Monday, October 31, 2011

The Problem with Feats


In 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.

3 comments:

  1. Brilliant post!

    I believe the word you are looking for is 'tactical infinity' for a limitless amount of options.

    Also, the problem you are identifying is the one with 'game design by limitation', for feats that allow characters to do things everyone should do.

    I suggest taking a look at the ACKS proficiency system, which has a really excellent list of proficiencies.

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  2. I think the op is dead-on. I DMed 3.5 for several years, and then went to old school gaming. I recently played a few sessions of a 3.5 game and the contrast was stultifying. I can't do that? or that?

    I really like C's blog, but I disagree regarding the ACKS proficiency system. I think it has the same problem of feats.

    Bribery? Do I need the proficiency "bribery" to attempt a bribe? (Meanwhile, the diplomacy proficiency specifies a bonus to the reaction roll everyone gets.) A thief needs to purchase "cat burglary" to be able to roll to balance on thin ledges? wtf? An explorer (ie, a ranger) needs to purchase 'foraging' to be able to gather food in the wilderness. There are rules for the gambling proficiency, but not for anyone to gamble? Can a character read maps without mapping?

    Others are of wildly varying power level. You can detect spellcasters and the use of magic within 24 hours (would suppose this includes magical items) as a pick, or gain a +2 reaction modifier to encounters of the opposite sex.

    Granted, other proficiency choices only give bonuses to things you can already attempt - combat trickery is specifically this.

    I think the ACKS proficiency system also suffers from the same problem as other skill/proficiency systems, in that too many are 'basic adventuring skills' (ie, mapping, cat burglary) without enough opportunities to choose those picks.

    C&C's Adjuncts are a better counter example. Their original idea was that they didn't allow you to do something you originally couldn't, but they would give you bonuses for the attempts.

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  3. @-C: I really appreciate the notes, and the link in your post this morning. As you can tell from my relatively short archive, I'm new at this. The boost of getting linked to by an established blogger is very helpful!

    I'll add ACKS to the list of games I need to look into. I think OSRIC is next on my list.

    @Red: I'm glad you agree that this is a problem. And I guess I'll have to see for myself regarding ACKS.

    C&C has always looked interesting to me as well, though. If only I had more time to study games! =P

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