From the short and sweet dept: take it out
Here’s a quick thought for you to start the day. What would 4e D&D be like if you entirely removed the Powers system? How about if you took out both Powers and Skills? Or replaced the Feats system with something else – tiered skill-based bonuses, perhaps? You might well find a system you really like.
Y’see, that’s the thing. There’s so much emphasis on the Powers system in particular – both in the books themselves and in online discussions – so it’s easy to miss that the core of the game is a darned fine engine all by itself. The numbers add up and scale neatly, the classes and races (mostly) are appealing and there’s none of the mechanical speed bumps (*cough* the Attacks of Opportunity rules or *cough* calculating Encounter Levels based off CR) present in previous editions.
Of course, if you took Powers out of the game you’d most likely need to replace them with something else – a Wizard without Spells isn’t much of a wizz – but another strength of the system is that it’s very hackable. Perhaps you’d prefer to drop Pathfinder’s Spell Lists into the mix, or use the Four by Five magic system, or even just use the existing Rituals system to give the game a much grittier, low-level flavour.
For half of the first Endday Campaign session the players had no Powers and only Basic Attacks to rely on, and the system flew. Sure, it was tough (the monsters still had their Powers!) but the rules system itself was more than up to the task. Anyone who thinks 4e D&D is “just a boardgame” ought to try it sometime. I’m sure they’ll find that 4e has everything they need for full-on immersive role-playing. The Powers system just adds to that; it doesn’t take anything away.
If you’re hardcore old school, why not remove the Skills system instead (or as well) if you feel that it’s limiting and prefer a more open-ended approach to the game. It’s true that the less skills exist in a system the more freedom of choice your characters seem to have, and nothing beats a gloriously minimal character sheet to get the imagination flowing. Like this, for example:
Duron, Dwarf Fighter-1
STR 18, CON 16, DEX 10, INT 10, WIS 13, CHA 8
AC17, HP 31, Fort 16, Ref 10, Will 11
Scale Armour, Greatsword (+9, d10+4)
Yes, that’s a real, genuine 4e D&D character without Skills or Powers and it feels so old school I can smell the Erol Otus artwork from here. See?
I’m writing this with 4e D&D in mind of course, but it applies equally well to all rules engines. If you don’t like a part of the system, either take it out, or replace it with something else. It’s your game. Make it how you want.