Getting the Most Out of Your Skill System, Part One
Rule #1: Players Can Only Declare Actions or Ask Questions
When the DM asks a player: “what do you do,” there are only two valid responses. And neither one involves the name of a skill.
First, the player can ask the DM a question about the world or the situation. “Do I know anything about the strange rune?” “Do I recognize the name ‘The Clan of the Pointed Stick?” “Do I see anything hiding on the ceiling?” Notice, none of these things require the player to mention skills. The DM can respond with an answer or ask for a specific roll. “Make an Arcane Lore check, but only if you’re trained.” “Yes. The strange old man in the mask mentioned it last week. It is apparently a clan of martial artists.” “Make an Observation roll with a -5 penalty because its dark.”
Second, the player can describe what action his PC is taking. And he should do so as if the D&D adventure were a book and his PC was a character. It doesn’t matter what skill or ability score the player thinks his PC should roll; what matters is what the PC is actually doing in the world and what the PC is hoping to accomplish. “I’ll give the door a solid, standing kick.” “I get a running start and jump over the chasm.” “I subtly offer the guard a bribe to let us pass.” The DM will ask for rolls as appropriate or determine the result some other way.
In the first situation, players often shoot themselves in the fight by trying to use specific skills in situations in which they are clueless. How does a player know if the Order of the Star is a matter of divine lore, arcane lore, local knowledge, or history if he doesn’t recognize the name. And yet, players often respond with “can I roll a Hisory check” based on the fact that it is their highest skill and they want to roll that one.
In the second one, players treat the game world like a point-and-click adventure game. Like there’s a button labeled Climb, one labeled Diplomacy, and one labeled Religious Knowledge. Again, this causes them to sometimes choose the wrong skill. But it also causes them to focus on pushing buttons instead of thinking about the living, breathing world. In the long run, this can prevent them from coming up with complex plans that combine several actions. Or considering any action that doesn’t easily or obviously fit into a single skill.
This rule needs to be enforced and reinforced constantly. I like to use shame and sarcasm:
DM: “… and the guard refuses you entry to the Citadel.”
Player: “Can I roll a Diplomacy check?”
DM: “Sure, knock yourself out.”
DM: “Wow, that’s a really good roll. Anyway, that was fun, but what do you want to do about the guard?”
Player: “I meant I wanted to roll that check at the guard.”
DM: “Well, he’s impressed by your roll too, but he didn’t bring is twenty-sided die. Besides, he’s on duty and can’t play dice games with you right now.”