The core of any game is the abilities your character(s) have to affect the world around them, most commonly to murder things stylishly. They are called by many names in MMOs, spells, abilities, skills, etc. You gather them by progressing your character and training new abilities, slowly filling up your hotbar with new and fascinating options, or simply adding new ways to murder people with your mouse depending on the game. In Guild Wars 2, these are referred to as Skills, regardless of whether they are magic spells or stabby things or traps or whatever.
I'll be going into the specific types of skills in more detail in future posts. First, however, I would like to examine the basic layout of skills in Guild Wars 2 as it compares to that of other games.
The Way It's Been
Guild Wars 2 is what is referred to by some as a hotkey MMO. This means you have a bar on the screen which contains a list of abilities you can use and, in most games, has a number or key you can press to activate an ability contained within a slot on that bar. This is a very common model for MMOs, being used in just about all of the major games on the market today.
The standard for such games has been to have a bar with the number keys, and then the opportunity for extra bars, and you can bind keypresses to individual slots on those bars. WoW does this, SWTOR does this, Lord of the Rings Online, Aion, even DCU online, though it uses a different method for standard combat. As your character progresses, you gain more abilities, which take up more space on your bars, and eventually you'll want to have 2 or more bars to hold all of your abilities. Then you keybind to make those new abilities more accessible, or you just click with the mouse.
The difficulty with this (for me) has always been the sheer number of abilities that become available, and remembering them. Being a person who takes breaks from games and then comes back later, I have difficulty resuming play with an existing character unless I played them to such an alarming degree that the patterns of fighting have been burned into my head. (This happened with my mains in WoW. I played them so much that I can return after 6 months and still remember how to fight effectively just by rote.)
The worst offender for this problem of Too Many Abilities is Lord of the Rings Online. Not taking into account the memorization beast that is the Warden, all classes in that game gain a ludicrous number of abilities over time. I played a Hunter to level 39 and stopped for a time. When I returned, I was awful. I had so many abilities that I couldn't quite keep track of them all when in a fight, and the combat I found myself in seemed to require at least a passing familiarity with the options available in order to survive. It was awful. I have yet to play him again because of this.
WoW has much the same issue, and it is only alleviated for me by an equally ludicrous familiarity with the classes and characters. I've spend a lot of time playing the game and a lot of time learning it. Of all the information to retain...
The Guild Wars Way
First, I'd like to examine, briefly, how skills worked in the original Guild Wars. They had hundreds of skills available, limited to class. Your character would have a primary and a secondary class, so you'll be focusing on the skills available to those classes you have. You obtain new skills either by purchasing them or completing quests. They are not limited to level, so the moment you have the money and find someone to sell them, you could conceivably obtain all skills available to you.
What limited this was the hotbar. You could have, at most, 8 skills active at any time. You'd go through your available skills and choose the ones most appropriate to whatever you're doing at the moment and build your bar that way. You could switch them out freely while you were in a town, but once you entered the "world" you were locked in. It added a lot of strategy to the system, as you would experiment with builds for specific circumstances and bosses.
The Guild Wars 2 Way
Guild Wars 2 has kept some of their previous system, but made some grand and sweeping changes as well. So, at long last, here's the summary of how skills work in Guild Wars 2.
You have 10 skills on your bar, bound to keys 1-0. You have class-specific abilities that are available using F1-F4. Beyond that, you can switch between two preset weapon sets using a hotkey, and you can dodge. That is the core of how you use the skill system. Of course, there's more to it than that.
Keys 1-5 are your weapon skills. They are based on two things: profession and the weapon(s) you're using. So a warrior using a two-handed sword will have five abilities that fit the conceit of the warrior, while the five skills for using a two-handed sword for a Mesmer will be wholly different. (In fact, the two-handed sword is a ranged weapon for the Mesmer!) When you switch weapon sets in combat, your weapon skills on the hotbar will also change.
Slots 6-0 are called Slot Skills overall. These are learned by obtaining skill points, and you spend the skill points to learn these skills. Luckily, this does not require a vendor or trainer or anything to learn the skills. You could do it in a dungeon, as long as you're not in combat.
Slot 6 is always a heal. Each profession has several healing skills available to them, with properties unique to that profession, and you can switch them out easily. As an example, the base heal for a Thief gives them health regeneration and also puts them into stealth for a brief period of time.
Slots 7-9 are Utility Skills. They do... things. For a Thief, for example, you can shadow step to a location and then immediately shadow step back. Or lay traps. There are 22+ of these for each profession, but you can only have 3 active at any time. You can switch them out while outside of combat.
Slot 0 is for Elite Skills. These are big abilities on long cooldowns that are available to race or profession. They are very expensive to learn. As an example, the Charr have the ability to summon their Warband to help them in combat, while a Thief could summon their Thieves' Guild, or poison an enemy with Basilisk Venom and turn them to stone. You'll have several available to you, and can only have one active at a time.
Last, I will briefly go into traits. Traits are the method available to customize your character's abilities to better match your playstyle, or the needs of the circumstance. You get trait points as you level. You have several Trait lines available, each focusing on specific playstyles.
You can put up to 30 points in a line, and each point will give you a passive increase to a secondary attribute. This can increase your base damage, crit chance, or even the duration of debuffs. When you have put 5 points into a trait line (and 15, and 25), you gain a minor trait which buffs you appropriately for that Trait line. At 10, 20 and 30, you gain a Major trait slot. Each Line has 12+ Major traits and you select which ones you have active. You can switch those out on the fly as long as you're not in combat.
You'll end up with 70 Trait Points total at max level, and switching them around is fairly simple. With the number of trait lines available for each profession (Thief has 6), you can customize nicely.
To Be Continued!
There's much more to these systems, but I'll be going into them individually in further posts. This was simply to provide a comparison and overview. Stay tuned for more!