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.