I'll get back to crafting later this week. For now, I want to continue a discussion from Heather's site about how we can relax the necessity of power balancing and open the field to a wider variety of skills and characters.
SHEER POWER VS LUCK
In a typical MMORPG, skills are confined mostly to the realm of power (more specifically, to some sort of hit-point system, ala D&D) because of linear progression and a disqualification of luck or chance. Skills with less than optimum damage/healing/etc are discouraged because progression, in the form of new skills and opportunities, is possible only through brute-force combat. There's strong pressure to take on the toughest enemies, because that's what gets you the best loot and best xp.
In other types of games, luck and chance acceptably play a much greater role. Boardgames which use dice are great examples. In Monopoly, a hugely successful game, the player's progress relies more on uncontrollable factors (your dice rolls, others' dice rolls, order of rolls, and card draws) than on player decisions. Tetris is another example of a wildly popular game with tremendous emphasis on chance.
So why is chance so often eschewed in RPGs?
I think it goes back to the genre's D&D roots. In the tabletop roleplaying game, the set system, the game's fixed mechanics, are mostly linear. Dice rolls decide your character's stats (a merciful DM may let you reroll one or two) and are continually used in "saving throws", but skill progression generally occurs according to xp gained from killing monsters. D&D includes a great deal more chance and lateral gameplay than that, but that element is introduced through the Dungeon Master... the human, creative storyteller. Human imagination rounds out what would otherwise be a more linear game.
If you never played D&D, I doubt I could adequately describe how vital the DM is to any D&D adventure. The game will succeed or fail depending on how good the DM is.
As RPGs evolved from the tabletop setting to text adventures to video games, the balance tables were increasingly emphasized as the DM's dynamic and rounding role was left behind. RPGs gradually became more about increasing power than about dynamic and unpredictable adventures. They became more about fulfilling a predetermined skillset and gearset than about shaping one's character into something unique and personal.
It doesn't have to be this way. The limitless imagination of a human narrator and designer (the DM) can't be replaced, but we can adjust the fundamental elements of the game to counteract that loss to some degree.
One way is to award skills and other forms of progression by ways other than combat and combat-related quests, ways involving factors beyond the player's control (chance/luck). The player might attain a new skill by happening across a particular NPC ("happening across" anything is only possible when NPCs are more dynamic than stationary quest-dispensers), by looting a scroll, by equipping an item (which must be equipped for the skill to be maintained), by researching in a library and deciphering old texts, by quest, by alchemical accident, by perceiving an NPC perform the skill and learning, by being bitten or stung by a particular creature, by being near a magical source (skills limited to particular environments could really refresh adventures), by winning contests... and on and on.
The skill system might mimick D&D spellcasters in that you can only know so many, but the ones you know can be swapped out periodically for new ones. The player's number of skill slots might grow as the player progresses. Rather than strict grouping of skills, perhaps attunement to one skill makes another less effective while making others more effective. Perhaps one skill may even alter the type of effect of another.
An alternate reward system, as I've discussed before, is essential. Rather than award xp and loot for every encounter, reward some with loot, some with money, some with faction, some with reknown, some with access, some with skills, some with knowledge, some with titles, etc (or with combinations). Some upward growth in power is good, but that doesn't have to be the emphasis. In SWG, players didn't become exponentially more powerful as they progressed through the game, or even gain many more hit-points. It worked. Most of a player's growth was in faction and ownership.
Allow for different player roles to compliment one another without having to experience the same content. Even solo players can benefit player societies if you enable them (as I like to point out, what great epic tale doesn't include a compelling loner?). Players can work together on quests without even meeting each other, by completing different parts of communal projects. If players are allowed to have unique experiences, ones that other players can't track down on a fansite and repeat step-for-step, then players can excite each other with intriguing tales and enticing screenshots. If one player can possess an item, skill, or title that sheer work will not award to another, then there is a stronger sense of individuality and personal pride.
I can't help but feel that the RPG genre in general is stuck in a rut. It's not that there are not admirable systems already in place, but there is much more potential for diversity than most developers seem willing to believe. Yes, current games are designed the way they are for a reason, but that doesn't mean there aren't other viable ways.