Creating the Daring Comics RPG, Part 1 of 3

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!


What’s The Past Year Been Like?

The past year has been a busy one for me. Not only did we (Daring Entertainment) have a successful Kickstarter for the Daring Comics Role-Playing Game (Fate) last July/August, but we spent many crazy months putting the final product together. Despite best efforts, though, even that didn’t go as smoothly as I’d wanted. But the game released within my expected two or three month margin of error on the estimated release date, so it all worked out in the end. In the next week or two, the Daring Comics Spotlight series starts, which is a small PDF support line that takes a look at different powers, rules, and whatnot within the system.

Then this July (through August), we’ll be launching a Kickstarter for our new Savage Worlds dual book project. The main book is the Apocalypse Campaign Guide, and it not only takes a look at how to design and run an apocalypse setting campaign (for you GMs out there), but also goes into how to create characters for an apocalypse campaign, and what to expect from an apocalypse setting (for you players out there). It has new Genre Rules, Hindrance & Edges, resource management rules, and how to create and run your own survivor community— with the community having Traits all its own just like a character.

After all that, the book then goes into different apocalypse subgenres, such as the zombie apocalypse, alien invasion, vampire apocalypse, bridged dimensional apocalypse, a fantasy world apocalypse, and even the more realistic styles of a nuclear war or massive EMP attack. What I do there is go into the tropes and expectations of each subgenre. Each subgenre also offers different threats as seen in post-apocalyptic fiction and films, such as for a zombie apocalypse the difference between a viral zombie and a supernatural/demonically possessed zombie, and then offers NPC templates for creating the different types.

The companion book is called Apocalypse Unleashed, and offers roughly a 12 page (each) setting framework for some of the subgenres from the Guide. These are mini-settings that GMs can plug into and expand at their table, getting them started on creating their own apocalypse campaign right away.

If the Kickstarter funds, then after the books eventually retail release, I’ll be doing small PDF support for more setting frameworks, in many cases offering some interesting twists by combining two or more subgenres into one concept.

So that’s where I’m at on the role-playing game front, and both apocalypse books are almost done. They’ll be written in full before the Kickstarter launch date.

Other than that, it’s been getting some changes at home fine-tuned and daily adjustments gotten used to, and working on fiction.

It’s been a long, slow road getting the fiction to where I’m comfortable starting the release schedule. Though I’ll be talking quite a bit about fiction writing in upcoming posts, having focused on RPGs for so long, the transition back took longer than I’d expected.

Much longer.

It’s an entirely different mindset and skillset to write fiction than role-playing games, and I had to go back and practice, and retrain my mind to get the basic skills back down to a reflex. I’ve finally got things just about to the reflexive stage, but the more I write the more ingrained it’s all becoming again.

I also had to decide which stories were actually ready, and which definitely needed more time on the creative stove. Again, having been away from fiction for over a decade, I had many false starts on that one. The outlines looked great, but it was once I really started writing the stuff that I realized there were holes, some characters not yet developed enough, and other issues that just made the story not yet ready.

Back on the stove it went, heat turned to a steady simmer. Stir occasionally.

I’ve learned not to rush these things.

In the end, the first novella series that became ready to serve was the Daring Comics Presents (After the Fall) series. The first leg of the series is a combination of six novellas, each with the subtitle of a character name. For example, Daring Comics Presents (After the Fall): Night Sentinel, or Daring Comics Presents (After the Fall): Xombehemoth. Generally speaking, each novel has a storyline directly about that character, but there’s also an over-arching subplot that will tie into the first full-length novel involving a character hinted at in the series. You don’t have to read each novella to enjoy and understand the novel, you’ll just see some set-up for it in the initial series.

So what is After the Fall? Well, the series is a post-apocalyptic super-hero setting. It’s been roughly six months since an alien race with strange biotechnology invaded the Earth and won the initial war. Now the world lies in tatters, millions of people have been transformed into . . . something else, and the heroes we focus on are struggling to not only protect the survivors they’ve taken under their charge, but to finally defeat the alien occupation, while at the same time battling traditional super-villains taking advantage of the mess. You’ll see some villains acting in the vein of marauders and fiefdom lords in the apocalypse, and some true megalomaniacs who plan to position themselves into near absolute power— ready for when the alien occupation is finally defeated (as they’re certain it will be).

Like in true post-apocalyptic fashion, I want the stories to focus on the individual characters. I want to explore not only why they’re heroes, but also how they deal with some of the tough decisions they have to make. What I don’t want is a super-hero deconstruction storyline. I want these characters to be four-color heroes in the traditional sense, just thrust into an impossible reality.

I want them to still possess hope, and to act on that hope.

And there’s a lot more to the storyline as the series goes beyond the initial six parts. For example, a potential for the heroes to eventually discover a means of actually restoring the Earth (it is a comic book setting in prose fiction form, after all). But I’m naturally not going to reveal that stuff.

There’s also a companion series in the works called Before the Fall. In that series, we go back to before the invasion and occupation, and explore the setting and characters in more traditional super-hero terms. In this series we’ll be able to see what things used to be like, and what the heroes are fighting daily to restore.

That’s where I stand on what’s releasing within the next few months. I also have many, many other fiction works and worlds on the plate. Some other post-apocalyptic stuff, some possible steampunk novels, maybe a fantasy style series, and some horror stuff.

And that’s what’s been going on with me during the past year. Next week, the blog continues with Part 1 of a three part series on what went into creating the Daring Comics RPG. After that, more on fiction writing tips and tricks.

Why I Chose Self-Publishing Over Traditional Publishing

It’s been a while, I know. Things have been busy here on a personal, household level, as well as a professional level. As many know, I’ve returned to RPG publishing on a part-time basis, and have a list of things potentially releasing for both the FATE and Savage Worlds systems. Meanwhile, the fiction lines will finally start debuting sometime in 2016. My youngest turned 5-years-old in March, so now we’re in that mad race to make sure all the ducks are in a row for him to start kindergarten on August 24th, now that the schools have begun the enrollment process for the upcoming school year. Continue reading…

Pinch Points and The Hook

Sorry for the delay. I’m still not hitting stride on my mental intent to do this blog weekly. With all the writing and development irons I have in the fire lately, I’ve lost track of time when it comes to this blog.

Anyway, in this installment I’ll hit a dual topic on story structure: Pinch Points and Beginnings.

Last entry I talked about the three Plot Points, what they are, and where they should appear in any story— whether it’s a novel, novella, or short story. Building from those plot points, I’ll discuss the pinch points. Continue reading…