[[SS/WoN]] Secrets and Training

Started by John H, October 14, 2010, 01:59:55 AM

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John H

A note about my experience level:  I've just finished my third meeting of the first SS / WoN game I've ever run.

With that in mind, I have some questions about character advancement, particularly involving Secrets...  If I read everything correctly, a character cannot normally spend an advance to take a Secret unless he has someone train him in the Secret (I understand that it's different for equipment and that there are certain exceptions due to plot-specific situations).  Is this about right?

I think this is probably because Secrets are supposed to be, as the name implies, secret.  They require a character to teach you the hidden or forgotten lore, form, tactic, etc..

However, how should this play out?  It seems to me that this would involve a lot of a single, interested character seeking some guru on a mountain (or poison dealer in an Ammeni back alley or whatever is appropriate) and would leave the other characters bored, waiting.  This has resulted in none of the characters in the game taking Secrets after character creation.

I'm thinking of removing the whole "You need someone else to reveal a Secret to you" thing, but I don't know the implications of doing so and I'd like to hear a defense of keeping the system "as is."


Mathew E. Reuther

I've sensed a common "oh but that's boring" thread a few times (a post about AW healing mechanics springs to mind) recently regarding players who are out of the action, or individual-attention. Let me explain something about a campaign I played many moons ago.

When a friend of mine went to study at University in Tacoma, a number of us would regularly make the trek down from north of Seattle to participate in the game he ran. This was a fairly sizable college, and the group numbered anywhere from 8 to 12 people during an average session. One GM, mind you.

The campaign was deep, political, twisted full of double and triple crosses . . . not to mention there were some NPCs with their own agendas. ;) There was no way that any one person was going to get a huge amount of so-called screen time. But we all loved that campaign anyway. Because it was deep, and meaningful, and allowed us to play our characters to the hilt, even if that play was only a fraction of the time we invested in the sessions.

When we weren't on stage, we were BSing about all sorts of things, or strategizing, or plotting, or even just watching the action unfold somewhere our characters weren't.

My advice? Don't be afraid to roleplay with individual characters being the only PCs present. If it takes some time, so be it. Sometimes you can mitigate this by doing it over the phone, or before/after a session. Maybe even just a quick hour mid-week (if you run a weekend game, for example) . . .

Best of luck with the game. :)
Knee deep in the Change System's guts . . .

Eero Tuovinen

A good topic, this - messing about with the training requirements of Secrets is a very fruitful tool for the Story Guide in his job of content-creation.

You're right in your reading that I recommend having Secrets be grounded in the fiction: I personally find it dull and mechanistic to encourage players to pore over crunch lists and pick and choose things for their characters like they were shopping groceries. However, there is a matter of focus here that I'd like to draw your attention to: while you assume that the purpose of this feature is to limit Secrets and ensure that they are not gained without a sacrifice of play-time, my own intent in requiring Secrets to be justified is to make them more interesting and to pressure players into crafting their characters more in the here and now (as opposed to the sort of pre-play build culture that's taken over D&D nowadays).

What I mean to say here is that it is not necessary for playtime to be sacrificed in buying up Secrets; it's sufficient for you to know how a character learned the Secret, but the learning itself does not need to take a lot of time. It can, but that's a case-by-case dramatic issue just like any other: interesting things are played through in detail while less interesting stuff is glossed over. For example, I probably would not normally allow a player to take the Secret of Vampirism without playing through the scene where this change in the character occurs (it's simply too interesting a scene to not play through), but I certainly do allow players to buy equipment, say, without doing much more than a couple of sentences worth of idle narration, if that.

Often the way this sort of thing works is that we play through a specific sort of crunch training in detail once per campaign and then start glossing it over. For example, consider how a sorcerer's first encounter with Zu might be played: the Story Guide pours everything he knows and surmises about what Zu feels and seems like in use into his description of the event, the player takes care to express with passion how his character reacts to being able to wield the power of creation, everybody throws in some color to establish what Zu looks and feels like in the fiction... all this can take quite a while, especially as we also have NPCs who might immediately become important support characters or rivals for the newly minted sorcerer. However, even if the first time around learning a Zu word takes a half and hour, it's not going to be like that every time: the next time the character encounters a new word the event is no longer new and unique, so it's natural that everybody's going to gloss it over. If the character has a wise old mentor or some source like that for new words learning new ones might be as simple as this:
Player: "I want my character to learn a new Zu word. Does the old guy have any to spare?"
SG: "He hems and haws about it - he's still sore about having to teach this stuff to a foreigner, but ultimately he knows that he needs to pass this stuff on before too soon, old as he is."
Player: "I act respectably towards the coot; our goals are the same after all, even if he's bound by his oaths of non-interference."
SG: "It appears that your master has 'maize' and 'lust' to offer you, althought the latter requires a Charm check to convince him that you're ready for the responsibility."
Player: "Cool, I'll take them both!"
[Make the Ability check, work out those words in full if not already done, update character sheet. Note that the above interaction arises out of the mutual desire of the group to explore the details of the relationship between the player character and his teacher; were there no interest, the interaction would be even shorter.]

Speaking of the Story Guide's responsibilities here, his responsibility is to introduce new crunch and express how the crunch impacts the setting; neither of these tasks implies that he should particularly try to think up constraints for the players. If a player's been reading the WoN text and wants to buy some poisons from an Ammeni poison-dealer, the Story Guide has two options: he can just nod, work out the poison recipe and proceed to other things, or he can make a big presentation of it, asking the player to describe how his character finds a poison-dealer, how he acts when trying to make the buy - some Ability checks too, to find out how the character haggles and whether he attracts unwanted attention, the whole treatment. How do you choose between these two options? Simple: if establishing a scene and interactive content helps the Story Guide in expressing the setting and imbuing the crunch with meaning, then you should do the scene, but if there's something more interesting going on and the crunch the player is asking for is routine and not very interesting in itself, then just skip it and race towards the next interesting scene. This is dramatic coordination.

I personally jump like a rapid wolverine on the opportunity to introduce new NPCs, new motivations, new complications and so on into the game, so I often grab at these Secret-learning scenes and run like the wind when a player gives me the opportunity. I probably spend half of my SGing time in various crunch-related scenes: either I'm offering stuff to the players or working out the implications of gaining it or something else. However, this is just my SGing technique, not a rule or demand - you should frame scenes about things that interest you and that you can appreciate.

Perhaps the nut kernel here is that each time a player asks to add a Secret to his character (whether this was encouraged by the SG or came of his own initiative), you should consider the fictional circumstances: can the character learn this thing here and now, is it reasonable? If it is, then ask further: is there an interesting scene with interesting color or choices or foreshadowing or other content in how the character learns this Secret? If not, just allow the player to add the Secret and shortly describe where it came from; if yes, then run that scene and see where it leads.

The platonic ideal of how characters learn new crunch is that the Story Guide introduces new crunch options within the game, offering them to characters more or less explicitly; might be that a NPC outright asks a character to become his apprentice, or it might be that the new crunch comes up as something an enemy uses; either way, a character then grasps the opportunity and takes up the gauntlet, inspired by the moment in the fiction. This is a most excellent way for characters to learn Secrets because here the player is not thinking of his character's identity first and foremost, but rather about the fiction and his character's choices therein: does he want to please this NPC who asks him to learn this thing, or does he want to spend the time and wealth it takes to seek this strength, or whatever other issues there might be.

Perhaps a slightly less ideal, but all the same excellent, way for a character to obtain crunch is when a player has been reading the rulebook (a good thing, this; I don't require it nor reward it, but it's always excellent when a player is this committed to the game) and has spotted something he wants for his character. The player tells the SG that he wants this thing, whatever it is; the SG considers the situation and suggests a way for the character to accomplish his goal in the fiction; the character then commits the deed and gains the crunch. For some crunch this is simple, all but a matter of declaration, while other things are nigh impossible to seek out. Metagaming might or might not happen here, it's no big deal: the SG might have the character hear about the existence of this kewl power from a travelling troubadour just because he knows that the player wants an excuse for his character to go seek it, for example.

The worst way for crunch to be obtained is when the player reads the book, selects some crunch and manages to introduce it into the game without a solid story for how that crunch came to be. This is not a problem because of game balance or because players need to suffer for their characters, but rather because it's symptomatic: crunch that does not have a story is crunch that does not have weight in the character's identity, it's a missed opportunity to introduce more setting, more color, more choices and more concerns. At worst it can be an empty hole in the game's weave that the group needs to struggle to fill: I sometimes have players who don't want to bother with working out their character in a way that makes sense in the setting, and it's always a pain in the ass to justify and storify for myself at least how come this guy is a rat-man and also a Maldorian noble.

A deeper lesson

It's well and good to get a handle on how to use learning Secrets as a leverage for interesting content, but it seems to me that we also have a second issue here: while these Secret-learning scenes don't usually take very long, you shouldn't have to worry about it even when they do take a while. That is, not all players need to be have their characters be present and active in a scene all the time for play to occur and be successful. In fact, as Matthew suggests, a very useful player skill is related to taking the audience role; I write about this in the Solar System text, and it's very much a key to the whole idea of having a loose party or no party of player characters at all.

The ideal of play here is that all players (or at least all players whose characters are haring off to do their own things) are successful in their primary task of character advocation: that is, they've managed to create interesting, credible characters whose concerns and actions they depict in a powerful manner for the benefit of the whole group. This is important for the audience: when your own character is not immediately in play your task as a player is to participate by witnessing, commenting upon and enjoying the play of those players whose characters are currently active. This is only meaningful insofar as that other player's character is interesting and is doing interesting things: it can suck to be the audience to a boring character, which is why the Story Guide should make sure to not give solo scenes to boring characters (dramatic coordination, again; if there is nothing interesting going on, don't frame a scene about that).

Many players have underdeveloped audience skills because not all roleplaying games provide the context for active audience participation: if a game is about character immersion, for example, then it's simply not going to be very interesting to be an audience to how the other guy immerses in his character. However, SS is explicitly intended to be an audience-full game: the acme of player character-hood is not merely that you're happy about your character yourself, but that the entire group understands and appreciates what is dramatic, what is interesting about your character. And when your character climbs up to a mountain to finally pledge himself to the Fourfold Path of the Breaking Chain in the Zaru Monastery of Iron, it does not matter that the other players do not have their own characters in the scene: they're interested in seeing how your character conducts himself because they've been following his story and appreciating it already. They also have things to do: they judge what your character does, thus affirming his heroism or villainy, and they suggest ideas to both the Story Guide and you the player. My experience is that in a well-functioning group the game is just about as active and the players are about as focused no matter how many player characters are in the scene: often the most intense scenes are those with just one player character, and that's when everybody's on the edge of their seats.

From this viewpoint it's not a particular problem if a campaign veers into full-blown bildungsroman territory, with characters each going their own ways and spending the majority of playtime in scenes that concern them and their growth as characters. The Story Guide frames scenes for each player in turn, allows the characters' stories to progress and weaves their stories together as opportunity permits: this is actually a much more typical way to play the game than a traditional party-based approach, as it allows each player character more protagonism than going about as one party does. (Not that a party doesn't have its virtues: I usually couple weaker player characters to stronger ones as sidekicks of sort to ensure that everybody gets screentime even when there is nothing particularly interesting going on with their own characters - you can always define your character in terms of loyalty to somebody else even if you have nothing else, after all.)


Do write more about your TSoY game if you have time at some point; I'm always fascinated by how people are encountering World of Near and what they're doing with it.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Mathew E. Reuther

Nicely-framed thoughts Eero. Definitely something to be said for the audience role indeed. :)

I think I've always tried to run and play in games where characters were interesting enough in their own right to be allowed growth opportunities. Last game I ran had two characters at-odds from the get-go without any pre-discussed plan to go in that direction between the players. They just both recognized there was a conflict between them and that it would amount to friction during regular interaction . . . and it did. It made life more interesting and nobody minded when those two characters monopolized a bit for their bickering. Granted, it was not a large break in play, but even had it come to a head later on and taken serious time to resolve, I cannot imagine that anyone would have found it dull, because the characters were not boring, by any stretch.

So scenes which focus on one character's acquisition of a Secret (never played or read the rules, btw) would seem to me to fall into this realm of "make sure it is interesting" . . . and that seems to be precisely what you're aiming at.

The best TV shows give even minor characters development time. No reason not to treat those ancillary NPCs with the respect they deserve, and give the PCs they're attached to the change to RP interesting little side-treks. 
Knee deep in the Change System's guts . . .

John H


Thanks for the great responses!  That's exactly the kind of info I was looking for.

I do like that Secrets are grounded in the fiction.  Losing that was why I posted on this forum, I didn't want to lose this, but couldn't see how to successfully implement it.

Eero, I think there are a couple main take-aways for me from your post:

1.  When Secrets are introduced into the fiction (via a conflict), I should probably announce exactly what the NPC is doing (e.g., Chief Kheagan uses Secret of Mighty Blow to drive the hammer down with inhuman strength) rather than what I'm doing now (e.g., Chief Kheagan drives the hammer down with inhuman strength).  In this way, it might encourage players to take the Secrets then and there, since they actually know that they're seeing a Secret.

2.  Acquiring a Secret doesn't always have to take a lot of time and subsequent Secrets gained in the same manner can be glossed over (unless it's interesting to pursue).  When I was trying to envision how this would work (before your posts), I was thinking that acquiring a Secret would be a long and involved thing, taking an hour or more.  I have a group of 6 players and we only game in 4-hour blocks.  As you can see, the math wasn't working for me.

These are quite helpful points and I'm going to try to use them next Saturday when we meet.

Players as Audience

These points and my hesitation toward RPing with one player at a time for extended periods (I do it in small bursts of 10-15 mins) stems from a different issue I've noticed in my group:  when the players are not playing their characters, they seem to become pretty detached.  One even fell asleep when another player was in an extended conflict by himself.

I initially tried to run the game using the weave method you mention in the book.  We had two group of players (they started in different areas and were doing different things, but were impacted by the same conflict:  Khalean attacks).  Very quickly, however, the group expressed a desire to get together and form a party.

I think the game would be more successful if the players would become an engaged audience, but I don't know how to get them out of the "waiting for their turn to go" mentality that seems to have been drilled into them from years of D&D.

Any suggestions?

Adventure Log and Web Site

I actually do keep a detailed log of the story on my web site at:

Feel free to read it and let me know your thoughts... Especially if I'm running the game in a way that could be made more effective.

I was working on creating a new version of the Solar Wiki and WoN wiki found on:

But, that site went down before I could start putting the lore and such on my web site.  So, right now it just has the character crunch. 

The main thing I was going to add was a layout that was easier to navigate and ways to easily show / hide information you wanted.

Anyway, I only have the physical books (no PDFs) and there's no way I'm typing it all out by hand, so the project may or may not have died with the Solar Wiki.


Eero Tuovinen

I would expect Janus to get that wiki up at some point again; meanwhile, there are other places where those texts are available.

Anyway, I think you've got it on the Secrets front - there's no need to make a big production of learning Secrets, most of them will be handled routinely. It's up to you to decide how much of a production you want to make of training montages, daring thefts and whatever else characters might use to get their hands of crunch. Some folks even play with a rule that player characters are always entitled to claim any Secret at all, and the player provides justification to whatever degree he wants - typically a short flashback narration about how his character happened to pick up this thing some time in the past. Up to the Story Guide in his role as a guide.

How you speak of the game mechanics is very much a matter of taste. I myself am very explicit when speaking of game mechanics, as well when speaking of my own motivations. For example, I won't just say that "Chief Kheagan uses Secret of Mighty Blow", I'll say that "OK, here's where I show you why Kheagan here is a Hero while you're just twerps. Check this out, huh, I imagine you'd want to have one of these as well! And yes, I'm totally dangling this Secret as a bait here, I think it'd make a fine addition to your character, provided he can awaken his bloodlust to grasp it!" This sort of explicit narration of what I'm doing and why I'm doing it is useful in keeping up communication, the bedstone of play. This goes into the topic of audience play as well.

As for the audience role, my experience matches yours; the requirement of being a good audience is not a trivial one, and I would expect most roleplaying groups at this time to fail the full requirement of being both able to express something others want to be audience over and receive what is being expressed by others as valued contributions. Despite the entrenched difficulty I am, however, pretty convinced that learning to appreciate what others do in play and doing things that others will appreciate is a winning strategy in the long term: my own play has always improved immeasurably when we've found this sort of accord even among a subset of the group.

That being said, it's an issue of skill. Part of it is group dynamics - these people who've learned these particular ways of communicating with each other. Part is personal skill among the participants. Both are improved by practice and by experiencing successful play; once your group recognizes and knows to play towards successful communication (coherent creative agenda, I might say), then it'll become easier to achieve later. Getting the audience role really to work pretty much requires that players understand what other players are doing, Story Guide included: understand and, consequently, appreciate.

I think that playing party-based is an excellent way to support play when it seems that the skills of the Story Guide and the players are not up to keeping a game coherent without. Besides, there's nothing wrong with party-based stories, it's just that there is less opportunity for individual protagonism, and in practice you'll have to choose between foregoing drama and sidelining individual characters; a party will be naturally inclined towards one lead protagonist, dramatically speaking, which tends to get in the way of some types of stories. The support you get for keeping everybody engaged and aware of what is going on is nothing to scoff at, though.

Aside from that, I mentioned an useful principle for long-term improvement of group coordination: over-explain yourself and always make sure that others understand and appreciate (I repeat that because it's the key) what you're doing when you play. When I explain some fine nuance of the fiction or what my character is doing, I look the main receiver of the narration in the eyes and don't stop talking until I see in his body language that he's getting what I'm driving at. The same goes for procedural and mechanical things - I don't just frame a scene where a player character gets into trouble, I explain that I'm intentionally framing the character into trouble so we can see what he'll do about it. Everything gets explained, and in time this improves the overall level of communication: the other players pick up my habit of over-explaining, and once we're all explaining ourselves thoroughly, we can slowly scale it back, confident that these people I've been playing with for a while now understand me when I do and say things. This feeds directly into everybody's ability to be audience for each other's play: when others understand what you do, they'll be able to appreciate and comment upon your moves.

(As you can see, I don't really draw lines between players and Game Masters in this whole group communication and mutual appreciation thing. It's not traditional to look at players as having any sort of mutual relationship among themselves, but I find that a group where everything moves through the GM is really playing at half strength.)

Anyway, I'd say that leading by example (over-explain, understand what others are doing, ask for clarifications when you don't understand and appreciate, encourage what you understand and appreciate) is the most powerful tool you have in improving the play of your group. I don't usually use explicit teaching or training or anything like that myself; roleplaying is supposed to be fun, so we'll just play at a level that is currently feasible for us, while pushing the envelope to expand our abilities. I definitely don't set myself up as a guru for the group; not only would that be foolish when we're working on mutual cooperative skills, but it would also take away attention from play. Much better to play with passion and give immediate feedback on both good and not so good play to the others - not feedback that a guru would give to a student, but feedback from one player to another. I don't really remember that this method would have failed in the long term for me, unless we count the times when a co-player's interests in gaming have been incompatible with mine.

Incidentally, a 15 minute solo scene is not a bad length; I wouldn't necessarily go over that in any but the most passionate groups. In fact, thinking back on my last year of TSoY play, there was just one mini-campaign I played in Helsinki with some old friends where we had the social robustness for fully independent characters who'd only encounter each other incindentally, through crosses and weaves. Those particular three sessions were very strongly predicated on complex scenes for fully independent characters; players went well over an hour at a time without having their own character in a scene. However, in 85% of my play through last year we've had a rudimentary party in the campaign, although not necessarily all characters have been part of the party and not all party members have had the same motivations. Part of this is because I play a lot with teenagers who tend towards pretty uneven play, but mostly it's just that I haven't had time for a full, leisurely campaign with undeterminate sessions and plenty of time to build up the fiction.

But that's that - I need to focus on the upcoming Spiel Essen convention now for a bit. I'll read up on your campaign at some point (maybe after the convention) - do take it up if you have any other concerns or ideas about the game; I like discussing actual play of TSoY.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.