A big thanks to TheMormegil, who provided this helpful TL;DR version for those just coming in.
- The lack of flavor in the power system, the inherent modularity of the ToB disciplines and the different feel granted by the combination of disciplines and recovery mechanics make the ToB's manoeuvre system strictly superior to 4E's power system, having virtually all the pros and less cons.
- By expanding the concept of disciplines into "Power Schools" you can create a flavorful, extremely modular and easy to balance system for all classes.
- Each power source differs from the others for its readying mechanism (changing the way the classes of that power source gain access and refresh their powers). Each class differs from the others by having a unique school that only that class can access, a different set of accessible schools and different class features that alter the way that class is played. The details can be worked out in time and with testing.
- The possibility of being able to expand the system easily is one of its major draws, either with new books containing schools, classes, powers, or even through homebrewing (something 4E definitely lacks).
- The separation of offensive powers and utility effects grants a nice balance both in and outside of combat, while allowing each class to have its own flavorful options for out-of-combat situations.
One of the big flaws of 4E's power system is the lack of flavor, especially in the higher-level powers, and how it bloats the system with repeat powers. Every martial class with a "+2 to hit, no Str to damage" at-will has to repeat it, every class has a set of encounters that repeat themselves writ stronger every tier. If two classes have a nigh-identical power, it has to be repeated across both classes. This takes up a lot of space and restricts high-level powers from being as grandiose as they should be.
Lately I've found myself looking over my 3.5 books, and in particular at Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords and its various expansion packs on GiantITP and other websites. That book is, in my opinion, superior to the current powers system for three major reasons:
Flavor: Every school in the book is clearly distinct from every other school, and every technique within that school is distinct from every other technique within that school. While some are stronger versions of weaker maneuvers, the higher-level abilities are also increasingly grandiose in their effects, progressing from slight boosts to normal attacks to magnificent finishing moves that do far more varied things than just add on damage or inflict a one-round penalty. Where a wizard goes from being a lowly apprentice to an archmage, a warblade goes from being a particularly skilled fighter to being superhuman, exactly as high-level play should be. Each maneuver being its own technique and part of a larger library of techniques made them wonderfully fun to roleplay as well.
Modularity: Each of the Nine Disciplines exists independent of the classes. Classes are defined by their class features and what disciplines they have access to, and each class has at least one signature school that neither of the others gets. This has made the book incredibly popular to expand on, with new classes having large amounts of work already done for them just by virtue of being able to declare an existing discipline as available to them. At least ten new disciplines have been homebrewed just off the top of my head, and all of them had room to distinguish themselves from the others out there. Adding them to play was just a matter of saying "this class can use this discipline".
Functionality: Maneuvers being broken into stances, boosts, and strikes is like what the Slayer tried to do, only far richer and more rewarding to use. Each maneuver is on its own a perfectly good technique that's very fun to use, and players can construct their own signature move by combining a stance, boost, and strike that they find fit together well, from one or multiple disciplines. Maneuvers are roughly balanced against each other, and the recovery mechanic means players aren't afraid to use them, recover them and use them again. Each class's recovery mechanic and discipline list makes it play differently from the other two, while all three are overall balanced very well against each other. They make fights dynamic and fun.
With that in mind, how can we look at this and create a powers system that captures that same essence, while making classes and power sources distinct from one another? The answer is to think of powers as belonging not to classes, but to schools, libararies of techniques magical or mundane that share a common style or motif. Arcane magic already has seven schools: abjuration, divination, necromancy, evocation, illusion, enchantment, conjuration. The notion of power schools takes this concept and expands it to everything.
Power Schools and Class Structure
Classes under a power schools system consist of a chassis (HP, defenses, skills, proficiencies), class features (at least three-four at 1st level and one every five levels thereafter), a powers known/readied progression, and a list of schools known. Classes are defined largely by what class features they have, the fundamental elements all members of that class share, and the list of schools they know, that is to say what styles of combat they are proficient in. Every core class should have at least one school that no other core class has, but the rest may be shared with other classes, and later classes might get a core class's unique school if it somehow fits them to know as well.
Power Schools and Power Sources
A power source defines two things about a class. The first is its recovery mechanic, the way in which it regains its powers. The second is what its powers are called, and what power schools in general it is likely to have access to.
For instance, martial classes have powers called maneuvers. All martial classes can use a minor action and spend a turn not using any maneuvers besides active stances, though they may still use their basic attack, and at the end of their turn all of their expended maneuvers are refreshed.
Arcane classes have powers called spells, and recover their powers by spending a minor action and then taking no other actions besides moving during their turn. At the end of their turn, they recover all expended spells and can reselect what spells they want to have readied from the list of all spells they know, as they rearrange the magical formulae they can bring to bear.
EDIT: Divine classes have powers called prayers, and their deity plays as much role in deciding what they get as they do. Like other classes, they ready a selection of prayers from the larger list of prayers they know, and at the beginning of an encounter immediately gain three less than this number for use. At the end of each turn, they gain another prayer from the ones they didn't get at the start, and when this pool runs dry they instantly gain a fresh set ready to use again. This gives them a continuous stream of prayers with no need for pause but with less control over what exactly they get than other classes. Class features may allow divine characters to select a certain number of prayers from their list as favored, and these are always granted at the start of an encounter and whenever their prayers would refresh.
Psionic classes have powers called manifestations, and they must shuffle what parts of their mind they bring to bear so as not to overstrain themselves. Once a manifestation is used, the part of their mind associated with that school needs to rest, and they cannot use a manifestation from that school again until they use a power from a different one first.
While power schools all have an associated power source, this does not affect how the power actually works. A martial character who learns a spell through multiclassing still uses their own refresh mechanic for the spell, and a cleric who learns a martial maneuver simply adds it to the list of prayers his deity might grant him.
Contents of a Power School
A power school consists of multiple level-based tiers of techniques, with three-five options per tier, that form a common theme. For instance, the rogue has knowledge of the school Steel Serpent, initially available only to the rogue, that consists of a number of techniques built around stealthy fighting, thrown weapons, and assassination techniques that grow in power, flash and scope in the higher tiers as the rogue progresses from a common thief to a grandmaster to a living legend. When selecting maneuvers known, a rogue can pick any Steel Serpent technique he meets the prerequisites for. New tiers are available every odd-numbered level, with most classes learning a new power known every level and gaining an additional readied power every even-numbered level. Where a low-level Steel Serpent maneuver might be the classic +1d6 sneak attack, an epic-level maneuver allows the rogue to flit around the battlefield like a ghost, appearing from seemingly nowhere and disappearing just as easily, stabbing his opponents with a knife whose swiftly-applied poison will surely cripple them if the blade itself does not do the job. A wizard who focuses his studies upon the Evocation school progresses from simple balls of fire to prismatic storms that change the very shape of the battlefield.
Multiple classes may know a school. For instance, while only rogues know the Steel Serpent school with its great acrobatics and mastery of stealth, and only fighters know the Iron Heart school with its demonstration of pure athletic skill, both classes may practice the Diamond Mind school, which encourages use of battlefield intuition and fighting smarter than the enemy. While only sorcerers may practice the powers of heritage afforded to them by the Dragon's Heart school, their powers over the traditionally arcane are restricted to the bright and flashy Evocation and Illusion schools. While wizards cannot attain the power of dragon blood, their studies afford them mastery of Evocation, Illusion, Conjuration, Necromancy, Divination, Enchantment, and Abjuration, a wider array of schools than any other arcane class and several of which only wizards know. Fighters, similarly, know far more schools than any other martial class, perhaps more than any other class in the game. With the wide array of styles of combat available to them, they can truly be called weaponmasters.
Expanding the Power Schools System
One of the major draws of the power schools system is its ability to expand. Creating a swordmage class does not require creating every power from scratch, instead the swordmage gains a single new school unique to it covering attacks that mix magic and swordplay, then also gains access to a set of schools originally created for the fighter and wizard. While the swordmage does not know all the schools of combat that a fighter does, nor is their mastery of the arcane so varied as a wizard's, they know some of the tactics of both styles as well as a set of maneuvers that are distinctly theirs. This reduces the need to reprint powers and allows classes to share mechanics freely, while making sure each and every class has their own unique style of combat. Multiclassing is as easy as allowing a class to cherry-pick powers from a school outside their forte, though they must ready it as they would any other power.
Power Schools and Utility Effects
Power schools do not generally cover out-of-combat abilities, though cunning players may be able to make creative use of their powers to solve problems in unorthodox ways. Instead, utility effects are provided via class features, and a set of utility powers available depending on a class's power source. These powers are tracked separately from combat powers, and provide for spells, techniques, and other abilities that are not covered by existing skills.
All classes gain a utility power from their power source's list at every odd-numbered level; unlike power schools, every class of a given power source has access to the same list of utility powers. Utility powers should be on par with rituals and martial practices for effects, rather than the existing utility powers, and are oriented around things outside of combat. Players are encouraged to use their utility powers along with their skills to solve puzzles and other non-combat problems.
While the power schools system of class construction takes the best elements of both the 3.5 and 4E systems, it does not cover everything. I have thoughts on how skills should be altered to bring them up to what they should be, but that's a discussion for another time.
A few expansion notes I thought of between posting this and now:
Power Schools mean no more dailies. In nine years of experience, daily resources either get hoarded and are useless or win everything. In 3.5 everybody knows how godly casters were, and in 4E daily powers made one encounter hopelessly easy if they hit and otherwise did nothing. The focus here is on cycling encounter resources, allowing the game to accomodate days of varying lengths. While utility abilities might be on a per-day basis depending on the ability, I would encourage them to all be of at-will availability.
Power Schools mean fights can be harder. Because players have effectively unlimited ability to throw their special skills as long as they keep recharging, fights don't need to be balanced against the point when everyone's just using at-wills. This means the difficulty of combats can be increased more safely, which is a common complaint of 4E.
Power Schools encourage homebrew and expansions. 3.5's homebrew market is still going strong years after the game's conclusion, because it's designed in such a way that it can be easily added onto. The 4E homebrew market isn't nearly as strong, partially because there's so much more effort involved in creating a functional class and partially because it's so hard to distinguish that class from all the others. The power schools system is designed to allow for the same flexibility for both the development team and the players to expand it, allowing reuse of existing mechanics to make the creation process easier without causing classes to just retread already covered ground.
Any thoughts on the system would, of course, be appreciated.
My biggest disappointment with 4e was that it wasn't as good as Book of Nine Swords. While I only skimmed what you posted, I think this is a great basis for 5e. What you suggest covers the majority of my concerns, assuming they bother to do well with power creation.
Well, arcane classes have always had schools of magic: I listed the six classical ones as the set of what power schools the wizard would have access to. It was actually the way in which spells were sorted like that which prompted me to call the concept "power schools". The kung-fu side of it comes in from Tome of Battle, as I believe a lot of the way martial classes are treated as having to adhere to realism in the face of magic is alleviated by looking at wuxia films and the like, which show characters doing things that might not be innately magical, but are appropriately superhuman for someone at 20th level.
The creation of attacks from disparate parts is something that's easy to get wrong. Games like Dungeons: the Dragoning make attacks too customizable, being built out of too many component parts to the point where they become generic the same way powers do. The Slayer, on the other hand, doesn't have nearly enough options, pretty much just four at-wills and Power Strike. I felt maneuvers struck the perfect balance, each technique was meant to be good on its own and then it was your cleverness and sense of style that created a signature tactic unique to your character.
The point of the recovery mechanics is twofold. The first is to make it so that beyond choice of schools and beyond class features, there's also something fundamentally different about how a wizard and a fighter do things. The wizard has to recharge his magic every now and then, he can't just keep firing away without some pause to reabsorb his mana, but that break gives him time to move new arcane formulae to the front of his mind and ready them for use. The fighter, meanwhile, just needs a lull in the flow of combat, the brief back-and-forth clashing of swords between major attacks, but changing his style entirely on the fly isn't something he can do the way a wizard can. Clerics being driven by divine inspiration, psions pushing their mind to its limits to force reality to adjust to their will, recovery mechanics being different across power sources makes that matter in a way that the powers system doesn't, while at the same time letting a rogue trade a tactic for an illusion spell without having to suddenly deal with a totally different subsystem.
The second point is so that characters never reach the point where they're just kind of slugging it out with at-wills, which is when fights almost always boil down to nothing but attrition if they aren't already over or on cleanup. A wizard might get a class feature which lets him use magic missile whenever he wants, but in a fight it should be a weapon of last resort, when something needs one last push to go down now and there's no time to refuel the bigger guns. Or, if he picks up ranged combat techniques from one of the ranger's schools, he can make use of that basic spell like a gun, performing unexpected variations on the magic using what he's learned from his explorations outside the arcane.
I like some of the concepts you mentioned, but I do have a different take overall. Borrowing a bit from 3.5e and 4e, group all powers by power source (effectively what you suggest), which would remove most of the duplicate powers right there. I'd then template every class to be similar to the 3.5 sorcerer as far as their spellbook mechanic. A martial character would eventually have at least 3-4 at-will maneuvers and possibly 1-3 stances for a base. You get X encounter powers per "slot" overall, but you only have Y total uses (the total number and uses per slot increases with level). The specific number I'd need to playtest to actually see what works well. Similarly, casters would follow a similar progression. IMO, having only 2 at-wills and at most 3 encounter powers equates to always using the same at-will 99% of the time, with the other as a rare backup. I don't want to see characters have "just enough" powers such that they use them all every encounter. I think this is the crux of why some people feel 4e combat gets so repetitive.
An alternate design for all classes would closer resemble the 4e arcanist spellbook (again I'd add at least another slot), but I'd only require a short rest to swap out the "active" power. I'd also add at least one more at-will total, possibly another at-will per tier.
I'm not sure about other groups, but ours pretty much uses up all their encounter powers every single combat, and often uses about half their dailies. Out combats usually last around 6-8 rounds, mostly because we miss a LOT. There are plenty of times I need to double check we aren't all using d12s...but that's a whole different topic
I am both orderly and instinctive. I value community and group identity, defining myself by the social group I am a part of. At best, I'm selfless and strong-willed; at worst, I'm unoriginal and sheepish.
I was with you all the way in the original post up until the point that you mentioned those with Divine abilities will be getting random powers every time they refresh. Am I playing a Cleric/Paladin or a Chaos Souled Sorcerer? For the sake of argument let's say the Paladin has access to some Cleric Spheres and some Schools of Combat that the Martial characters use, but refreshes totally the same way the Cleric does in your example. I feel that you are making this refresh mechanic be different just to be different and not really thinking about how it would work when implemented.
Also, getting rid of Dailies entirely would limit some of the cool of things. It makes sense for those that use exceptional powers to only be able to use it one time per day or even longer. For combat powers once per day would be the most restrictive I would get. Utilities would be the ones that I would have take longer if that were to be included at all.
Allow me to elaborate. The explanation for Daily Exploits (Martial Powers) from 4E Core is fair enough. What Martial characters are tapping into is not just physical training, might, prowess, dexterity, etc. but raw willpower as well. It stands to reason that they only have so much to go around. I think we should keep the Daily powers, but maybe have a more limited number of slots for them so they aren't as unbalancing when used in encounters. We have to remember that these are the big guns, they should be suitably rare and special, not as available as encounter powers when we look at the number of slots available.
Other than that, I think this idea has merit. Thank you for bringing it up for discussion.
Fare thee well, Belkra, the Rogue Paladin (not to be confused with Rogue/Paladin)