Considering all the improvements 3rd edition brought to Dungeons & Dragons, I still feel feats were the most powerful and exciting innovation. However, I wonder if they’ve outlived their usefulness, if now, feats have become an unnecessary vestige causing more problems than they solve. Gamma World proved we don’t need them to have an entertaining game populated by diverse and interesting characters. So do we really need them for D&D?
Feats have in fact been in the game since the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide and the Wilderness Survival Guide. (Edit: Oops. They first appeared in Oriental Adventures.) They weren’t called feats, of course. They were non-weapon proficiencies. Sure, some were a lot like skills, but there were a few, such as Blind-Fighting, that had a mechanical impact on combat. As most of you know, non-weapon proficiencies shifted from a somewhat obscure and scattered option in 1st edition to become a central component in 2nd edition, where they were organized into certain “role” categories such as warrior, rogue, priest, general, and so on. As the game evolved, we gained more nwps, with some feeling very feat-like and others feeling very much like skills.
I wasn’t there for the discussions about feats during 3rd edition design. Wizards of the Coast had not yet recognized my genius (wink, wink). I can imagine the designers saw a weird division in NWPs between skills and some sort of talent, which is very much what happened during Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition design. Skills were a finite list of ways a player might engage the game world with a smattering of exclusive skills that eventually vanished—farewell Alchemy, farewell Scry! Feats, however, were wide open and in many ways functioned as the principal method for character customization (though flexible multiclassing, paragon paths, and, later, alternate class features all offered further customization options).
If you had two fighters in the same group, you would use feats to individuate the characters beyond personality, background, race, and appearance. One fighter could invest in archery feats (Point Blank Shot, Rapid Shot, and so on) and play very differently from the fighter who favored close combat (Power Attack, Cleave, Great Cleave, and on and on).
Looking at the first batch of feats, I think we can chunk them into two different groups: static feats and power feats. Static feats were feats that provided a constant benefit such as Skill Focus, Deceitful, Weapon Focus, and Toughness. Choose the feat. Make the mechanical adjustment. And forget about it. Power feats were those that expanded your options in the game or at least modified your options. Metamagic feats could change a spell’s level to grant an additional effect. Combat feats such as Power Attack, Combat Expertise, Improved Disarm, and so on let you monkey with accuracy to improve the quality of your hit or defense, or let you use an extant combat option more easily. Item creation feats let you transform gold and experience points into physical objects to gain their powers.
As great as these options were, it didn’t take long to realize some feats were better than others. Why would you ever take Skill Focus when you could take Power Attack, provided, of course, you had a 13 Strength. Why would you ever take Deceitful when you could take Improved Initiative, Weapon Focus, or something else? Skill feats became filler, suboptimal choices (traps, perhaps) chosen only as prerequisites for something else or, rarely, to reinforce a character’s identity. Worse, since a fighter gained a feat every three levels plus a bevy of bonus feats, fighter players were starved for power feats to gain new and interesting class features. And thus, the game gained hundreds, if not thousands, of feats to meet this need. The more feats added, the harder it became to track their interactions until a slew of game-breaking combinations crept into the game.
Power feats, though, were integral to the identity of those classes who did not use spells. They were the mechanical elements that made the characters interesting to play. One could argue that these feats were a lot like spells for non-magical classes. So, even though there were some rough spots that were further compounded as the edition aged, they remained a powerful tool and made the “martial” classes more interesting to play.
So let’s move forward to 4th edition. Feats came forward but without solving the fundamental problems. In fact, I would argue that those problems are even worse now than they ever were before. For starts, the principal method for character customization exists within a class. When you choose a class, you are actually choosing a one group of several smaller menus. You choose your build option, a feature that describes how your character fulfils his or her role obligations. Then, you choose powers at 1st level and gain additional powers as you climb through the tiers. For many classes, powers take over for the power feats in 3rd edition. You want to push guys with your attacks, a fighter can take tide of iron. You want to guarantee damage with every attack, there’s reaping strike. These attacks, despite their additional effects, are more or less basic attacks with added benefits sort of what you’d expect a 3rd edition power feat to grant. We can see the same idea carried forward in the stance powers available to knights and slayers. Better still, these martial powers have about the same mechanical weight as the arcane or divine powers that would have been called spells in a previous edition, so that character contributions are more or less even regardless of class choice.
Turning power feats into powers or rituals (in the case of item creation feats) stripped out a great many feats from the game and what was left were the static feats. Rather than reduce the number of feats a character earns (there’s less need since most characters gain mechanical options at every level), the game actually grants more. With more slots to fill there is a greater need for feats to fill those slots and that’s where we have a problem.
Fourth edition feats, of which there are way, way too many, have a few broad functions.
Skill Feats: These feats increase skill modifiers, grant access to skills, or change/expand how skills are used. The feats are no more valuable in 4e than they were in 3e. In fact, I would argue they have even less value since the chance for success on a skill check is already rather high for player characters under most circumstances. Players already stake out their skill sets and most situations demand only a single success to move the story forward. Thus, it’s usually not in the players’ best interest to take these feats at all, especially when other feats are so much better.
Math Feats: These feats correct the game’s underlying, shoring up the gaps created when monster defenses and accuracy (which is determined by level) outstrip PC defenses and accuracy (which is determined by half-level). Expertise feats and defenses feats are must-take feats. If every character has to have these feats, why require them at all? Why not build them into the game directly?
Currently, every character should take an accuracy feat, a damage feat, and a defense feat. That’s three feats already gone. Then you have superior weapons/implements. That’s another feat. Tack on an armor feat and you’re now looking at five feats before even looking at other options. This accounts for all the feats you get until you hit 10th level (1 @ 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th).
There are also other hidden costs. As we create more and more feats to bring the numbers in line, there are instances where combinations that overcompensate. The game expects characters to get hit, take damage, and to periodically rest to recoup resources. Defenders get a pile of hit points and healing surges to compensate them for taking hits on the front lines. Selecting feats to boost defenses in order to bring them into line is one thing, optimizing defenses to avoid 70, 80, or even 90% of attacks that target the defense, eliminates risk in combat. For example, Improved Defenses boosts all NADs. Superior Will grants a bigger bonus to Will and also more or less makes the character immune to dazed and stunned. Since Superior Will requires a 15+ Wisdom or Charisma, it boosts the character’s defense to a number that monsters of the character’s level is unlikely to hit anyway. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this. As a DM, I find it annoying when my monsters can only hit on an 18+, but if the options are available to players, it behooves them to insulate their characters from attacks so who can blame them. Consider the 6th level laser cleric from the PH. An optimized cleric (say a dwarf) should have a 21 Wisdom by this level granting a +5 bonus. Add half the level for another +3. Add +1 from class and the character has a 19 Will. Now add in the neck slot item, which ought to be another +2 to bring us up to 21. Then add Superior Will and we’re at 23. A typical level 6 monster that can attack will has a +9 bonus, so it’s only going to hit the character on a 14 or better. Now tack on encounter powers, feats, magic items, and other elements that might boost Will through untyped, power, and item bonuses and the 35% success rate becomes vanishingly small to the point that the character is more or less immune to any attack that targets Will.
Again, this might not be a bad thing for you, but it’s something I’m thinking about.
Race and Class Feats: These feats are supposed to upgrade class features and powers and racial traits and powers. On the surface, this doesn’t seem too bad an idea. Unfortunately, their existence causes feat proliferation, requiring a mountain of feats for each class and class feature and often for each race in the game. There might be a feat for Fighter Weapon Talent, and then another FWT feat that also requires half-orc, eladrin, or dwarf and so on. The result is that we have scads of feats that have extremely limited appeal since they are so corner case (say Artificer + Eladrin as prereqs), they simply clutter up the game.
This is why we haven’t seen many feats that modify the new subclasses. Adding 40 fighter feats for the slayer and knight doesn’t do anything for the game and only makes it harder for players to pick a feat. For me, a better option would be to simply build in the upgrades into the class and race entries. For example, the shaman should be able to use call spirit companion as a free action at level X without having to charge a feat for it. Likewise, Arcane Implement Mastery can simply improve within the class. In fact, anything tied to an ability modifier already improves, so we probably don’t need feats for them any way.
Power Feats: These feats add to your powers. Some provide new outlets for Channel Divinity, others grant access to another class’s powers, while others replace powers granted by race or some other nugget. The Skill Power feat gives you access to one skill power. I don’t object to these feats on the surface, but how many folks actually take these feats. A cleric (or other divine character) might pick up a Channel Divinity feat related to a god or the Skill Power feat to gain an extra power, but that’s about it. Generally, these power feats are either way too good for a feat or are so corner case they rarely see play making them sub-optimal choices when compared to math feats.
I guess what I’m driving at is that I’m not sure feats are even needed. Character classes already have plenty of customization options from their class. Many feats are automatic choices now and adding more feats to create tension when it comes time to choose only adds more feats to the game. The major feats folks take could easily be hard-wired into character advancement. Class features and racial traits could scale internally thus eliminating the need for these as well. So what’s left? Feats could offer further customization and I think there’s some value to this. After all, anything that helps make a character unique is good for the game. Is there a solution here? I’m not sure. I could see reducing the number of feats to 3rd edition levels. Then, rather than minor static effects, the feat might offer a meaningful expansion to a character. For example, rather than gaining a +3 bonus to a skill, a skill feat might offer a +2 bonus and grant a red power. Instead of a flat +1 bonus to damage rolls with a specific weapon group, Weapon Focus might also grant a red or even black power triggered by a basic attack or something.
Ah. Well this is all mental masturbation isn’t it? So rather than talk circles around myself, what do you think about feats? Are they integral to the play experience? Or do you find yourself choosing the same sorts of feats over and over again?