Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why Feats Fail Me

So, I started actually making up 13th Age characters the other day, just to get my hands dirty.  If nothing else, it's a pleasantly fast and dirty job.  The skills and one unique thing end up being almost necessary though, because the rest of the mechanics are not quite so grippy.

Not saying they're bad, but stats, class, talents and feats dont' tell much of a story.  Some of that I'm ok with - Stats and class are kind of expected to be blandly interchangeable, and it's overall a good thing that they are, since they're kind of foundational.

Jury is still out on talents.  I like them mechanically, but I'm not yet sure if they say enough about how my fighter is different from your fights, especially if we can't otherwise describe that difference in terms of differences in gear.

But, feats always break my heart.  I really want my feat selection tot ell me something unique and interesting about the character, and it doesn't.

This is not 13th Age's fault - this is a problem I've had with pretty much every incarnation of feats from 3e on.  And it's a problem with two big roots.

First off, there's something of a historical divide within feats that demands that they can have meaning in the setting or be mechanically potent, but not both.  There are a handful of exceptions, but by and large if a feat ties you into the setting, the reward is probably a (non-stackable) +2 to two skills.

There's a good reason for this. The more mechanically desirable a feat is, the fewer constraints you want to put on it. So many different types of characters are going to want to use two weapon fighting that you don't want to limit it in any way, so it's built to be generic.[1]

Second, feats tend to be a little bit too small.  Feat _chains_ (usually 2 or 3 feats) often tell a story (even if that story is 'I'm a two weapon fighter') but a given feat usually just teases at what it could be.  Again, there's a good reason for this - small rewards can come more frequently which is fun for players.

Intellectually, I acknowledge the good reasons for the way feats are, but they always result in some disappointment on my part.  I always want them to be a little bit more.

There are ways to fix this, of course. Lots of different ways. But that's it's own post, and one that may wait until we see the 13th Age SRD.

1 - Most exceptions to this are racial, and that's true in 13th Age as well.  That's a serious bit of D&D legacy which is, I think, almost habitual by now. It's also a tacit acknowledgment that it's hard to make races awesome and balanced at the same time, so a lot of racial awesome gets offloaded to feats.


  1. For some reason I thought that I had heard (in the 3e days at least) that feats that tied you to a region or part of the game were supposed to be stronger. I remember this specifically as part of the FR setting book where connecting you into the world was supposed to be encouraged so just a little bit better.

  2. My favorite way to fix feats is to make them less atomized. Each feat needs to be indiviually balanced against dozens or hundreds of other feats with flavorful but mechanically weak feats ignored and powerful feats being treated as mandatory.

    My favorite solution is to rework the idea of race and background prerequisites and instead have a multiple menus of feats to order off based on those attributes. This could put players in the position of choosing between their racial awesome and background awesome and perhaps their class specialty awesome.

    Even with the menu, each feat wouldn't necessarily tell a story. However, each feat would come in a larger context and would better carry some of the flavor of the source.

  3. I'm totally with you on feats. Every time I've tried to play a 3e-derived game, feat selection is always what kills it for me, and you enumerate the exact reasons why.

  4. Math feats and obvious "mandatory" feats are something that have always put me off in any game. I'm a fan of doing away with feats entirely and just allowing flavorful choices to be made as the character grows in a more free form nature.

    Not to mention these "must have" feats that everyone feels obligated to take for their character should just be put into the game as default race/class abilities or even just as generic rules.

    Did you spend the last 2 levels doing XYZ? Now you can improve your skills with XYZ. This method works for narrative style feats that have low to no mechanical weight as well.

  5. I think feats start to fail for me in that there is always a feel of "must balance" that is inherent to them. This "feat" cannot do more than that "feat", with math and comparisons keeping feats from just doing their own thing.
    Prerequisites or mechanics seem more blah than they could be. One of a few things that d20 irritates me with.

  6. I really wasn't a fan of feats when I first saw them in 3E. Over time I liked them more, but I still agree with what you are saying. They feel like optimization bits much more than something which helps me tell the story of my character. Their presence makes me worry about "right choices" and "wrong choices". The building can be fun, but it creates a metagame that can be contrary to our storytelling goals.

    I have some issues with 13th Age, but in that system I like that they are basically in-class build choices. You choose the type of songs for your bard, or how you might dabble in cleric or wizard. You pick up or strengthen rogue tricks. This method is better, for me, at telling my character's story and fine-tuning my vision of who this person is. It doesn't go far enough however, in part because of that fundamental disconnect between non-combat and combat.

    The easiest formula for avoiding that is what 4E did with powers. One level you get a Utility power. Another level you get an Attack power. While 4E almost always made the Utility powers combat-focused, that could have been otherwise. Imagine 13th Age modified so you get a story-RP feat choice every other level (perhaps tied to icons, background, or your one unique thing). This would be from a special pool of feats desired to be non-combat in nature. I think that could be great.

    D&D Next's technique is also interesting. From what has been discussed publicly, the concept is to tie feats to a choice around a specialty. That's another way of filtering feats so they have more grounding in story/concept. This could be tweaked to deal with the problems you mentioned.


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