I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the argument coming out of some forums regarding the 4th Ed. skill list, in that mainly the list is too short to create fully fleshed out and distinct characters. I’m not buying it, as there are many ways to accomplish just that without needing too much crunch to get in the way. In a way, it seems to me that a certain number of players are too dependent on crunch dictating who their character is and what he’s all about. But I think there are ways to bring life to your character without needing that many numbers. As a DM, you should be aware of how to effectively use the skill list in different ways in order to please your former 3e players.
I’m of the camp that thinks the skill list that’s presented in 4th Ed. is pretty complete, because we have to keep in mind that the skills themselves have a certain halo effect that overlap into multiple uses and situations, and that’s the key in applying skill checks in your particular games. An Athletics check has many uses, perhaps even uses that go beyond what the PHB presents. When a player comes up with a particular situation that off the top you may not see presented as an example in the rule book, think of this halo effect and what skill best applies. There isn’t a lack of skills at fault here, but a lack of imagination.
Me? I think the best solution is to talk directly with the player and work on a character together. As a DM, you are bringing the story of this PC to life, and are crafting the world that he lives in, so why not have a small hand in his “birth”? Here’s the examples I brought up in a forum, after someone mentioned the lack in 4e of a Use Rope skill from 3e, which basically let you tie knots, tie people up, and secure grappling hooks: You as a DM, let’s assume your PC, Bob, was born in a coastal town. Together with Bob’s player, why not develop a nice background for Bob that assumes he was born the son of a fisherman. Bob’s dad would take him when he was younger on their small boat, to fish. Over time, Bob further developed the talents that his father passed on to him, mainly using the ropes on a boat, tying knots, fishing, spotting decent areas to throw a line, etc… Bob eventually outgrew fishing and became a Fighter by trade, but he never forgot where he came from, nor what he learned. Is it so unreasonable to say that Bob knows how to tie a knot? Do we really need to take the time out of the game to even ask if he can do it, and waste time rolling on that? To me that’s not fun. Maybe if it’s crucial or life or death skill challenge. But on the whole, I wouldn’t bother. His background would automatically let him tie the rope, then an athletics roll would see if he can actually climb it.
Another great thing 4th Ed. did was include the “backgrounds” in the Player’s Handbook 2. With backgrounds, you and your player’s can work out where the PC comes from, and if that grants him or her extra bonuses to his skill rolls. You come from a certain region, great, you get a plus to your history rolls when dealing with that region. That’s a common sense option that honestly feels like it should have been in the first PHB.
Ultimately, don’t let a player converting from 3e to 4e bog down your game with skill discussions, as there are plenty of ways to create the fleshed out characters player’s crave within the existing ruleset. You just have to look for it.