D&D Next Possibilities
I'm really sick of talking about that stuff. I'm sick of discussing mechanics of a system that we don't even have all of the information for and which new information is constantly being added to. However, the one thing that isn't being discussed is the character potential. THIS is what I am, and what we all should be, interested in.
In my last playtest, I was lucky enough to have in the party a very old-school Dungeoneer. This fellow had been playing ever since Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and had played in at least some capacity every edition of D&D (with the majority of his time being spent on the 1st and 3rd editions). Our particular discussion evolved when I asked him what made him change from one system to the next. His response was a vague but all-too familiar answer - It was the feel of the system. Ultimately, 1st and 2nd edition felt similar in the way that you created your character and the flavor of your class and the overall game. 3rd Edition changed up the details in which you got to delve into your character with feats and skills, thus increasing the amount of thought that you needed to put into who your character is and exactly what they do.
When 4th Edition rolled around WotC attempted to do another large jump in the feel of the system. Thus, they introduced roles into the classes and gave you specific paths to follow. While feats and skills still existed in the game, much more emphasis was put on what role you were and what type of class you were playing. With the advent of Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker bases for all of the player classes (and enemies, as well) the game started to feel a bit more, well... gamey. Suddenly, you stopped feeling like you were playing a character and much more like you were playing a class. You were a bunch of numbers and abilities, and nothing really needed to move beyond that. The personality had been taken out of the system.
Now we're turning our attentions to D&D Next. Some of the same basic mechanics are still there, however wisely things have been changed (some in name only) to make them feel a bit more personal. Instead of a class role, you now have a Theme - the principal behind it is relatively similar to the mechanic of 4th Ed, however your character having a theme in his style just sounds more personal. It takes the emphasis off of combat and puts it more heavily on the character's general profile. You also chose a Background for your character. While this might just be a grouping of bonuses that your character gets, often enough they don't seem to be mechanical bonuses (though the wise GM will always find a way to implement them as such for the good player), but instead something that pulls in the role-playing of the game. Whether your cleric can reach out to local clergy for assistance, or the rogue is able to feel out the best place to pawn his wares, it requires more of an emphasis on RP in order to take advantage of, which you will never see in a straight hack/slash game.
There will inevitably be people out there who only take these backgrounds and themes with a grain of salt, randomly selecting them or only taking the ones that give the best bonuses. However, throughout the game that background will still be sitting there on their character sheet and if the GM chooses (whether the player wants it to or not) he can have that background come into play at any point during the game. Is the fighter a former farmer? Then perhaps the people look down on him for his commoner past. Did your rogue just throw down that he is royalty on his sheet? Well then, it might be rather hard for him to inconspicuously get around town since everyone knows his face. Eventually, one way or another, that background and theme will come into play, and it's yet another mechanic that either the GM, player, or both can use to increase the role-playing of the characters involved in the campaign.
Even when it comes down to the lack of skills on the sheet, it just opens the game up to more role-playing opportunities. How many time have you had a player simply say "I want to use Jump" or "I want to make a Knowledge Nature check"? All too often, I'm guessing. Now that the list isn't there, even the casual wording of those simple tasks have changed. If you pay close attention, the phrase "I want to make a Jump check" has changed to "I want to jump" - It has changed from the use of a skill by the player to an action performed by the character. And if encouraged by the GM then this small change can be expanded upon into the rest of the game.
Hell, they even have a mechanic built-in for not using the basic mechanics!
Improvise allows you to just make stuff up. With the combination of a creative player and smart GM, the characters will be able to create some very interesting and intense game moments. An expressive player can take the time and effort to come up with something intriguing enough that, if successful, will lend him an advantage (or disadvantage, depending on the outcome) on his next action. This requires forethought and creativity by the player, as well as knowledge of their character and their capabilities. One of the biggest problems people have had with D&D thus far is the separation of role-playing and combat - Once the word initiative is uttered by the GM, a switch is flipped and each player appears to be staring at a completely different character sheet than before. The lack of skills and the advent of improvisation now begs, nay taunts, you to pull RP into your combat, thus blending the two worlds together.
Overall, I am very interested to see where this next iteration of our favorite RPG goes, and hope that the core of the game stays true to this character-driven and RP heavy base. The potential for such a system is infinite when put in the creative hands of a good table.