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[TSOY] secrets and abilities

Started by Russell Hoyle, February 01, 2007, 01:01:27 AM

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Russell Hoyle

Hi Gentlefolk,

Any wise thoughts or guidance on what sorts of things constitute secrets and how one discriminates them from skills or other abilities ?

I know breadth is a factor, but is that all?

I am thinking of elaborating on work already done with Arcana Unearthed/Evolved (see the TSOY wiki... )



Hi Rusty,

As a rule of thumb, you'd need an abilitiy to build on or expand by way of a Secret. The exception are species secrets, which are limited to members of the species, often because they define what makes that species different.

As I see it, there are three rungs in the range from breadth to specificity (is that even a word?) A gross oversimplification looks like this:

Open Abilities > Cultural/Species Abilities > Secrets

The borders are not so clearly defined. It depends on personal taste as much as most other things

Also, the text describes Secrets as something that allow you to use abilities in special ways or more effectively in distinct situations. They make up for special abilities of all sorts. The most generic example of a Secret like this is the Secret of Specialty. Even though the rules for making up abilities may seem sketchy, the guidelines for secrets and keys are quite outspoken.

Cultural Secrets are a great way to define whats special about that culture, along with the Keys, which define what's special about that culture's society. Outsiders can learn them when they find a mentor or spend enough time there to pick it up themselves (rules-wise you need a mentor).

To recap:

  • Open abilities are innate or easily learned, rather wide in scope and often overlap. If you have a more specific ability in mind, it is most probably a cultural/species ability.
  • Secrets can give you a bonus die for a specific application of the skill (Secret of Specialty), act to provide a +1 damage or protection bonus (Secret of Throwing), convey minor abilities (Secret of Rat Vision), activate supernatural powers for a higher cost (various Elfin Aura effects), or scale up an effect for variable cost (Secret of the Mighty Blow).

Eero Tuovinen

I'd say that the first thing is to play a couple of sessions with the materials provided in the book; that'll give you a perspective on how Abilities and Secrets are used in actual play. From there it's a short step to develop a sense of how each game mechanic actually affects the fiction when used.

In practice the difference is paramount, but not easily put to words: the same thing could often be a Secret or Ability, and the only way to make the call is by deciding how you want it to affect the game. As an example, let's look at different ways of handling a popular meme... let's pick shapechanging, there's untold variants of that one.

Way #1, by Ability

Skinchanger (Vigor)
The character has mastered the ancient foul magics of northern forests, and may take on the shape and nature of any beast by draping himself with its skin. This process usually takes around ten minutes. Typical penalty dice for unfamiliar animals, condition of the skin or trying to hurry the rite. The ability is only taught among Norderin people, and then only to outcasts willing to lose their position in society.

As you can see, what an Ability is is simply a declaration of potential character activity ("this character can change into an beast"), potentially with some notes about means and limitations ("by draping on its skin"). I personally like to make it explicit where the difficulties in using a fantasy Ability lie ("penalty dice for unfamiliar creatures"), but technically the whole description is "flavor text" in the sense of referring to fiction only: Abilities in TSOY are always identical with each other in technical terms, the only differences are in what they do in the fiction, which pool they use and who can learn them. The latter is not always mentioned in the Ability description, but I did include it this time to make the description more instructive. If the Ability is something obvious and real-worldy, you can get by with much less definition simply because everyone has the same expectations for how it works. In the case of something like shapeshifting I find it imperative that the description gives some description of the concrete effect and limitations of the Ability.

Now, how does the above work mechanically in play? If you implemented shapeshifting by Ability, as above, then it would, perhaps surprisingly, be used in character vs. character conflict only rarely. The typical ways to use an Ability like above:
- The character is doing something where being an animal helps. Hiding, say. The player can use Skinchanging as a support for his hiding efforts, but not actually hide with it, because that's not what the ability does.
- The character wants to do something only an animal can do. Fit into a fox-hole, for example. This would be an unresisted Ability check, the result of which would be that the character could indeed, fit in the hole. The check could change into a resisted one if somebody were seeking the character and the pertinent questions were about whether he could change quickly enough, or whether he could change quietly enough to not attract attention.
- The rarest case would be where the Ability would be used in direct conflict with another character. I can only imagine it happening with an ability like above in some kind of wizard competition, where two characters compete about who is the better shapechanger. Or perhaps when somebody else is using a baneful polymorph effect on the character, and he is trying to resist it with his own shapechanging power.

The instructive point is that if you decide to do a "pure Ability" depiction of a given meme, you're basicly saying that it is a generally usable, mechanically non-specific feature of the game world in which you want to invest some major time.

Way #2, Ability & Secret

A rather typical approach is to have Abilities and Secrets in interaction. In this case you either have a base Secret that allows a powerful Ability, or a base ability that powers a powerful Secret. Let's look at vampiric polymorphism (a traditionally complex subject), just because I happen to have some material about it in the Finnish version of TSOY:

Secret of Vampirism
The character is a vampire. Vampires have a new pool, Blood, which is used with vampiric Abilities like Flying, Hypnosis and Waking Up, and which is also used to power other vampiric secrets. A new vampire has Blood at 1 and it can be developed normally with Advances. Blood is replenished by drinking from another character; the willing victim loses all but one point of his Vigor and cannot replenish the vampire if he doesn't have at least two points. Violent drinking is only possible with the Secret of the Beast. Vampires suffer one extra penalty die for anything they do under sunlight.

OK, so that's how vampires are. Now, the polymorphing begins, in one of several possible ways:

Beastform (Blood)
The vampire can change into a frightful midnight creature of fangs and great strength, but only when alone and out of the sun. This creature does not have a conscience and is difficult to recognize. Mostly you'd use this Ability to support murders in the night or to avoid being recognized by witnesses or to combat your bouts of conscience.

Secret of the Mistform
The vampire can change into mist with a successful Beastform check, but only during the night. This ability can, however, only be used to enter or leave a scene: either the vampire forms into an otherwise inaccessible place, or escapes pursuit by merging with the night. The vampire cannot be harmed or pursued by convenient means in mist form. Requirement: Secret of Vampirism. Cost: 2 Blood.

Secret of the Beastform
The vampire can change into a large and malevolent beast with a successful Beastform check, but only during the night and when alone. The transformation lasts until the morning, but can be dispelled by the vampire before that if alone. The vampire in beastform can use its Beastform Ability to replace any animal ability. The vampire may also replenish its Blood pool by killing, as per the Secret of the Beast. Requirement: Secret of Vampirism. Cost: 3 Blood.

OK, so that's one way of handling vampiric shapeshifting. As you can see, there's a Secret that allows one to use an otherwise inaccessible Ability. This way of doing it means that the Ability is very special and prestigious, because you have to pay more to get it. In this case it's balanced by the other benefits of being a vampire, as well as the Secrets the Ability, in it's turn, permits: while the Ability itself is fascinating in doing almost nothing shapeshift-wise, you can craft pretty much any shapeshift Secrets you want into it as they fit a vampire in your mind.

In general, having a Secret that governs the shapeshifting means that you can give it some major mechanical punch to differ it from anything else in the game. Having the Ability in the background still allows having normal conflicts about the topic, so this is a good way of doing anything you want to have a major focus on.

Way #3, Secret only

You can also drop the Ability entirely:

Secret of the Cat People
The character changes into a panther when he wants or when in throes of passion, becoming a regular human again by the morning. Switch the character's pools so that Instinct is highest when he is a cat person. (Possible pool fulfilment from the romantic tryst happens first, then voluntary or involuntary activation of this Secret, then pool switch.) When being a panther, the character has to succeed in Resistance checks to avoid going through with the typical horror cliches, like rending into their lovers and escaping into the night. The panther form loses use of all Abilities and Secrets, but gains Advances equal to (new) Instinct distributed by the GM into Abilities and Secrets appropriate for an animal. Also, cat people in panther form benefit from the Key of the Cat People, whether they have it in human form or not. Cost: 3 Instinct.

This way of doing things means that the meme does not have a central "axis" quality to it, when considering characters having the meme. It's just another detail to them with no means of defining the character in the long run. The lack of Ability means that it's cheap (what with not having to blow half a dozen Advances into it), but it also means that this will never be a central feature in conflicts, will not scale and will not allow a character to... damn, forgot the word for being removed from game via a degree 7 result. Haven't needed it in a while, what with playing with the Finnish version.


Anyway, the point being that while an Ability scales and is used in conflicts, a Secret is only ever a game mechanic which might change the nature of a conflict or modify the stakes or boost the ability. Actually, that's pretty good, formally thinking: a Secret can only
- boost an Ability by redefining its scope or by giving it bonus dice.
- allow a character to initiate conflict where it would otherwise be impossible.
- allow a character better stakes in conflict, including annulling conflicts now and then.
The above is not everything a Secret can do, but those are the only functions they have in regards to conflict. You'll note the inconspicious lack of "replace an Ability". That is never what a Secret does! I think this is the ultimate definition of the separation between an Ability and Secret; whatever a Secret does, it never obviates the need of having a conflict and of ultimately having to win the conflict to get your way. You could build a character that only ever utilizes one Ability to do everything (at least in some settings you could) by having a range of Secrets that redefine the scope of the Ability again and again; you could have Secrets that allow your character to always avoid conflict or annul the results; you could even have Secrets that always ensure a +3 in the die roll for your character. However, none of these helps if your opponent has outright better Abilities, you will never actually win the conflict.

So, going back to the original question, how to differentiate between Abilities and Secrets when adapting fictional material? My answer is that anything that allows a character to actually resolve a conflict will either have to be an Ability, or have to be a Secret utilizing some base Ability, or perhaps has to be a Secret that gives the character an Ability (like the cat people example above does). With a bit of thought these can be separated from each other rather easily, and you're left with the practical dictum: recognize the rules of the genre you're operating in and you can easily list any Abilities that are actually conflict-resolvers.

Hmm... that's actually somewhat inspiring. I think I'll have to try an Ability-minimal setting at some point, with as few Abilities as possible. Most of the time we're operating in a kind of a realistic paradigm in this regard, looking for conflict-resolving memes in anything characters do and judging the suitability of an Ability based on whether it could resolve matters "in reality". Thematically speaking, however, some genres are much more narrow. Characters may posture and run around, but ultimately they end up resorting to a pretty narrow range of solutions... I guess D&D is kinda like this, with all solutions coming to the sword point sooner or later.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Off Topic: And now we're missing the Key of the Cat People...

Eero Tuovinen

Key of the Cat People
The character is cursed by the ancient lineage of Cat People, being forced to turn into a man-killing panther in throes of passion. Obviously, only available to characters with the corresponding Secret.
1 xp: Turn into a panther.
2 xp: Run and hide from civilization.
5 xp: Surprise and kill those closest to you.
Buyoff: Love and accept your mate despite your nature.

But it is not as off-topic as it might seem: this is the "posturing and running around" part I mentioned previously. When creating new material for TSOY it is important to realize that there's a third option: some things are actually Keys, not Abilities or Secrets. The difference is this: if a given behavior, skill or trick does not have conflict-resolution power (the penchance of cat people to run from help and to kill and maul does not actually, you know, help them achieve those goals) AND it is not meaningful for character resources (in the manner of a Secret) either, then it is pretty much a Key or nothing.

The important thing to realize is that in a given genre the most surprising things might fall into the "have no conflict resolution potential" category, being "mere" color or thematic choices. Both of which, coincidentally, are what Keys are about. For example, horror movies like Cat People do not actually make conflicts out of search and recovery of escaping panthers - to escape the scene of your bloodshed is a choice made by the werepanther.

Now, why the above is pertinent: in some other game the above features would be outright abilities. "Man-killing: +2 to-hit-bonus against humanoids" or something like that. D&D is especially full of color and behavior choices enforced with immediate mechanical penalties or bonuses, which are much better served by changing them into Keys for the purposes of TSOY. Some examples include:
- Cleric and Paladin behaviour codes, including favored weapons of deities and what not
- Barbarian rage
- Supernatural bard songs
- Weaknesses of wizards and other lop-sided classes

Actually, I think I'll have to give another example for my series on different ways to implement shape-changing:

Way #4, Key only

Key of the Loup-Garou
"It was decided in the case of Jean Grenier at Bordeaux in 1603 that lycanthropy was nothing more than an insane delusion..."
1 xp: Act like a wolf.
2 xp: Rend and eat flesh.
5 xp: Terrify humans with your wolf-nature.
Buyoff: Have your wolf-myth debunked.

Now, take the above in the context of an actual game where players decline to make the call on whether the character actually is a werewolf. The character runs around the country-side killing and hiding, eating raw meat. NPCs come convinced that he is the feared loup-garou (raking him xp). Let's say that the character also has some Abilities that would fit a wolf, but without any actual "Shapechange" or "Wolf-shape" ability. Question: would this character actually be a werewolf in the fiction, even if he does not have any Ability or Secret to distinguish him from other humans? My answer is that this could well be the case, especially if Buyoff never happened. If this were so, then the character's shapechange from human to wolf would literally be outside the rules-structures, only depicted by the Key and narration during the game.

Well, the above is perhaps outside the scope of most games, but there are other memes apart from shapechanging for which a Key presentation only is most reasonable.

So my advice: when converting, keep your eyes open for the possibility of removing a given feature from the Ability/Secret range alltogether in favor of changing it into a Key. Or give a Key as well as a Secret, as the case might be. Sometimes the result will be worth it.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.