Okay, skills time in this Suetiful world. The basic mechanic is of course ripped straight from d20 Modern. D20 + skill ranks + modifiers over a DC is success. In theory.
First there’s the question of what skill to roll, and it’s hardly like we lack for choice. D20 has around seventy skills, give or take some Knowledges; we have several hundred. Knowledge: Chemistry, meet K: Organic Chemistry, K: Inorganic Chemistry, K: High-Energy Chemistry, K: Demolitions (as distinct from Demolitions), K: Synthetic Chemistry, K: Analytical Chemistry, K: Chem Safety, K: Applied Chemistry, K: Pharmaceutical Chemistry, K: Materials Science, and K: Alchemy. Don’t fret, though; you don’t need to pick just one. You’ll roll them all, and more, to make black powder, let alone anything more complex, unless fiat dictates otherwise. And you won’t just roll them once, oh no.
Presenting the Extended Skill Check, “checks that require more than a single point in time to see if they succeed or fail, as well as helping to create realistic timetables for a wizard’s studies, a mad scientist’s inventions, or a student’s attempts to learn a foreign language.” So used utterly at random. There’s an array of three DCs, minimum: the standard (SDC), the failure (FDC), and the progress (PDC). There are usually more for each aspect of what you’re trying, but in general, three. If you get higher than the PDC, you take some amount (2?) off the total DC (TDC) +increment per/10 above PDC. Get below FDC and you have to start over. Do you want to do anything at all complex? Start rolling, and keep rolling, and roll and roll an endless avalanche of d20s until you fail. And you will fail; the average DC we’ve been told starts at 20 and rises rapidly. “Most characters will not succeed at their goal the first time they make a check.” So the rules tell us, and in this case they’re right; they’re just also right concerning all subsequent times. Positive modifiers to help, you say, but no. No positive modifiers exist; equipment, reference books, allies, these all merely reduce the (named, often acronymized) penalties, and they have no shortage of gap to close. What astronomical DCs cannot do all at once to frustrate player ambition, penalties will do by inches. Take a -1 for poor lighting, a -5 for improper equipment, another -5 for not being in a lab, and more and more for impure reagents and the presence of inhibitors and a lack of education and not having succeeded before and soon, ah, soon the task is “realistically difficult”. If you want to remove any of those penalties, start rolling more extended checks, this time with new penalties. When the GM says we don’t have time to resolve a task in-session, it’s wise to believe him. By the way, if any of this is confusing, bear in mind the original description of how to roll these checks is a page long and an unreadable mishmash of run-on sentences and impenetrable grammar.
It’s bad on paper, but it’s hard to convey just how this feels when you’re at one end of it. If you will imagine a spirited game of Numberwang hosted in Lojban by an irritated Comic Book Guy with boards created by firing d20s out of a bingo roller, you’ll have some idea of what it is to try, say, composing a haiku in this system.
At least, that’s the ideal.
In practice, you need enough ranks to attempt the task, because whoever heard of trying anything extraordinary. And you don’t have them. You don’t even have enough to know how many you need, or of what—and that list will grow the more you ask, believe me. If you have all the ranks quoted last time, there will be a new skill this time. Wikipedia will require multiple doctorates to operate in the future, you see: one in Knowledge: Online Reference Materials and one in whatever you want to look up. That assumes it even exists, but that’s a setting issue.
You also need to be high enough level. You’re not. See, skill ranks don’t actually represent how much you know about accomplishing a particular task. You also need to be “awesome enough” to try; low-level characters can’t upset the status quo just by trying until they succeed, because that would be ridiculous. These restrictions do not apply to NPCs; they are ‘professionals’, while you are ‘just an adventurer’ and haven’t been ‘spending time keeping up with the latest developments in the field’; even if you have, it’s not enough. If you don’t need state-of-the-art equipment to make bubblegum after reading journal articles sixteen hours a day, well, you’re just not playing a universal system.
This has some interesting implications for the skill levels of the NPCs that are of course fully statted, despite the absence of any observable stats. If we take an average DC of 50 and assume a very low 50% success rate, the average sophomore science major needs around 40 ranks in each of roughly twenty different skills, minimum. The XP cost for this is enough to reach level 30. Admittedly, this explains the difficulty of some of my finals, but last I checked I can’t slay gods.
You might try to change settings, as the system was originally intended to enable. This will, without exception, render all of your skills useless. Demolitions? The detonators are different, and so are the charges. Weapons? The swords are different kinds of katanas here. Diplomacy? Different culture. No matter how alike or different two settings may be, the surest security against being at all useful is to move between them. Naturally this only comes up when you’re trying to do something not prescribed by the almighty Plot, but it’s the last best hope to keep the players from doing anything useful.
Yes, weapons are skills, and fighters are ‘high-skill classes’. This is the only known application of the -4 ‘related skill’ penalty. If, for example, you have weapon (heavy crossbow), you can use a light crossbow at only a significant penalty, instead of being totally unable. This only applies to using the weapons, though; maintaining them requires totally different skills, as always.
And that’s DW skill rolls.