Massaging Feats

Posted: 19 May 2012 in GM Advice
Tags: ,

I’m going to go ahead and say that I’ve never really liked feats.People talk about how they’re good because they give players a way of setting their character apart from other characters with the same race and class, but I’ve never felt that sat right.

Papers and Pencils has an article up about the problem with feats, and it gives words to the issues I have with feats that I wasn’t able to express: namely, many feats ‘let’ characters do things that they should be able to do anyways.  Now, I’m not sure I buy his complaint about Willful Deformity — he’s right that anyone can take a knife to their face, but is that really enough to warrant a mechanical benefit for it?  And that’s kind of been my line for a while: sure you can do that in the fiction, but if you want a mechanical benefit you need the feat/trait/background/whatever.

I can’t find the article (or remember who’s blog it was on), but I read something recently that changed my mind on that a little bit. The article talked about how heroes in action movies — the guys we want our players to emulate — take crazy chances to get the job done; but players almost invariably take a more-cautious approach, choosing the tried-and-true tactics rather than trying anything fancy or risky.  And the point they made was that this happens because there’s no benefit for players to offset their risk.  If we want to encourage certain actions we need to have some mechanical benefit to offer players.

So when we have a feat that ‘lets’ a character do something they should be able to do anyways, it HAS to steal the mechanical benefits of that action in order to be meaningful.  Take Power Attack.  It ‘lets’ a character swing wildly, with the full force of their strength behind the blow.  They sacrifice accuracy for damage.  But why does this need to be a feat?  Can’t anyone sacrifice accuracy for damage?  That’s a bad feat.

Contrast it to a good feat, like Point-Blank Shot: you get a bonus to hit targets within a certain range.  It makes doing something anyone can do easier if you have the feat. P&P propose the existence of Feats that let a character do something that isn’t available to everyone, but I can’t think of anything like that off the top of my head.

I think there’s also a problem with a lot of the prerequisites, the way feats fall into tiers, but that has more to do with what level those feats effectively become available and what that means (which is another topic).

Properly understood, feats should be special talents and knacks that a character has that makes them more capable that untalented peers. Feats that don’t accurately represent that, or worse steal ability that should be generally available, should be removed.

  1. casewerk says:

    This very issue is one of the reasons for the existence of systems like Wushu, Spirit of the Century and Capes, as well as the “stunting” rules in Exalted and Scion: finding ways to give players incentive to be bold, dramatic, fun to watch in action and flamboyant rather than be cautious bean counters in play.

    • It’s worth noting, though, that CAPES plays a lot differently than D&D, though, so you aren’t really comparing equal measures. CAPES is fun, but there’s little notion of exploration, and I’m not sure there’s an easy way to incorporate one.

      My point being simply that the answer to “my D&D players are cautious” isn’t “play CAPES.”

      • casewerk says:

        “Play CAPES” was never my answer to your question. I wasn’t suggesting changing systems.

        I was pointing out that this same concern was a design factor in a couple systems out there, and an enterprising GM can look at those systems for inspiration, ideas and tools to use in the system he is presently running.

        It’s worth noting that Capes was only one of the several systems I mentioned, and I’m not saying that your players need to switch systems – I’m just saying that there are things out there that can be looked at for inspiration on ways to encourage the bold, glorious type of play, like stunting etc.which last, it is worth noting, is from a pair of systems that are much crunchier than Capes, and Exalted in particular is sometimes used for similar types of play to DnD so it might be a closer match on things you can look at for inspiration or ideas to incorporate into your game.

        As for the exploration thing, well that’s fine. DnD is very much a system based on resource management and getting maximum benefit for minimum effort so you’ll have more resources left for when you kick in the next door to take on the orc guarding the chest in the 10×10 room, which will inherently encourage a somewhat cautious play style unless you provide some incentives to be less conservative.

        • To be fair I exaggerated a little, but “play CAPES” was supposed to be shorthand for “use the systems that CAPES uses to resolve things.” I addressed CAPES specifically because I’m familiar with that system, and my point was that I don’t see how it can be used in a d20-style game. D&D has stats and AC and to-hit bonuses, CAPES has Powers rated on 1-6 that you narrate in order to roll or re-roll dice attached to Conflicts (in order to gain control of the situation and the last-word on it’s narration). It’s not simply that D&D is a resource-based game that rewards min-maxing.

          • casewerk says:

            I certainly agree that the specific mechanics used in Capes wouldn’t be of use in DnD. I’m saying that looking at sources that seek to answer specific questions and checking out their answers can provide inspiration. Not necessarily an exact thing to copy, but a source of inspiration for where you can go yourself. Creativity springboards. That was more my point, though I was less clear in expressing it than I ought to have been.

            • I guess that’s fair enough. My point was that we already have the right mechanisms in D&D to provide encouragement, they’re just under-used and undermined by things like certain ill-conceived Feats. D&D comes packaged with a notion of conditional modifiers and, more specifically, the notion that any action should be attemptable under the rules. Certain feats, like Power Attack, give the impression that you can’t do things that you should be able to.

              It’s less that D&D needs something to fix a systematic flaw and more that the mechanics available need to be utilized (and not undercut by add-ons).

              • casewerk says:

                I can certainly appreciate that. So do you think you should pare down the feats and put in some more general “you can do this” to cover the things folks should already be able to do?

                • Parring down the feats is a must, I think, but I honestly haven’t taken the time to even begin looking at them to see how much trimming there is to do. Power Attack strikes me as a “swing wildly to hit hard,” and anyone should be able to do that. But what about Bullseye Shot? “Spend a Move Action to get +4 to hit on your next Ranged attack.” At first glance that’s just aiming, and anyone should be able to aim! But a round is a rather short period of time, and a move action isn’t much more than a couple seconds. Is aiming a Standard (or full-round or more) action, taking most (or all) of 6 seconds? So maybe some of them inform us of things that anyone should be able to do, but still give a benefit over and above the norm? I don’t know.

                  Here’s the trouble: if you start listing everything that “anyone can do,” you implicitly restrict people from doing something that’s not on the list. So I want to avoid that, and get to a place where players can present their characters’ actions and the DM can give them mechanical benefits for trying different tactics beyond “I swing my sword.” I think that Pathfinder’s combat maneuvers are a step in the right direction if we can look beyond the simple list (did such things exist in 3.0/3.5?).

                  That being said, I think in the near term we (or at least me, ’cause I can only speak for my players) need to re-acclimate players to the idea that there are going to be mechanical benefits to clever or risky actions. And off the bat, I think that’s going to involve jump-starting them with a list of “did you know you could also try…”

                  Perhaps even just expanding (or in many, many cases adding) the “Normal” block in Feat descriptions would go a long way toward ‘fixing’ this problem.

                  • casewerk says:

                    That makes sense, though hiding the normal actions in the feat descriptions does have an odd feel to me. I kind of like things all in neat categorized places… but then, this is all essentially errata anyways, so who cares? 🙂

                    I can’t really comment on the maneuvers in Pathfinder though – I don’t own any Pathfinder books.

                    • My thinking is thus: I don’t want a list of what a player can do. That implies anything NOT on the list can’t be done, and it is infeasible to compile a comprehensive list of everything anyone would ever try to do. The ideal would be rough guidelines that a DM could apply to any situation or action his players present.

                      Following from that, Feats should only improve on available actions (bonuses/reduced penalties, or the ability to do a thing quicker, etc). Possibly, certain feats could allow for impossible/improbable actions, but I’m not sure how true/applicable that is. In order to put Feats in context, a block that explains how the action or situation would normally be handled (a la DM guidelines) should be included in the Feat description. you aren’t “hiding” available actions, you’re contextualizing Feats.

                      As for the Maneuvers, they added(?) moves like Bull Rush, Sunder, Steal, Dirty Trick, Trip… I know that D&D had a notion of triping and sundering, but I’m not sure how it was handled. athfinder introduced “Combat Manuevers Bonus” and “Combat Maneuvers Defense” stats to be used when performing these non-attack actions, and they’re similar to/affected by the same sorts of things as Attack Bonus and AC, but wth some differences.

                    • casewerk says:

                      Oh okay. that makes sense to me.

  2. […] first bit I’m working on is trying to address the issue of feats.  So far I’ve gone through the Pathfinder SRD and binned the feats into Tiers based on how […]

  3. […] when you consider that there are dozens upon dozens of different weapons with different properties (and feats!)… it actually gets to be a bit more complicated for my […]

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