The concept behind Skill Powers, Dragon’s most recent debut content, is exceedingly simple. Skill Powers are utility powers which you gain access to by being trained in a certain skill rather than from your class. In other words, if you are a fighter trained in Athletics who levels up to second level, you can either gain your utility power from your class like Get Over Here, or from your Athletics skill like Bounding Leap.
It makes sense from a design point of view. Mike Mearls mentions in the article’s commentary that skill powers are an easy way to make certain options available, “without having to repeat ourselves across a number of different classes.”
What I find interesting is that it represents a step away from the class structure which has been at Dungeon & Dragon’s core since the very beginning. Possibly the biggest step since the introduction of Feats in Dungeons & Dragons 3e.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there is a plan to ditch the class system in the works at Wizards of the Coast. That is one sacred cow I don’t believe they are willing to turn into tasty steak yet.
I do think that this represents a definitive weakening of the class system though. Keep in mind that character design in Dungeons & Dragons 4e revolves around your choice of powers. They represent the biggest way to customize your character in the game. Up until now, power choices have always been primarily governed by your class.
Skill Powers change this dynamic in a fundamental way.
If you think about it, there is no real reason that this concept needs to be limited to skills. Utility powers only open to members of a specific race, seem like a logical next step. It is possible to go even farther afield though. How about utility powers tied to your character’s region for a Forgotten Realms game? Maybe even powers tied to your character background from PHB2?
I would be surprised if Wizards of the Coast didn’t explore at least some of these options in upcoming books. This is not necessarily a bad idea, as long as these additional powers don’t overpower the existing class based ones.
Of course, I have never been one to balk at more options in character design. Your mileage may vary.