- People like new stuff. Whatever the edition, people like the shiny new toy. This is problematic because enough shiny new toys begin to clutter the character sheet, bloat the game, and introduce power creep. Fourth edition tried to solve this by allowing characters to replace existing powers with higher level ones, but a lot of people like new stuff more often than every few levels.
- People like powerful powers. The shiniest new toys are the most fun, and powerful stuff is the shiniest of all. The problem here is that as soon as you put it on the character sheet you are responsible for its balance on the game. The classic example is the old dilemma of how you get a broken magic item away from a character without disrupting the game.
The solution might be to take a handful of powers off the character sheet and put them into the encounter. I call these "unlocked powers." So instead of the fighter having Cleave (i.e. make an additional attack after knocking a target unconscious), maybe Cleave is a power that goblins provide and this gives goblins a distinct feel. For example, "Cleave: If goblin is reduced from full hit points to unconscious in a single attack, attacker may make an additional attack against an adjacent target." All of the sudden being a big damage dealer allows you to wade through hordes of goblins. It is exciting, fun, and isn't going to become an insane build that a player can use in every combat for an entire campaign.
This brings us to the third issue:
3. Monster knowledge skills are often under utilized.
If we set up the unlocked powers to be better or worse for different character types, monster knowledge skills become really valuable. The wizard knows not to hit the mob of goblins for 2 damage each because that forecloses Cleave on any of them. If a magma demon explodes upon dying unless someone adjacent passes a DC 20 Arcana check, then we know the wizard better standby. All of the sudden combat is riddled with mini-games; some to get access to awesome powers and others to avoid bad things, and the fact that you can piggy back flavor ("Griffon eggs are worth 1500 gp") on those monster knowledge checks is pretty nice too.
Finally, because access to these powers is limited, there really can never be any balance issues. Worst case scenario is it makes one combat too easy and too memorable. There also is no limit to what they can do or what you can introduce. So far all of my examples have been on monster death, but you could trigger the power on other conditions, too. Maybe upon shedding first blood (i.e. when first bloodied), you can tear the horn from the dark unicorn and use it as a wand implement. Maybe this limits what powers the unicorn can use thereafter or sends it into a fury or kills it outright.
Unlocked powers are a really broad design space that doesn't disrupt game balance, makes combats more memorable, adds value to existing skills, facilitates the introduction of monster ecology, and help give individual monsters distinct feels. They could be easily added to 3e or 4e and all you'd have to do is determine the appropriate cost. Maybe that cost is free and is just the reward for being in the right place at the right time, maybe it costs an AoO or an OA, maybe it costs a surge, or maybe different unlocked powers have different costs. Regardless, it is a simple idea with a lot of potential.