The Secret Abilities Campaign

A special type of hybrid campaign is one where the setting is no more realistic than a cinematic one but the heroes initially have little or no access to special abilities. This isn't because those advantages, skills, and techniques don't exist, but because they're emerging for the first time, reappearing after centuries of neglect, or controlled by masters who haven't chosen to reveal themselves to the world. Whatever cinematic abilities the GM allows, the PCs must discover most or all of them in play. Adventure possibilities include tracking down rumors and ancient writings, seeking a master, and dealing with the jealousy of rivals and the fear of the less-gifted.

The GM could even develop a Secret Abilities campaign slowly and artfully from an established realistic campaign. He should subtly feel out the players ahead of time to ensure that they're open to such a shift, of course. Fantastic elements would show up first on the periphery, then as minor special abilities in the hands of foes, and so on. Ultimately, the PCs would end up with capabilities totally outside their original concepts.

This isn't the same as Amazing Abilities (see above). Both kinds of games feature Secret Masters and strange powers set against a backdrop that looks like our own world, but the heroes of a Secret Abilities story aren't in a realistic setting; they're simply unaware of what's possible with suitable training, or that their grasp of the laws of the universe is incomplete. A common theme in this kind of tale is for one of the heroes to experience an event that should have been fatal - and would have been, in the real world - only to cheat death at the last moment by doing something he thought was impossible, or to awaken in the care of an ancient master or mysterious monks who reveal the truth.

Strengths: In keeping with a lot of traditional martial-arts fiction, and therefore with players' expectations of how cinematic heroes start their careers. The GM can phase in cinematic abilities and rules gradually, so that he and the players can learn at a reasonable pace. The GM has maximum control of the cinematic options allowed, which helps prevent the worst abuses.

Weaknesses: Proponents of cinematic games might get anxious waiting for things to get moving. If the cinematic truths are revealed suddenly in an overtly realistic game, players may resent the "bait and switch" nature of the campaign. On the other hand, if the GM is forthright with his plans, the players may look for clues and secret masters at every turn, and hoard character points for cinematic abilities instead of developing their characters.

nothing says that a martial artist with uncanny abilities knows how they work, who wants to dissect him to figure him out, or what other secrets the universe holds.

Other possibilities include "gritty" fantasy, postapocalypse, and superhero games. Magic, weird radiation, etc., might give rise to unusual gifts without shoring up the human body's weaknesses or making it any less painful to punch steel or bite dirt. A cinematic master might be capable of everything in the kung fu movies, but a knee in the groin can still make him let go and a crossbow bolt in the knee can still cripple him for life.

Strengths: Excellent for the specialized genres noted above, and also a useful way to introduce cinematic martial arts into an existing game without overshadowing everything else. If the combat realism level is gritty but the abilities are over-the-top, this type of campaign can unify a divided gaming group: the realism aficionados get blood, guts, and precisely customized swords and rifles, while the cinema buffs get cool powers.

Weaknesses: The limits of a realistic backdrop can backfire if the players turn the PCs' special abilities against a world that isn't ready for them. If cinematic abilities continue to triumph because of great die rolls, the players are liable to forget the risks of failure - which may lead to dead PCs when the luck finally runs out. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of supernatural forces lurking in the real world.

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