a story idea first comes to me, it can come in pretty much any order. Sometimes it’ll be a random scene, like watching a teaser trailer for a movie. Sometimes it’ll be the introduction of a character, which is probably akin to meeting a person for the first time for me: the character piques my interest, but at this stage all I’m seeing is the external profile. I know there’s a lot more under the surface, in their minds and hearts, and maybe some dark secrets or tragedies in their past. It’s just a matter of time before I discover it all. Other times, a story will come to me as an idea, which can best be described as a What if? type of thing. Most commonly such an idea might see the original seeds planted from a book, movie, news report, snippet of a conversation I overhear in public— all kinds of points of origin.

Once any number of those things enter my mind, I make sure to record them. These early recordings are always put into Evernote. The reason being, it could be later the same day, the next day, or even a couple of weeks later, but more ideas and questions about that story are going to come up. And whether I’m at the computer in my home office when it happens, or reading on my tablet, or on the go with my smartphone, Evernote is my choice for being able to update and expand those idea files no matter where I’m at, while keeping them consistent across all my stationary and mobile devices.

During the early days, weeks, and sometimes even months, I don’t force the story seeds into expanding. I let it happen. I’ve been an author for over 25 years, and I know how my mind works by this time. While I might have any number of different story or character ideas brewing at any one time, I know that as things get real (as they say) and a story is forming at full tilt in the back of my mind, those seeds will expand themselves with more frequency. A character will reveal new facets of itself. A story idea will bring some twists with it. Or a scene will lead into another, either one that came before or that comes after.

And of course, brief notes go into Evernote.

Now, as a story starts taking on that type of early development speed, it also requires more note taking. While Evernote is great for my quick jots and such, when it comes time to really hit the development, I prefer to use Scrivener (but I still use WORD for my manuscript writing, old habits die hard).

For this example, I’m going to pretend the development is for a novella serial.

The first thing I do is open my Novella Serial template that I created in Scrivener, which looks something like this (you can click the image to enlarge):

Scrivener Blog Pic 1_zpsf0tpfneu

Where I go first will depend on what I’m developing at the time. It might be one of the major or minor character templates that are there if I expand the Characters or Places folders, or it might be notes that I place into the Story Arc Overview at the top of the listing, which would cover story points for the entire novella serial. Don’t worry, I’ll go more into the actual character and places templates that I use in an upcoming blog entry, which will also include some of the questions I answer during the character and location development process.

A story is not ready to write, though, until I have the Premise section completed.

The Premise is usually only a couple of sentences that tell what the story is about. This is also sometimes referred to as the “elevator pitch,” because it’s the type of story summary you would give in an elevator if asked what the story is about. It’s vitally important that writers get a Premise developed, because it brings a story into focus for both you and any publisher or agent you might pitch it to. Even if you’re self-publishing, a Premise is vital to getting the idea of the story out there during your marketing. Just as it should do for a publisher or agent, it has to hook the readers’ interest so they’ll buy it.

Before you get your Premise ready for prime-time, though (which I’ll discuss more about next week), you’re going to go through a series of “What if?” questions, with each subsequent question drilling further down from the last.

For example, in the novella series I’ll be launching later this summer called Prize Not the Mask, I tell the tale of a super-hero street vigilante named Night Sentinel. At first, I didn’t know a lot about him or the story, and actually the early version of the character that I thought was being developed in the back of my mind turned out not to be the character I ended up with in the end. The final character is actually a lot more interesting, and allows me to explore more facets of the super-hero setting throughout the serial.

Originally, I knew he was a street vigilante, but was not rich or powerful or highly trained like any sort of Batman archetype. He lived in a low to moderate income area of Sentinel City, and had an 18 year old son. The son gave him the same stress and trouble that most kids that age do— he wasn’t keeping a steady job, was out running around with friends until all hours (the typical stretching of the wings), was having girl drama, and all that jazz.

I knew that Night Sentinel would be framed for a high profile murder, and that he would end-up in Solitaire Island Federal Prison for super-criminals, where the story would show readers what life was like inside such a prison, with its own set of characters, interpersonal relationships, and rivalries.

As I was developing the Premise, and asking my “what if” questions (again, I’ll go into them step-by-step in the next entry), I also discovered a lot more about the character. I found out that he used to be a very successful hitman that worked for various criminal organizations on a freelance basis. I learned that he had once been hired to assassinate a Lunarian diplomat (a common alien race in the setting), and that not only did he fail, but his escape what thwarted by the diplomat’s entourage. Who he was, and what he had tried to do, was kept secret from human law enforcement, and the Lunarian diplomat (also a sort of priest/monk as many of his species are), got into the character’s emotions and convinced him to change— to become a hero and defender, to not only atone for his past but to also help build a better world for his son. This resulted in some training, and the gift of gravity-controlling gauntlets.

Okay, I know that’s a bit hard to follow, but I wanted to show how developing the Premise led to new character/story points being discovered, without giving away any spoilers for the upcoming story just yet. But you should get the idea. By developing that premise and asking “What If” questions, new facets of the tale came to light.

Naturally, not all the answers one gets from asking such questions will be used. Some will simply be too silly or too off the mark for the story.

Anyway, we’re out of space this week. Next week, I’ll go through, step-by-step, some of the questions I asked myself about those characters and that story, and show how some of the background and actual story points came to be. Note that it’ll contain a couple of spoilers, but I’ll keep them to a minimum and not reveal things that will ruin the story before you read it later this summer.

Creating the Daring Comics RPG, Part 3 of 3

This week, in the final part of Creating the Daring Comics RPG, I’m going to talk about why we didn’t go with a size scaling system in Daring Comics, and why we did the Appendix in the back of the rulebook.


To Scale or Not to Scale?


Scale was one of the most hair-pulling aspects of Daring Comics to consider. In a non-supers roleplaying game, it would definitely become a factor. After all, you don’t expect your pistol-totting archeologist to be able to take down a tank.

But that goes into simulation, and Daring Comics is supposed to be about comic book emulation. That’s been my defining goal in the game’s design, and the primary reason I chose the Fate system for it.

Comic books work very differently than what is usually found in typical RPG scale mechanics. Here, a character’s creativity can allow them to break what we’d consider the normal laws of physics. And why not? They can shoot beams from their eyes and fly without any real means of propulsion, after all.

At first, though, I was kind of hooked on the concept of a size scale system. Knowing how my mind works, this was no doubt thanks to my many years running Star Wars d6. I loved the scale system over there, and how it played out for something like a Rebel Trooper versus an AT-AT; or even a YT-1300 versus a Star Destroyer.

Thanks to d6 being OGL, one of my earliest designs played around with seeing if I could get the concept of how that system handled scale to work in Fate. Now in d6, at least the edition that I usually play, the dice have a cap on them between skills. For example, certain smaller scales striking a larger scale will count a 1-6 on the d6 normally, but when calculating damage might be capped at a “2.” That means that rolling a 3-6 on a d6 only counts as “2” when adding up the dice. The inverse plays about the same. The larger scale would have a die cap on the to-hit roll (meaning the smaller target is more difficult to hit), but count the dice normally when rolling damage.

So I played around with that for Daring Comics, using the same base idea. Like maybe a cap for a lower scale to damage a larger scale would be a +2 on the dice, so rolling a +3 or +4 would still only count as +2. Basically, it mimicked what d6 did, just on the Fate dice.

Honestly, it played well enough, but it didn’t really add anything to the game for super-heroes. Not only that, but when you got into the whole idea of the upper echelon characters, like say a Hulk, Superman, or even the more mid-level Luke Cage type of super-strength, I then had to consider how the scale system would apply to that. Should I make it a special effect under super-strength? Should levels of super-strength automatically increase the character’s damage scale? Those are great questions, and while I did design early editions around them, in the end it wasn’t playing like Fate. Those type of crunch mechanics are better left to other RPG systems.

Then the Fate System Toolkit came out, and with it another version of the scale system, which though a lot looser, still played into the effect I was going for. We tested that, and naturally it worked great, but then it all came back to super-strength, weapon ratings, and the scale system.

So, in the end, I dropped the scaling idea. It just didn’t seem to have a real place in what I wanted the super-hero system to be.

Instead, what I did in the end was borrowed something else from the Fate System Toolkit. The idea of weapon and armor aspects. In Daring Comics, you’ll see these reworked as special effects for your weapons (including attack powers) and armor (including the Invulnerability power).  They were: Potent, Dangerous, and Lethal for weapons; and Durable, Tough, Reinforced for armor/damage mitigation. Applying these to a character or object (such as vehicles or reinforced doors) achieved the scale idea that I wanted, and also kept a balance since you’re spending one or more Hero Points on them.

Viola! We had a pseudo-scale system that didn’t add in any extra crunch, since the essence was already in the Fate Toolkit book. Plus, it achieved the effect I had been going over.


The Daring Comics Appendix


When designing Daring Comics and running through all the internal and external play testing, we often ran into situations where different versions of a power all played very well at the table, but yet how the mechanics of each version played brought different feels to a game. Likewise, we ran tests using Weapon and Armor Ratings, and tests with the more narrative way of handling such things. And they each played well. Again, it was just a matter of flavor.

The Fate system draws its strength on being a toolkit system. It’s meant to be hacked to get the exact feel you want. Noticing the above mentioned things in play testing, I decided that instead of creating a rulebook with only this version of doing things, I’d focus on that toolkit strength and show how to hack the game. What I would do is show some of the alternate versions of powers, and even how to handle powers without a Weapon and Armor Rating mechanic being used.

And thus, the Appendix chapter was born. Although Daring Comics has its version of the central or official rules in the main body of the book, the Appendix is there to show you not only how powers and other parts of the game can be hacked, but provides examples of some different versions of the game that we play tested.

My hope has always been that while fans enjoy the official version of the core game, they never hesitate to hack the heck out of it, create new versions of existing powers, and share them with the Fate community, whether as simple fan posts or as commercial products under the free Daring Comics Compatibility license and logo (found here:

So there you have it folks: some of the thoughts, considerations, and work, that went into getting the Daring Comics Role-Playing Game to retail. It was a long and sometimes difficult road, but in the end I think the game has accomplished what I wanted it to from the outset. As with any RPG, there are always a few things I’d like to have done differently in hindsight, and some great adjustments that fans have created, but that’s true of any RPG system.

Who knows? If the game proves popular enough, maybe in a few years I’ll be able to do a Second Edition. Only time will tell.

Next week, I’m going to jump back over to talk about fiction writing, and show how I, as an author, prepare to write my novellas and novels. For you RPG fans, there will be more RPG stuff to come in the future. Don’t forget, you can stay current on the weekly entries by using the RSS feed subscription option. And as always, feel free to post any comments and thoughts.

Creating the Daring Comics RPG, Part 2 of 3

Why the Skill Column?


In the previous entry, I talked about how using the Fate system for Daring Comics came about, and how the powers system eventually got to the version that’s been retail released. In this the part of the Daring Comics RPG design entries, I’m going to talk about why I went with a skill column instead of a skill pyramid, and discuss a few other parts of the system.

A majority of Fate games use a pyramid template for skill distribution. That means you have a single apex skill at character creation, and each lower ranking for skills must have more skills per rank that the one above it. That works great for a vast majority of genres, and emulates what we see in most books and films. I didn’t feel that it emulated what we saw in a lot of comic books, however.

I mentioned last week how a lot of things inspired Daring Comics. Since Fate Core and the Fate Toolkit weren’t released yet when I was designing how I wanted skills to work, I was once again drawn to the Dresden Files RPG. In that particular game, skills operated in a column format instead of the pyramid. In a column, you can have the skill template have more skills at a lower rank, or an equal number at the lower ranks. That, I felt, did a better job of emulating the way I imagined some character builds going. We even went as far as to allow the group to choose by consensus the experience level of campaign they wanted to play, which would grant either 25, 30, 35, 40, or 45 skill points for each player to spend on their character’s skill column. It allowed a character to have more than one apex skill, but still kept things balanced enough along the ladder so that each character in a group could shine between their skill placements and stunts.

Now when Fate Core came out, it used the pyramid for character creation and the column afterward as a character advanced. We decided not to switch to that, and to stick with our design of a column at character creations. You could likely build your hero using either skill placement system, we just felt that for the genre we were playing in, it was unnecessary to use the pyramid at character creation.


The Hero Point Design


Another slight change we made on the surface was the usage of Hero Points for purchasing stunts and powers. This one has caused some confusion at forums out there, and although I cover it in Daring Comics Spotlight #2: Powers Unleashed, which takes a deeper look at the powers system, let me briefly cover it here.

In a normal Fate game, players get a certain number of free stunts at character creation, and then spend their Beginning Refresh to purchase more, with Refresh never being able to drop below “1.” In pretty much any genre, that system works out fine. We found that it could even work in Daring Comics for the very low-level, or even street level, characters. The problems arose when we got into the real super-powered folks.

To keep with the Refresh concept, at first we gave a certain number of “slots” for stunts or powers for free, and then had a vastly increased Beginning Refresh to buy more. I say “slots” because some powers, like a powerful stunt or mega-stunt, were more than 1-point in value. So, if your character had 4 free “slots” and wanted a power that cost “2,” then that would be 2-slots. Likewise, if you used your freebies up and needed more, then you’d go to Beginning Refresh, with the numerical cost of the power being the number of Beginning Refresh.

Sounds simple, but it didn’t work.


Because to really emulate true Justice League or the more powerful Avengers level characters, we were either looking at a ton of free “slots” or a lot of Beginning Refresh. This lead to the potential for players to have a Beginning Refresh of, say, 30, that they were expected to spend based on the series level. Naturally, though, that was abused in bad ways. Some players would spend 10 or 15 of that Refresh to make their character, and walk into Issue #1 with a Refresh of 15 or 20.

No way that was going to stay. And if that was being done in play test, could you imagine when it hit retail and got into the hands of a lot more groups out there?

After a lot of toying around (including offering a lot of free slots), we decided to do a hybrid of what you saw in games like MEGS, M&M, and elsewhere, while still keeping the base Fate method under the hood. So after a lot of design and redesign based on a metric ton of character builds, we decided to use Hero Points and no freebies.

Players have no free stunts or powers or slots. Instead, based on the agreed upon series level, and further enhanced by the agreed upon experience level of the characters, players get a pool of points that we call Hero Points. With these points, they purchase stunts and powers. If they run out of points and need something else to round out the character, then they use Beginning Refresh as normal. Unused Hero Points are banked and can be used during play to purchase stunts and powers, but never concert to Refresh.

Under the hood, this kept the base Fate mechanics the same, but it now allowed the creation of the really powerful characters without unbalancing Refresh. From a Fate mechanics standpoint, Hero Points could easily have been something like 30 free slots, but this way just looked and felt cleaner to us.

It was important for Daring Comics to allow for a lot of group customization at the table, since comic books are such a varied lot. That’s the primary reason that the first thing the players do together is choose the Series Level (which determines base Hero Points), Experience Level (which determines beginning skill points and any additional Hero Points), and Series Tone (which determines Beginning Refresh and how quickly consequences recover). Those three initial choices set the foundations for a series. A Watchmen style series, for example, would choose from those three differently than a silver age Justice League series.

Maybe if Daring Comics proves popular enough and I can do a Second Edition a few years down the line, I’ll move it over to “Free Slots” instead of Hero Points, along with whatever other changes we get from feedback. Only time will tell.




In many Fate games, clear benchmarks aren’t used. Fate relies more on a narrative style instead of such things. And that is a great system. I like it, and it’s how I’ve played Fate for years. But if there’s one thing I saw on the internet when it dealt with super-heroes, it was a lot of wanting for benchmarks in a super-hero game. A good, vocal segment of the gamer base wanted benchmarks that stated: Character-A is stronger than Character-B, for example. Or a reinforced concrete wall is this difficult to punch through. I especially saw that in regards to Marvel Heroic.

The trick for Daring Comics was to provide benchmarks for the important things, while at the same time not going into unnecessary or new crunch.

The first thing I did was to give benchmark descriptions for skills. This wasn’t for any type of mechanical value, mind you, I’m just a sucker for these type of flavor descriptions for skill ratings. To be honest, it’s likely from my time in FASERIP and MEGS.

Mediocre: Untrained

Average: Minimal training

Fair: Formal training

Good: Advanced training

Great: An expert in the field

Superb: One of the foremost experts in a large nation

Fantastic: One of the foremost experts in the world

Epic: You are recognized as the world’s authority on the skill

Legendary: Your skill level is beyond what is normally expected on earth

Monstrous: You are one of the best within several star systems

Colossal: You are one of the best within the galaxy

Unearthly: Your prowess is known across the universe

Inconceivable: Your skill is recognized on a multiversal scale

Another thing we did with Daring Comics was use Weapon and Armor Ratings. Weapon Ratings provide automatic damage on a successful hit, and Armor Rating automatically reduces damage. This, we felt, was important to the feel we wanted for being able to really nail down the heavy-hitters and all the metahuman effects without relying solely on high skill levels and good rolls over the opposition for a ton of Shifts. Even on a tie, a character goes at least their Weapon Rating in effect (be it from a blast, melee attack, or thanks to super-strength), and any armor rating of the opponent would negate that. While this could lead to a zero-sum effect on a tie where, for example, a Weapon Rating 4 would be negated by an Armor Rating 4, it also meant that Shifts were will still important.

In their own way, the ratings also gave a benchmark. A Weapon Rating 6, for example, is the equivalent of a space cruiser weapon. Meanwhile, Armor Rating 4 is about the same as a tank.


Strength vs Super-Strength


One thing that came up early on in design was how to handle normal strength with the Physique skill versus super-strength. After all, it was important that a person couldn’t roll +4 on the dice, be able to invoke a lot of aspects, and suddenly be able to toss a semi-truck. This one was especially important to me due to my decades in the MEGS system, where if a ton of doubles were rolled on the dice, a “Commissioner Gordon” could achieve a near “Superman” feat of strength on an action.

After a lot of playing around with scales (more on that in Part-3, including why I ultimately dropped a size scale system from design), I decided that the easiest, less cumbersome way was to simply provide two separate opposition charts. The first is for people without any sort of superhuman strength (though Monstrous through Inconceivable are arguably low-level metahuman), and the second is for those with the Super-Strength power. What the two charts said was that normal Physique could not achieve any type of result on the super-strength opposition chart. In the back of my mind, this harkened back to the Advanced Marvel Super-Heroes RPG concept of an impossible FEAT, and achieved the mechanics that I wanted in Fate.

Here’s how they turned out:

Lifting Opposition (Physique skill, only)

Mediocre: 50lbs

Average: 100lbs

Fair: 200lbs

Good: 300lbs

Great: 400lbs

Superb: 500lbs

Fantastic: 600lbs

Epic: 800lbs

Legendary: 1,000lbs

Monstrous: 1,400lbs

Colossal: 1,600lbs

Unearthly: 1,800lbs

Inconceivable: 2,000lbs


And for those of you who want to throw around very large objects, we have:

Lifting Opposition (Super-Strength power)

Mediocre: Lifting a car is no problem

Average: Semi trucks are weapons in your grasp

Fair: You could lift a fully loaded jet fighter

Good: Modern tanks are not a weight problem for you

Great: You can heft a small building

Superb: You can move large buildings

Fantastic: With your strength, Battleships can be carried

Epic: You are strong enough to raise an aircraft carrier

Legendary: At this level, your strength can lift a skyscraper

Monstrous: You could lift the Great Pyramid of Giza

Colossal: You can move mountains

Unearthly: You could lift an island

Inconceivable: Your strength is a plot device, congrats!

So, someone with the Super-Strength power would face a Fantastic (+6) Opposition to lift a Battleship. To lift anything on the normal Physique chart, there’s no roll for a super-strength character.

Now, since the maximum Super-Strength 6 power level provides +6 to those lifting rolls, it bears saying that even someone like Superman doesn’t need a super-high Physique. Let’s a take a quick look at building a character like that, since it relies on some of the things that should be considered.


Character Building Advice


Yes, Superman is strong. Exactly how strong depends on the writer, but for the sake of sanity I always prefer the general level of the John Byrne era, or the DCaU. It was clean, manageable, and wasn’t so much of a plot device.

First, let’s remember that his weakness will cause him to lose his Super-Strength 6, so let’s build his Physique skill to that point. Let’s say that without his powers, Superman has a Physique of Good (+3), which allows him to lift 300lbs on average.

So just looking at where he sits before any dice are rolled, Superman can achieve a Monstrous (+9) Opposition and lift the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Invoke an Aspect for another +2, and he can move an Island. If he can invoke a second aspect for +2 more, really pushing himself, he becomes Inconceivable. His strength is now a plot device!

On the flip side, if he rolled really well and got a +4 on the Fate dice, plus invoked an aspect for another +2, he would have achieved a +15 result. In other words, he would have Succeeded with Style against an Inconceivable Opposition for a strength related Overcome action.

Likewise, if he rolled poorly and got –4 on the Fate Dice, which likely failed whatever extraordinary lifting roll he was attempting, because it is an Overcome action, he could still choose to succeed— but at a cost. That’s also something we’ve seen happen in the comics, films, and cartoons on occasion.

This keeps him within the realm of yes, the player-characters can be this level, too, keeps in mind his Physique when his powers are shutdown, and displays his Superman strength levels while at the same time making sure an Aspect or two still enter play.

And that goes for any character. Due to aspects (which all Fate gamers should make sure are brought into play), and the customization of powers, stunts, and skills, you can easily make a world-hitter without having to break the bank on skill ranks— or even hit the skill cap in a majority of cases, which also allows you to spread your skill points around more.

And that’s all there is to it.

Now wait. We know it’s bound to happen. Someone is going to want to play that Batman type of character and say that his investigation skill (amongst others) should be at least Fantastic (+6) along with his Stealth, Fight, and you name it. But, it’s impossible to purchase enough skills at that level due to the skill column and skill points.

That type of character is easy to do, though. Although we all likely have a lot of experience with a variety of super-hero roleplaying games where purchasing those specific ranks was a necessity to make the character feel right, the numbers in Daring Comics (like in any Fate game) work a little differently.

You don’t need Investigate at Fantastic (+6) to be that level. Remember, various Stunts will provide a +2 bonus to specific uses of the skill (or even an advanced +4), offer new ways to use the skill, and so forth.

So, if the character had Investigate at Great (+4), and then a Stunt that applied a +2 to specific circumstances, that is equivalent to a Fantastic (+6) from the start in those situations.

The same applies for Fight and the provided stunts, or stunts you guys create on your own.

Skills are just what you can do. Stunts are how you do it, and help define your character as much as aspects.

Another interesting thing about the Fate system is how the dice roll. Unlike in other RPGs, the dice can actually roll a –1 to –4 and thereby reduce your effective skill by sheer back luck, where even Opposition that seems like a sure thing can instead provide a failure (or a success but at a major or minor cost, such as with an Overcome action), and propel the narrative forward.

So, even though the numbers on paper might look like Character-A is sure to beat or overcome Character-B, this might not actually be the case once the dice are rolled and aspects are invoked.

Personally, that’s been one of my absolute favorite things about the Daring Comics games I’ve run. It went a long way, just via the basic Fate mechanics, toward making the stories interesting even in instances where we expected an oh-hum easy victory for one side. The underdog managing to dig deep and come out on top is something all of us comic book fans know is a staple of the genre.

Anyway, there some are other benchmarks in the game, too. Such as for Material Strength, which provides Overcome action opposition to breaking things

And that’s that for this week. In the final part of Creating the Daring Comics RPG next week, I’ll talk about why we decided not to go with a size scale system, and why we went the way of the hacks in the Appendix chapter at the end of the rulebook.