Matthew D. Brown (Author)

GMs, do you understand the difference between skill types?

August 15, 2018 in tpk by Matthew Brown

Click grabbing headline aside, I really am going to talk about the difference between different skill types.

I’m going to draw my examples from both S3 and Pathfinder but really these should apply universally. Skills in RPGs can be expressed along a few binary axis:

  • passive vs active
  • constant vs at-will
  • critical vs non-critical

Passive vs active skill types

This is a binary distinction. For the most part.

Skills that are active

Active skill types are any ability the character has to choose to do. For example, “detect evil 4 times a day”.

What separates these skills out is that they should always be 100% about player agency. The GM should never be the one triggering them.

In S3 the lines between talking about what you are doing and doing them are blurred, a GM might roll a check secretly as the player is talking but that is still active player triggering.

For the most part that seems to cover all skills, right? Wrong. Although abilities of the character are usually under the full control of a character there are some skill skills that are working even when the character makes no choices…

Skills that are passive

Passive skills and abilities are those that happen without any thought going into it. For example, knowing stuff, recognising stuff, and perceiving stuff. Against stealth checks perception acts much like AC, you don’t need to know that it is even happening until the GM tells you the result. That’s a passive skill.

Perception in both Pathfinder and S3 is a passive skill as are all the knowledge types, detection, and sensing abilities (sense motive springs to mind). You cannot rub your head to make yourself know better nor can you say a command word to avoiding knowing stuff. You just know it.

Passive skills should be activated by the GM or Narrator. Either roll for your players and tell them the results or get them to roll a bunch of skills every time new information is about to appear. If characters have something “as a constant ability” in Pathfinder, that’s a clue to you, the GM, to treat it as a passive skill.

It is not important to make a complete list of passive skills types as long as when you are running the game, you recognise when – in this instance – a skill should count as passive.

Constant vs at-will skill types

Now that you are aware of the passive and constant difference you can probably see how constant maps to passive and at-will to active. As a GM or Narrator of a game, you need to keep track of constant abilities. The closest S3 has to constant abilities are statuses. Like Pathfinder’s constant abilities, statuses must be tracked – per character – by the person running the game.

Constant skill types modify things for you the GM/Narrator. They actually change the nature of the game. Because of this, it is really important to keep track.

I’ve been in games where the party has been in a room for a while and someone says, “I cast detect magic” – to have this conversation unfold:

GM: Are you ready to move on?

Player 1: I cast detect magic

GM: You detect magic with a strong necromancy feel to it

Player 2: Well, this changes everything. Maybe the litch was here. Let’s look for clues again.

Player 3: Mr GM, you know I have detect magic as a constant ability, right? I should have know this when we walked in here.

GM: Oh yeah. I keep forgetting about your character’s unique abilities.

That’s a game-leading fail from not recognising the differences between skill types and how the GM/Narrator should respond to them.

Critical vs non-critical skill types

Up to now, we have been talking about when to apply skills. What you may not yet have guessed is we have moved on to dealing with the outcome.

Non-critical skill types

Are any ability where if you fail, you can try again. For example, getting the key in the lock. You missed so line it up and try again right away. You should assume a skill in non-critical unless you can work out a reason why this is not the case (we’ll get to that in a moment).

In Pathfinder, these are skills where it is acceptable to Take 10 or Take 20. The fact is that you would just keep trying until you got there. In S3, you should almost never roll on non-critical skills. There is no story reaction from trying and failing. So for easy narrative purposes count up the possible wins and just apply a reasonable value. Better yet, role-play the situation and let narrative flow do the rest.

Non-critical skills allow you to give the player the benefit of the doubt. Keep the story moving forward with the successful result or the discovery that the task is beyond them. Get to the interesting stuff.

Disarming a trap (in Pathfinder) with a DC of 12 when you have 8 ranks plus a stat modifier of 4 is non-critical because you cannot roll a fail. Your character would have to be drunk and on LSD to even take a penalty to make that roll interesting. Of course, they disabled the trap – it’s what they do. Get to the interesting parts.

Critical skill types

Critical skills are different. I told you to assume that all skills are non-critical. However, even a passable GM/Narrator should be able to recognise that some activities have a risk involved. If you fail (or if you fail hard enough) something bad or expensive will happen. These are critical skill types.

Climbing down a steep cliff could have a terminal outcome if you fail. Disarming a bomb is another thing you do not want to mess up. Bribing an officer of the law could go horribly wrong too.

When you encounter a critical skill it is not only okay to stop and ask for dice but good for the players too. It signals that the outcome depends on this roll. That raises the stakes and adds a moment of tension to the game.

In S3 the “easy” trap still has a failure chance. S3 is like that – failure is always an option. If the trap is important in any way, then make the player roll and make sure they know that it would be very bad to fail. Do this unless the CL/DR is so low that odds are the player will pass – in which case, treat it as non-critical and get to the interesting bits already.

Not all skills are the same

Not all skills are the same. Especially is S3 which actively encourages improve and role-play. GMs and Narrators, I hope you understand the difference between skill types or at least now have a grasp of them. In which case, your games should always be interesting.

Ideas for a tiny gods autofiction

August 14, 2018 in reflections-and-thoughts by Matthew Brown

Truly Tiny Gods was an idea I came up with years ago. A sort of automated story driven by code and user interactions. I never finished it and still think about creating it. I even registered a Facebook app that I never developed. Life got in the way.

This is what went through my head when I recently thought about re-doing Truly Tiny Gods. I went back over it and added some comments as quotes and titles to break the text up. Mostly that was to explain myself. My head rarely has to explain itself to anyone else.

Imagine if big brother met DnD pantheons and a bunch of truly minor gods had to live out their life on an island to compete for power. What if that was a blog or twitter account and users could “pray” to the gods to influence the outcome. It could be quite fun.

My stream of nerd thinking

This would be some form of a plugin that runs in one blog. You give it some “gods”, and following some pseudo-random system influenced by comments or such, it tracks the followers, powers, and relationships of the gods.

User interactions could influence the outcome of the god’s day. They could say, vote, in some way, to attach a portfolio (says lakes, or something) to a god. Votes could be in the form of comments or some other user desirable behaviour.

Some posts could be tagged for one or more gods using custom fields. That is assuming you can “SELECT * FROM posts WHERE custom field X is Y”. That could be used to allow user interactions with the gods.

I often express ideas in the form of SQL. It is a database language. SQL is just good for expressing the data I want and the form I want it in. If magic was real and cast in accordance to the mind of the caster my magic would look like SQL.


Each day, each god would do a thing. That thing would be reported using a randomly selected pattern for the thing. The pattern would be filled out using words from that god’s flavour words lists. The thing might change god stats, attitudes, and stuff.

I guess that means gods have flavour words lists. Guess I better think about what they are – stuff they are for, and stuff they are against. Yeah, that sounds cool. How about favoured animals, weapons, plants, etc… Yeah, that seems reasonable.

I have a whole theory of things and stuff. Ask me about it sometime. Basicly, things are useful and well defined and stuff is not.

Time to think about data

I guess the gods will need a table each for all that data. Better think about some stats to track. Followers, power, smite, anger, love… That sort of thing. It’d be nice to add new ones as I think them up but that means two new tables. One for the stats definition and one to carry the actual stats. Hang on, the things affect the stats (and stuff) it would save a huge amount of headaches to know them ahead of time. I know, I’ll define them in classes. No, wait, then the database would have to carry a deserialised object blob. Yuck.

I’ll come back to that.

It might be fun to have the gods fall in love. I’ve already said that I want to track their attitudes. We could use some scale from -100 to 100. Although romance would be a different thing. Hmm… Maybe a flag? A flag dependant on the attitude scale? Are we using flags then? Do we need unlimited flags or a limited pre-defined set? I have not figured that out yet. Bother.

Come back to that too.

I mark things “come back to that later” a lot.


So what have we got so far? Some gods that have stats in a table and may or may not have stats and flags. That’s not much to go on. Other than some ideas about what I want, I have no ideas about how to make it work.

Let’s revisit the whole flag thing. If we made “is in love with” a stat, then we don’t much need flags. Maybe gods have really short memories? Yeah, that sorts that out. As we are working with WordPress, maybe gods could have taxonomies. Maybe gods are custom content types. That’d save a whole lot of dicking about with tables. Not sure if this is a great idea or a really bad one.

Better read up on custom content types.

Reads for two hours. Starts here… Then move on to here.

Apparently, the only known way to deal with custom fields is the plugin Advanced Custom Fields. Everyone just defaults to it. What if I want to write my own UI?

The taxonomy idea seems sound but the development reading is a bit lacking. Toys with the idea of filling that space…

Well, okay. It looks like post meta (custom fields) could carry the stats and that I could define them as I go. That’s good. Add stuff as I figure it out. Things could be an array of class types with defined templates for “doing the thing” and conditions before the thing can be done.

More about things

Things would either act on the god’s own followers and stats or include another god and act on both. I guess that means the thing would need a get_god and get_other_god method. Perhaps all things could affect another god. Maybe things have the potential to pull followers from all the other gods? No, that seems like too much work.

As things change the gods, I’d have to be careful about the execution order in the code.

Talking of methods and code and such, I should probably set up a developer install somewhere to test my code. Breaking a production site would be bad.

This is suddenly looking like a lot of work for a “quick” diversion.

This is often the part where I stop. If I can get past it with the thought that I can keep it simple and get it done, well, maybe it will happen.

More ideas pop into my head

Oooh, what about wars? Wars would be great. It could cost the two gods followers but earn them “smite”. As a ready calculation, a war could cost each side 10% of the total opposition follower count. Thus, a god with lots of followers could wipe out a smaller god and take their stuff. That’d be awesome. If I make that a “thing” it would not need me to track “war” as a meta on both gods.

Another interesting idea might be the “did a thing in secret” thing. The other god could be the one that secretly sees it. That could get old fast without enough variety. Maybe secretly witnessed could be a theme that runs throughout the things? Again, that seems like hard work.

Oh, I have a funny idea. Add a report on a god detailing prayers answered vs prayers ignored. Something like that anyway. Perhaps also add, minor righteous smitings, fantastic dreams given, vague portents shown, doctrinal disputes among clerics, and so forth. Use a DNA based pseudo-random system so each god tends towards consistency.

DNA based pseudo-random system is where you take a string – the “DNA” – which you pull from and use as a seed for randomising. This gives consistant results which differ from one example to another. I use them for games but they are used for system generated avatars on blogs (among other things).


Didn’t TTG v1.0 use DNA? Yeah, I think it did. The whole god was generated from it. Hmm, that seems like a good idea. 32 hexadecimal digits seem enough. That’s the output of an MD5 hash. A specific set of say four digits could be converted back into a number and used as a seed. There is no cryptographic security needed, so this should be fine.

I could even use an avatar image program to create an “icon” for each god. Children of two gods would have similar icons…

Hmm… I like that. I don’t fancy the work it would require. I wonder if there is an open source library?

Any project that I end up thinking about will, eventually, have me think, “I wonder if there is an open source library.”


I need the loo.

Also, I want a cup of tea.

I might watch an episode of X-Files.

I indeed paused for ages. I also watch some of season one of X-Files. It has aged rather well.

The main class should have a “register of things”. “Thing” extends “abstract thing”. That seems sensible…

Got distracted…

I got distracted. Like for ages. The way I just stopped typing means that someone probably decided that it was a good time to visit me. After all, writers and geeks are never “busy with anything important”.

This post was just sort of hanging about in my drafts. My headspace is not in the right palce to do this development anymore. However, if I post this now it sort of has no point. On the other hand if I don’t post it, I’d have wasted all that lovely research. Hmm… to post wierd rubbish or not, that is the question.

World building for very small characters

August 13, 2018 in reflections-and-thoughts by Matthew Brown

I’ve been thinking about world building for very small characters or for normal sized characters living with very large peoples (giants).

On the whole, we tend to treat races as simply funny looking humans. When the party goes to the bar, they simply order a drink. How do the dwarf, halfling, and gnome characters deal with the fact that the bar was constructed for humans? Is there a step up at the bar that enables the shorter characters to compensate for their shortness relative to the bar? Why should there be?

Height difference in real life

We have wildly different heights in real life. However, everything is designed for people of “average size”. If you are very short, you might have to buy only children’s clothes. If you are very tall or rather plump (as I am), you may find that chairs don’t have enough leg room, most shops don’t carry clothes in your size (and those that do charge a lot of money), and that some doorways require you to duck to get through them. That last one does not happen very often but it has happened.

If that happens in our world where variety in height and size is common might it also be an issue in a world where whole races of different sizes exist? Might that mean, for example, that humans would struggle in a dwarven bar but a halfling would feel right at home? Would society become stratified on size issues?

In real life issues such as race, skin colour, socio-economic status, accent, sub-culture, gender identification, sexual orientation, music tastes, and a whole load of other issues tend to separate us. In the more enlightened parts of the world, these differences are celebrated but in some backwaters the opposite is true.

Economic adaptations

In a town that takes trade from passing adventurers, it would be an economic advantage to accommodate races of different sizes. So a wise tavern owner might put out tables and chairs that are of different sizes. Or, maybe, they will adapt the seating to put everyone on a similar level with low, medium, and high seated chairs.

If the setting happens to have really extreme size differences, maybe some tables have tiny tables with tiny chairs in the middle. Might civic authorities tend to make or even force adaptations for their shorter voters? Perhaps steps are required to be of no more than a certain height? Would door handles tend towards being lower down? If so, what about the taller than average voters?

Something as simple as a door handle might undergo a very different evolution than in our world. Perhaps, in a world with wildly different racial heights, doors have two handles (one high and one low) either of which will open the door. How would that work?

Perhaps public buildings tend to have very large doors with smaller doors set inside them and very small doors set inside those. Aside from the need to carefully lock all three doors, and the added cost of hinges, this could be one way a society overcomes radical height differences.


What about shops or villages that refuse to accommodate taller or shorter peoples? Could sizeism be a serious issue?

Perhaps sizeism is a more obvious extension of racism. The sort of underlying prejudice that comes not from hate but from failing to consider the needs of others.

In a sizeist world, people of the prefered height (let’s just call them average sized people) would have a significant advantage in life. How might that play out? Would it mean that the height advantage leaves the very short or very tall with fewer work and education opportunities? And if so, would hight become an indicator of assumed wealth or ability?

Might “average” sized people be seen as inherently better through unconscious bias? How might very small characters deal with these disadvantages?

Might being very tall or very short be seen as a disability or is it just a cultural difference?

Is there a “normal” door and then, hidden out of the way the “midget hatch” which shorter characters slink into buildings through. This could become a way for establishments to delineate who they would prefer to welcome.

Tools for very small characters

One way that very small characters might adapt to a world designed for much taller people would be to create tools to help them get higher up.

Maybe your sword and sorcery setting has shops that do a good trade in indoor climbing equipment and grappling hooks? Perhaps this shop also sells stilts, grabbers, and folding step ladders too. Maybe they sell the local taverns some form of a stylish booster seat for their chairs.

In a sci-fi setting, maybe very short characters tend to carry hover disks that act as floating platforms with a maximum height of a few meters. Maybe some innovative short character started selling drones with serious lift at lower levels, a comfortable seat, and small controls. Maybe very small characters fly everywhere.


In a setting where the loo is little more than a hole in the ground, this might not be much of an issue. However, like the issue of space alien toilets, might metropolitan areas have six sets of loos – one for each gender of each size category?

How would very small characters deal with getting onto and using a toilet designed for people twice their size? Would you see the same sorts of adaptations we see for children or disabled people?

In a sizeist world, are the very short expected to use the hole at the back while the taller people can enjoy the porcelain comforts of the indoor loo?

Gnomes, for example

Take, for example, gnomes. While the Pathfinder source material has a lot to say about gnomish culture, gnome attitudes, and size, nothing seems to address the issues of hight differences in practical terms. After all, if there existed a people group tending to no more than three foot tall (91 cm), that could create all sorts of physical barriers.

How does someone that short order a beer at the bar? How do they open a window? What about shopping – items on the top shelf would be more than an entire body length above them. How might society change in response to such issues?

In something like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, this is something the GM is going to want to maybe think about. Simple clues like a lack of steps in front of the bar could be a big cultural clue as to how the very small characters in the party might expect to be treated in this village.

Why worry about such details?

You might say that these are not important details. You might be right. However, to not consider them would be to miss out on deepening your world and exploring the many ways that your very small character relates to the world.

By simply realising that there could be sized based prejudice in your setting opens up all sorts of story-based possibilities. Entire avenues of character development and expression can become possible.

Last and by no means least, if you show that you have thought about size it makes your setting seem all the more real.

Image Credit: By User:Justinc [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

Plot-Lines: The storytelling card game

August 6, 2018 in news-and-updates by Matthew Brown

I’d like to introduce you to Plot-Lines, the storytelling card game.

You play as a team of writers on a new television series but each of the writers has different ideas about the genre, style, and even characters that should be included. Can you overcome executive meddling, retcons, and characters unexpectedly leaving mid-season to deliver your story? Let’s find out in Plot-Lines.

Why Plot-Lines?

As those that follow me on various blogs might be aware, I am a huge fan of good storytelling. I have been working on a new card game that encourages collaborative storytelling. Not at the level of roleplay games but on a more casual and yet competitive level.

The idea grew out of conversations as the Thanet Creative Tea and Chat events. We had been talking about favourite television shows we enjoyed as children as well as experimenting sometimes with games with a strong story focus. This got me thinking and the result is Plot-Lines.

When you read the rest of this post, remember that I am hearing it in my head in Wil Wheaton’s voice.

How to play Plot-Lines

Plot-lines the storytelling card gameEach player starts with five cards. These cards can include characters which are divided into hero, antagonist, and support. Each character that comes into play starts a new plot-line against which plot-twists are played.

Each player also receives three secret objectives which will guide how they try to build out those plot-lines. We will come back to objectives in a moment.

To the right, you will see a screenshot of the early play-testing version of the game which doesn’t have any of the pretty images or icons that I hope the finished game will have. As you can see, the cards have a coloured bar to the right and left. The director wants to see a smooth visual transition from one scene to the next and so plot-twists must (by and large) match the colour of the card that precedes it.

Cards have a genre, an icon that indicates if it is happy, sad, or boring; and another icon that indicated art, cheese, or mainstream. When a plotline ends (either through character death or character exit) you can count the icons to see if it is a “happy, cheesy, sci-fi”, a “sad, artistic, romance”, or some other combination. If that matches one of your objectives then you might be winning.

Cooperative yet competitive

You play with one single shared set of plot-lines and cooperate to take turns adding elements to the story. Each element you add must be explained to the other “writers” as you must convince them that your story addition fits the overall plot and makes narrative sense. If they don’t agree the other players will vote on whether to keep your addition. Which is all well and good but remember that they might vote based on their own objectives instead of the story’s merits. How good are you at selling the idea of a story?

When you are done, you will have created a wild story that busts genres, incorporates cheese, art, and mainstream appeal, and maybe, just maybe, get good ratings.

Pretty soon we are going to start play-testing the game. If all goes well, I will update you on what happens next.

Amused Geek – new Tumblr blog

June 28, 2018 in news-and-updates by Matthew Brown

Most of the time, what I post on Tumblr stays on Tumblr. This time, however, I’m posting it here too.

Molly the catI would like to introduce you to a new Tumblr blog that I have recently started – Amused Geek. It is part mood board for things that inspire me to write “that story with the cat in it” and part geeky mash-up of stuff I love with a few photos of my cat thrown in for good measure. If I am honest, things that I love, my cat, and things that inspire my story are all roughly the same category.

If you want to see a lot of Douglas Adams quotes, Hitchhickers Guide references, time travel theories, space scenes, Groot, and the odd Doctor Who GIF, this blog is definitely for you. Amused Geek is unabashed fandom, Sci-Fi nerdiness, and cheesy genre love.

In short, it is a nerdy love letter to the fun side of sci-fi. I might even post a few quotes from my novel to see how people react to them.

Follow Amused Geek if you are on Tumblr at all.



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