I really want play to proceed such that the players help establish the fiction before selecting a skill to use for resolution. In fact, I would rather that they never select a skill but rather narrate their actions and then we can negotiate what skill they use.
Why? Well, I find that players (certainly me) tend to use the skill list as a menu of options and that they logically tend to prefer the better options in order to succeed. Consequently two things happen and I feel that both are usually undesirable. First, action tends to resolve based on their best skills which narrows the scope of the story. This might be fine except that it tends to leave a bunch of skills untouched — why even have the lower tier of skills if they don’t get played?
Second, there’s a certain amount of artificial wedging of skills into scenarios. It’s generally in good faith, but if I’m good at Repairing things I will really try very hard indeed to frame every problem as a repair problem. Often credulity will be stretched.
In the past I’ve “solved” the second by having a rule like “if the table is buying it, fine, but if there’s pretty much any argument, drop it and try another”. Even with this there’s some unwanted meta-discussion about applicability and some unnecessary argument. I’d rather avoid that.
You can tinker with truncating skill lists so that only the best skills are even represented, and that certainly suits a certain kind of play and certain genres, but for my current projects failure (or even succeeding badly) drives the narrative forward. It creates new problems to solve and does it in a way that relieves the ref of the burden of fabricating all conflict from whole cloth. It lets the story take control of itself and I really really like that right now.
I think these issues are related and so I’m wondering if one solution might be to give players another list, since picking from a list is attractive and powerful. Just not a list of skills. So the path would be to pick a tactic from the list, a general methodology, use it to inspire the narration for the action, and then determine the skill that’s appropriate. What might that list look like? What are generalized methods for solving problems?
Here’s a stab:
Destroy it. Whatever the problem is, the player will remove it forcibly. Drive through it, smash it, shoot it, disassemble it, whatever. We will crush the problem.
Go around it. Try to find a path that bypasses the problem altogether. Drive off-road around the checkpoint, choose a less suspicious door, ignore the treasure chest in the empty room, dig a tunnel under the machine-guns.
Solve it. Defeat the problem exactly as it is presented. A checkpoint? Test your fake papers and your communication skills. A suspicious chest? Check for traps and pick the locks. Directly address the problem in the most direct fashion.
Research it. My players often miss this one so having it on a list might be especially useful. Sometimes the best next step is to investigate the problem and try to find more information about it. Maybe there are known ways around it. Maybe a weakness will be revealed.
Decompose it. The classic engineering solution is to break the problem down into sub-problems and solve them separately. Talk with each other and find the sub-problems and often each of these is simpler than the whole. This is the essence of the ever-elusive “plan” and when you do it it’s very satisfying. But because it’s not very immediate and it’s quite analytical it may not occur to you in the heat of the moment.
Synthesize it. Maybe a bunch of problems are really one problem. Do they link together in a way that is itself a weakness? Maybe disabling each of the security components is not necessary if we look at the security system as a whole and start thinking about how the whole operates. Kill the power? Remove the guard at the CCTV station?
Subvert it. Sometimes the problem can be made to solve itself. Bribe the guard, set off the minefield as a distraction, threaten the guard with the trapped chest. Use the problem against itself.
Embrace it. Let the problem happen and endure it. You’ve spent all that energy one making yourself resistant to poison so just stick your hand in the chest. Run through the minefield playing the odds. Surrender to the border patrol and find a way to continue from inside the compound even if it’s from inside the brig.
More succinctly, destroy, avoid, solve, research, decompose, synthesize, subvert, embrace. With this list could you more readily find a narrative that later implies the skill to use? Would you at least sometimes wind up using your worse skills because the plan at least is “better”? Would the story become a little more varied?