GMs, do you understand the difference between skill types?

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.

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