The somewhat-complicated skill rules from third edition have been simplified and pared down to around 10 pages in 4e. The basic check vs. DC mechanic is still intact, but the basic assumptions of the system are entirely different.
To begin with, there are no skill points or skill ranks. Training in a skill gets you a +5 bonus to checks using that skill, and, depending on the skill, it might allow you to attempt to use a skill in certain ways that untrained people can’t. Anyone can use the Arcana skill untrained to attempt to identify a magical effect, but only someone trained can use it to detect magic. (Yep, detect magic is a skill now.)
There are still class skills; each class offers a list, from which so many skills can be trained. There’s a feat called Skill Training that, unsurprisingly, allows you to train in an extra skill, even if it’s not a class skill.
All skills now get better as a character levels up; half the character’s level is added to the die roll on each skill check. This means that, even at high levels, a character has a chance of succeeding with an untrained skill check. This is my favorite change to the system so far. In 3e, at any but the lowest level, an untrained roll had no chance of success if the check DC was high enough to challenge those party members who’d actually trained — and if it was low enough to give the untrained a chance, anyone trained would basically automatically succeed. Characters basically had to specialize in order to keep up with the increasing DCs, and then their skills put them into a box where they were only good at X, Y, and Z. This became particularly painful with things like Spot and Listen, where anything hoping to hide from the ranger or rogue had to basically be invisible to the untrained party members.
In 4e, skill checks are still a good bit easier with training, thanks to that +5, but an untrained check is no longer an automatic failure.
A further help is the way skills have been compressed. A few very useful skills, like Diplomacy and Bluff, remain more or less intact. Others have been combined, so that the three “notice something” skills (Search, Spot, and Listen) are now encapsulated into Perception. All told there are 17 skills. On the whole, I like the spread of options; the only thing I’m not certain of is the decision to leave out a Craft/Profession skill. To a large extent, that could be worked into the character’s background, though — if the fighter wants to have been an apprentice blacksmith, I can handwave it and let him roleplay things like making a new sword instead of buying one, or repairing his own armor. I’ll have to consider whether to house-rule Profession back in.
The skill write-ups are brief, but pretty decent for the most part. Diplomacy, though, gets a mere two paragraphs, without even a table of sample DCs. That could have been handled a little better. I’m pretty sure the Dungeon Master’s Guide will offer more information about it, though.
Feats get about 20 pages. There are a lot of them, but they’re written up in terse stat blocks, without a lot of flavor text or lengthy descriptions — just the name, prerequisites, and effect of each feat. There are race- and class-based feats along with general feats, and there are feats provided for each of the three tiers.
Heroic feats tend, naturally, to be smaller stuff. A new proficiency, an extra trained skill, a +1 or +2 bonus to a check or roll, a little extra damage with a specific type of attack. Improved Initiative, Power Attack, Mounted Combat, Skill Focus, Toughness. Weapon Focus is here, but it’s now a +1 damage bonus (increasing to +2 at 11th level and +3 at 21st). There’s a decent selection. Many of the feats seem underpowered compared to their 3e counterparts, but it’s also true that a 4e character will get many more feats as they level up than most 3e characters. Also, several of the old 3e feats are now class powers. My gut instinct is that things will balance out.
Paragon feats are a little stronger. The ability to roll twice on certain checks and choose the higher result, for instance, or an extra +1 to AC from a given type of armor, or +2 to a specific defense, or a damage increase, or a +1 square bonus to movement speed. Evasion and Mettle are feats in this tier, as are Uncanny Dodge and Spell Focus. On the whole, these feats look to be about equal to the average 3e feats.
Epic feats are pretty limited. About 1/3 of them are simply Improved Critical with a certain weapon type; other feats allow the character to ignore the extra cost of difficult terrain when moving, to regain use of an encounter power following a critical hit, and to spend an action point to recover use of a daily spell. Blind-Fight is here, too, and quite powerful now — anything adjacent to you doesn’t gain any benefit from concealment or invisibility. There are some nice options; I just wish there were more of them.
The chapter ends with a two-page section dealing with multiclassing, which is achieved through feats in 4e. A character selects one of eight feats (one per class), to which the prerequisite is a score of 13 in that class’s primary attribute. (Exceptions: The ranger feat requires a 13 in either strength or dexterity; the paladin feat requires a 13 in both strength and charisma.) You gain training in one skill, plus the ability to use a specific class feature on either a daily or per-encounter basis. Further feats allow the swapping of known encounter, utility, and daily powers for powers from that class. If you take all four feats, then instead of choosing a paragon path, you can choose to keep gaining powers from your multiclass.
This is not necessarily a bad idea, but there are some flaws. For instance, a multiclass cleric learns the Religion skill and gains a daily use of the cleric’s healing word power. (And also gains the ability to use a holy symbol as an implement, a trait of clerics.) But he can’t Channel Divinity, which means no turning undead, and no choosing most, if not all, of the cleric-specific feats.
Also, the warlock multiclass feat allows pursuing the warlock paragon path, but the multiclass rules seem to disallow choosing a paragon path. On further inspection, it turns out that choosing a multiclass feat allows a character to pursue that class’s paragon path, but it threw me a little at first. Part of the reason is the “multiclass paragon path” — the ability to keep switching out powers that I mentioned above, instead of taking an actual path. Initially, I’d read it as forbidding a regular paragon path altogether, which, fortunately, is not the case.
I’ll have to see how this works out in play, but my first impression isn’t favorable. Multiclassing’s always been a little broken in D&D, in one way or another, but I was hoping for something better. It’s possible that just opening up the feats a little, to allow a choice of a class feature from the secondary class instead of a specific one, might work, but without seeing it in play, there’s no way of knowing.
Artwork: The splash page for skills is pretty neat; I laughed because it reminded me of some of the overkill deathtraps I ran into in previous editions. (It’s nothing on the Tomb of Horrors’ sphere of annihilation, though.) There’s a nice half-page piece on page 184, illustrating a diplomatic situation, and one on page 187 that might indicate both Nature and Perception (which are explained on the previous pages). The one on page 189, illustrating Stealth, is too murky for my tastes… but considering the topic, I guess that’s not too surprising. The feats chapter has quite a bit of nice art, from the splash page battle against undead — and I love the way the purple sky looks there, it really gives the scene a dark, eerie feel — to the smaller action scenes scattered throughout the chapter. There’s some nice work here, the kind that makes me want to jump into a game.