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Looking at Pre-Essentials 4th Edition classes, it seems like they map out like this:

Three trained skills:

  • Defenders: Battlemind, Fighter
  • Striker: Barbarian

Four trained skills (one max be fixed — e.g. required Religion for a divine class):

  • Defenders: Paladin, Swordmage, Warden
  • Strikers: Avenger, Monk, Sorcerer, Warlock
  • Leaders: Ardent, Cleric, Runepriest, Shaman, Warlord
  • Controllers: Druid, Invoker, Psion, Seeker, Wizard

Five trained skills (one is fixed):

  • Striker: Ranger
  • Leaders: Artificer, Bard

Six trained skills (two are fixed):

  • Striker: Rogue

I'm a bit mystified by the Battlemind, Fighter, and Barbarian getting only three trained skills. Is there a particular reason for this? Something about their other class features or the relative value of certain class skills over others?

(I'm more interested in how the skills play into class balance than "designer reasons.")

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It follows the distribution of skill points in D&D 3rd edition.

The rogue has the most trained skills in D&D 4th edition because it also had the most skill points in D&D 3rd edition (8 per level; 3e had more individual skills than 4e). This in turn goes back to the original thief class as it appeared in the supplement Greyhawk (1976), which was originally the only class in D&D to have a fixed percentage chance to succeed at tasks like Open Locks or Move Silently.

Rangers and bards had the next-highest skill points per level in 3.5 (6 per level). Artificers had 4 per level, but they tended to have bonus skill points from high Intelligence because that class used Intelligence, making the artificer a high-skill class in practice.

Next in 4e is the four-skill class, which seems to be a default base number of trained skills in that edition. The majority of 4e classes have four skills unless there is some reason otherwise.

The fighter had the fewest skill points in 3e (2 per level), and this status seems to have been carried over. The barbarian had more skill points in 3e (4 per level), but appears to have been relegated to the fighter-type low-skill category in 4e (perhaps they only had 4 skills in 3e on the assumption that they would take low Intelligence and lose one or two skill points, whereas the 3e fighter could more readily take the Expertise feat chain requiring 13 Intelligence; this meant in practice 3e fighters often got 3 skills from the +1 Intelligence modifier, and barbarians sometimes fewer from a dump-stat Intelligence score of 8, again 3 skills). We might also speculate that both fighter and barbarian get 3 skills because it was the average of the 3e barbarian and fighter number of skills; a complaint among 3e players was that fighters got few skills and couldn't do much interesting outside of combat. 4e also converted a lot of the fighter's strength-based skills into a single skill, Athletics, which may explain why it doesn't get 4 skills any more in 4e.

The battlemind didn't strictly exist in 3e for comparison, but its closest equivalent is the psychic warrior, which is essentially a psionic fighter, and also shares the 3e fighter's low skill count.

In short, the closest predictor for the number of trained skills for each class in 4e is not the usefulness of the skills they have available, but rather the number of skill points they got in D&D 3rd edition.

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Your assessment is correct. Class balance and skill balance are the two major factors.

If we assume that the designers aimed to make balanced classes, then making a class better at something means it has to be worse at something else.

Skills are just one part of how classes are different, a class that is good at one aspect (combat? spell variety? hit die?) may not be as good at something else.

Skills are not equally valuable: Perception is probably more useful than Religion. Stealth is probably more useful than History.

Skill rarity is another balance concern. Heal and Endurance are much more common class skills than Dungeoneering.

Skills share attributes with more or less than others. There are only one Constitution skills, only one Strength, but 5 Wisdom skills. This means it is easier for a character with high Wisdom to be effective in many skills than a Strength character. This leads to even more complexity as changing the attribute of a skill changes how powerful it is.

I find it hard to give exact examples of X class has more skills than Y in exchange for being worse at Z. Classes vary so much in their roles and capabilities that identifying any exchange is difficult.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman Think bard powers vs sorcerer spell list. Versatility usually comes at the cost of specialization. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Oct 17 '19 at 3:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not really sure how to back this up, maybe you know of some quotes? It seems likely that the designers wanted to balance the classes, and inherent that more skills is better than less skills. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Oct 17 '19 at 3:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, as an example, one way you could back this up would be by proving that Fighters are "better" in combat than Rogues, thereby justifying your supposition that that's why they get more skills. But I'm not sure how you can meaningfully compare a striker to a defender, so I'd be interested to see how you did that. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Oct 17 '19 at 3:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman I think most people rank Fighter as one of the best Defenders, but you are right, who is useful in combat is subjective and hard to decide. Is a Leader better than a Defender? Who knows. Clearly some classes are better than others in specific circumstances, it's complex. I adjusted the answer, please let me know what you think. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Oct 17 '19 at 3:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd like to note that the skills you listed as especially worthy (Perception, Stealth) aren't on any of the 3-skill class' lists. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex P Oct 17 '19 at 7:53

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