Category Archives: Examining Feats

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!

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.

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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