Flattening Trees

Posted: 12 June 2012 in House Rules
Tags: ,

So in general  like the idea of feats, I think that they’re implemented poorly in D&D 3.X and Pathfinder — especially as you go into the later splatbooks and such, feats become worse and worse in my perspective, both in terms of power creep and in terms of carving off things anyone should be able to do and making it a feat. In general, I think there are three things that a feat should be allowed to do: take away a penalty (as with Precise Shot and shooting in to Melee), give a bonus (as with Point-Blank Shot and targets within 30ft), or allow an action that’s normally impossible (such as Versatile Channeling). A feat that adds an effect to an action (like Stand Still) is effectively giving a bonus, and a feat that lets you perform certain complex actions (such as Bounding Hammer) is probably just removing a penalty (ie, you could attempt to bounce hammers off foes without the feat but at a high penalty). I intend to eliminate or greatly alter feats that I feel simply allow an action that anyone should be able to take (I’m thinking especially of Power Attack and I suspect there are others).

Aside from pruning the trees, I also intend to flatten them.  There are a number of feats that are chained together with prerequisites that don’t necessarily matter, and this needlessly prevents effective use of Feats to specialize and customize characters.  Why should you have to learn how to shoot accurately at close range before firing at extreme range?  And why does a character have to be 7th Level before they can gather followers? I’m not sure that last should even be a Feat (especially when it seems that it was rather fundamental in older versions of D&D).

In order to decouple chains and flatten trees in a meaningful way, though, we need to understand what the current requirements are, what those requirements represent, and whether that’s a meaningful requirement to have.  A lot of this relies on my understanding of the intent of the 3.X system (which Pathfinder is based on).

So, what sorts of requirements do feats come with?

  • Attribute Score
  • Class Feature
  • Class Archetype
  • Weapon Proficiency
  • Race
  • Racial traits
  • Size
  • Character Age
  • Worship a Specific God
  • Previous Feat
  • Character Level
  • Skill Ranks
  • Class Level
  • base Attack Bonus
  • Caster Level
  • Caster Type
  • Ability to Cast Specific Spell(s)

Most of these are pretty straight-forward and self-explanatory, but I think a few of them need to be addressed to establish exactly what it is they’re requiring.

Attribute score

This is pretty basic; attributes are a character’s natural ability and requiring a certain about of basic talent makes sense for feats.  It’s worth knowing what the actual scores mean, though.  Most people in the world are built using the Standard Array (13,12,11,10,9,8); PCs are considered to be the cream of the crop and fall into the top percentage of the population that gets the Elite Array (15,14,13,12,10,8).  For most people, a 13 is their highest attribute, it’s what they’re most talented in. A requirement of 15 limits the feat to Elite characters, or talented members of a race who’s forte falls in that attribute. A requirement of 17 is limited even more, to Elite members of races who are strong in that area.  A score of 18 is considered the peak of human ability without supernatural aid, so requirements higher than that border on mystical and divine powers (or, on the lower end, creatures significantly stronger, smarter, etc than mere humans).

Worship a Specific God

With a few exceptions, religion in D&D is mostly a piece of color or window-dressing; there are few mechanical effects outside of Clerics and Paladins.  Some feats list worship of a specific god as a prerequisite for the feat; this can make sense, if the feat represents a power that is gifted by the god himself (or his servants), but I’d be very hesitant about it’s use.  Especially if the feat is really just training or a special technique this requirement probably doesn’t make sense.  (A DM may require a character to get training from Nyarlathotep’s cult, but a canny character could feign his way through long enough to get the training without ever worshiping the dark god). If the feat is a direct gift from a god, it’s worth establishing between the players and DM what consequence, if any, results from angering or opposing that god.

Previous Feat

This is probably the worst-abused feat in all of 3.X and Pathfinder.  I can make sense, if one feat builds naturally off of the previous one, reducing penalties, adding bonuses, or allowing a previously unavailable use.  However, a lot of the time these chains and trees really only have a vague relationship, like “getting better with a bow.”  Especially when you consider what the effects of chaining feats in the “real world” of D&D are; most characters are level 1 NPC classes, and as such can never access a feat beyond the root.  This does give some real benefit for Humans and Fighters (who can dig deeper in chains that other races and classes) and so some chains should be preserved (I think), but they need to make sense.

Character Level, Caster Level, Class Level

These are all essentially the same thing, but looking at it from different perspectives.  Character Level is the most static measure, since it counts all Class levels equally, a Rgr 5, a Rgr 3/Ftr 2, and a Rgr 1/Ftr 1/Rog 1/Wiz 1/Clr 1 are all Level 5 characters.  Caster Level only considers the classes that share a common magic type (and so is appropriate for magic-related feats), and Class levels focus on a specific class, ignoring overall Character level.  What each of these do, though, is put a lower bound on what tier of gameplay the feat is available for.  One measure of the system sets Levels 1-5 as “Gritty Fantasy,” Levels 6-10 as “High Fantasy,” Levels 11-15 as “Mythic” or “Wushu”, and Levels 16-20 as “Demigod.”  A feat that requires Level 8 is being restricted to the upper end of High Fantasy, whereas a feat requiring Level 16 is only available to the likes of Hercules.  Note that this is a lower bound in cases of Caster Level and Class Level; for character who don’t specialize these feats could be pushed into the next higher gameplay tier.

Skill Ranks

On the one hand, Skill Ranks are another way of presenting Character Level requirements.  Skill ranks are limited by Character level, so there’s a natural correspondence there.  At the same time, Skill Ranks speak to how proficient a character is with a skill, but I think too many people believe the Skills system to be more granular than it is.  As noted in Calibrating Your Expectations, a Level 1 Expert blacksmith (with just one rank in Craft: Weapons) can Take 10 and craft Masterwork weapons; that is, taking his time and being unhurried, he can reliably craft Masterwork weapons.  This assumes Skill Focus (+3) and and Assistant (+2), but also just ‘talented’ Intelligence (+1), so arguably, someone with one rank in a Class Skill could be considered a Master of their art.  Without the Skill Focus a character would need 4 Ranks (or higher attributes), and without the Class Skill someone would need 7 Ranks.  All of that being said, I think Skill Ranks is a terrible measure to use, and something like “bask Skill bonus” — which could account for feats, racial traits, skill ranks, and so on — would be a better measure. A +8 BSB could be considered Master-level skill, regardless of how much of that is from training and how much is from raw talent.  At that point, though, the whole notion of Skills as prerequisites for feats would need to be reassessed and rebalanced.

Base Attack Bonus

This is also in part a way of gauging Character Level, but it’s a much fuzzier way to do so.  Base Attack Bonus measures a Character’s combat training; Fighters, Warriors, and Rangers start with a +1, Clerics, Wizards, and Rogues start with a +0.  The only was to improve it is to level up, but classes increase their Base Attack Bonus at three different rates, depending on how central fighting is for that class. A Fighter with a +3 BAB is in the middle of Gritty Fantasy, but a Rogue with a +3 BAB is at the end of Gritty Fantasy and a Wizard with +3 BAB is nearing the end of High Fantasy. This can be a meaningful measure, since combat-based feats should be more difficult to qualify for if your character is not combat-oriented, but they should be assessed for meaningulness the same way as Class and Character Level requirements.

  1. The more I hear what you have to say about feats, the more I agree that they really need an overhaul. I can remember an instance when I first started making characters when I found the perfect feat, only to realize that it was part of a feat tree and I wasn’t really interested in the prerequisites.

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