Today I’m going to talk about Ways, the term we use for special abilities in Vagabonds.
Ways are always related to a character’s skills. However, ways embody non-traditional “uses” of the skill(s), which is why they’re called “special abilities.” It isn’t enough for Maho to be an expert at Stealth. He wants to be better at using Stealth in wooded areas. Maho’s player creates the way, Shrouded by Leaves, which stipulates that Maho can be stealthy in thick foliage / wooded areas. If the PCs find themselves in a winter forest, he’ll be out of luck. This brings us to the 3 central points of ways:
1) Ways must have a condition or multiple conditions. *1
2) Ways must develop based on character experiences so far in the game, or must be related to the character’s presentation, persona, or vagrancies. *2
3) Ways are narratively expressed / phrased, but contain varying degrees of mechanical function. *3
* 1) Like stunts, tricks, or other special abilities in a variety of other roleplaying games and systems, ways cannot be used all the time. Ways individualize a character’s ability, allowing that character to get a boost in a specific situation or environment. Here is a list of example conditions:
- + in a specific terrain (i.e., leafy forests, snowy areas, dense urban, high ground)
- + in a specific type of situation (i.e., outnumbered, severely wounded, darkness, supernatural)
- + in a specific type of interaction (i.e., nobility/samurai, merchants, yakuza, actors)
* 2) A character doesn’t just magically learn a way that is not related to what they have encountered or experienced in the game or in their life prior to the game. Ways must have some relationship to the character! This is absolutely necessary. Sachi doesn’t just suddenly get good at fighting in the snow. She must’ve been born in Aomori, or the group must have already spent a portion of their adventure in the cold north. So yes, when creating presentation, persona, and vagrancies, you should consider how those attributes might add to your character in the long run.
The game provides numerous examples of ways, but more importantly, we provide the means for players to create their own. This is crucial, as each vagabond should be unique. Ultimately, the best ways should be player-created, group-endorsed, and GM-approved.
This post touched upon skill advancement. In it, three ways a character can advance a skill were defined: 1) by learning from a master, 2) by teaching herself, and 3) by obtaining the skill via supernatural means. Relevance is important here, as the way your character learns a skill is considered part of her experience and life. Ways developed by a character who has learned from a master have the potential to be quite different from ways developed by a character who is self-taught.
* 3) But what can ways actually do? What does that “+” sign represent? Here is a list of some benefits that ways can provide when the character fulfills the condition to use that way:
- Create an alternative skill feature, or even seemingly mesh one skill with another.
For example, Adashino is an expert in Nature. Adashino’s way associated with his Nature skill is Tongue of a Kitsune (a supernaturally obtained way), which allows him to consult with foxes, asking them about their territory/forest.
This is a highly specific skill feature that Adashino’s player has invented, though it is exceptionally useful within the stipulated condition (a kitsune must be present). It does two things: 1) Tacks a new skill feature onto Nature, and 2) Provides Adashino with a supernatural skill feature.
- Increase a skill’s level in a particular situation. With only 6 core difficulty levels (there are potentially more if your characters reach exceptionally high skill levels), an increase in skill by a single level can be a huge boon for your character. In the above instance, Adashino can actually talk to kitsune. What if we simplified his way a little bit?
Adashino’s way associated with his Nature skill is Tangled Insight, which provides him with +1 to Nature trials when he is seeking geographic or directional knowledge of a forest.
Notice that when receiving a +1 to skill level, the way’s use becomes narrower. Tongue of a Kitsune would allow Adashino to actually speak to foxes with his Nature skill, but without a bonus to skill level. Meanwhile, Tangled Insight would provide him with a specific bonus, but only when he is seeking geographic knowledge of a forest. It’s the difference of, “Can I do this at all?” versus, “Can I do this better?” Tangled Insight would likely be used more frequently, but Tongue of a Kitsune would be an exceptional ability when used.
- Here is another example:
Yahei is a Master of Manipulation. Having grown up in a prominent samurai household in Kyushu, he has perfected the art of charming bureaucrats. Yahei’s way is Bureaucratic Acquiescence, which provides him with +1 to his Manipulation skill level when he uses it on seemingly uptight government officials.
Again, we have a pretty specific skill use here, but one that will still come up often in play.
- Provide a bonus during combat/confrontations. [Increase the offensive capability of the character. / Increase defensive capability of the character. / Improve the precision of the character's maneuver. / Impose a drawback on an enemy, or provide a benefit to an ally.]
For example, the group has spent a good deal of time in harsh, rocky environments, as they have been searching for a daimyo’s daughter in the Hida Mountains. During this time, Kagura has adopted the way Footing of a Serow in relation to her Grappling skill. This way stipulates that Kagura can receive +1 to her physical defenses if she is grappling with an enemy in rocky terrain.
Presentation, persona, vagrancies, skills, ways… all of these components of your character can mesh together in innumerable combinations. This is the philosophy behind the vagabonds roleplaying system. If you want to be a blind swordsman, there isn’t only one combination that results in such a character. There are several ways you can customize that type of character to your specific roleplaying needs and ideas. And as with any other game, the GM should always pay attention to the characters of the group by designing the game world and its action around the strengths and weaknesses of those characters.
Additionally, we want players to tell a coherent story together and to have a great time doing it. Special abilities can feel disconnected from the game when they have absolutely nothing to do with your character. Ways are designed to avoid this issue. We’ve had a lot of fun designing ways for our own vagabonds, based on their backgrounds and experiences.