Mike Mearls wrote one of those great articles that so typical of him that reveals that as much awesome 4e stuff we see, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of his understanding of the game. It’s about skills, and you should go read it if you haven’t.
Since I show my love through graffiti, I’m going to suggest that the idea is really, really good, but I’d tweak it a little bit in play. For those too lazy to go read, Mike proposes that skill ranks be broken down into a descriptive ladder:
And that the DM should use those guidelines for setting difficulties, such as “It would take an expert climber to go over this wall”. If you have the skill at a level higher than expert, you don’t bother to roll, you just succeed. If you have it lower than Expert, its out of your league. If you have it at expert, then you roll against a DC of 15 to see if you succeed.
This is pretty slick, and because it explicitly removes the “+ half your level” element of the skill rolls, it makes skill difficulties feel more coherent (rather than requiring EPIC WALLS to challenge climbing at level 25). Mike also slips in a nice trick whereby player cleverness and planning can change the difficulty category of the check rather than give themselves a modifier to the roll. Very slick.
Admittedly, there are no guidelines for how to determine character expertise, but that’s a two line rule – Everyone’s a novice at everything, everything you’re trained in you’re a journeyman at. Each feat bumps it one step. If you want to support epic chars being awesome at everything, then characters get an-across-the-board bump at 10 and 20. There, done.
Anyway, I want to call it out as a nice tweak on things, but also as one destined to disappear. If Mike could convince the Character builder to support ideas like this, I would be SHOCKED (and utterly delighted). But I’m intrigued because – unlike most web mods – it’s not impossible that it could be supported. I’m going to keep one eye on this, just to see.
My impression has been that Mearle’s weekly musings have been think-aloud planning for 5e/next iteration (whenever that shows up), since he’s doing a lot of “back to basics; what do we want out of game?” stuff. I wouldn’t expect anything he’s talking about to show up in the Character Builder (or the game) as we currently know it.
What I once thought was a liberating tool, the Charcter Builder has become more prison like that I realized was possible. I love that it contains all of the items to select, but I hate that it is STILL not a finished deliverable. I don’t know what kind of budget they have on the IT side of the house, but nothing of substance seems to be appearing to finish the intial IT solution. Instead, they’ve chosen to move on to the Web Table application. It’s disappointing. It’s disheartening. I truly wish there planning process was more transparent.
A lot of the utility of this system is that you can assign levels to challenges that are the same for any character at any level of the game and that you can modify the difficult with circumstances. Still, at its core, the game system is still a three tier system: auto-success, auto-fail, and make a check, all of these modified by circumstances.
The interesting thing to me is what happens on either end of the skill system. Is there a mechanical or narrative effect to being over-matched or over-prepared?
When a journeyman climber, with no circumstance bonus, attempts to climb a grandmaster cliff, what happens? Does the GM gain the ability to give the player a failure at a later point, or grant consequences (lose surges equal to change in difficultly and gain dazed condition for first encounter afterwards until extended rest), or just tell the player they’re unable to do it and to try something else?
On the other end, does the expert climber get to climb the novice peak faster? Do they get the drop on someone they’re following?
Obviously, we can say that the GM decides what to do, but it seems that the folks with lukewarm reactions to the system as described are reticent about how the interaction will occur, and whether they’ll be codified.
I noticed reading through the comments on the Mearls post that some individuals seem to dislike the thought of automatic success, because they see it as a waste of GM resources to come up with an encounter that can be trivially solved. I think this misses the point entirely.
You might present the players a challenge that they could ALMOST surpass, and then let them figure out how to circumstance themselves into being able to make a check. In the same way, you can take something that should be easy and add some circumstances that make it challenging, even for your awesome character.
Take a group of adventurers storming the Lich’s castle. The fighter can’t succeed at climbing the walls to get in and let down the draw bridge. The rogue can’t succeed at discerning the arcane sigils protecting the lich’s keep. The wizard can’t succeed at healing the kidnapped king’s grievous wounds. But each character COULD try to modify the circumstances to allow a check, or the character will the appropriate skill could handle it.
But when the rogue is climbing the wall, the lich’s guards start shooting arrows. Now you’re making a check, unless you can think fast…
The wizard is deciphering the arcane sigils, but the intense sounds of approaching battle begin to rattle him…
The cleric is healing the king, when the lich’s necrotic aura begins to eat away at his healing magic…
The main drawback in this system of assigning skills is that some characters have TONS of skills, and some have very few. An eladrin wizard could be better at anything the fighter wants to do AND have two or three skill trainings left over. Perhaps all characters could earn double ranks in class skills, and one rank in non-class skills, and otherwise have no restrictions to the skill system. Then the eladrin wizard has to train twice in Athletics to match the Fighter, while the fighter has to train twice in Arcana to match the wizard. Then you could give characters access to an equal amount of trainings. Then you could have niche protection and well-rounded characters.
Your link to his posting is incorrect — you’ve got an extra http// near the front.
Maybe crib an idea from Apocalypse World? For every level below the skill requirement for the task, the DM gets to choose another penalty from a list; for every level the character exceeds the required skill level, the player gets to select a benefit.
The criminally under-rated SECRET OF ZURAN rpg uses exactly this system FWIW.