Feat Slot System for Pathfinder

Baby sucking on feet.
An old photo from the “Here We Grow” baby blog.

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!

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19 thoughts on “Feat Slot System for Pathfinder”

  1. I love it! I’m running two games currently, one with B/X and the other with Pathfinder, and I just can’t seem to muster enough excitement for my Pathfinder game. This might do just the trick!

    1. I don’t receive enough comments which begin with “I love it!” Thanks.

      If you do end up using it, please let me know how it goes! Much as I love the system, I promised my players I would quit making changes to the rules for a little while. They got a little annoyed when I reduced the size of the skills list.

  2. How do you think this would work with my AD&D 1e game? I love this system but the one I’m using doesn’t use feats… I guess I can just reward cool story moments? Hmmm…

    1. Well, bear in mind that this specific formulation of the Feat Slot system is tooled to work in Pathfinder. As such a lot of the numbers and whatnot are best suited to work in that game.

      However, functionally it should work in pretty much any system with levels, and can be easily tailored to the level of power you want.

      Take, as you mention, AD&D 1e. If you want to significantly increase the player’s powers, you can keep it at one feat slot at every level. But if you don’t want the system to have so much impact on the game, you can make Feat Slots available on every even numbered level, every 3rd level, or even every 4th level.

      Since the GM is coming up with the feats anyway, they can always come up with a feat which works within their system’s mechanics. In AD&D this might take the form of a -1 to your THAC0 when defending a player who is near death (rather than a +4 to attack rolls when defending allies at or below 0hp)

      1. Thanks! I’m thinking this could also be a way to keep the fighters increasing in power at roughly the same rate as the magic users, which seems like it may be a bit of an issue (the whole linear warriors/quadratic wizards deal). I’ll definitely be taking your thoughts under consideration for play. With how story-oriented my party (5 of which I’m their first DM) has been, I bet they’ll love this system.

  3. One more thing: I was just reading your article Goblins Redux during an archive binge and at the end of it Mogmurch is granted the title of Dragonboomer and is given what is essentially a GM-fiat accuracy feat. I think that’s cool. :D

    1. If you ever do, let me know! I still haven’t had a chance to use it myself.

      Players will only accept so much fiddling from the GM before they start to get fussy. =P

    1. I don’t think the system would necessarily need to be class-less. It could work as a straight-up replacement for Pathfinder’s RAW feat system.

      Though obviously it’s a pretty big change.

  4. I actually really like your blog. But I have to say I have a problem with this idea. A player gets to do one thing, play their character. And they should be able to do that as they the player see fit. Would people want to attend a college where they didn’t get to choose the classes they took? I don’t think so. I think players should control the feats they gain. There are issues with the entire feat structure. I think the Radiance game does a good job of addressing them. I do not think this idea does however.

    1. I wish I had more time right now to reply to your comment, because I think we could have an interesting discussion. Please forgive the necessary brevity of my reply.

      EDIT: NEVERMIND! I rambled forever, and wasted a lot of time I really should have spent working! lawl.

      It feels good when people agree with me, but it’s much more interesting when people disagree. I want to learn and to grow as a game designer, and the best way to do that is to find people who disagree with me and discuss our differences.

      You actually made a very good point, and I’d like to highlight it: “A player gets to do one thing, play their character. And they should be able to do that as they the player see fit.”

      I completely agree! Allowing the players to fully control their characters is a core element of player agency, and player agency is one of the most important elements of a tabletop RPG. Where I think you and I differ is in what we mean when we talk about the player controlling their character.

      What I mean is that within the game world, the GM should make no attempt to control what their players do. If the players find a way to completely avoid a something the GM thought would be a cool challenge, then the GM should do nothing to negate their success. The players are in control, and whatever they do in the game should be respected.

      What I think you mean is that players should be free to build their characters however they want within the game rules. Provisionally I would agree with you. But this idea is contingent on what the game rules are. If the game rules include a feat system like Pathfinder’s, then yes players should be able to select the feats they desire. But if the players have agreed to use this system instead, then feats are not within the players control, because the group has agreed to play by a system with different rules.

      The players still control their character, both in the sense that I mean (within the game) and in the sense that you mean (outside of the game). The only difference is that the number of choices they have before them is reduced.

      If I may be so presumptuous, I imagine you might be wondering “why would the players want to reduce their choices?”

      I play with a lot of people who wouldn’t consider themselves tabletop gamers. I play with co workers, with family, and with the husbands, wives, and significant others of my friends. Most of these people would never buy a rulebook, they don’t find the rules interesting. They like delving into dungeons and slaying dragons, but they don’t like selecting skills and feats. When they come over to make their first character, I can tell they feel uncomfortable. They’re thinking “Oh god, is the whole game going to be like this? What have I gotten myself into! Is there any way I can get out of this early?”

      This is a huge problem, because:

      1. These people enjoy playing tabletop RPGs. They really do! But because it’s so hard to get started, they might never start playing tabletop games at all. And even if they do start playing tabletop games, and enjoy it, they probably won’t look for a new GM if their old one moves away.

      2. Fewer people playing RPGs means fewer people to play with. It also means that fewer people are spending money on RPG products, which means that the companies who produce tabletop RPGs have less money. When those companies have less money, they can’t produce as many products for us to enjoy. There’s also less room in the market for new companies, which sucks because new companies mean new ideas!

      3. Because these players hate making characters so much, they’re often lazy about leveling up. They’d rather just play, which makes it hard on me as the GM when I realize one of my players has simply forgotten to add any new skill points in the last 3 levels.

      4. Because these players hate making characters so much, I’m afraid of killing them, because killing them will force them to go through that whole exhausting process of making a new character.

      5. Fewer people playing RPGs means fewer people to play with!

      So, to bring my argument back to the original point: my feat slot system for Pathfinder isn’t about taking away choices that the players want. It’s about taking away choices that many players don’t want.

      I’m not saying that more choices is bad for everybody. It sounds like you enjoy having more choices, in which case, more power to you! Personally, I don’t like having more character build choices, and neither do most of my players. So this system works for us.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I look forward to your response!

      1. If the feat slot idea is a response to new players I think there is a different solution than having the GM pick feats. Choose a different game. I do not say this flippantly. While I love the PF (and OGL games in general) game, it is *awfully* complex. New players should be introduced to a game that has fewer details to track. I’ve read pretty much every PF rule there is. But even I frequently feel overwhelmed by the amount of options. This is why I have been so happy with the OGL based Radiance game. One book. Huge numbers of options. But even that is far too complex in my opinion for new players.

        I am currently working on introducing some new people to tabletop role-playing games. Two are completely new and one could charitably be called a novice. What game did I pick? The 1992 edition of Gamma World. One book. I will be supplementing it with some of the more complex rules from Radiance (again, a single book) to cover the D20 rule gaps that I think that Gamma World version suffers from. But these rules will be ‘invisible’ to the players. Things I as the GM will handle.

        If you want to play a less complex game than PF, cool. But I don’t think I see the reason in taking player choice away to achieve that goal. Choose a game that has fewer choices built into it. Look at Radiance. Look at the 1992 edition of Gamma World. I wouldn’t suggest going full retro-clone (though Stars Without Number is very cool for example). Such games tend to have too many rule gaps for my taste. Pick the game’s complexity that suits the players that will be playing the game.

  5. Interesting thoughts, but I’m in the camp where I have to disagree. First off, you are now telling your players that if they have a character concept that they want to do, that they need to play that character in a more rigid sense. Some players miight like that, but many won’t.

    Secondly, you are taking Traits from other classes and turning them into feats. Might as well go class-less because thats what it will lead to. If Amber took a lot of hits from enemies, would the GM allow her to take the Barbarian Damage Reduction trait?

    While the feat system that Pathfinder uses is flawed, it gives a structure while allowing people to still make open decisions.

  6. First of great idea for a differant variety of play. Ive gotten my group into the idea of generating a random character and I think this format will enhance our game even more. Since liberties are already being taken by employing this system, do you think it works in a hybrid fashion. Lets say leave the feat system as is allowing players to pick feats as normal, but leaving open feat slots for gm use. Gm could give feats based on merrit/actions during game play and/or players that want to go above and beyond have a way to earn more for their character. Just curious on your opinion. Ive always been of the mind set the rpg rules can be altered/tailored to the group as long as they are consistant and decided ahead of time.

    1. I would be mindful of ability bloat. A character with too many special abilities becomes difficult to manage because the character sheet is cluttered with too much information for the player to remember.

      Other than that, though, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.

      1. Thanks for your idea and your opinion on my modification. I usually type up a quick reference sheet for my players to help stream line and keep things orderly. Its been very useful in the past. Ill let you know if we run into any major train wrecks. Thanks again.

  7. I would never advocate a system where a player practically requires the DM to help create and flesh out a character.

    It’s an intriguing alternative, I’ll admit that, and I certainly agree with your thoughts on feats that limit rather than expand options, but this is not an alternate system I would use in my games.

    I’d rather encourage players to craft a character as they see fit (within whatever boundaries exist for the setting), then just encourage role-playing and work with them during a game as far as their actions in and out of combat.

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