The Awesome Thing about Feats

A pair of sexy feets to contrast the ones on my original post. Visual puns!
A woman’s feet. Unable to identify the model or the original source of the image.

Over a year ago I wrote a post called The Problem with Feats. It was the first piece of my tabletop writing which got much attention, thanks to Courtney of Hack & Slash. In many ways that post represents a significant shift in my thinking about game mechanics, and serves as a signpost for how I developed over the following year. Even though I would probably write it differently now, it stands among my favorite posts from those first few tentative months of writing. But as I mentioned in that post, I don’t hate feats. I was, and am, highly critical of the way feats have been implemented in the various iterations of D&D 3.X, but I hold that the concept is sound. Feats bring a lot more to the table than increased complication and power creep.

The most obvious benefit of feats is that they allow for greater mechanical character customization. I will not argue that player options aren’t highly overvalued in D&D 3.X, because they are. The overwhelming bloat of these customization options becomes particularly apparent when you notice that players are often using ‘builds’ they found online, because the number of options available is too great for most players to reasonably grasp them. But it would be fallacious to assume that just because something is overvalued, that means it has no value at all. Simplicity is good, but it should not be the ultimate goal of a game. The ultimate goal of a game should be to facilitate fun. And people have fun when they can personalize their stuff. That’s why people decorate their cubicle, or put knick knacks on the dashboard of their car. Personalization is important to us.

Maybe it’s presumptuous of me, but I can already hear the response to that statement from my OSR-leaning readers: “But LS, you sexy pile of fat folds” they will cry out in unison. “Customization is achieved through play! It’s about the goals you pursue, the loot you find, and the stronghold you build!”

To which I respond: yes. You are correct. But feats offer a level of personalization to players which none of those elements can match. Because gold can be stolen, and magic items can be destroyed. Friendly NPCs can be killed, conquered towns can be burned to the ground, and even the mightiest castle can be razed. But so long as the player’s character lives, a feat can never be taken away from them. There’s something to be said for an inherent ability. One which you cannot lose any more than you could lose your racial or class abilities.

That’s why I love feats. At least, I love them in theory. But theory’s just half of the equation. The other half is finding a way to implement feats in practice. A way which highlights the strength of this kind of player option while avoiding the common pitfalls which can reduce player agency by placing arbitrary limits on what players are allowed to attempt. It must also avoid complicating the game by introducing endless lists of possible feats to be combed through and analyzed by players who ought to be playing. What I wrote a year ago still rings true to me. A good feat is one which makes a character better at something they can already attempt. In Pathfinder, many of the combat maneuver feats are examples of how feats should be designed. Improved Trip, Improved Bull Rush, Improved Sunder, etc. Anybody can attempt to disarm their opponent, but someone who has the Improved Disarm feat have learned how to keep their guard up when they do it, so they don’t provoke an attack of opportunity. Their enhanced disarming skill also grants them a +2 to disarm attempts, and to defending against disarm attempts.

Ultimately, I would like to see the endless list of feats which fill the pages of every new rulebook replaced with a comprehensive system for creating feats. Something which players and GMs could work out together. Perhaps a sliding scale where the bonuses granted by a feat can be more powerful, the more specific of a situation that feat could be used in. As a simple example, characters could take a feat which gave them a +1 to attack rolls when using axes, +2 to attack rolls when fighting undead, or +4 to attack rolls when fighting vampires. Since “using axes” is very general and could potentially be applied to every attack roll the character ever makes, it receives a very small bonus of only +1. Undead aren’t going to be part of every combat, though, so a feat which only works against them won’t come into play quite as often. Since its use would be less frequent, the bonus can be higher. And vampires are just a more extreme example of that. Fighting vampires is likely to be very uncommon in a standard campaign, so the bonus to fighting them can be quite large.

I don’t mean to imply that the above system should be implemented, mind you. In order to be made workable, such a system would require a lot of mathematical tinkering, and a lot more thought than I’ve given it. That’s just a suggestion for how the current Pathfinder feat system might be modified and replaced to avoid the problem with feats which I described in my earlier post.

A more workable, and dare I say, retroclone compatible feat system would be as follows:

At each level after first, a character gains one feat slot. This slot confers no immediate advantage, and players are not able to select a feat to fill the slot themselves. For the time being, they should simply indicate that a feat slot is available, and it will remain available until it is filled. During play, if a character with an open feat slot excels with a certain type of action or style of play, the GM can reward the player by granting them a feat to represent & enhance that excellence.

Excellence can be demonstrated a number of ways. Players showing preference for a specific tactic is the most obvious choice. For example, a character who frequently throws flasks of lantern oil might be granted a feat which gives them +1 to throwing grenade-like projectiles. Other ways to demonstrate excellence would be for the character to devote a certain amount of in-game time to training. In this way, players could more directly choose their feats. By finding a vampire hunter and training under her for 3 weeks, a thief might be given a feat which allows their backstab attack to function against vampires. GMs could also reward game-changing rolls with a feat. I once wrote a post describing how a level 1 goblin successfully defeated a much higher level monster by making an excellent roll to throw a bomb into the creature’s mouth. From then on we allowed that particular goblin to add a +4 anytime they wanted to throw an item into a small space, and that’s a perfect example of how this feat system could work.

One might argue that this undermines the virtue of customization which I espoused earlier in this post, but it does not. At least, not necessarily. First, most of the methods for receiving feats are dictated first by the player’s actions. The GM merely interprets how those actions should be rewarded. Second, even if the player is not making the decision directly of which feats they would like to have, their character still becomes progressively more unique. The character evolves not only according to their class, but also according to the adventures they’ve had, and the way they’ve lived their life. That seems like an excellent supplement to traditional class-based progression in my view.

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22 thoughts on “The Awesome Thing about Feats”

  1. Reminds me a bit of this adaptive saving throw system:

    http://builtbygodslongforgotten.blogspot.com/2012/09/peoples-republic-of-saving-throws-ii.html

    I like both ideas. I think a portable implementation though would require rather extensive guidelines about how to create these feats and what they should be able to do. Otherwise, you are just saying that players get to make up a power every level (which is fine, but I suspect you want something more structured, no?).

    Personally, I still like the idea of feats as treasure, discussed here:

    http://untimately.blogspot.com/2012/06/diegetic-character-options.html

    1. Using the ‘feat slot’ system, the GM is actually the one coming up with a power every level. Though the player can try to influence that decision through play, or by straight up asking their GM for something. The GM should still require them to earn it within the game, though.

      The idea is rough around the edges, to be sure. And there are many ways it could be implemented. I offered two options here (a rough idea for mechanics heavy games like pathfinder, and a more developed idea which could be applied to any game) but with a little polish I think it could be used in play without significant modification. Balance might be difficult, but as you and I both know, balance is somewhat overrated.

  2. I like the idea that feats provide character customization.
    I like your post because actual feats are often disappointing.
    The feats you describe have meaning and are tied to the story.
    I play D&D 4E and I dislike many feats in that edition, mainly because many feats exist to minimize weaknesses, not improve existing strengths.

    1. Improving upon a weakness could work as well, though. For example, if a player is frequently traveling far from civilization, and often needs to ration their food, they might gain a feat which allows them to last 4 days on food which would only normally be good enough for 3 days. (In keeping with my recently posted “Rethinking Rations” post)

      I’m glad the idea is adaptable to 4th edition. I didn’t expect that!

  3. I hate feats. I think they stifle creativity.

    Instead of being forced to think of unique things to do in and out of combat, what a character can do is reduced to the pen and paper equivalent of a button on a hot-bar in WoW.

    Best case scenario, they are passive things like Improved Disarm. At worst, they break reality, like Improved Cleave.

    If you don’t have feats and must rely only on your imagination, players are stuck between two options. Use mechanically pre-defined (and boring) combat options, or get creative.

    But say your player really wants his character to be awesome at disarming, charging, or some other combat maneuver. Let them. Give them a weapon proficiency in that particular thing, assign a bonus as needed. Generally, that sort of thing is decided by ability scores and weapon proficiency, in 2E, anyway.

    I’ve always hated 3E for, in my opinion, making D&D more of a video game on paper. So much more Type 4.

    1. If you hate 3e so vehemently, I don’t know if you’ll find much to like here. I am primarily a Pathfinder GM, and my writing often focuses on that game.

      Most of your complaints with feats are ones which I agree with (though the specific examples you cite such as disarming, charging, and other combat maneuvers actually do not require feats). In fact I made many of those same complaints myself in “The Problem with Feats” which I posted a year ago. This post, however, is about an alternative system which avoids those problems.

      I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m not sure what the point of your comment is. It doesn’t really relate to the content of the post above. If you want to rant about how much you hate 3e, that’s fine. But it’s not actually relevant here.

      1. Didn’t mean to come off as such a hateful curmudgeon, old wounds run deep, and we took the release of 3E pretty hard back in the dark years of the late 1990′s.

        I actually find your blog pretty interesting and useful, I just have to ignore the stat blocks.

        I suppose that I should’ve just written, “I don’t like feats at all,” and left it at that, but I tend to digress and ramble… as I’m doing now.

        In summation, I don’t like feats or 3E in general, but I like your blog.

        1. Don’t worry about it. It’s easy to come off as more angry than you want to on the Internet. Particularly when you’re trying to express something you feel passionate about.

          I’m glad you’ve found stuff you can enjoy in my writing. Even if my feats ideas don’t appeal to you, I’ve got some other stuff coming up which may be more interesting. Encumbrance, dungeon design, etc.

  4. Using a system like this, feats could also be a way to support soft multi-classing. I think I might find that more attractive than things that are just bonuses or penalties, but others might dislike such an approach for mixing the special areas of the classes a bit.

    Incidentally, how do you feel about the extremely liberal approach of 3E to multi-classing?

    I’m not familiar enough with 3E to be able to speak all that intelligently here, as I know what were rule blobs in earlier games have often been turned into skills in 3E (like the thief abilities).

    1. Crap, thought I responded to this already!

      Personally, I think multiclassing works best when it is either completely disallowed, or when the restrictions on it are liberal. I don’t see a point in allowing multiclassing, but penalizing players heavily for doing it.

      3E honestly had restrictions which were too heavy for my taste. I prefer Pathfinder’s method of giving players a small bonus each level for staying within their ‘favored’ class. Use of the carrot, rather than the stick, is good. Though I’m not sure how effective Pathfinder’s carrot is. And truth be told, I personally prefer games where multiclassing is not available, but class features are negotiable with the GM.

      1. “A good feat is one which makes a character better at something they can already attempt.”

        I agree with you here, but I think you have it half (3/4?) right. I love feats, and I really do love customization, and I think you’re right about feat bloat in general. I would say, however, that if there is a philosophy behind feats, that in addition to the above statement, one could add that if a feat is not going to improve something the character could already attempt, it should represent some specific lore or learning that doesn’t seem intuitive or obvious. You could let a sorcerer empower a spell without the feat, but what would you charge them? That feat is probably better represented as some secret lore that a given character has mastered.

        I do think characters should be able to power attack without a feat, that’s for sure. I’m actually planning a series on feats once I finish up with skills. We’ll see how long that takes.

        Incidentally, you should check out the Book of Iron Might. It has a somewhat complicated maneuver system that nevertheless allows any character to attempt whatever they want in combat. I’m not recommending it as is, but it’s really not a bad starting point.

    1. That’s not the first time Castles & Crusades has come up when I’ve written about feats. I really need to check it out one of these days!

      Thanks!

  5. I am one of the OSR guys, yet I do agree with you about the concept of feats and I even like the idea of allowing a “feat slot” for a PC when they level. Perhaps not every level or every other, but that idea has weight and merit.

    I will say I agreed with your post about feats, and yet I agree with this one.

    I know you talk about Pathfinder and 3E. Yet, I think that any game blog out there can be mined for creative ideas. I thank you for the post. Love reading your stuff.

    1. I’m doing my best to put out some more creative ideas this month. I’m glad you thought this one was valuable.

      I’ll probably return to the ‘feat slot’ idea eventually, and work out a solid system for implementing it. This post was more focused on the general defense of feats as a concept than it was on providing a workable alternative.

      Thanks for your comment!

  6. As someone who runs all flavors of D&D as needed, I’d love to see this proposed system fleshed out more. I like a good percentage of Pathfinder’s feats in general, but vastly prefer the idea of the DM selecting them based on how the character is being played.

    In general, I think that 3.X versions of D&D(including Pathfinder) are great in theory, but break down as soon as character-building starts to become a “thing.”

    1. Given the number of comments this post has received, the idea certainly seems to have some kind of traction. I’ll certainly be returning to the concept to detail the system in greater depth later.

      I think the 3.X versions of D&D have a lot of failings. The skills systems are completely batshit crazy (as I covered in extensive detail early this year) and the number of fiddly options players need to keep track of even when they’re not invested in character building turns a lot of players off.

  7. Personally I like feats, but only in a very specific instance. In my group of eight (!) players, four of them are very new to the game, two are relatively versed, and the other two are veterans from the Dark Ages of DnD. (Speaking more in the ‘monasteries and calligraphy’ sense than the ‘rape and pillage and sleep in horse dung’ sense, of course).

    The four new people might not know the ins and outs of all of their rules, and need to be reminded sometimes to add their bonuses, but I’ve noticed that when it comes to creativity they’re top notch. It doesn’t matter to them that Power Attack is a ridiculously good feat for a fighter who has a greatsword. No. She wants to be able to punch guys in the face, in case she’s ever disarmed, so she taked Improved Unarmed Attack (she also doesn’t like the idea of wearing gauntlets and thus not being able to feel the blood of her enemies on her skin as she cleaves/punches them).

    That said, with the veterans and the versed, I find they more often use ‘builds’ and think of their characters in terms of roles. “I’m the cleric, so I’m the healer.” comes up a lot with these four. Not a terrible thing, but I like the more creative ideas of the new people.

    Another example is our halfling bard Marra Swiftfoot, who is a roiling pot of vengeful wrath and spurned hopes beneath a smiling facade of cheerful glee. She wants a way to vent her rage but still sing her songs in battle, so as she just levelled up she comes to me and says “I wanna take a level in Urban Barbarian.”. I was silent for a moment and didn’t realize I was grinning before I told her “A BardBarian? Hell yes. Go for it.”

    As an aside she’s now the fastest member of the party, with a 40′ move speed. o.O

    1. New players are important for me, which is another reason I prefer this system to the Pathfinder feats system. When I introduce a new player to Pathfinder, there are invariably two major stumbling blocks: skills, and feats. Everything else they can basically grasp from the get-go, but when you put a big pile of skill points in their lap and tell them to distribute them, they have no idea what they should do. And why would they? The same is true of feats. But at least with feats I can relatively easily point out 2 or 3 which I think they might like, and let them choose from those.

      I dunno, man. Sometimes I feel as though I will eventually house rule every single rule in Pathfinder, at which point I just need to make my own game. =P

      As an aside: large groups are awesome. I don’t think I’ve gone beyond 6 players myself, but I would love to go all the way up to 8. I could run Vecna Lives!

      1. Sidenote: Vecna rules. I recently made a Facebook post about the election to the tune of “Let’s hear it for the real power behind the government. Vecna! Vecna, keeping his eye on America and his hand on the pulse of the people.” but I’m pretty sure d20Monkey (a webcomic) beat me to that punchline.

        And you’re right, too. With my players the biggest stumbling block past the initial “What do I want to play?” was skills/feats. I think I handled it well by going the World of Darkness route and asking them to come up with a Theme and a Vision for their character. Theme is what vein they want to play in, and where the 4E traditional roles came in. Healer, Tank, Striker etc. were options for those who didn’t have any idea what I meant, and by picking one that appealed I suggested skills/feats that might help them. More complex was Vision, which was supposed to represent what they wanted to play ultimately.

        My ladyfriend is in my group and she loves Indiana Jones, so she chose “Badass Archaeologist” as her Vision, which helped me suggest she pick up levels in Bard (Archaeologist archetype) and Gunslinger (Pistolero archetype) along with the Prehensile Whip trait. I also suggested Deadly Aim, Skill Focus (Use Magic Device) and several other things to fit the theme and give her an idea of what to look for when perusing books/the SRD for character stuff.

        To their credit, I’ve only had to teach them once, and in making it entertaining I think I did well to keep them interested less in the ‘character building’ aspect and more in the ‘character creation’ aspect.

  8. If you have not already, you might also want to check out the ACKS proficiency system. It is essentially a feats-lite system (bolted onto a B/X retro-clone). It is still a bit too heavy for me, but at the very least it might give you some ideas.

  9. Hi LS,

    I’m enjoying you thoughts about feats, but I would like to comment on your conclusion:

    “A good feat is one which makes a character better at something they can already attempt.”

    I found it interesting but also ironic, because I have the same issues about the way many Feats are created (stealing options from players instead of providing new ones); though I eventually came with a different conclusion: today I believe that a good feat is one which allows your character to do something completely different and/or unique, something he wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

    Maybe ‘cause of 4E I’m turned off by feats that just play with numbers, providing minor bonus here and there. They extrapolate aspects of the game that, I believe, emphasize optimization over customization (or maybe over conceptualization).

    I have some difficult in providing examples for this, as I always did this ad hoc, as house rules. For example: I player would ask for a “dramatically blind” player character (the character is blind but don’t penalize his combat skills). I give him a few custom rules (for example: can’t feel anything beyond 30 feet or read, but can fight normally and ignore darkness) and ask for a feat “slot”. Another player wanted the ability to shapechange in a crow (and just a crow) – I came up with a few prerequisites and asked for a feat slot.

    I hope I made myself understood (English is not my native language). I see feats as customization tools for making your character more unique.

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