The Tao of The Secret World - A Guide to the Ability Wheel

Updated Thu, May 24, 2012 by ricoxg

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

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:

And now, Zombie will DIE!

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 very interesting system they have here, the ability wheel interface looks awesome.

I'm really intrigued by this game, the combat, the questing, the exploration etc all sound unique and it sure looks like it has tons of atmosphere.

Sometimes, skills from completely different schools will benefit each others. For an example, in the beta I was using pistols and blood magic (for healing.. don't judge me :( ). I also had points in swords, elemental, and chaos; I picked up passives from all over the place, and it ended up with my main damage move adding a condition, and the act of adding that condition applied damage. I also had passives which made every 8(?) attacks crit, and I got bonuses for critting from other passives.

So, I attack fast, each attack builds up to a crit, each attack applies extra damage and a condition, and each crit gave me healing.

This is one of the best fantasy game where thinking outside the box actually means anything.. (Remember WoW, when you could use obscure items & talent builds to be super-awesome at a particular thing? Thinking outside the box there was fun. Of course, it didn't last)

Seems really awesome. In a way it really reminds me of how one plays Magic: The Gathering. Lots of forethought and planning which results in lots of little moves and attacks culminating in one epic, earth shattering combo!

500+ 'Abilities', at least half of which are redundant or otherwise irrelevant.

Why? Something not touched on in the article is that each weapon group also has different ways for doing different roles. For instance Shotgun, Chaos magic, and Hammers all could be considered tanking weapons. HOW they tank is another thing though. Hammers focus on the traditional melee tanking, but shotguns get most attacks in a cone so are good at picking up multiple mobs quickly. Finally Chaos magic does their aggro pickup at range.

Then you have healing, support, and dps. Each weapon has a different way it attacks, and then like the article states you have the different conditions and synergies.

Lots of power options but with only 7 abilities on your hot bar that are a combo of magic and attack, combat becomes very bland and monotonous very quickly... "weaken/build, weaken/build, weaken/build, weaken/build, weaken/build, BIG HIT, weaken/build, weaken/build, weaken/build, weaken/build, weaken/build (top out weaken stack), BIG HIT, basic strike, basic strike, basic strike, basic strike, basic strike, BIG HIT... etc... etc..." It was said they were basing the combat system on AoC with massive improvements and 500 open ended powers to chose from. Unfortunatly it's a more simplified combat system. Once you set your powers for the area, foe, or boss you are fighting it just becomes a boring button mash. The fact is you may want a heal and a defensive ability or two on your bar which leaves you with only 3 to 5 attacks at best with 2 going to finishers that eat your build points... Oh wait you can have two weapons so strike 1 or 2 of those slots for the 2nd weapons abilities. They can keep the passive bar limited to 7 slots but they really need to expand the main power bar to at least 10 slots just to make combat seem less plain jane white bread.

And while they're at it should they also look at expanding the ability bar to 30 slots ala WoW / SWToR and bombard the player with abilities that fire effects for a couple of seconds and then suggest that 'strategy' = building your 'rotation.'

GW2 appears to have gone the limited hotbar route as well. Rather than looking at this as a negative, I see it as a positive - I actually have to think about which abilities I need/want and adjust my play style accordingly. Personally, the only thing I've seen on the abilities in the 2 beta weekends is that the animations may need some work and I'm really interested to see the higher tier abilities that were locked out.

To each their own I guess.

Even Blizz are going this way with MoP - with spec specific spells now they're trimming a lot of fat from people's ability bars and simplifying a lot of "rotations". They also went the same way with D3 limiting you to 6 abilities total at a time.

GW2's limit is "5 attacks" and 5 active utility which I think is a nice number. TSW's 7 does seem a little restrictive if you try and make a jack of all trades build with single target, AoE and utility/heals which is probably the intent - they key will be to use the saved builds system to you have different builds for things like AoE packs vs single target monsters. Though I think they could use more elegant UI for switching between them.

What I find really interesting about this game besides the setting and storyline is the way it handles character progression. I'm an Eve-Online ex-pat and one of the things that kept me playing that game for nearly 3 years was the way I never felt like I'd capped out. There was always a new skill to learn, always something new and interesting to try out and experiment with.

Frankly, while I have enjoyed the month I spent playing TERA because of its innovative combat system, I've come to the conclusion that I'm sick to death of MMOs that are yet another iteration of Lord of the Rings, with all the expected conventions that come with that medieval theme. Even the prettiest Asian-designed castles and landscapes get tired after a while. The modern setting and inventive storyline and investigative gameplay of The Secret World attracted me enough to pre-order, but I suspect that it's the character progression, being able to always have a new personal goal to reach in the game, will keep me from getting bored with the game and keep me playing over the long term.

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5-7 Attacks... This seems to be a repetitive notion with todays mmos. It kinda gives the feel of Console play? Once every 3-5 years, they throw consoles a bone. Of course, they catch a few, but it doesnt really stick. Although this game is set in its console counterpart universe, it wont survive the migration. Much like DCO (the latest console craze,) itll fall to the wayside. Personally, it may have made an impact if the servers allowed PC and Consoles to interplay. The capability is there, and with the lack of console interest it would have been more profitable. Yet, with the limitations Consoles exhibit over PCs (gameplay, graphics, etc,) they start simplistically the same. Later, only to improve the PC version due to its capability. Hold your pants on, guys and gals. The Consoles are getting there, and the ppl that use them are getting more gear'd toward the mmo crowd. FPS/MMO Hybrids are how theyre gonna do it. Too bad Tabula Rasa didnt hit 10 years later, eh? lol

Oh lord, how I loved Tabula Rasa. Shame it's gone, with some extra work, that could've been a worldchanger.


Joel Bylos returns from his hiatus with an update on The Secret World’s development and release of Tokyo.

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