Also, it gives me a ‘U Day’ post for this year’s A-Z Blog Challenge. I am not proud.
I’ve only recently gotten around to reading Pathfinder® Roleplaying Game: Pathfinder Unchained™, and the skill unlocks are philosophically quite close to my early skill model. In my skill model, each skill was a separate talent, and taking that talent at progressively higher tiers gave you options for what you could do with that skill that others could not.
Anyone could try to tightrope walk, but someone who had the skill at the Heroic tier was not only more likely to succeed (higher bonus to the check), but be able to do things on a successful check that others couldn’t. And probably didn’t have to make some checks at all: a test intended to challenge an Expert-tier character could be assumed successful if a character with that skill at the Heroic tier attempted it. If the more-skilled character tried to do a Heroic-tier trick with the skill then a check would be needed again.
For example, in D&D 3.x (which I was using for my base when this was still the skill model) on a successful Balance check you could navigate a precarious surface at half speed. You could try to move your normal speed but took a -5 penalty to your check. In this older Echelon skill model you no longer took this penalty when you tried to move at normal speed if you had Balance at the Heroic tier or higher.
A ravine bridged with a fallen tree, narrow and swaying slightly with the weight of each person crossing it, might have had a DC 10 check to cross — an Expert-level test. Anyone could try it, most people without penalties would succeed (and those of at least Expert tier would have at least +2 level bonus to their check; someone at the Expert tier and the Balance talent at any tier would have +4 on top of that, then Dexterity bonus on top of that). A character with Balance at the Heroic tier wouldn’t even have to check at all, to cross at half speed, and could make a check at no penalty (for increased speed) to cross at full speed.
Higher-tier abilities allowed progressively more. This would be either because of reduced penalties or options simply not available to others. For instance, a trained crafter can make masterwork items, while someone who does not have the relevant Craft talent cannot, regardless of the DC beaten by the skill check.
The unchained skill unlocks are pretty similar, philosophically speaking. Some examples:
With sufficient ranks in Climb, you earn the following.
5 Ranks: You are no longer denied your Dexterity bonus when climbing.
10 Ranks: You gain a natural climb speed (but not the +8 racial bonus on Climb checks) of 10 feet, but only on surfaces with a Climb DC of 20 or lower.
15 Ranks: You gain a natural climb speed (but not the +8 racial bonus on Climb checks) equal to your base speed on surfaces with a Climb DC of 20 or lower, and of 10 feet on all other surfaces.
20 Ranks: You gain a natural climb speed equal to your base speed on all surfaces. If you have both hands free, you gain a +8 racial bonus on Climb checks.
With sufficient ranks in Craft, you earn the following.
5 Ranks: When determining your weekly progress, double the result of your Craft check before multiplying the result by the item’s DC.
10 Ranks: You do not ruin any of your raw materials unless you fail a check by 10 or more.
15 Ranks: When you determine your progress, the result of your check is how much work you complete each day in silver pieces.
20 Ranks: You can craft magic armor, magic weapons, magic rings, and wondrous items that fall under your category of Craft using the normal Craft rules.
With sufficient ranks in Heal, you earn the following.
5 Ranks: When you treat deadly wounds, the target recovers hit points and ability damage as if it had rested for a full day.
10 Ranks: When you treat deadly wounds, the target recovers hit points as if it had rested for a full day with long-term care.
15 Ranks: When you treat deadly wounds, the creature recovers hit point and ability damage as if it had rested for 3 days.
20 Ranks: When you treat deadly wounds, the target recovers hit point and ability damage as if it had rested for 3 days with long-term care.
Not all of these work for me as written, but they’re a starting point.
One change I would make: Echelon is based on tiers being four levels each. Rather than having these skill unlocks take place at levels 5, 10, 15, and 20 — the top of the five-level tiers (unofficially used) in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, I’d assign them to the starting levels of each tier above Expert in Echelon: 5, 9, 13, 17. This does two things. First, it aligns them with the tiers. Second, it aligns them with the start of the tier, so as talents they kick in as soon as you take the talent, and you gain the benefit of the tier ability for the entire tier instead of just a small piece of it.
These are only small benefits, though. I suspect with the revision I made to talents (so skill-oriented talents have a major effect by their focus and a minor effect on the underlying skill) I’d do much the same here. There might be multiple talents that hang off Climb checks, each giving different primary abilities, but all give these minor effects on Climb checks — to the effect of the highest tier in a relevant talent.