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.
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)
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.