I like the discussion in this thread.
To me, skill or competence checks (all RPGs considered) are usually way overused by most GMs. Back in the day of AD&D, we rarely asked for checks. Since I've played D&D 3E, rolemaster, Call of Cthulhu and other skill-heavy systems, skill checks became very frequent. I think that's too bad.
To me, it's important to consider when to require a skill check, and especially when not to ask for a skill check.
When the strong warrior wants to open the lid of a sarcophagus, consider whether the lid is openable or not. If so, just let it be opened, stating: "the wizard is unable to open it, but when the warrior puts his weight into it, he's able to get it to move, and then open." Similarly, when the agile character needs to accomplish a manual task that requires dexterity, let him simply succeed.
This is desirable from many angles IMO. Firstly, it allows the PC to shine in area in which he is good. Secondly, everyone wants him to succeed from the time he gets the idea: the players and the GM alike. The reason is simple: it moves the story forward.
I think that use of skill checks for those actions that appear to have an intermediate difficulty level are way overused. I think that GM fiat is a better decision in most cases. In the case of the sarcophagus, one of the following would be my answer:
Option 1: "the strong warrior puts all his strength into pushing the heavy lid and it yields, revealing ..."
Option 2: "the strong warrior puts all his strength into pushing the heavy lid, but it won't budge. You could conceivably put some time, for example an hour or two, into chipping at the stone with your weapons and tools, until you manage to break the lid open or release it from its welded or locked condition."
Option 3: "the strong warrior puts all his strength into pushing the heavy lid, but it won't budge. You have the impression that it is a very sturdy construction, made of fine stone and locked very securely. Even by using your weapons and tools, you don't think you'll be able to get it to open - unless perhaps you're willing to put an entire day's work on it?"
Because really: what kind of sarcophagus will simply NEVER be opened by a group of people with tools? It's mostly a question of how much time it will take. Except perhaps one magically proptected, in which case an answer in that direction should be considered. Alternately, if the PCs don't have tools, e.g. level-0 PCs, perhaps the sarcophagus can simply not be opened, period (unless they come up with a good idea - nothing to do with a skill check). It's like a PC standing in front of a heavy, reinforced raised castle draw bridge. He'll never get through that by pounding into it, no matter how much time he has. Besieging a castle takes days or weeks, with a group of people equipped with a heavy ram handled by a dozen men: the single warrior with his axe will not break it. So there are those things that will simply resist.
Also, in cases 2 or 3 above, maybe the thief will get the idea to try to find a lock (if there is one and it wasn't obvious) and unlock the lid; or maybe they come up with some other idea (e.g. a spell). There are other solutions.
This said, where a skill check is to be used, I'll usually allow a single one and tell the player what it means. For example, in the case of picking a lock, I assume that it takes a couple of minutes to pick the lock. Either the thief is able to pick it, or not. A single roll is allowed. Failure means he won't be able to pick it, no matter how much time he tries. A result way over the DC or tartget number might mean he succeeds more quickly. If I consider that he'll succeed if he spends enough time on it, I might tell him so, but allow a skill check to see if he's able to succeed within a short time period or not.
I'll note that I've used the roll-under mechanic in DCC a lot. THe dice chain is very characteristic of the game, and very fun to use, to adjust the difficulty level. And the roll-under mechanic is more recognizing of the more talented character.
I'll also note that allowing several skill checks, for each character, is pointless in many circumstances, where a single common task is to be accomplished, since at least one PC will get it. For example, say you want to break down a normal door; and there are 10 characters present. What's the point in asking them to roll 3 strength checks each? Of course, one will get it. I prefer to get them used to putting their strong character to the task and simply lettting him succeed. It makes more sense and we don't lose time rolling pointless skill checks.
Likewise, asking a bunch of 10 characters for one or more stealth checks to get through an area unnoticed, is also pointless. At least one will fail. I'll simply let them know from the outset that it's likely that they'll get spotted. And if they insist on trying, I'll tell them that they get spotted.
Where a group wants to try something and I still think a skill check is required, I'll usually ask one check for the entire group. I'll decide on which character gets to roll the check depending on the situation. For example, if a stealth check is required to determine whether a group gets through an area unnoticed, I'll usually ask the worst character for the roll, perhaps providing a small bonus if a skilled character is there to lead.
In any event, I avoid having everyone roll a die. To me, that mechanic is simply letting the dice decide who's going to succeed or fail. It's a loss of time and an illusion within the game: it's clear to everyone that success or failure will occur, but the story remains the same. I'd rather that the story be about the strong character being able to accomplish something that requires strenght, instead of the weakling breaking down the door where the strong warrior failed; or about the agile thief remaining silent instead of tripping on his shoelaces while the warrior in heavy plate mail was stealthy as a cat because of his natural 20. There comes a point where the random d20 roll completely overcasts any small bonuses that the characters have because of natural talent or competence and, as noted above, this does not reflect reality IMO. I prefer to simply tell the story about that very small action and get on with it.
I'll use skill checks when I'm unsure whether the action should be successful or not, e.g.:
- there is a large hole to jump over: anyone can jump a 6-foot gap, but can the character make it over a 15 foot gap?
- there is a bit of knowledge that might give insight on a situation: do the PCs know it or not? I'll pick one PC, one that might logically know about his, and let him roll a die.
- a PC wishes to accomplish something in a short time period where he'd succeed given enough time
But generally, I try to determine success based on whether the PC is good enough at doing it or not and avoid rollling a skill check. They still roll a few times per gaming session!
(pfew, this was long!)
Maledict Brothbreath, level 4 warrior, STR 16 (+2) AGI 7 (-1) STA 12 PER 9 INT 10 LUCK 15 (+1), AC: 16 Refl: +1 Fort: +2 Will: +1; lawful; Armor of the Lion and Lily's Blade.
Brother Sufferus, level 4 cleric, STR 13 (+1) AGI 15 (+1) STA 11 PER 13 (+1) INT 10 LUCK 9, AC: 11 (13 if wounded, 15 if down to half hit points), Refl: +3 Fort: +2 Will: +3, chaotic, Robe of the Faith, Scourge of the Maimed One, Darts of Pain.