I think I might have caught some people a little off guard with my statements about skills in my breakdown of why I believe Fourth Edition failed as a commercial undertaking. I suggested that, while a unified skill system was a great idea for Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons, I felt that the implementation of that same system in Fourth Edition D&D was a huge mistake. Here’s why.
Fourth Edition D&D plays a lot like First Edition D&D in that the focus of the game is on combat encounters. Fourth Edition departs from First Edition in its handling of non-combat aspects of the game. Where First Edition took a very hands-off approach to the less-than-fighty bits, Fourth has evolved the intricate skill system put in place during the Third iteration of the game, and I believe that’s problematic in how the game delivers on its focus. See, if you’re looking for the essence of First Edition D&D, if your goal is to build a game that feels more like First Edition than any edition since, you need to make the players’ decision-making count more than their skill checks.
See, when you’re playing a game of First Edition D&D, you don’t have skills to fall back on, and you’re forced to go through dungeons terrified of everything. You have to poke the pile of stones because it might be the home of a carrion crawler. You have to make sure you’ve explored every nook in the room, or you might miss out on some keen treasure, and that’s not as simple as rolling a perception check, that requires describing what it is you’re doing, and if you miss something, the DM has every right to just sit on his or her hands and giggle. This paranoia, this creativity, is part of what gave the First Edition game a lot of its oomph. Soon enough, you had a party decked out with ten foot poles and a bunch of critters to check the halls for you (we preferred gnomes, because we’re bastards).
The only character in a First Edition game with skills was a thief, and oftentimes those skill scores were so incredibly low you couldn’t depend on them. If you had the ability to try picking a lock two or three times, your DM wasn’t rolling often enough on the wandering monster tables.
Fourth Edition’s skill system, in particular the Skill Challenge system, allows players to bypass fun in favor of more dice rolls. I have had a few situations in which Skill Challenges were genuinely good, but the vast majority of the time, they’re just multiple-success skill checks with some extra description attached, and no one’s really having a good time because the real fun is the fightin’.
There is no compelling reason why the skill system as it currently exists in D&D Fourth Edition needs to be in the game at all. In Third Edition, it was solving a problem, and the multitude of skill checks in that system made sense and worked with everything else we knew about the game. In D&D Fourth Edition, it seems to be a dated holdover from a previous game, tacked on with little regard for why it’s even there.
The problem that was solved in Third Edition was that, in a system that could do absolutely anything, a system needed to exist that would accommodate non-combat issues as they cropped up. In Third Edition, they invariably would crop up and skill checks made for a solid tool to help deal with them. Third Edition was a game without borders, really, a game where you could move from world-spanning politics to dungeon crawling in the space of a half hour, and you’d need a diverse toolbox to be able to appropriately deal with that.
When D&D Fourth Edition shifted its focus to a more combat-centric model, it lost much of the need for an intricate and detailed skill system. What you did between fights was rarely as important as the fight itself and would often feel like unnecessary filler, the boring bits between stabbing and more stabbing. The thing that held the stabbing together. The skills that would have made for an interesting addition to D&D Fourth Edition were removed because of their seeming unimportance: profession and craft skills, things that would have given your characters something worth doing outside of their kill-stab-rest-kill-stab routine, were left off the skill list. Why? Because those skills didn’t really contribute to what the focus of the game was meant to be: skulking around dungeons, beating up monsters and taking their stuff.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s room for skills to exist in D&D Fourth Edition in a meaningful way, I just don’t think that the system they used was the system that best fit the return to dungeon-crawly goodness. It felt like an afterthought, and while they certainly streamlined the system and fixed some glaring issues with it, they were still using the system in an environment in which it made very little sense.
My problem with feats in Fourth Edition D&D is that, compared to powers, they are utterly and completely forgettable. There aren’t many feats that stand out and go “Hey, look at me, I’m something flavorful, interesting and complex that will help you define your character in a cool new direction,” which is a direction that would have made them far more playable, would have opened more design space, and would have made the system feel like a natural addition to Fourth Edition instead of a tacked on Third Edition afterthought.
Feats suffer from much the same problem as skills in that they were brought into Fourth Edition design with no real concept of where they were going to fit, how they were going to make the game better. In many ways, feats read like generic powers that are… well, bad. Some of them are so necessary you’d might as well not make a character without them (the expertise feats), while others are so distinctly bad that I sincerely believe they were included to pad the page count.
In Third Edition, feats were what powers are now. They were the cool tricks that made your character distinctive and awesome. In Fourth Edition, there’s really no need for them. Even necessary feats like the expertise feats can be fixed by adding a ubiquitous +1 to hit somewhere in character progression, and then we don’t need them anymore. There isn’t a problem in Fourth Edition that feats (as they exist) fix, and that makes them feel lame-duck and dated. If feats had been interesting, flamboyant expressions of character, they would fix a deep problem Fourth Edition has, but as they are, they’re flat, boring and entirely underwhelming compared to their big brother, powers.
A better system would have been a point-buy Merit and Flaw system built into the core of the game. These have existed in role-playing games for decades, and they provide an interesting direction for character personalization that D&D Fourth Edition was desperately hoping for. The problem comes, again, from the strange homogeny that Fourth Edition sought in its design strategy, the idea that nothing in the game can break the rules. Merit and Flaw systems are ripe for character optimization junkies, because they provide tools with which to fiddle for the best possible combination of Merits that Rock and Flaws that Don’t Matter. It would have been a difficult design to fit into the vision Wizards of the Coast apparently had for the game, but creating a homogenous merit and flaw system that added something different and interesting to the game would have been a far cry better than copying a watered down version of a system you’ve already obsoleted with other designs.
It seems people are confused as to why I believe Fourth Edition died. I thought I made it pretty clear, but I’m going to reiterate my point as clearly as possible for my readers, just in case:
Fourth Edition died because it stopped selling books. It stopped selling books because the designers of the game were no longer publishing anything that was at all interesting. I feel that this is a failing on the part of the designers to exploit the cavernous amounts of design space available in Fourth Edition D&D.