I was reading a blog post about how D&D has really boring scenery most of the time, and the first thing I thought about was Mouse Guard. Then today, there was a news post from the guys at Wizards of the Coast about how D&D doesn't do skills in a way that's really interesting or compelling, and there's a few different systems for skills and that sort of suck. Again, I thought about Mouse Guard. To me, both of these things stem from a single issue, and that issue is addressed head-on in Mouse Guard in a really elegant way.
In D&D, skills actually serve to limit player authorship. In early versions of the game, versions without skills, a player had to clearly describe every single action he or she was going to take, and ask a lot of important questions about the surrounding area to make sure they weren't making an insane mistake. The advent of skills allowed a player to quickly and simply describe the task he or she was about to attempt in a sort of gaming short-hand. "I'm going to search for traps," and then rolling dice was a perfectly acceptable way to handle situations that would have taken a lot of thought and consideration without the skill. And that's actually pretty cool, that's a neat piece of gaming technology that gets the focus back where it belongs, on the violence.
But somewhere along the way, we got lazy. We started replacing ingenuity and thought with skill checks almost entirely. Rather than try and remember a pertinent detail yourself, you'd roll a History check. Rather than role-play your way through a sticky situation, you'd roll a Diplomacy check, and that was it. That's all that was expected of our players, and while that certainly made it easier to get to the violence, I think D&D design has sort of lost its way when it comes to skill design and why and how skills are used in the game. Players aren't authoring things anymore, they're rolling dice and calling it good.
And Mouse Guard presented some really elegant fixes to that problem, while still retaining the shorthand. A really good example of this is how the game handles weather watching. If you'd like to know what the weather is going to be like in the near future, you can make a weather watching check. If you succeed, you decide what the weather is going to be like at the start of the next session. If you fail, the GM gets to throw a weather-shaped monkey wrench in your plans, or you take a condition.
There are two parts of this that deserve a closer look: 1) you decide what the weather is going to look like and 2) if you fail, things get worse. Deciding what the weather is going to look like is a hell of a lot of power to put in a player's hands, but properly balanced with the threat of a massive drawback, it's not that big a deal. But imagine that power (and that threat) applied to other aspects of the game. To take an example from the Wizards post, let's look at a history check.
You're in the middle of deep, dank dungeon, and you come across a statue of a beautiful woman in her middle years, holding what looks like a spear, but the haft is busted halfway to her hand. With the current resolution system, you would roll a d20, add your skill bonuses, and compare them to the difficulty. If you succeed, the DM tells you stuff about the statue (or not). If you fail, nothing happens.
With the Mouse Guard system, you'd roll your D20, add your skill bonuses and compare the result to a difficulty number again. This time, if you succeed, YOU tell everyone what's up with the statue. Make it up. Tell a story. If you fail, the DM gets to throw a twist at you. The statue attacks, it crumbles and a horde of scarabs crawl out, the ceiling collapses, the statue's sculptor begins haunting you for getting it wrong, whatever.
What this does, and I think this is important, is provide a mechanical reason to add detail to the world. With success, players get a chance to author bits and pieces of the world, and with that duty spread among multiple people, more interesting details will begin to emerge. With failure, the DM gets to throw in twists and challenges that add further detail to the world through their very existence. Used while travelling, this will give players and DMs a chance to flesh out the scenery. Used in dungeons, it will provide a powerful tool for adding depth to a simple treasure-hunt. And in the right circumstances, it might encourage players to rely less on their skills. If you're in a room with three sleeping dragons and a kobold is about to sound a gong to wake them up while you're on a ladder over a river of lava, let's face it: you don't need any added complications in your life. Maybe you should think this one through the old-school way.