In yesterday's Legends & Lore post, Mearls talks about feats, skills, and class options. The Big Deal of it is that they're making a Big Change to skills and offering a little more explanation of the Big Change to feats. All of this springs out of their fundamental principle that the game has to remain approachable for new players, which is in itself a solid tenet - but I'm not at all sure it's going to hold up as well for the "standard" and "advanced" modes. More importantly to me, the design continues to move away from the initial architecture of class/race/background/specialty that I liked so much.
So first let's talk about what they're doing with feats, since I didn't post about that last week. Initially, feats weren't part of the game at all - instead, the game had Themes, later called Specialties. At certain levels, they granted powers that were essentially feat-like, but were never repeated from one Specialty to another. Specialties initially represented how your character handles combat; the most compelling options were the really incongruous ones, like pairing up Necromancer with anything other than Wizard (on which note, I can't wait for them to bring feats of a similar theme back into the game). As the packets have gone along, the focus has shifted onto individual feats and the option to purchase them individually.
As Mearls points out in both posts, feats are a major roadblock of choices for new players, and only somewhat less of a roadblock for any player that isn't heavily invested in system mastery. In itself, this is a valid point. The proposed solution is a problem, though: passive bonuses are just better than active abilities. They recognize this, so they're planning to make all feats as powerful and appealing as +1 to an ability score. Permit me to dissect some of the problems here. Once it's possible for all characters to have a 20 in their attack stat, there's no excuse for not having 20 in that stat. The principles underlying bounded accuracy reinforce this; the current design makes it so hard to garner a +1 bonus to hit (much less the adjustment to damage and all checks and saves for that stat) that other choices just aren't valid. 4e is a clear example of an edition in which having a primary ability score be something other than 18, 19, or 20 at first level just isn't a valid choice over the life of the character.
It's great and all that they're capping ability scores at 20, but when the player culture dictates (and yes, this is really how it comes across with players in the groups I know) that you must cap out your attack stat first, that means that players who start below 20 are just playing as if they never really earned those first several feats. There's also the problem that half of the time when you spend a feat on ability scores, they do nothing because you're turning an even number to an odd number. Talk about unsatisfying - it's a good thing they're pairing up feat slots with other class abilities. (Though from the looks of things so far, this means there will be a lot of dead levels, so that's a very surprising choice.) Mearls's comments about not making ability score feats just be a tax is... theoretically possible, but I think they'll have to work very hard to prove that they can accomplish this. Appropriately, Mearls says that "Feats are now more powerful than they have been in prior iterations of the playtest materials" - so we're going all-in on power creep even before the edition's release? How about just pursuing a different model, but keeping feats at about their current level of power - if not just a touch less?
It would help, though, if he were offering any crumbs of information on how many feats a character might receive over the course of their career. We can probably assume that the current packet's "no feats after 9th level" model is out the window, since they're shifting prestige classes and paragon paths - you know, late-game stuff - into feat progressions. Though I initially disliked that idea, I now see it as giving characters a second Specialty, probably starting somewhere between 6th and 9th levels.
My ideal case, so that I've mentioned it, is for Specialties, Feats, or whatever to give players and DMs more clear hooks for stories. D&D's approach to progression is at odds with requiring particular story developments in order to purchase things, until we get into the training-as-treasure items of 4e. I'd like to see rules support for training as 1-3 "slots" in a character's inventory, into which the character equips skills, feats, or class options earned through play. No matter how well they support gameplay, I'm happier with any system element that clearly and comfortably supports the game's story.
It took me a little while to embrace trained skills granting +1d4 or better to checks, but after seeing it in play for awhile, I like it a lot. The additional randomness of the skill die goes a long way toward getting people less focused on calculating the odds of success, thus reducing the feeling that you might as well not bother rolling if you don't have a great score in that ability. It's surprising how much that flash of mechanics-side tension can darken the mood of the table, if the player feels particularly negative about it. I also like the avoidance of flat bonuses, for the reason Mearls mentions, though the granularity of flat adds is useful - before they shifted to dice-based bonuses, I was experimenting with some "freeform" skills, kind of a midpoint between Over the Edge's player-defined skills and traditional D&D skills.
The next issue on the list here is that the current function of skills is grammatically awkward in play, and it's a major departure from every other implementation of skills we've seen in D&D. The actual function isn't weird if you've played games that aren't D&D. World of Darkness, for example, has a proud lineage of pairing skills and attributes in any combination to form dice pools, and using those combinations to create verb/adverb expressions for player actions. I am excited to see D&D embrace such a system, as it allows a richer use of skills and improves the sense of inclusion during skill challenges. The problem is that they're insisting on phrasing actions of this kind as "attribute checks with skills," and have persisted in this way for several packets. This could really use some explanation in a future Legends & Lore post (or Thursday Q&A, or whatever) because I don't get it.
A skill check should really be phrased as some grammatical contortion of what the character is doing or a trait the character has: e.g., "I want to Spot hidden enemies" or "Since I'm remarkably Streetwise, what do I know about the local thieves' guild?" The ability-score version of this would be something like "Because of my great (or not so great) Wisdom, I look for hidden enemies," or "Charismatic as I am, I gather rumors about the local thieves' guild." It can be done, but it's not the most relevant trait that a player with skill training calls to mind. I find myself calling for "Spot with Wisdom" or "Charisma with Streetwise," which gets the job done in probably the least-clunky way possible. This is a long-term problem for D&D, though, because their published material stops at calling for an ability score check, without giving any useful cues as to when particular skills should apply. DMs can and will do whatever they want when they're running their own material, but a lot of DMs feel more bound to what's printed in the module if they're running something someone else wrote.
Related to this, Samhaine pointed out... long enough ago that I'm not rifling through his backlog to find the post... that a lot of skills are used defensively and better phrased as saving throw improvements than active skills. Balance is one of the classic examples here, but just about anytime a failed skill check results in suffering damage or a penalty, what you really have is a saving throw. To this end, I absolutely think WotC should embrace skill dice, modifiers, or whatever as applying to saving throws, if appropriate.
Mearls's third point is that the skill die mechanic doesn't address either of the first two problems, citing complaints by those who like skill systems. Here I think the fanbase as a whole is simply wrong; the skill die mechanic does a perfectly fine job of working around bounded accuracy issues. It's entirely unrelated to the problem of Skill Grammar, so let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater! That's what they're doing, though. Skills are an optional part of gameplay, which is fine until we're talking about published material equally supporting groups that do and don't use skills.
There are three types of skills in the model presented here. Okay, I can get behind an admission that not all skills are created equal, but there's this thing about Knowledge skills that LARPs understand and tabletop games never have. There are really two ways you want to use a Knowledge skill, and those two methods need markedly different things from the skill system.
The player seeks additional exposition, so as to make an informed choice. (In my experience, players obsessively seek more information, to make a theoretically ever-more-informed choice, even once they know more about the topic than the GM does, because players are fundamentally risk-minimizing creatures.) For this purpose, including a die roll means that the player can fail, and thus be unaware of relatively trivial facts while being well-informed on esoteric but related facts.
As with other skills, the player wants to use the Knowledge skill to make progress in a challenge of some kind - impressing an academic with how well-versed you are, recognizing obscure magical signatures in a split second, and so on. This absolutely needs a skill check, and using Intelligence or Wisdom to govern how rapidly and correctly a character's mind processes a vast collection of facts works fine. This is, well, applied (Knowledge skill).
On the other hand, any situation that doesn't call for a die roll doesn't have game-like tension. It can have story tension, but things resolved by fiat have no tension in their resolution. "Did I succeed?" wants to lead to "Let's find out," not "Um, sure, sounds good."
The next kind of skill is the Proficiency. They're on to something interesting here: the concepts described here are half a step from eradicating the division between Skills and Combat in terms of resolution. I'm uncomfortable with some of the language about limitation that Mearls is using here, though - I'd rather allow players to try something untrained and fail than simply tell them that they may not attempt an action.
Finally, the Benefit: a new name given to the Traits found in Backgrounds right now. (Why they don't just call them Traits, I couldn't tell you.) These are either resources or unusual avenues toward acquiring resources and Benefits tend to be the most interesting part of the Backgrounds we've seen so far. (See also: why the Bounty Hunter is the best freaking Background ever - it is literally just adventure hooks galore.) Membership in an organization - with all the useful plot that that entails - is also pretty common.
Wait, isn't something missing? Like... skill at acrobatics, or perception, or anything that isn't either a field of knowledge or tool-using? We're not seriously saying that all of those are unmodified ability checks, are we? The article is pretty unclear here - on rereading, I get the impression that on the one hand there are optional skills, and on the other hand the Areas of Knowledge (Lores. Call them Lores, guys), Proficiencies, and Benefits that are not considered optional. Oh, and I guess skills (if used) don't come from your Background? Anyway, let's move on to...
Mearls here announces an overhaul of classes, particularly the fighter and the rogue. It's a perplexing choice - they're already the most coherent and engaging classes. In the current packet, the fighter's builds carry mechanical weight, but very little thematic weight - it's a fighting style, and that's all. The changes indicated here move a lot more thematic weight into the builds - so where does this leave Backgrounds and Specialties, that previously shouldered that burden? If Knight is a fighter build and a Background, then what? Ultimately Mearls doesn't give us enough definite information here to do more than speculate as I am doing.
What is clear is that feats granting ability scores is the game's new default, which shows quite a different tone from the statement that feats will have to grant especially interesting, optional abilities. Mearls explains that classes have to be the primary source of interesting actions, since they can't assume characters will have options derived from feats. Once a character has 2-3 broadly-applicable options, that's enough that the player can spend all later feats on passive bonuses to improve the accuracy and damage bonuses on those actions. A better course would be to avoid ability score bonuses from feats and instead take greater care in designing feats than previous editions seem to show. Write them so that benefits are immediately apparent even to new players and to players with little interest in system mastery. Publishing "default" feat selections that are actually good choices, rather than the glaringly poor choices recommended in 3.x default builds, would help.
In summary: the current structure of feats, skills, and class options don't need the massive redirection that Mearls seems to describe. There are areas that need a ground-up redesign, but feats, skills, and class options really just need some minor tweaks, followed by lavishing incredible care on the presentation of the information. Continuing in this direction, I favor clear divisions between Class, Background, and Specialty, according to their original functions, with maximum freedom to create both archetypal combinations and unexpected, intriguing ones.