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questions regarding Zu

Started by xjermx, June 23, 2006, 04:59:56 PM

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I've had a couple of questions come up in regard to Zu, and I wanted to see if I could get some feedback.

Firstly, I've seen that a character can start with Zu or Uz, and possibly more syllables if desired and purchased.

Afterward, it is my understanding that syllables can only be acquired through theft or gift.  In either case, the successful recipient gains the word (and spends an advance) and the victim/giver loses the syllable.  Is this correct?   Clinton, did you envision people purchasing a Zu secret without theft or gift (figuring a word out spontaneously)?

Is there theoretically only 1 of each syllable in the world?  Fire/burn/hot only exists in singularity?  Or there is simply a finite pool?  For arguments sake.. 100 people in the world know Fire/Burn/Hot.  When someone steals it from one of them, its still 100..

Finally regarding the use of Zu syllables.. let's say I've created a character with "Zu", "Knife/Cut/Sharp" and "Beast/(??)/Beastly" and "Fear/Afraid/Frightening".  I can say "Knife" and make a knife appear, or say to someone "Cut" and they'll cut themselves, or "Sharp" and cause something to be sharp.  Can I say "huge knife" and it have an effect?  I dont know the "huge" syllable.  Can I use it to influence "knife", or would I have to say "Frightening Knife" to create a knife that.. caused fear in people?

And finally finally, that brought up a question.  Anyone have any suggestions on how to come up with good Zu syllables and their different forms.


should have [TSOY]'d this thread, sorry.

Eero Tuovinen

Of course you can play it any way you want in your game, but according to the book, there's only one of each zu syllable in existence. Or rather, everybody can use the syllables for normal language, but only one person at a time is the master of a given syllable. This is why they're fought over so zealously.

As for your example: you can't say "huge knife" if you don't know "huge", of course. That's one of the main reasons to gain breadth in your mastery of syllables; in many situations you simply need the extra accuracy afforded by combining syllables. Note that any vagueness at all in the expression can and will be used by the GM to screw you, so when you ask for a "knife", you might well only get a paring knife, or a big threatening knife, all up to the GM. "Fear knife" (you don't say "frightening knife" when constructing a noun) would probably be interpreted as a scary torturer's blade, I imagine. Or allegorically, as "the offensive instrument of fear", which could be something non-bladelike, as long as it still cuts.

Constructing syllables: I find it difficult, too. My best advice is to remember that ultimately the combination of three English concepts does not have to make sense to you, as long as it makes sense to Zaru. So if you need to stretch a bit to get an useful and fun syllable, then do so. In practice, try to think up at least one good use for each form of the syllable; if you can't, then it's probably too weak.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Just for fun's sake, I'll go against Eero here, and say that the way I've been using it is that Zu words can be either stolen or gifted. If a word is stolen, the thief gains it and the previous owner loses it. If the word is gifted, it's shared-- two people know it now. This, in my mind, suits the way Zu first proliferated across Near, even though the language functions differently since Absolon/Hannish/the Skyfire/etc etc. It means there are some interesting opportunities and decisions for characters who know a Zu word, who can decide to teach it to their friends or students, but who also risk its widespread proliferation, and go against the edicts of some Zaru elders who don't want the words falling into the hands of others.

Similarly, it's worth pointing out in the theft example you give that the thief must use an advance, and the person who has the Zu word stolen from them loses it as a Secret and then GAINS an advance. Naturally, they can't just "steal it back" unless the word is used against (or around) them again.

Additionally, I'm certainly keen on the idea that there may be Zu words which could be acquired through other means (though I don't know if "spontaneously" always suits my tastes). If we assume the Zaru were a literate society (can't remember if the book refutes that idea at any point, but let's say for argument they were), there might be relics of the pre-Shadow days which could teach people "unclaimed" Zu words, effectively allowing a new word to spring into circulation in a place where it hadn't been used recently.

I think the spontaneous creation idea should be handled gently-- there might be times when it's worthwhile, but there's a LOT of exciting story potential in having to hunt down reclusive elders in the swamps who know Zu syllables and convincing them to part with them (or stealing it from them). As always, let the story be your guide-- if it suits the gameplay in a cool way that's dramatically significant and makes the players say "Whoa!", then go for it.


Thanks for the feedback on this stuff.

An additional question came up in play today - can syllables be used on only one target at a time?  Are there exceptions to this?

The text implied that the syllables are for use against single opponents.  Three-Corners magic though offers Secrets to influence this.

Eero Tuovinen

You should differentiate between the three different functions of the syllables. They're completely separate rules-wise, and should always be evaluated independently. That said, nouns are obviously used on only one "target", the thing you're summoning into existence. The others are trickier, and what follows is my interpretation, as the book doesn't comment clearly.

The basic principle is that uttering the word costs pool, while it's effects do not cause extra costs. So one uttering will cost one pool, regardless of hypothetical several targets. Likewise a basic principle is that the utterer chooses his target, which is verified several times in the text. Thus you can order somebody around, for example, without simultaneously ordering others at the spot. A third basic principle is that the target may always resist the effect of the uttering with a roll of his own.

Based on the above three principles this can be played two ways: either you always have one target, or potentially everybody in the hearing range can be your target, exact choice by the zu-speaker. I don't see any text against either interpretation in the book. I can see playing it both ways, but prefer the latter, myself; my feeling is that zu needs the extra boost, and as every target gets to resist individually, it's all good.

The case of the verbs is straightforward after you decide either way on the above. However, I should mention that the qualitative words (I seem to forget the proper English term) act in a way that justifies several targets now and then regardless of the above: as the text describes, you can use a zu to directly or indirectly influence another character's action; both saying "quick" to a runner and "quick" to wind blowing on a climber produce an effect. I have to read the logic of the indirect method to mean that should the same wind blow on several climbers, they would all get the penalty dice; after all, it's the wind that produces the penalty dice, so it makes some sense to have it produce them equally to all climbers. But I can see how somebody might want to interpret the wind as color only, to avoid too creative uses of zu. (What I mean: if you decide that the wind gives the dice imbued by zu to anybody it blows against, you could easily use one uttering to influence several unrelated conflicts at once; for example, a boat could be benefited by the same wind that dicomfits the climbers.)

That was somewhat complex. The short version: I think that the words should affect anybody in the hearing range, should the zu-speaker wish it so.
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Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Thanks Eero.

I meant to add to the end of my post:

Unless you're Bringing Down the Pain.. its conflict based anyway.

"You round the corner and see two alert guards standing on either side of the door to the king's chamber.  What do you do?"

"I want to use "Sleep" to cause them to slump against the wall fast asleep so that I can sneak by."

"Fine, stakes are: either they'll be fast asleep and you can reach the door without having to worry about the guards, or they'll be alerted to your presence and they'll be unhappy to find you creeping around here."

*roll*   Conflict resolved.

So.... am I right here?  It doesnt matter anyway - at least in this kind of circumstance?


Hey, :)

Just to add a small point of note: I've come to assume that character transcendence is when new syllables come into the world or lost* syllables are restored. A transcending character could easily gain knowledge of a few new/restored syllables, then retire to live out the rest of their days in peace, all the while dispensing (or losing) those syllables to Zu speakers around them.

(*) If you're using the version that states that only one person knows a syllable at a time, remember that if that person dies, the syllables (s)he knows become lost.

João Mendes
Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon Gamer


So... applications of any Zu syllables requires spending a point from Reason?  I saw that in the text of "Zu" and "Uz", but didnt see any mention of it elsewhere.

If I may offer my opinion before having even gotten a clarification on that.. I'd want to say no, that using a Zu syllable does not outright require the expenditure of Pool.  I always equate this back to the sword-wielding types, who can swing a sword until they bored or until someone knocks them down.. while often magic-using characters are restricted to a few uses before they need to refresh/memorize/rest/etc.   Is this the trade off?  Is magic that much more powerful, that it merits being restricted in this way?   During play today, our Zaru made a few people take naps that they had not been expecting to take, all resolved by simple Conflict resolution, the same as the martial folks and the beatings that they delivered.

To deviate from Zu magic for a moment:
Does the use of Three-Corners magic abilities, such as Destruction(V) require the use of Pool?  I see that the Secrets frequently do, but if I read correctly, I can simply make a Destruction check as part of a Conflict Resolution, the same way I would a Duel check.   Um which leads me to a sub-question:  If you have established stakes that you want to Hurt/Maim/Kill the evil guard with your Destruction check, all you need is a positive outcome of 1, right?  I mean you'd do like Destruction vs his Endure, or something.  There's no Harm in Conflict resolutions, so its sortof all or nothing, yes?


Three-corner magic, the very basic kind, doesn't require any Pool points, no.  It does require physical contact and can only affect one person, though.  Anything fancier requires Secrets, which require Pool points.  That's partially the trade-off with Zu, in that Zu words can do a lot, and all you need is a working tongue and working ears.  Telling a charging army to Sleep only costs 1 Reason.  If you wanted, of course, you could make limitations on Zu like Three-corner magic has, then make secrets for saying Zu (Secret of the Booming Voice, Secret of Subtle Body Language).  Your players might appreciate the options if you're doing a lot of... uh... Zu-fu.

I told the Maldor magician in my game that attempting Destruction on named NPCs will mess them up and cause Harm (outside of BDTP) that stuck with them.  It was a fast story, so it had a good effect (since the NPC was never in a good situation to 'get healed').  Usually the player thought of good intentions, though, which didn't need that kind of fudged Harm ("I cast Wracking Pains so we can escape!"  No lasting damage, but he got his intention.)

In my game, 'lost' Zu words, or words that were in someone's head when they died, or even just forgotten, make their way to secret places in the world.  The place I used in my game was a tree, and each leaf had a word of Zu written on it (in a written language no man could duplicate).  You read the leaf, you gain the word, and the leaf wilts.  This led, encouraged by the players, to me making up an Ammeni conspiracy to find these places and hoard all the lost Zu words, even going so far as to say that this was the real reason for the enslavement of Zaru.  So now I have a whole new campaign to make characters for, but I think this sort of thing is exactly what Clinton intended.

Eero Tuovinen

Of course zu requires use of pool! It works completely differently from, say, three-corner magic. Just read the descriptions of the zu effects, like the nouns:
Nouns will things into being. These things, if animate, are not under the speaker's control. The speaker's player must spend a point of Reason and make an unopposed Ability Check using his character's Zu ability. (If the thing summoned is unnatural for the surroundings, a penalty die should be imposed.) If anyone else is present, they can resist, using their Resist ability. The thing will appear near the speaker, and any information about the thing not spoken as a word of power will be determined by the Story Guide.
See? Spend a point of reason.

I think I know what's going on here: you're using the ability of Zu in conflicts to cause sleep to NPCs, just as a normal ability. This is against the rules: if you read the description of the Zu ability, you find that the ability itself has no power to cause magical effects; knowing the ability only means that the character knows the language of Zu in it's normal usage, not that he can use it magically. You could use the ability to support your poetry ability, or to speak flawless zu in front of the elders, but not for magical purposes. That requires mastering syllables and using the rules for nouns, verbs and modifiers.

Comparing for purposes of game balance: the zu effects are much more powerful than some sword-wielding ability, because:
- The single ability of zu-speak can be used for a wide variety of different conflicts, probably a majority of anything a zu master will face.
- Zu has to be resisted with Resist or not at all in most circumstances, which means that most characters can't use their most powerful abilities against it.
- Modifiers can cause bonus or penalty dice, which are rather cheap even for one pool point per roll.

So yes, zu is powerful enough to warrant the pool cost. If there were no pool cost, you'd have an ability that can be used for mind control, a variety of summonings, all kinds of bonus and penalty dice and even more imaginative purposes for free. That's not how it works, the limits on what an ability can do are very important in balancing the game.

Three-corner magic: as twobirds says, the basic abilities of Threecorner work exactly like any ability, and require no Pool. Note that this is true of zu, also: it's basic usage, described in the ability description, requires no pool; the pool costs are associated with the secret-like zu syllables and the magic therein.
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Thanks for the info.  This helps a great deal.

But um.. you dont use the Zu ability as the roll to use a syllable?  Eero am I understanding that you make it into two rolls, Zu as supporting and adding Bonus dice to a Poetry roll?

Eero Tuovinen

No no, you're getting confused. Again:

Say that you're trying to woo the rich Ammenite girl, and decide to use your Poetry ability. Supporting with Zu is totally appropriate, because Zu-the-ability concerns your skill and knowledge in the language itself. Likewise, you could use it as your primary ability when trying to prove that you're a native, for example. Zu-the-ability is totally ordinary and non-magical. It's like English (Reason), an ability representing increasing communicating skills with a particular language.

On the other hand, there's this set of Secrets called Zu syllables. They all work the same way, which is why they're not in the list of secrets, but instead have their own chapter of rules in the book. There's also the Secret of Zu, which is a prerequisite for a character to learn the syllables. This has nothing to do with anything else, really, including Zu-the-ability, or Poetry, or threecorner magic. It's just a bunch of rules, separate from other considerations. Focus.

Zu syllables work as the rules describe: when uttering a Zu word, you combine one or more syllables and decide whether you're uttering a noun, verb or modifier. Then you pay pool and follow the rules concerning that type of word. In the case of a noun, for instance, you roll your Zu ability, and anybody present who wants to resist rolls Resist. Should you succeed and beat the opposition, whatever the word you uttered indicates appears (this is up to the GM).

Do you see what I mean? Zu-the-ability is just an ability, and a pretty ordinary one at that. The rules about what you can do with zu magic concern zu syllables specifically, and it's pretty incidental that those rules just happen to use Zu-the-ability as their ability of choice. That's why you have to follow the specific Zu magic rules when using the Zu ability to do magic tricks; the ability itself has no hand-waved magical properties you can just flip out, it all stems from those paragraphs describing noun, verb and modifier effects. If you can't work within those rules, you can't do a specific magic with zu. Which is cool, because allowing players to just invent whatever magic they want would be way overpowered, not to speak of watering down the stark reality of Zu-as-language.

About the only magic-relevant way to use Zu-the-ability that I can think of (outside the magic rules, that is) would be to get the GM to make a pre-uttering call on a given zu syllable combination: because Zu-the-ability concerns your skill in the nuances of Zu-the-language, it's totally fine to roll about something like "What item does this syllable collection mean as a noun, exactly?" Success would then allow you to have binding advance information about it, which is fine if you're working with some dangerously vague words the GM might twist around on you. Now and then you get into a situation and utter something, and then the GM throws out a less than beneficial interpretation of the syllables. Using your skill in Zu in advance is a fine way to avoid summoning something dangerous, for instance.
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I'm with you, I believe, Eero.  I think I miscommunicated previously.

Thus, to make sure that I understand correctly:  Sedeu has the Zu(R) ability at Adept, and knows Secrets of "Sand/Sleep/Weaken", and "Flight/Flee/Fugitive".  He uses the verb "Sleep" to put a guard to sleep.  Spends one Reason Pool.  Sedu rolls Zu(R) vs the guard's Resist(R).  If Sedu wins the roll, the guard is asleep.

Eero Tuovinen

Exactly, you got it. The guard can then bring down the pain if he's a PC, of course.

To confuse matters further: I can imagine how Zaru poetry could be used to support the Zu ability in a complex magical working with a proper stunt. The character could use his knowledge of the poetic form to strenghten his magic, if this was cool with the group. So in a thematic sense the abilities are not totally disconnected.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.