I wrote already of how Monte Cook’s Arcana Evolved partly inspired the idea for the Digital Dark Age campaign. Since then Arcana Evolved has been on my mind quite a bit, so I decided to pull it off the shelf and refresh my memory. I haven’t settled on a particular system to run the Digital Dark Age campaign, though I've been strongly considering using Savage Worlds. My mind has hardly been made up and I’m still open to considering other ideas. Other ideas always seem to lead back to some version of 3.x sooner or later. Out of all the editions of D&D thus far, 3.x was the one that I played the most and thus my familiarity and comfort with the system has consistently drawn me back time and time again.
It's been ages since I’ve picked up anything based on 3e in a long time, the last thing being a Pathfinder game. The last actual D&D game I ran was a recent 4e campaign. I was while flipping through the pages of Arcana Evolved and looking over the section on skills that something started to dig at me. What it came down to was the different ways that skills were handled between 3.x and 4e D&D.
In 3e skills were one of those elements that players would agonize over trying to figure out how to allocate those precious points. Rogues got a ton of them, while fighters seemed to be destined to be dumb meatheads that were just supposed to swing a sword. This often created an odd situation where some classes could do something with a skill check, while others would never have a hope in hell. Nowhere was this more frustrating than when the group wanted to sneak through the enemies’ lair only to have everyone fail the check except the rogue. In addition the skill list was so large and specific that the rules as written seemed to imply that if your character didn’t have ranks in certain trained skills or not enough ranks he was incapable of doing certain tasks. Even if that task was something that might very well be logical for that character of that particular class to know or do.
4e substantially paired down the skill list. Each of these remaining skills became a broad stroke of a character expertise. Skill points were ditched, and now increased based on character level and a flat bonus applied if the character was trained or untrained. The DC checks also seemed to be scaled way back, and now based almost exclusively on the characters current level.
So the rub is this. I like how 4e have Skills and DC’s based on a characters level. I also like the simplification that skills are either trained or not. But I can’t help but feel that in 4e skills are trivialized and unless the player rolls like shit he’s almost guaranteed to succeed on a check. Which begs the question why the fuck even bother with Skills then? An ability check would work just as well.
On the other hand I feel that if you’re going to have Skills as an integral part of a characters class than it should be a meaningful and robust sub system. A system that allows the player the ability to freely customize and choose what kind of tasks his character is or isn’t skilled at, but not to the point that he's restricted in his ability to think of interesting and unique ways of using a skill. A middle ground needs to be found between the narrow and broad use of skills that a character can use to accomplish various tasks. In addition choosing and upgrading skills should be a relatively quick and painless process, and not an exercise in accounting.
It’s when I come to this conclusion that I can finally come to terms with how in pre 3e, or even 2e that the idea of a codified set of skills might be considered an unnecessary element to the old school crowd. It’s a case of rules being either so oversimplified that they become redundant, or so complex that they can become a straight jacket to what can character can and cannot do. Ultimately this lack of freedom can and often does, discourage the creative problem solving that can often lead to some of the most memorable and satisfying moments around the gaming table.
I’m still not sure of where I stand on this subject. It’s when I think about stuff like this that I hope that 5e will truly be the one edition to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them. But I’m not holding my breath.