The Problem with Feats

The Problem with Feats...FEETSIn both D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, feats are special abilities which are gained once every few levels. They are roughly equivalent to a minor class ability. And, in fact, several feats are simply repackaged class features. The idea behind the system is a good one for a game which favors in-depth character building. While a character’s class controls their general progression, and the selections they make for their skills determines their effectiveness with mundane tasks; feats offer characters the opportunity to excel at something special.

Based on the title of this post, however, I’m sure my readers know there’s a ‘but’ coming. So lets get it over with: BUT, individual feats often suffer from poorly considered design. By which I don’t mean that there is poor balance between feats (though there really really is, it’s just not my point.) The problem is that some feats allow characters to perform tasks which they should be able to perform whether or not they have a feat.

The damage this causes may not be readily apparent, but it weakens the very foundation of the entire game. Anytime something which should be available to all players becomes a feat, it arbitrarily steals that ability from everyone who doesn’t take the feat. Such arbitrary theft of possibilities dulls the most potent edge tabletop role playing has over video games: a limitless amount of options.

I first noticed this problem years ago, when I was rolling a character who would go on to be named Zalekios Gromar. Among the many horrifying things I wanted this dark and evil character to be, was a self-mutilator. And, as it so happened, I knew that a feat existed in the Book of Vile Darkness called Willing Deformity. It was accompanied by a whole host of deformity feats which could be selected after you had Willing Deformity as a prerequisite.

I spent some time weighing whether or not the feat (which didn’t have a mechanical effect I was interested in) was worth it, or whether I should just give up on being a self mutilating character. It took some time before I realized that there was no reason a feat should determine whether or not I could take a knife and cut on my face. The act requires no great skill, it is not a feat by any stretch of the definition. Why should the game disallow me from mutilating myself simply because I don’t want to waste a feat on doing so?

I started noticing the same issue elsewhere after that. Feats which shouldn’t be feats, but should instead be handled on a case by case basis by the GM. Fortunately for me, Zalekios’ GM not only allowed him to mutilate himself, but gave him a mechanical benefit for it in the form of a +2 to intimidate, -2 to diplomacy. That was a pretty clear cut situation, though, and other players might not have such understanding GMs. One might point out that the Book of Vile Darkness is a D&D 3.0 book, but even the Pathfinder update did not fully address this issue. To illustrate that fact, I’ve included several samples of gameplay below. Each demonstrates a player doing something which would not require any special ability on the part of the character, and the GM granting them a benefit for that. Each of these will also represent a feat from either the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, or the Advanced Players Guide.

Player: “This giant slug monster can’t dodge for anything. My fighter is just going to swing at it wildly and as hard as he can, rather than attempting his usual finesse.”
GM: “Very well! Your fighter will take a -1 penalty on attack rolls for as long as he attacks this way, but will gain a +1 to damage on any successful hits.
Feat: Power Attack

GM: You’ve saved the Orc’s life from certain death at the hands of the grotesque mistress of webs. He falls to his knees and thanks you for helping him. He offers you anything you desire as a reward.
Player: “My cleric speaks Orcish. I would like to ask that the orc reward me by aiding me in my adventures henceforth. In exchange, I promise he will always be granted the fullest benefit of my healing ability.
GM: Make a diplomacy check.
*clatter clatter*
Player: “A twenty seven!”
GM: “The orc agrees to follow you henceforth, so long as you always treat him with the same kindness which you have shown today.”
Feat: Leadership

Player: “Since I use a rapier, which doesn’t really lend itself well to strong-armed attacks, I’d like to focus my weapon fighting style on quickness and style, rather than brawn.”
GM: “Sure, just add your Dexterity to your attack rolls rather than your Strength.”
Feat: Weapon Finesse

Player: “Geeze, there’s a lot of guys here. Um…hey! I’ve been using a Halberd for a long time now, and even have some feats to improve my ability with it. Do you think I could do a bunch of fancy moves with it to try and scare some of them?”
GM: “Make an intimidate check.”
*clatter clatter*
Player: “A 17.”
GM: “You’ve successfully intimidated those who can see your display. They seem demoralized.”
Feat: Dazzling Display

Player: “Since the humans in this city are xenophobes, my halfling rogue would like to disguise himself as a human child.
GM: “Alright, you can have a +2 circumstance bonus on that disguise since you picked one which isn’t far off from your current appearance.
Feat: Childlike

Player: I’d like to attempt to protect the wizard from the goblin’s arrows while he casts. The last thing we need right now is this spell getting interrupted!
GM: Sure thing. You’ve got a small wooden shield, so I’ll give him a +5 bonus on concentration checks while you protect him.
Feat: Shielded Caster (Teamwork Feat)

I could go on, but I think the above examples sufficiently illustrate the point. The players and GMs above were doing things right. The player was coming up with responses to situations, and the GM was altering the mechanics of those situations based on the efficacy of the player’s responses. There’s no reason any of those actions, or many others within the Pathfinder game, need to be feats. And yet they are.

Before you go thinking feats are all bad, though, I didn’t just pull these off the top of my head. I had to sit down with the books and carefully consider which feats made sense and which did not. The fact of the matter is that most feats do work. Feats such as Two Weapon Fighting allow players to handle a difficult task more easily, but it does not prevent them from attempting to fight with two weapons unless they take the feat. Skill Focus allows players to become unusually skilled at a group of mundane tasks such as diplomacy or wilderness survival. These types of feats improve characters which take them, but do not imply a restriction upon characters which do not.

The fact that most feats are good does not excuse those which are bad, though. As gamers, we have to point out failures such as this. Role Playing games are essentially nothing more than rules and imagination, so the rules must be well crafted. If a rule can’t be well crafted, then it should be left to the players and the GMs to work out for themselves.

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15 thoughts on “The Problem with Feats”

  1. –This is an imported comment from the old blog–

    Name: -C
    Date: Oct 31, 2011 11:17 PM

    Brilliant post!

    I believe the word you are looking for is ‘tactical infinity’ for a limitless amount of options.

    Also, the problem you are identifying is the one with ‘game design by limitation’, for feats that allow characters to do things everyone should do.

    I suggest taking a look at the ACKS proficiency system, which has a really excellent list of proficiencies.

  2. –This is an imported comment from the old blog–

    Name: Red
    Date: Nov 1, 2011 02:52 PM

    I think the op is dead-on. I DMed 3.5 for several years, and then went to old school gaming. I recently played a few sessions of a 3.5 game and the contrast was stultifying. I can’t do that? or that?

    I really like C’s blog, but I disagree regarding the ACKS proficiency system. I think it has the same problem of feats.

    Bribery? Do I need the proficiency “bribery” to attempt a bribe? (Meanwhile, the diplomacy proficiency specifies a bonus to the reaction roll everyone gets.) A thief needs to purchase “cat burglary” to be able to roll to balance on thin ledges? wtf? An explorer (ie, a ranger) needs to purchase ‘foraging’ to be able to gather food in the wilderness. There are rules for the gambling proficiency, but not for anyone to gamble? Can a character read maps without mapping?

    Others are of wildly varying power level. You can detect spellcasters and the use of magic within 24 hours (would suppose this includes magical items) as a pick, or gain a +2 reaction modifier to encounters of the opposite sex.

    Granted, other proficiency choices only give bonuses to things you can already attempt – combat trickery is specifically this.

    I think the ACKS proficiency system also suffers from the same problem as other skill/proficiency systems, in that too many are ‘basic adventuring skills’ (ie, mapping, cat burglary) without enough opportunities to choose those picks.

    C&C’s Adjuncts are a better counter example. Their original idea was that they didn’t allow you to do something you originally couldn’t, but they would give you bonuses for the attempts.

    1. Cartography is an extremely difficult skill to master, and “mapping” is making maps and recording a dungeon… a miscounted hallway means you don’t see the obvious hole with the secret room on your made-map, and rapids on a river could skew the distance calculation for land-travel back, and leave a group without supplies.

      These things can be attempted without the skills and experience needed, but are all but failures due to inexperience or lack of expertise, I’d argue (same for most skills that need to be trained to use, for example).

  3. –This is an imported comment from the old blog–

    Name: LS
    Date: Nov 1, 2011 08:27 PM

    @-C: I really appreciate the notes, and the link in your post this morning. As you can tell from my relatively short archive, I’m new at this. The boost of getting linked to by an established blogger is very helpful!

    I’ll add ACKS to the list of games I need to look into. I think OSRIC is next on my list.

    @Red: I’m glad you agree that this is a problem. And I guess I’ll have to see for myself regarding ACKS.

    C&C has always looked interesting to me as well, though. If only I had more time to study games! =P

  4. I like the post. I am not a GM who likes feats at all, yet I agree that some do work better than others and the ones you have addressed are some I had issue with as well. Thanks for the post.

    1. I’m glad to know I can be enjoyed even when I’m not agreed with!

      I do favor characters with more-build options, such as feats. But feats really work best when they’re improvements on something a character could already do, or if they grant a character an ability they would not otherwise be able to access. Improved Trip is a great feat, for example, because all it does is make a character better at the act of tripping an opposing combatant.

      Thank you for your comment!

  5. It’s very interesting to see the same dynamics arise in very different circumstances. This is exactly the same problem that many people have with the original thief class! FrDave explains this particularly clearly (see below), but it is a complaint I have seen in many places.

    When the thief class is introduced, player freedom is limited. The mechanical assumption is that the thief is the only class that can accomplish the tasks described under thief skills. Thus, traps suddenly require a thief to bypass. Players who choose to play a different class are no longer able to find or disarm traps.

    Personally, my major problem with feats is needing to be familiar with them during the character creation process. There are just too many. Pathfinder Core has around 200 (less if you remove the ones that require prerequisites, but you arguably need to be familiar with the feat chains in order to select any feats). Fourth Edition has 81 in the PHB. If you include all the supplements, there are more than 3000 Fourth Edition feats. I’m sure the situation is similar in 3E/Pathfinder.

    Obviously, one can limit source material, but even if you limit choices to the core (something that is not very popular with many players) I still find the choice overwhelming, and I’m interested enough in these games to maintain a blog with almost daily posts! Think about the implications for slightly less invested players.

    I personally believe that much of the character build process should be spread over level progression. That also encourages more group participation (as opposed to solitary character builds). If feats were gained at, say, levels divisible by 3, they would be much more tractable.

    1. That’s really interesting about the Thief class. I’ve thought of things like that myself, actually. My solution, amusingly enough, is to allow players to take certain class features from other classes as feats. Not sneak attacks, mind you, but I would allow a fighter to take Trapfinding as a feat if they wanted to.

      The requisite for familiarity is a complaint I often hear about feats within the OSR. It’s something I strongly disagree with. Why would you actually need to be familiar with all of the feats in order to select one? I’ve made 15 NPCs for this blog so far, and all I do is flip to the Feats index pages (4 pages in Pathfinder) and go down the list until I see one which would be good for the character. It has never seemed to me like “too much.”

      Things can get a little onerous if you want to prowl through every sourcebook to find the optimal feat, but nobody is forcing you to do that. Players who stick with the feats in the core rulebook are not gimped, and if there’s something they want which isn’t there, they can always ask their GM to houserule a feat for them.

      Personally, I do not like the way new sourcebooks always contain a large number of feats. I don’t think feats are something we need to be wasting pages on. Not when those pages could be better served helping a GM learn how to balance homebrew feats, or something like that. But what can you do? There are more players in the world than GMs, so books will always be marketed towards them somewhat.

      By the way, in D&D 3.5 feats were gained at levels divisible by 3. I played with this for years, but didn’t really like it much. The problem, for me, was that feats just aren’t all that powerful. Needing to level 3 times between each feat put a lot of stress on every feat selection, and it made the useless prerequisites for more powerful feats *really* frustrating. Pathfinder readjusted so that characters receive a feat every other level, which I think is much better.

      I can’t speak to 4e. Can’t stand it, personally.

  6. H everyone. First time at your blog.

    I don’t think I agree completely.

    The RULE is you cant just swing wildly and do more damage.
    The FEAT lets you break the rule.

    In your VERY specific example the implication is that the maneuver works BECAUSE the giant slug monster can’t dodge. Can the character take a -1 hit +1 dmg vs a halfling acrobat? If not would he have to take the feat to be able to do that?

    It sounds like you’e trying to apply deductive reasoning to a game mechanic. If we’re trying to use “real world” reasoning to prove the rules are wrong then I propose that very few of us are trained swordsmen in real life and that fact automatically means we have insufficient knowledge to deduce what CAN and CAN NOT happen in a sword fight. For those of us that are trained in swordplay I ask you to go back to the master that trained you and try your new “special wild swing without any regard for style attack” and see if you can win the fight that way.

    Let’s take it a step further.

    The RULE states that a 1st level Fighter can make 1 regular attack in a given round.
    I suggest that I can swing a sword AT LEAST 3 times in 6 seconds and shouldn’t have to wait till 12th level to do that.

    Granted there isn’t a FEAT that trumps this rule but it’s another example of Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Unrealistic Rules System.

    That being said…

    I sort of agree. Power Attack should not be a feat in the way it is presented. Mutants and Masterminds allow all characters to take up to -2 to hit for up to +2 to damage. The feat pushes this maneuver to up to -5 to hit and +5 to damage. There is no reason this can’t apply to another d20 rules system.

    Looking forward to other thoughts on this subject.

    1. In boxing, it’s called a haymaker. Similar terms exist in most combat styles that aren’t “point” combat styles (i.e. those actually designed for use in martial combat).

      Citing 1.0’s mythos about attacks/round, I’d also like to note that, yes, you can attack 3 times in six seconds, faster as you gain mastery, but only so many of those are going to be against an opponent that you can actually hit, instead of just parries and feints; As you become more masterful, yes, each of your attacks becomes able to harm and opponent.

      Personally, in pathfinder and 3.5, I let anyone skilled in the use of a non-light weapon make power attacks modified by up to their str modifier, assuming a non-light weapon, with a negative to hit that is building for every two points (thus, -1/+1, -2/+2, -4/+3, -6/+4, -9+5, etc.). In 1.0/2.0, they could deal additional damage based on a negative to hit, and how high they rolled over their target (i.e., a wild swing that actually connected well dealt more damage than one that struck his shield and dealt glancing damage).

      1. I agree with BryanH. The rules of this particular game system are just that.. the rules of this game system.

        There are several other game systems that abstract combat mechanics in a different way, one of my faovrites, for example, being the old ICE mechanics. (Middle-Earth and Rolemaster, mainly).

        In that game system, you had an “offensive bonus” which was essentially your skill with a weapon. Your roll, plus your bonus, determined both whether you hit and how much damage you did. But, as a player, you had the option of taking any amount of your bonus (which at level 10 could be around +75 using a d100 roll), and instead apply it to your defense as a negative modifier to the other guy’s roll on you.

        Thus, you had very fine control over how much of your “ability” you applied to offense (damage) vs. defense.

        In a system with these mechanics, a feat like Power Attack would make no sense. However, given the RULES of pathfinder combat mechanics, those feats *do* make sense, as they are essentially “training” that a character gets that allows him to break the rules that govern the universe for all characters. An “untrained” character simply cannot adjust his offense downward in favor of his defense (Combat Expertise) nor adjust his hit rate downward in favor of damage (Power Attack) – he may “want” to, but he simply doesn’t have the training necessary.

  7. I think these are good points, but I’ve thought about this post for about a week. I’ve suddenly realized perhaps a simple solution. Since there are feats that really shouldn’t be withheld from character who don’t have the feat, what if there was just some sort of penalty associated with using a feat that is much worse compared to when your character has the feat. For example, if a character wanted to power attack, the attack penalty would be higher to simulate the character’s lack of sufficient knowledge to use such a maneuver in combat. This could probably easily be applied to a lot of other feats at the gm’s discretion. I’m sure there are a lot of holes in my reasoning, but it seems like there could be a lot of benefit to allowing characters to have access to feats they don’t possess, albeit at a higher penalty. There are certainly situations in roleplaying and combat in which desperation will cause players to take more risks. Using these feats they don’t have at higher penalties seems like it would complement these situations, giving the players more options in dire circumstances.

  8. I understand where this is coming from, but i’m not quite sure i agree.

    First of all i need to say that i fully agree with a DMs desicion to modify the game after his/her own ideas. I like that and it gives a certain flavour to the game. What i disagree with is the idea that everyone can use these feats if their character wants it enough. I’ve also got some feats i disagree with, but those you mention here i do not.

    Feats determine that you are skilled enough to perform a certain action. The fighter without power attack has learned that his attacks should be precise and flowing to get the optimal cutting. If you have never practiced swinging wildly at anything you probably wont get much of an effect, especially without major drawbacks i.e. +1 to damage and -3 to ac and/or to hit. The feats, i think, tries to express some degrees of reality and some of these are easy to try in real life. The power attack idea can be tried if you chop wood. If you try to take down a tree by just swinging wildly at it, you will fail if you have no idea how to swing properly. You can learn this, but it is something you have to learn.

    Some of the other feats you mention has something to do with how you may do certain actions. An intimidate action in battle takes a standard action, but is mainly verbal and is subject to others understanding of what is threatening or not. A dazzling display with weapons is rather universal and has an effect on all creatures within a certain area. If you have never practiced drilling with weapons you should likewise have almost no idea of showing of weapon skill like that. Most fighting styles is very conservative concerning how much you move your weapon or body. Therefore some major penalties should be inposed if you try to do this without any form of training. You can try this out as well. Take a stick and try to make flashy moves…it’s not that easy to be inpressed by it. If you consider the halberd wielding warrior you should assume that he uses a traditional type of fighting with polearms and not spinning it around to look cool. Of course if the player has openly expressed that he trains on this or wants to make checks for doing this it might be on the DMs discretion.

    Lastly you have feats that alter player to NPC relations. Lets take the childlike issue first. The races are different. Very different. And by having these sharp distinctions you can also assume that the general public knows which signs to look for in another race. One example from real life could be manuals for indentifying gypsies or jews during the 2nd world war. What i mean is that if a halfling, without the childlike feat, shows up in the city he will be recognized as a halfling. The character avoids disguise penalties for diguising as another size because he/she is small, but would still have the features of a halfling. The childlike feat explicitly states that you look like a human child instead of a halfling (or gnome).
    The diplomacy-leadership issue is a different story. I have some issues with both skill and feat influence of NPCs since it removes the act of actually needing to convince the NPC, and i don’t like that. But, if you use the rules as stated i would think that a diplomacy check works for some time, but is quite easy to do something about. Another person may influence the same NPC later with another diplomacy check and suddenly all your efforts were lost. With leadership it provides more loyalty. You can generally assume that cohorts from the leadership feat are loyal and then if you want the extra flavor you can add spesific NPCs who’re able to challenge that authority. Once again it is the DMs discretion, but basicly: A skill check is short-lived and the leadership feat is “permanent”

    The two last problems you’ve adressed that i want to talk about is the shielded caster feat and, from an other post, the cleave feat. Shielded caster is about teamwork. Not about one person protecting another, but also on person being protected. You can always use the aid another action in combat, but it gives a much smaller bonus to the shielded individual. I have a problem with teamwork feats because they are usually grossly unfavored. To use two feats for an ability that one might, and perhaps sometimes should, get from one feat is beyond me. When that’s said there are some good story reasons to use them and in some cases a viable strategy, but not often.
    The cleave and great cleave feat is very simple. If you hit something with a weapon, the weapon usually stops or loses so much energy that the next person in line won’t be hurt at all. You need to practice that skill to get any real effect from it. That said i need to say that i think the D&D cleave feat is more logical since you have to dispatch your foe to get another attack.

    The two things i have the most issues with in D&D and pathfinder is:
    – alignment, because no one is that one dimentional.
    – HP. Because being hit by a hammer, sword or other square on kills you. Maybe not right away, but at least after a few seconds.

    I can discuss more feat problematics and both alignment and HP if you’d like. I would be very happy if i got feedback on my ideas as well and all these topics is important if one is to evolve as a DM or player.

    I really like your opinions and ideas about RPGs. Keep it up

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