Monday, September 24, 2012

Top Ten Classic Rock Intros

OK, so I was in the process of putting together evidence to show just how much the presence of Monte Cook on the D&D Next design team was going to result in a cool-yet-unplayable game experience, when, shock of shocks, Cook announced he was leaving WotC due to differences of opinion with "the company".

Mind. Freaking. Blown.

The new lead designer appears to be Mike Mearls, the guy who put together the most punishing scenario in the Age of Worms adventure path, and while I still don't think D&D Next is going to end up being the Golden Apple of RPG gaming, I'm less worried that it'll be a giant gaming turd.

So moving on...

At about the same time, I was participating in a pub quiz, and during the music round one of my teammates responded to the opening of The Hollies's "Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress" with the comment, "Best rock song intro ever."

Really? I thought. That's the best we can do? So I've spent the last six months dutifully listening to KQRS and trying to put together a slightly more accurate accounting of best rock song intros.

Right away, of course, I ran into a definitional problem. What constitutes an 'intro'? Well, it's the part before they start singing, isn't it? (Forgive the rhetorical flourishes -- I've been watching a lot of Zero Punctuation lately.)

So does that mean the single chord that opens The Beatles's "Hard Day's Night" or Elton John's "Rocket Man" counts as an intro? Sure, why not.

OK, then what about "Crazy Train", which opens with Ozzy Osborne shouting "All aboard!" and cackling maniacally? Well, maybe.

And how about songs where there isn't any singing, like the Edgar Winter Group's "Frankenstein"? Where does the intro end and the song begin there?

Well, OK, clearly we need some ground rules here:

1) The song must have vocals.

This avoids the whole existential 'where does the intro end and the song begin' problem referenced above.

2) The start of the vocals indicates the end of the intro, unless such vocal consists of what is now termed a 'rock utterance'. The 'rock utterance' is any vocalization like 'hmmm', 'yeah', 'ooh', or the like which is basically just an excuse to treat the singer's voice like just another instrument. (For examples, see about 2/3rds of the intros to the songs on Aerosmith's "Big Ones". Steven Tyler loves him some rock utterances.)

Now I fully admit that someone could put together a list of the top ten rock intros that violate one of my two rules above, and that some of the songs on that list would be objectively better than some of the songs on my list. When that alternate list happens, I'll worry about responding to it, because for now, I've got my own list to do.

10) Bon Jovi, "Dead or Alive"

Right off the bat we start off with controversy -- most folks would probably recommend "Livin' On A Prayer" as a better rock opening. However, starting the list off with this song lets me begin explaining the concept of 'style points'.

There's nothing specifically wrong with "Livin' On A Prayer", but it is fundamentally very similar to many other rock intros -- I could probably just have gone with Autograph's "Turn Up the Radio" as number 1 and saved myself a lot of research time -- but uniqueness counts. So too does the idea that the purpose of the intro is to introduce a song, and "Dead or Alive" definitely invokes the 'Old West' feel that the song will then mine for semiotic references. Plus, it's pretty damned cool -- if a rock intro makes you think, "Hey, something cool is about to happen," then it's done its job.

9) The Doobie Brothers, "China Grove"

On the other hand, sometimes just some kick-ass guitar riffs make for a great rock intro. This one definitely invokes 'fun time' as part of its intro promise, and the song doesn't disappoint.

One thing learned while looking for the YouTube reference for this sone -- the intro loses something significant when performed without the keyboard part.

8) Roy Orbison, "Oh, Pretty Woman"

The sabermetric study of baseball statistics (you were just waiting for me to sneak in that reference, weren't you?) has a concept called "era adjustments" -- the purpose of an era adjustment is to take into account that some times in baseball history were especially favorable to or hostile to a particular kind of player. Without era adjustments, we'd think all the great pitchers pitched in the Dead Ball Era and during the mid 1960s, and all the great hitters played during the 20s, 30s, and the Steroid Era.

You can do something similar with rock songs, particularly with respect to 'covers', where one band re-makes a song originally made famous by another band or, more rarely, where a band makes a song famous that wasn't originally famous when done by another band.

When making an era adjustment, it's a good idea to have a baseline in mind, and in our case, we're going to use Van Halen as the baseline. For instance, when Van Halen covered the song "You Really Got Me" by the Kinks, Ray Davies of the Kinks mentioned that he prefers the Van Halen cover to the original song, comparing the original to a prop plane and the cover to a jet fighter. (Later, when informed of this, Eddie Van Halen said he was flattered but that he preferred the original, saying "Ray, that prop stuff is the shit.")

On the other hand, Van Halen also did a cover of Roy Orbison's classic "Oh, Pretty Woman", and the result is pretty much what Van Halen called his cover of "You Really Got Me" -- modernized, but not really improved.

By the way, you will not find a Van Halen song on this list, not even the intro I judge the best of all Van Halen intros, "Hot For Teacher". I feel the same way about this as I feel about Jack Morris for the Hall of Fame -- someone has to serve as the equivalent of the 'you must be at least this tall to enter this ride' sign, and I have no problem with Morris being that guy among baseball pitchers or Van Halen being that band for rock intros.

7) KISS, "Detroit Rock City"

I'd be willing to bet that, if you surveyed people about what specific song they thought of when you said the words 'classic rock', this song would be in the top 5, and maybe the top song overall. It might not rate as my best rock intro, but it's arguably the ur-example of a classic rock intro.

6) Golden Earring, "Radar Love"

If a song was going to challenge #7 above as 'classic rock intro you think of when you hear the words 'classic rock'', this would be the one.

This song also does the 'intro to the intro' thing -- the opening guitar riffs don't seem to have a lot to do at first with the drum and bass riff that composes the actual intro to the song, but then you realize that the guitar riffs are meant to invoke 'the road' (which is why this sone also makes some great traveling music).

Golden Earring as a band is a really interesting story -- their two well-known US hits, "Radar Love" and "Twilight Zone" came out more than a decade apart, suggesting to some that this is a band that came within one song of being a 'one-hit wonder'. In fact, the band is Dutch and has had multiple hits on the Dutch charts in its over 50-year career.

"Twilight Zone" was disqualified from the list, of course, because of the spoken-word component of its own intro:

Somewhere in a lonely hotel room
There's a guy starting to realize
That eternal fate has turned its back on him.
It's two AM.

That would rate very highly on a follow-up list of 'best rock song intros with words'.

Finally, you haven't lived until you've done 'Radar Love' on Rock Band 2 as the drummer and gotten the 'great solo!' pop-up.

5) Joe Walsh, "Life's Been Good"

Joe Walsh's career as a rock star was predicated on his ability to build songs around awesome guitar riffs, and this song is no exception. Though other riffs might be more complex, this one is, in my opinion anyway, the most classic.

If I ever end up writing a TV series featuring a lottery winner as wandering private investigator, this song will be its theme.

4) The Police, "Synchronicity II"

Some might be offended by the inclusion of a synthesizer riff on my list, but two things:

First, the riff presages the 'weirdness' that is the dual-story in the song's lyrics (though I disagree that the 'something' that crawls up from the depths of a Scottish lake is actually Nessie -- even in the 70's it was presumed that Nessie was a dinosaur, not a humanoid creature).

Second, the traditional guitars and drums come in quickly enough, with what for the era, was a thrashing dance beat. (Kids these days probably consider it tame, though.)

In these ways, the intro to "Synchronicity II" definitely hits the style points meter, and hard.

3) The Rolling Stones, "Gimme Shelter"

Probably the most influential rock intro on this list, and in a depressingly ironic fashion -- the song itself is pretty clearly anti-war, given the lyrics, but it's best known for being used in Vietnam war-era depictions of the combat itself. It was used in the TV series "China Beach", and eventually found its way into the "Call of Duty" soundtrack. Ultimately it's all cash for the Stones, and the song is good enough to warrant being recognized by the current generation of gamers, but it's more than a bit sad that some folks who know the song only from gaming might not actually pick up that it's not really the song they might think it is.

2) Molly Hatchet, "Flirting With Disaster"

Take "Detroit Rock City" and add a fifth of Jack and you get this.

Another ironic twist, given the title and the chorus, is that the song is really just about the singer's ambiguous feelings about his musical career, not about any deep political or philosophical issue.

1) Supertramp, "Take the Long Way Home"

Style points. And it's my list.

Depressingly, Roger Hodgson (who is now billed as a singer-songwriter) does this song on his tours, but only with the piano part. Without the synth opening chord and especially the harmonica, the intro just isn't the same. The version linked above is a cover that nails the intro, but doesn't carry that energy through to the song. The original Supertramp version remains definitive.

A few other honorable mentions, more to show that I did my homework than anything else:

Deep Purple, "Smoke on the Water"
Def Leppard, "Pour Some Sugar On Me"
Guns 'n' Roses, "Welcome to the Jungle"
Tom Petty, "Runnin' Down A Dream"
Night Ranger, "Sister Christian"

and of course, probably the best-known rock intro of all:

Led Zeppelin, "Stairway to Heaven"

Friday, March 02, 2012

Not Actually Why Fourth Edition Died

The problem with Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, arguably the biggest problem that any edition of D&D has ever faced, is that the people who were designing it didn’t know a goddamned thing about Design Space.
- Kris Hanson, "Why Fourth Edition Died"

A Pre-emptive Critique of D&D Next, part 2:

While pondering the next point in my own in-my-head series of essays on the coming D&D Fifth Edition and why I'm not looking forward to it, I ran across a pretty impressive essay by a Canadian game store owner named Kris Hanson. He argues persuasively, in both the linked essay above and a followup to it, that the failure of 4th Edition D&D was a failure of design, and specifically, a failure of design to do the sort of things that are routinely done in Magic: the Gathering, Wizards of the Coast's (WotC's) other major game product.

Hanson isn't saying that D&D needed to be more like Magic -- rather, he's arguing that the design function in D&D should be seen as much more like the design function in Magic, and that the D&D designers simply failed to mine their design for as much interesting stuff as the Magic designers have. I find the argument fascinating because, at heart, Hanson is arguing that 5th Edition should incorporate exactly what I think WotC will incorporate for 5th Edition, and is precisely why I think 5th Edition will fail. Specifically, I think this is one of the two pitfalls I talked about last time -- that the designers might fail to define the game sub-systems specifically enough to create a truly modular game.

Hanson is right about one thing -- Mark Rosewater, the head designer of Magic: the Gathering, talks a lot about Design Space. Specifically, he describes how Magic design can fill two basic and seemingly contradictory human needs -- familiarity and novelty -- by taking a familiar game mechanic and tweaking it in new and hopefully interesting ways. Hanson then goes on to list a bunch of things that D&D could have done in this 'design space' vein, had D&D designers been thinking like Magic designers:

The design space here is mind-boggling. Off the top of my head: a whole list of Encounter Powers that could be made better by giving up a Daily; Encounter Powers that take two full rounds to use; Daily Powers that change when in certain circumstances (underground, flying, in the sunlight, whatever); a list of At-Will powers you can give up using for the rest of the encounter to make way better; a list of At-Will powers that are as strong as Daily powers, but use up the character’s healing surges as a cost; Lifetime powers, powers that can only ever be used once, ever; uncontrollable powers that go off in certain circumstances, but the player has no control over them; come-back powers that allow you to do incredible things for the cost of an action point; counter-powers that allow a player to stop another player or NPC’s powers from going off as an immediate interrupt; mind-drain powers that steal another character’s powers for a turn, or treat that power as spent; dramatic powers that allow you to influence story events in subtle (or, for dailies, not-so-subtle ways)…

For starters, I'll point out that some of these 'design spaces' are actually being mined, but by module writers, not the D&D core designers -- for instance, I'm running a D&D Living Forgotten Realms adventure tomorrow morning that incorporates an 'uncontrollable' power for those who possess a specific story award from a previous module. The core problem with Hanson's thesis, though, is that D&D designers can't think like Magic designers, not always, and there are good reasons for this. Hanson himself already intuited one:

What the designers of D&D tried to do was create a homogenized environment in which none of the powers effectively broke the rules, and that’s really the wrong way to build a game that’s made out of a bunch of crazy powers.

If you have a game, like Magic or Pathfinder, where the game is about characters that have a bunch of crazy powers, then perhaps that kind of design perspective is desirable. (Although frankly, the ultimate 'characters that have a bunch of crazy powers' game has already been written, so why bother?)

I'd argue that 4th Edition D&D is a game about characters doing their jobs for the greater good, and as such I am absolutely convinced that the designers of 4th Edition D&D had a well-defined structure for all the game-mechanical sub-systems of their game. In some cases I know this because the designers told me so -- for instance, in the Player's Strategy Guide, there's a chart that lists the expected values of the game's core numbers (AC, attack bonus, etc.) by level. In other cases I can intuit this based on the choices that the designers made for some game sub-systems, and more specifically, the choices that the designers chose not to make.

Let's take feats, for example. Feats were first introduced in 3rd Edition D&D, and I can honestly say that the designers really had no idea what they were doing when they created the feat system:

  • Can feats give you skill bonuses? Sure. (+2 to two specific skills [Alertness], +2 to any single skill [Skill Focus])
  • Can feats give you saving throw bonuses? Sure (+2 to Fort, Reflex, or will, depending on which feat you take)
  • Can feats change the way you interact with core game rules? Sure. (Blind-Fight changes the way you interact with the concealment rules, while Ambidexterity and Two-Weapon Fighting change the way you interact with the 'fighting with a weapon in each hand' rules)
  • Can feats change the way your spells work? Sure. (Metamagic feats, which were an evolution of the AD&D spells that modified things like spell durations)
  • Can feats allow you to do things other characters can't do? Sure. (Things like Spring Attack and Whirlwind Attack, which I think are specifically what Hanson, and many D&D players, is specifically thinking about when he talks about feats.)
  • Can feats grant you class abilities?

It is specifically that last item that convinces me that the 3rd Edition designers really hadn't defined the concept of feats and were just using the idea as a 'catch-all' for cool concepts that didn't fit anywhere else. For example, your character's weapon proficiencies are determined by which class you take (fighters can use any weapon that isn't designated as 'exotic', while wizards have only a few specific proficiencies), or to a degree by which race you take (a hold-over from old-school D&D, where what are now races were once classes). By taking the proper Weapon Proficiency feat, you could represent the ability to use without penalty a weapon that your specific class or race wouldn't normally be able to use (such as a wizard wielding a two-handed sword). But the real kicker, in this respect, was Weapon Specialization.

In the 3.0 Player's Handbook, the list of fighter class abilities includes something called 'Weapon Specialization', which is an ability that fighters could gain at 4th level or later. But the actual ability was defined as a feat -- one that a fighter could take either with a fighter bonus feat, or by using one of his general character feats that he'd gain every third level. And because Weapon Specialization is a feat, it is listed in the feat list and described in the feat descriptions just like any other feat, even though only a fighter can take the feat. (This would eventually be 'fixed' in Pathfinder, when Paizo's designers realized that assuming that every fighter wanted to spend feats on Weapon Specialization, Weapon Focus, Weapon Mastery and the like was just silly and reconfigured all these abilities to be fighter class features.)

In 4th Edition, meanwhile, feats were much better defined. If you took a feat at a particular tier (heroic, paragon, epic), you knew what kind and size of bonus it should apply (+1 to attacks per tier, +2 feat bonus to skill checks per tier, etc.). Most important, if you had an idea for something cool, you could tell if it should be a feat at all, and if so, what kind of feat. If it was something that modified your ability to interact with the core game rules, it might be a feat if it was accessible to any character; if it represented a particular talent that a given race had for something, it would be a racial feat and be listed in a different feat list. If it represented a modification to an existing class feature, it would be a class feat and be listed in yet another area. If it allowed you to combine the abilities of two classes, it would be a multiclass feat, etc. And, if it didn't fall into any of these buckets, it wasn't a feat and you'd have to find somewhere else to put it -- perhaps make it a power and define it for certain classes or make it an advanced skill option.

It is this last thing -- the ability to say 'this cool thing does not belong in the feat list, we need to find where it does fit' -- that gives the game both structure and extensibility. Because feats do certain specific things and not other things, you can create a concept like 'themes' (a combination of what would otherwise be powers and class abilities) and discover that you haven't just created something that makes feats irrelevant or that is irrelevant when taking feats into account. (Contrast with the late 3rd edition concept of the 'skill trick', an idea which basically boils down to "these things look like feats but are too weak to be 'real' feats, so we'll make you pay skill points for them instead", except that any of them that simulate actual feats will both appear to be and actually be pointless when compared to an actual feat.)

Similarly for powers -- I've never seen anything that specifically defines how to construct a given power, but I'm convinced that there are at least ground rules if not a full design document for power creation. The rule would be something like this: an at-will power deals 1 die of damage and has some additional minor effect (applies a status condition until end-of-next-turn, can be used against a small number of additional targets, etc.). An encounter power of level X does Y dice of damage; subtract dice for each of the following that applies: it can be used as a close burst or close blast, it can affect multiple targets, it applies status conditions, it applies those conditions as 'save ends' rather than 'until end-of-next-turn', it has increased effect when used with a particular game-mechanical object or if used against an opponent which a particular keyword. The laundry list of 'design space' that Hanson lists seems superficially interesting, but without a clear analysis of the relative effectiveness of the various power options, all you're doing by providing such a list is giving players a chance to data-mine the powers list for min/max options -- the chance to figure out which ability gives the best positive punch for the smallest drawback. (And nowhere is this more sickeningly true than the munchkin-friendly 'merits and flaws' systems that Hanson seems to like, but I've learned to react to with the same level of revulsion as if I'd found a rat skeleton in my restaurant stew.)

However, there's an even bigger problem with Hanson's determination that D&D design needs to be more like Magic design, and it has to do with this comment from the original essay:

Understand that the only interesting powers in the whole of the game were those in the Player’s Handbook and those in the Player’s Handbook 3. The originals and the _only_ set of powers that were at all different or strange. One could argue for the powers from Essentials, but seriously, fuck one.

No, really, there's a reason that the Essentials powers (and to a degree other game elements) have such a different feel to them than the main powers, and though I hadn't considered it until I read Hanson's essay, I know believe that they were D&D's attempt to become more like Magic.

When Hanson thinks about Magic card design, he's thinking about the splashy cards that break the rules of the game -- the cool rares, in other words. But there are lots of cards in Magic, including a lot of cards that are deliberately bad. When I think of Magic design, though, I don't think of splashy rares -- I think of Volcanic Hammer and Shock, and what they mean.

You see, the very first printing of Magic: the Gathering included a card called Lightning Bolt. Later, the same company both designed and printed cards that were strictly worse cards than Lightning Bolt -- Volcanic Hammer did the same damage but cost more to cast, while Shock cost the same to cast but did less damage. Neither of the later cards had any mitigating condition that made them comparable to Lightning Bolt -- anybody looking at the three cards could easily see that Lightning Bolt was the best and would use it in preference to the others. Then why were the other cards even printed? Because you don't always get to use Lightning Bolt.

Magic: the Gathering has successfully promoted the idea of 'environments': specific groups of cards and card sets which can be 'legally' played. In theory this only applies to tournament play, but since the concept of an 'environment' also creates some sense of competitive balance, many casual players choose to abide by a particular set of environment rules as a way of limiting what cards they can expect to see out of their opponents' decks. At one extreme, an environment can consist of 'only the cards we open at the table during this event', while at the other extreme, an environment can be 'any Magic card ever printed by WotC in any format'.

While some chose to view Essentials as WotC's attempt to stealth-promote 'D&D 4.5' (I did at the time), a better analogy might well have been that WotC was trying to produce a 'D&D Standard' environment as opposed to the 'D&D Modern' of 4th Edition. This makes even more sense when you consider the character creation rules of the D&D Encounters program -- the characters for Encounters are meant to be created using the Essentials books (the 'core set' for D&D Standard), plus the most recent published book (the 'expansion set' for D&D Standard). The older 4th Edition books, and the books that were no longer the most current 'expansion' books could be used in 'D&D Modern', but not in 'D&D Standard', and some DMs might well say that the Essentials books weren't legal in his 'D&D Modern' environment (which helps explain why there are whole series of weapon-related and defense feats in Essentials that are strictly better than anything published in 'core 4E').

The problem with this is that many people playing D&D have been playing for as long or longer than they've been playing Magic, and the idea of separating D&D into 'environments' is silly to them -- in effect, all versions of D&D are 'Legacy' where anything published for an edition (and anything published for a previous edition, if it can be converted) is fair game.

In a sense, this makes the call to 'unify the editions' more sensible -- if the people buying and playing your game want to be able to use anything ever created as fuel for that game, then it would seem that an edition deliberately designed to allow for that would be a huge hit. But there's a peril in that, too, and it has to do with the other pitfall I pointed out in my first essay on the topic -- making things too specific that the modules have to be used in their entirety or not at all, limiting their appeal. More on that next time.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fear and Loathing in the Free City of Greyhawk

A Pre-emptive Critique of D&D Next, part 1:

The next edition of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game is coming, announced by its owners a few weeks ago. The name 'D&D Next' has adhered itself to this change like an opportunistic barnacle, all the better to avoid the negative connotations already associated with the phrase '5th Edition'.

It doesn't matter what you call it, though. I'm pretty unexcited about the new edition, despite all the current announcements meant to excite gamers just like me:

- We're uniting the editions!

This is a wonderfully emotional statement, meant to evoke positive feelings from people who've played and enjoyed D&D at any age. Whether you loved the original White Box, or the classic AD&D hardcovers, or edition 3.5, this rallying cry suggests that you'll find something in D&D Next to love.

Problem is, the entire idea of 'uniting the editions' is vague and undefined, despite World Famous Professional Game Designer Monte Cook's articles intended to explain just that. (Big piece of evidence in favor of my point: the final paragraph of the first of these pieces ends with the words, "A lot of sweeping generalizations? Sure.")

- We're having a two-year public playtest!

This one seems to me to be particularly cynical and ill-advised, though I'm pretty sure I know why it's in here.

4th edition D&D was polarizing -- there were many gamers who enjoyed playing 3rd edition D&D, had spend a fair amount of money and time purchasing and learning the various game sub-systems involved with that version of D&D, and didn't really see the need for change. Another chunk of gamers became vociferously upset at the changes made to the Forgotten Realms setting, a setting which isn't the oldest setting for D&D but is probably the best loved and certainly the best selling 'brand' D&D has.

During this transition, Paizo Publishing, who once had the rights to publish the long-running Dungeon and Dragon magazines, announced that they would be taking advantage of the Open Game License published alongside 3rd edition D&D to produce what they called the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, but what most of its devotees call 'D&D 3.75'. Paizo held a pretty visible (for D&D) year-long public playtest, where the core game materials were available for free download, before finally releasing the core game books as hardbacks. Pathfinder, surprisingly, is now selling very well -- in some circles, Pathfinder is seen as selling nearly as well as 4th edition D&D itself -- and this 'year-long public playtest' has thus entered gaming lore as one of the keys behind Pathfinder's success.

Ergo, if a year-long public playtest led to a good-selling game, a two-year-long public playtest should lead to an even better-selling game! Right? Right??

- We want you to be able to play the game the way you want!

Again, a wonderfully vague and positive marketing message, but in this case at least there's some small amount of crunch underlying the fluff -- the way that the folks at Wizards of the Coast (WotC) seem to think they'll deliver this 'you can play the game any way you want' experience is by providing a core game, plus lots of 'optional rules modules' that can be plugged into the core game or not based on player and DM taste.

I'm not sanguine about the odds of WotC's designers succeeding in this goal. It's a tough goal to begin with (ask anyone who has worked in a 'universal' role-playing system like GURPS or Savage Worlds), and WotC's decision to focus on player feedback will make what I consider the core element in creating such a modular system far more difficult to achieve.

One could argue that I should give WotC's designers more slack -- after all, they did successfully transition from AD&D to 3rd edition over a decade ago, and that was a monumental effort that changed much of the core game system. But the example I see as 'best transition to new modular game system' isn't D&D 3E, but rather the change from 3rd to 4th edition Champions back in 1989.

Iron Crown Enterprises owned a number of games loosely categorized under the name 'Hero System': Champions, Danger International, etc. Each setting had its own core rulebook, and while many of the concepts between games were similar, each game had enough unique elements that were difficult to translate to other Hero System games that it was hard to really justify the grouping of games as a single System. The Champions 4th edition design team chose to tackle this problem, and succeeded so well that 4th edition Champions became the most popular of the Hero (now HERO) System games, and despite over 20 years and two new editions, remains essentially unchanged from that 1989 first printing.

One of the team's great successes was the structure of their character abilities. Character abilities, in HERO, as in many other games, characters have characteristics, skills, powers, and what HERO calls 'talents'. While these different sets of abilities can interact, they are for the most part independent -- if you want better permanent characteristic attributes, you spend points on characteristics, but if you want temporary characteristic bonuses, you buy them as powers. If you want to represent your ability in a particular area of physical or intellectual activity, you buy ranks in the skill associated with that activity, but if you want an ability that represents a particular aptitude with a whole class of physical or intellectual activities, you buy a skill enhancer talent.

HERO developed a system by which character abilities were constrained based on the kind of ability under consideration, and then did its best to keep those constraints in place. One could argue that the places where Champions 4th edition were weakest were exactly those places where the character ability structure was blurred or started to break down: martial arts were defined as skills, even though their practical effect was to combine bonus combat damage and skill levels in such a way that they would have made more sense as powers, while 'special senses' (radar sense, x-ray vision, etc.) were defined as powers even though they were inexpensive and mostly non-combat related to the point where they would have made more sense as talents.

Where the system worked, and it worked in most places, it allowed a game master to say 'okay, we're playing '20s era gangsters -- no powers' or 'we're playing superheroes, everything is in play with a 300 point limit'. You can plug in and unplug different character ability elements without feeling that you need to micro-manage precisely what's legal and what isn't within each game element you're allowing. (Of course, you can still do that if you want to -- it's just not required prior to play.)

For D&D Next, though, there are two equally disastrous routes that could be followed, and it's not clear which of them the designers will take (or will be directed by Hasbro Corporate to take, if this is a project mandated from 'on high'):

The designers could fail to define the game sub-systems specifically enough to allow for a truly modular experience.

Or the game designers could define the sub-systems so parasitically that each module is usable only as a defined unit which has little to no interaction with other modules, limiting the modules' utility.

Next time - a more detailed discussion of these two pitfalls, including examples.