Skills are a hot button subject for my gaming group. Most of the guys in my group loved D&D 3.x’s approach to skills, which allowed a high degree of granularity and focus in such mundane concerns as crafting and professions. When the D&D 4th Edition dismissed Craft and Profession as un-fun skills, half our group saw red. They still fume about that given time. Others liked 4th Edition’s condensed skill list, and focus on adventuring applications over crafting arrows or performing songs.
Naturally D&D Next is concerned about skills, and based on a recent blog post they are clearly looking to retain the customization options that 3.x offers, while making things more streamlined. First, they’re talking about making a lot of your day to day “skill checks” using the ability scores. So instead of making a “Climb check”, you’d presumably make a Strength check. Second, they also explicitly state they want to retain true skills so that they have a meaningful impact on the game and allow the sort of customization that we saw in 3E (and to a certain extent, 4E).
Personally, I like the customization of skills, but at the same time they’re time consuming to stat out for mid-to-high level NPCs and can be overwhelming for newbies. D&D 3.x are also a great way to break the game at high levels, as we saw in our own games with the nigh-near-unspottable Stealth Mandalorian in our Star Wars d20 campaign and the awesome verbal skills of a certain Dark City Diplomacizer.
Basing checks on ability scores, augmented by skills, would allow the skill bonuses to advance at a more moderate rate. It also has the potential to give you more flexibility at the table, rather than having to take ranks in Rope Use or Climb. (“Wait, you’re saying I can’t tie a knot because I don’t have Rope Use? But I have a Dex of 22 and an Int of 14!”)
I can see it working like this — each ability score has certain tasks associated with it, e.g. Dex gets acrobatics, feints, jumping, etc. while Str gets climbing, swimming, etc. Each of these scores could then be augmented by a skill. For example, the skill “Mountaineering” might grant bonuses to Strength of climbing or Dex for Jumping. Additional ranks in Mountaineering could increase the bonus granted. In this, skills could be a lot like feats, but perhaps you get more of them than feats.
Other systems do this, notably Cortex (Firefly, Battlestar Galactica), in which every check in the game involves rolling two dice: one for an ability, one for a skill. You then add the two together and compare against a target number.
The advantage to this is that it’s a lot more flexible than the current system, and potentially simpler too. If you’re climbing through the mountains, and need to get across a crevice, players could argue for using a variety of stats.
Strength to jump across. Intelligence to construct a bridge. Dexterity to carefully time moving from handhold to handhold. All could be augmented by the “Mountaineering” skill. And note how Strength and Dex can both be used for Climbing (which, in my experience on the rock wall, is about right — sometimes you’re brute-forcing your way up, sometimes you have to carefully time grabbing another handhold)
All of this is a long way of saying that I think you can simplify the skill system, returning back to something like what we had in the early days, while still retaining some of the customization we had in 3E, all the while adding a lot more flexibility to the system.
I’d like a system where everything isn’t strictly codified. I’d rather have a framework that we can riff off of during an adventure than a hard-coded system of what you can and can’t do.