In a recent post I covered why I think feats are awesome, despite the significant problems with how they’ve been implemented in Pathfinder. In that post I also posited a couple of alternate systems which would avoid the flaws which D&D 3.X fell prey to. I quite liked some of the ideas I came up with, and based on feedback, so did many others. It seems as though this system would benefit from some further development. Below I’ve tailored the idea specifically to fit within the Pathfinder rules, since that is my primary system right now. However, I stand by the idea that the system could easily be adapted to work in just about any game. I’d be particularly interested to see how it would work in a retroclone compatible RPG.
The Feat Slot system would replace Pathfinder’s feats system. This might break a few minor rules, but none of it should be a significant impediment to the game. The only thing which comes to mind immediately is that Humans would lose one of their primary racial benefits. To compensate, humans will gain a feat slot at first level, while most races will not gain any until second level. In addition, when using this system I think it’s best (though, not necessary) to also remove the ability point which players gain every four levels. Feat Slots should be a net increase in player power, and remove the ability point will help mitigate that.
The rule itself is simple. At second level, and each level after that, characters gain a ‘Feat Slot.’ These slots start out empty, and they cannot be filled by the player. Instead, feats are determined by the GM in response to the character’s actions. The GM is under no obligation to fill these slots immediately, and is encouraged to wait until a feat has been properly ‘earned.’ Once a feat slot has been filled by the GM, it cannot be changed, and a character can never have more feats than they have feat slots available.
There are two ways in which feats can be earned. Individual GMs may develop their own criteria, though they are encouraged to avoid letting feats become part of a ‘build.’ One of the strengths of this system is that feats must be earned through play.
The first method of earning feats is for the character to spend time training with a specific task. The player and the GM should discuss what kind of training the player is doing, how they are facilitating that training (equipment, manuals, trainers…), and how long they intend to train for. 2 weeks is a good baseline, assuming that the character is not also spending that time in other tasks such as crafting magic items. Once the period of training is complete, the GM can grant the player a feat related to their training.
This method has a number of cool benefits. First, it doesn’t require a ton of attention or involvement from the GM. It also gives the players some sense of control over how their character develops, while still encouraging diegetic thinking. The player is not improving their character by finding a build online, or flipping through a sourcebook to find something which works for their character concept. They are taking actions within the game world, and gaining benefits based on those actions. This method also promotes a game where players need to manage time along with their other resources, which I like doing.
For the second method, the GM should take notes on the characters’ actions during game sessions. Specifically, the GM should record anything which a player attempts consistently, or which a player is particularly successful with. If, for example, George attempts a bull rush at the beginning of every combat, or Lindsay attempts something crazy and miraculously succeeds at it, then that should be noted down. When a feat slot becomes available (or immediately, if one already is available) the GM can award the player a feat based on those actions.
While the first method seems more strictly logical, I love how the second method allows character improvement to arise directly from play. In the past, I’ve rewarded players who succeed spectacularly at a given task by given them a permanent bonus to future attempts at the same task. In those cases it was an ad hoc ruling, but everyone enjoyed it, and I think it could function well in a more formalized system. The downside to the second method are that it requires a lot more of the GM’s attention. Players also have less involvement in deciding how their character progresses, but that can be viewed as a good or a bad thing.
The two methods are interchangeable, and no group is bound to use one method for all players, nor even to use one method for a single player. If the group is fine mixing and matching to fit their taste, then there should be no problem with that.
I still haven’t covered what the feats of this system would actually look like. By necessity, many or even most of them will need to be invented by the GM, and specifically tailored to what the player has done to earn the feat. As a general rule, feats should always make a character better at doing something they already had at least a chance to succeed at. (For detailed examples of this, read my original post on feats from November 2011). Balance between feats is something which the GM should be aware of, but not something they should stress over. In the worst case scenario where a feat is allowing one player to dominate the game, a reasonable player will be amenable to having the feat nerfed. If that is not an option, the GM can always opt to reduce the power of that player’s feats in the future, and increase the power of the other player’s feats, until everyone is on somewhat even footing once again. If balance between party members is a major concern for you (though, in my mind, it should not be), then use the core rulebook’s feats as a guide.
To further clarify how this system would function, I’ll run through some examples.
1. Noelle the rogue is extremely fond of fighting with the rapier. She has a feat slot available, and asks the GM if she can devote extra time to training with that particular weapon. The GM tells her that a trainer is available in town who will work with her for 300gp per week, and Noelle agrees. After two weeks of training, Noelle’s purse is 600gp lighter, but the GM grants her the Weapon Focus (Rapier) feat. (+1 to attack rolls with rapier). After reaching her next level, Noelle asks the GM if she can spend still more time training with her rapier. The GM agrees, but since the party has been exploring the wilderness lately, no trainers are available. Noelle instead describes how she stuffs some old clothes with hay, and practices her point accuracy, and delivering solid blows. It takes her 3 weeks of intense training, but Noelle is given the Weapon Specialization (Rapier) feat in exchange. (+2 to damage rolls with rapier).
2. Amber’s fighter stays on point whenever the party is delving into a dungeon. They don’t have a rogue, which means it’s usually Amber’s job to find traps. And by ‘find,’ I mean ‘absorb with her large pool of hit points.’ The GM notices that Amber gets hit with a lot of traps, and determines that she may be developing a better sense of how to spot and avoid them. The GM grants her the Trap Sense Rogue ability, as described on page 69 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. It allows Amber to add 1/3rd of her level as a bonus to reflex saves and Armor Class against traps.
3. Hyde is a goodly wizard who is frustrated with undead creatures. The next time his party finds a large group of undead, Hyde captures a few dozen zombies, and takes them back to his magical laboratory. He tells the GM he would like to experiment on the undead creatures to see if he can make his spells more effective against them. The GM agrees, and Hyde spends 2 weeks cutting undead open, casting spells upon them, and doing everything he can to learn about this foe. When his research comes to a close, the GM informs Hyde that spells which can normally only be cast on living creatures can now (within reason) be cast on undead creatures as well. When casting a spell like that on an undead creature, however, Hyde must prepare the spell in a spell slot at least 1 level higher than the minimum required.
4. When one of her allies drops below 0 HP in a pitched battle, Jennifer the barbarian leaps forward to defend her fallen companion. The monster attacking her companion is fierce, but Jennifer bravely attacks it anyway, and rolls two twenties! One for each of the attacks she’s allowed to make this round. The extremely effective attack turns the tide of the battle, and saves the party. The GM notes that Jennifer still has a feat slot available, and grants her a permanent +4 to her attack rolls when any of her allies are at, or below, 0HP.
While it has not yet been playtested, I think the Feat Slot system has real potential. I’d be very interested to know what others think!