Here over at Monsters and Manuals, Noisms discusses some of the agency-sucking, mind-reading, poorly presented, 'Gotcha!' ideals that make up some of the 4thcore adventures.
Noisms postulated a problem that could be solved creatively in a variety of different ways. A treasure hoard is on the other side of the room, with a channel in the middle filled with crocodiles.
One of the posters responds:
"Conversely, any realistic solution to the crocodile problem is going to involve someone being fast enough or strong enough to do something at some point - it's also a skill check scenario (even if it boils down to the good old OSR dodge of the GM rolling a percentage chance - that's still a skill check, just a very arbitrary one)."
I do not think this point of view is uncommon—that the only solutions for problems are skill solutions. A short word about old-school play.
A dice roll in an old-school game is only made when the outcome of an action absolutely cannot be decided by agreement or fiat.
You don't roll to climb up to a ledge or a wall, get out of a pit, ride the horse up the mountain, tie up the prisoner, or jump off the horse; YOU DON'T NEED TO ROLL TO FEED THE CROCODILES POISONED MEAT or have your unseen servant bring the treasure over, you don't need to roll to climb over the channel, or to throw the bag across the channel or any one of a hundred different solutions.
Some actual dice rolls may be required for some of the solutions—but they will most definitely not require only strength or speed. Sure, if you cast web or sleep, the crocodiles will get a save. Sure, if you have the ranger attempt to calm the beasts, they may get a reaction roll.
A roll for discovery is different than a roll for allowing the player not to play.
I know the cliché of the young player looking at his sheet and going "There's nothing on here that lets me solve this problem" is a cliché because it occurs often, but the comment above got me thinking. It occurs a lot—personally—to me—in many of the games I ran. Players who only want to follow the main hook, players who wonder how they can tie someone up without the use rope skill, and even players who can only have relationships with NPC's if there are rules for romance. (No, not my current groups)
So are new school players just objectively less creative? Is it part of the generational issue of millennials having a fear of doing anything that's not explicitly permitted by authority sources? Why is the above sort of response so common? And really, as DM's, what can we do about their lack of creativity in problem-solving without holding their hands and giving them a half dozen ideas for solutions? Is this the same lack of creativity bemoaned by Gygax and Kuntz after the publication of classic D&D, or something different?
But thieves need to make a skill check to climb walls!
No, they don't. Anyone can climb walls. Just like anyone can hide or move around quietly. Thieves can climb unclimbable walls or normal walls unreasonably quickly. They can hide in the very shadows themselves and move so quietly that you never hear them until the knife enters your back.
Just because there is a resolution method for an action doesn't mean you need to use it—you don't make your players roll to kill unconscious opponents.
But if you don't make them roll, how will they ever fail?
The problem here is that you want the game to be a railroad. You don't want your players to decide what to do or how to solve a problem; you want to call for a skill check.
If you take off the safety rails and give them some freedom, you will be astounded at the bodies and rooms they forget to search and the actions they neglect to do. How many monsters or NPC's they leave on the ground unconscious to get up and get revenge another day.
I've got a post up about treasure generation. I put the opportunity for about 50,000 experience, 45,000 of which is treasure, to give the party the 10k total they need to reach the second level. Why is that? because they miss a full third or more of the treasure in the dungeon.
The fact is, if you don't lead them by the nose, player skill is a real thing they will need to have, and if they don't have player skill then they will fail.
The whole skill system is a crutch because it allows them to fail without feeling personally responsible, among other reasons.
Then you're just playing a guessing game! The whole session becomes about "Guess what the DM is thinking"!
If you tell the players what they need to know to solve the problem, they don't have to guess. They still have to solve the problem.
How come it's ok to use 'skill checks' for combat and not for something like talking to opponents?
Because at the table, I can't use my personal skill to swing an axe, but I can use my personal skill to convince a crocodile to let me pass.
Well, then how about I make my players lift something heavy when they want to bend bars, huh? Isn't that player skill?
Nice strawman, but as above—if we cannot agree or decide by fiat that you can't lift the gate, then a roll is required isn't it? This is a situation like "do I hit the monster" that is best decided by a die roll. Of course it's a continuum. I may know that the gate is latched closed, and no matter the level of your strength you will not be able to lift it, but you might be able to bend the bars.
If you use your skill to talk to the crocodile and there is no skill roll, then the DM just makes a decision—But you don't have any control over the DM's decisions! Without the dice to protect you, you'll just be railroaded into guessing what he's thinking all the time.
This is of course, another strawman—a misrepresentation of the actual process of play. The process of the DM making a decision comes down to discussion and agreement.
What does the party know about crocodiles in a skill light system?
The DM starts by asking if anyone is a druid or a ranger, but that's just where it begins.
Here is the important part - if anyone can come up with a reason that they would know something about crocodiles that is reasonable, then they do.
Reasonable how? By table consensus, but as always, the DM has the last word.
If your problem is that the DM can be unreasonable—let me assure you that more rules is not a solution to that problem.
How many solutions can you create to the Crocodile Conundrum problem?