Sun Tzu Wu points out in his treatise on war that every general and soldier should seek first to know themselves before they attempt to comprehend the enemy. That sentiment is distinctly expressed in The Secret World. Of course, Sun Tzu didn’t have to deal with the infamous Ability Wheel and associated skill menu. If so, his advice probably would have been something more along the lines of, “Screw it, attack. They’re probably as confused as you are.”

But then, the old sport never had the benefit of this article either. What Sun Tzu never knew and what you’re about to learn about, is what the Ability Wheel is, what skills are, and then we’ll be talking a little bit about what conditions are, why they matter, and how to use them.

TSW Ability Wheel

The Ability Wheel

The Secret World’s Ability Wheel is where you start to define your character, what powers he’ll have and, in broad strokes, define how you’ll play.

As you play through your faction’s introduction quest, you’ll get a very brief and generic introduction to the Ability Wheel and the general categories that make it up:


  • Hand Blades
  • Hammers
  • Blades


  • Pistols
  • Shotguns
  • Assault Rifles


  • Chaos
  • Elemental
  • Blood

In the tutorial area you’ll get to try each of these categories if you like, and then you’ll select one to start with. Don’t worry overly much about getting stuck with your starting choice; you can easily switch it later. Then again, don’t just grab a skill and go, because you’ll have to live with your choice for a while as you earn new abilities.

TSW Ability Wheel

Selecting a Deck will cause associated Abilities to be highlighted in the Wheel for easy reference.

Explore the Deck System as a Learning Tool

Here’s something that’ll make your life a lot easier. In the Ability Wheel menu (N is the default key), the far left side has a vertical tab labeled “Decks.” You’ve probably heard them mentioned in various articles. I’d strongly suggest you actually open them up and take a look. Abilities in The Secret World are complicated, and the decks will give you a generic guide to follow when building your character.

In decks, Funcom tied a really handy system into the Ability Wheel. When you select a deck, the required abilities will be marked in the Ability Wheel for easy reference. I’m one of those guys who has played a lot of these games over the years, and I expected to be able to figure out the Ability Wheel on the fly. I was wrong. So take this advice, either use a Deck until you get a feel for the system, or do a lot of reading and make sure you fully understand how the system works before dismissing them.

Understanding Tiers

Abilities in the Wheel are divided into clusters within clusters. For example, the Magic Cluster is composed of Chaos, Blood, and Elemental, as I mentioned above. Digging deeper, Elemental Magic is composed of React and Spark at the first tier, and six other clusters at the second tier. Each cluster at tier 1 and tier 2 has six abilities and an elite ability. In order to get to tier two, you have to get all the abilities in the two first tier clusters. So in the Elemental example, you would have to pick up all seven abilities (six + one elite) in both React and Spark, for a total of fourteen abilities before you gain access to clusters like Tempest, Disturbance, Resonance and so on. Each ability has a cost associated with it, and you buy them with Ability Points (AP), which you gain from killing monsters, completing missions, etc.

Earning Abilities

src="" width="300" alt="Turning in missions gives experience, which leads to additional SP and AP."

AP seems to come relatively quickly and, as Funcom has mentioned in some of their interviews, early abilities are cheap and easily picked up. Later they become much more expensive. This system allows for a lot of experimentation with the generic abilities, but makes it so that the more powerful and specific ones require a much heavier time investment.

Though there is something that looks a little like leveling in The Secret World, it’s more of a status report until you unlock your next set of Skill Points and Ability Points. With no level cap, it appears to be theoretically possible to eventually have a character with every available skill. Of course, Funcom promises to release more content and additional skills periodically, so it could end up with an EVE-style system of older players having more flexibility and power without ever reaching any sort of cap.

Combining Passive and Active Abilities

Abilities are divided into active and passive, and you can have seven of each equipped at any given time. Active Abilities are just what they sound like--these are the things your character can do in combat that directly affect some change on your target. The passive abilities have a few different functions. Some passives are straight forward buffs to the character or the party, but others are a little more unique by either changing the effects of specific abilities, or creating some additional effect when certain conditions (“states”) are applied to a target. Funcom calls the interplay between these abilities and active states “synergies.”

Let’s stick with the old Elemental example for a short demonstration:

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The React Cluster of Elemental Magic has four passive abilities: Mind Over Matter, Elemental Force, High Voltage, and Toxic Earth. With Mind Over Matter, a critical hit causes the target to become Afflicted, which causes damage over time. Thus, we have here a passive ability that creates a condition on the target when something specific happens. Elemental Force is a passive that allows you to build a counter on yourself: any time you hit, the counter increments by one, up to a point where the next hit is an automatic critical, which of course then kicks off Mind Over Matter. You can start to see how abilities key on each other and build on what other abilities do here.

Next is High Voltage, which makes it so that when you use a specified ability, the next one you use automatically critically hits. Again, we see it’s pointing back to Mind Over Matter. Last, we have Toxic Earth, which says that any time you apply the condition of Hindered to a target, the condition Afflicted will also be applied. There you see a case of a Passive Ability creating a new condition when another condition is applied to a target.

Hopefully, this gives you some idea of how inter-related skills are. The Secret World’s Ability Wheel is not like most MMOs where you just pick a tree and go. Working the Ability Wheel requires a lot of thought, because abilities from totally unrelated trees can apply conditions to targets that your own passives may key on, or perhaps the passives of someone in your group.

A Second Weapon

Characters in The Secret World aren’t limited to a single weapon; they can equip a second weapon and gain access to skills in another cluster. As you’ll see later when we discuss conditions, this becomes a large advantage because it allows the player to diversify their ability options and choose abilities in other clusters that complement those in their primary cluster. One of the central mechanics to this is the Resources concept, which builds a charge on either the character or the target. Most good abilities consume these Resources when activated. This advantage isn’t obvious at first, so let’s go for another example:

Our Elemental Mage picks up a Shotgun as his secondary weapon, allowing him to utilize abilities from the new ability cluster. His base attack (Shock) does damage and builds one resource for each equipped weapon (which is why it’s called a Builder.) This means the single attack gives him one Elemental Resource on himself, and a Shotgun Resource on the target. After five attacks with Shock, he can then attack with Thor’s [Ten Ton] Hammer for massive amounts of damage, which consumes all of his Elemental Resources in the process. (This skill would be called a Consumer or Finisher.) The Elemental Resources are gone, but not the Shotgun Resources, so he could then attack with any one of several shotgun abilities that require the Shotgun Resources to activate, or get extra damage from them, like Buckshot, for instance, which does half again as much damage if the target has five Shotgun Resources on it. If you’re not sure which combinations give you the best advantages, take a look through the Decks. You should find some solid hints on what abilities pair well together and why.

Skills and Equipment

src="" width="300" alt="Put points in Skills for minor bonuses and to be able to equip higher tier items."

Now let’s look at how The Secret World handles something called Skills. Skills, like Abilities, are purchased. In this case, you would use Skill Points (SP), which are gained in the same way as APs are. I’m not totally sold on calling them Skills, though. While there is a set of them that have to be bought up to allow you to equip better gear, for the most part, they just add subtle bonuses to your abilities and stats.

Skills are divided up similarly to abilities. You have Firearms, Melee, and Magic. Elemental, Chaos, and Blood under Magic, just as you’d expect. Each sub-category has two skills that can be upgraded, Damage and Support under Elemental Magic for instance. This is where you further refine your character’s approach to using abilities. If I wanted to be straight damage, I’d focus on that skill under Elemental for instance, or go Support if I wanted to buff allies allowing them to do more damage themselves.

There is another group under skill that we haven’t discussed yet, and that leads us to the second function of skills. Skills are also used to determine what level of items you can equip and use. Weapon skills for the weapons of course, and then the Talismans skill set (Head, Major, and Minor) for all the other things you wear.

Unlike with the weapons, the Talisman sub-groups have one skill each, adding a minor bonus and allowing you to equip higher level items covered by that group. Having the third rank in Minor Talismans would give you a bonus to Physical Protection and allow you to equip up to level 3 Waist, Occult, and Luck items, for example. One note of caution with respect to weapons, though. You might think that because you have two skills per weapon they might combine, but that’s not true. Having level three in Damage and level one in Support under Elemental Magic, only allows you to equip a level three item. The system works off the highest level skill in a group and doesn’t add them together like some might expect.


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Now you’re just about to jump up and take off thinking you’ve got all you need, but hold on just a minute there, Hoss. You’re missing one of the key mechanics of The Secret World, and it’s an important one. Now, we’re going to talk about conditions. You’ve read above about how some abilities create, modify, or trigger off conditions, but let’s talk about that in a little more detail now. The reason this is important is because a group of players who have coordinated their abilities to play off of each other’s conditions is a juggernaut on the battlefield.

Afflicted, Hindered, Weakened, and Impaired are all Conditions which can be applied to hostile targets. Afflicted is a damage over time, Hindered is a rooted or snared condition, Weakened equates to being debuffed in some way, and when a target is stunned or knocked back, they’re considered to be Impaired. There are abilities in each sub cluster that will apply at least one of these, and typically an ability that gets an extra effect based on whether the condition exists on the target or not. This is where good groups tend to pull away from other groups.

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So a quick scenario to demonstrate: Rico attacks the zombie with Molten Earth, which does damage and applies a Hindered condition to the target. Rico also has a passive ability (Toxic Earth) which applies Afflicted to any target he applies the Hindered condition to. Chorizo attacks with his shotgun ability, Powder Burn, which does additional damage to Hindered targets. Lastly, Zorro attacks with Trigger Happy, a rifle ability that does damage and then applies Afflicted to a target that’s been Hindered. So three attacks all do damage, apply a snare and two damage over time effects, and one of the attacks get extra damage. Behold the power of conditions.

Know Yourself

So that pretty well wraps up this rough run-through of the abilities and skills of The Secret World, and I hope it helps. The game is complex in a lot of ways, and adding to the difficulty are the subtleties in how everything works and plays off of everything else.

One thing Funcom is becoming known for is their tweaking of abilities and combat, and I think you have to give them a cheer for stepping out on a limb and trying something different in a market saturated with generic solutions. I think the new approach is interesting enough to keep my attention. I hope you find yourselves well served by this humble guide, and enjoy a good start to the game. Now get out there and teach that Filth what Sun Tzu meant by Fatal Terrain.

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Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016