Once upon a time – back in the “Old School” – characters might not have any skills at all. They had some attributes and the players had their wits.
If they were looking for traps, they might describe how they were looking – or come up with a standard list of precautions they took while exploring. If they were trying to con a guard, they spun their tale and the game master decided if the guard fell for it. If they were trying to spot an ambush, the game master might describe what they saw and let the players try to figure it out.
Of course the dice – and often a roll against an apparently-relevant attribute – came out when the result was still iffy. Not sure whether or not the guard would fall for that story? Have someone roll against their charisma or manipulation attribute or have the guard make a resistance check of some sort. The same went for things like jumping crevasses; some were obviously easy, some were obviously too far, and some were iffy – and called for a roll. Since conditions were always different, it didn’t really matter if it was the same roll all the time or not.
This actually works pretty well most of the time – but how does a player or game master who’s bad at something – whether that’s lying, searching, or woodworking – portray someone who isn’t? That’s a serious problem for the players and can be crippling for the game master, who has to portray a very wide variety of characters with wildly differing abilities each and every session and who may have to portray henchmen and such. It’s REALLY hard to narrate a puzzle for yourself.
Fortunately (or not), there was an answer ready; no one asked the wheelchair-bound player who liked to play mighty warriors to actually demonstrate personal combat skills; the game provided a system for that. Ergo, if a tongue-tied player wanted to portray a smooth con artist, all you needed was to extend the combat rules – roll and succeed, or not.
But once you had a formal skill system, the tables and modifiers started coming out, and you had players who wanted to check their hearing skill against the ninja’s stealth skill, and things got rather complicated.
In the final stages of this route, checks started replacing narrative and player decisions. No longer did the players describe their attempts to find a suspected trap. Instead, the characters simply roll against their “find traps” skill after announcing that they’re checking for traps on something.
That’s not much fun either – and it’s just as grating to the sense of immersion in a fantasy world (as opposed to a game setting) as having a golden-tongued bard who spends half the session trying to get his foot out of his mouth in the party.
Personally, I’ve usually found it best to compromise; use a skill system (if, preferably, a relatively loose one) and have the characters roll only when their narrative runs into a snag.
If a character describes his search for a trap – carefully inspecting the hidden panel, trying to pry it loose gently, probing around the edges, finds a tense wire, and then tries to cut it – not realizing that keeping it under tension is what will keep the trap from going off – NOW it’s time for a “traps” roll (perhaps with a substantial bonus, since the character is close to managing anyway) to see if the character feels a twinge of uneasiness about that action and pulls back. If the character had kept the wire under tension and carefully tipped the panel to one side, he or she would have bypassed the trap without having to roll anything.
Similarly, if the party wizard-scholar sees the horrific golem-automation, and proceeds to spout off a few “facts” about the “ancient history” of that particular design and one or two notable weak points, he can simply be right if it sounds good and fits the game, and – if not – he or she can make that “Mystical Automatons” skill roll and get a correction or clarification from the game master. That gets the players involved, eases the burden on the game master, and makes the game much more of a shared fantasy.
Of course, if the player is stumped, but the character probably wouldn’t be, you can simply fall back on the skill check – and you can do the same thing to fill in if a player has to miss a session or some such.
That can be an awkward mechanic to introduce into new-style games, where the characters are often supposed to be very likely to succeed with simple skill rolls. Having skills provide a second chance may make things too easy. In such cases you’ll simply need to increase the basic difficulties a bit. That will ensure that the die rolls provide a chance – but not as good a chance as the rules probably suggest. Ergo, trying to bypass those skill checks will be well worthwhile.
In Eclipse you can simply buy this for your character if it suits the way you want to play. You’ll want to buy Opportunist/the character gets to make an immediate skill check if an appropriate attempt to resolve a situation descriptively fails if he or she has a relevant skill at +5 or more” (6 CP).
Thus, if a character was proceeding cautiously and checking the floor for traps, but failed to check for trigger-wires strung across the corridor at chest height, he or she could make a “find traps” check to detect the trigger-wire. If he or she was running madly down the corridor, there wouldn’t be a check; that’s not an appropriate attempt in the first place.