Skills without Dice
Monte talked a bit more about his skill system in the new Legends & Lore column, Very Perceptive. Here's an extended example of how I think the proposed word-rank system would work. For this example, I'm assuming a D&D game that only has 10 levels and is a bit more "gritty." This means the difficulty to perform certain tasks might be higher than what we currently expect from a game such as 4e.
Diceless Skill Challenge
Background: The adventurers are trying to take a shortcut into the dungeon they heard about from a kobold they interrogated.
Scene: The smell hits you before you see the tunnel's exit. The sickly sweet smell of decaying garbage and bodies attacks your nostrils. As you exit the tunnel, you notice the object of your search, the door the kobold told you about, the one that gives you access to the secret passageways around the dungeon. Between you and it however, are 30' of vertical rock, made smooth and slick by generations of garbage dumping, and a few other creatures who wouldn't mind a nice helping of fresh meat.
Sheer wall: Expert Athletics
Monsters: Trying to climb the wall while the monsters are about adds a rank to any attempt to get to the door.
The party decides to deal with the monsters first. They don't have to kill them. If they can put them to sleep or otherwise make them stop fighting, that works too. That reduces the climbing challenge back down to Expert Athletics.
The fighter in the party has an Expert level Athletics skill. He climbs the wall, using the rope and pitons to make it easier for the others to climb. That reduces the Athletics rank down to Journeyman.
The cleric and thief both have Athletics trained at a Journeyman level. They would just climb up the rope but the wizard is only at Novice level. The thief decides to craft a harness for the wizard. Once they all reach the top, they can lift him up. This reduces the climb to Novice level for the wizard. Everyone makes it to the top and no dice were rolled. Just as importantly, no one had to play a game of read the DM's mind to find out there was a secret door or an invisible staircase if you did just the right thing.
If I wrote this system or used it at my table, I would say that whenever the group came upon the same or very similar challenge, they would automatically succeed. As Dean, pointed out on Twitter, Mouse Guard has a similar mechanic.
What do the ranks mean in DC terms?
I find it easier to think of the ranks on a d100 level rather than a d20. We have five ranks: novice, journeyman, expert, master and grandmaster. There's also impossible but that's supposed to be like going to 110%. So if we spread the ranks out evenly, novice is 1-19, journeyman is 20-39, etc. If we use the system Mearls discussed, meaning you had to roll a 15 to succeed on a check of your rank, then to roll a check for the level above yours would be 15 + 20 or 35. It would be pretty rare for someone to have enough modifiers in their current level to make that check and it would result in us adding large numbers together on a pretty consistent basis. Perhaps I'm wrong about this, but that's what I think Monte's system is supposed to reflect.
While I happen to prefer less dice rolling, I understand it's not for everyone. However, we could introduce dice rolling back in. My suggestion would be the following. Keep the DC 15 number for checks of your level. Add 5 skill slots to each skill. Have your primary and secondary score, class, and maybe race automatically fill in one slot each rank associated with that item, such as rogues get 1 for thievery. Magic items, rewards from quests or particular challenges, and the like provide other training. Each slot corresponds to a +3 modifier to a check of the same level. When all 5 slots in a skill are filled, you increase your training in that skill by one rank. You lose the bonuses provided by magic items and the like, but keep inherent bonuses. (A downside would be trying to deal with rapid increases in one skill.) If you want to try for one level higher than your current skill, you have to roll a 19 without any modifiers, giving you a 10% chance.
Other Ways to Reward Skill Training
Let's say the group wants to search through the garbage before they continue on to see if they find any treasure. We could create a random table of stuff, let's say using a d20.
For each rank you have in a skill, you get 1 roll of the d20. The results can be cumulative, meaning you get each item you roll for or the rolls could create a list from which you may pick 1 item. I'm not sure which is better and this might be a place where the DM gets to change depending on the situation.