Feat creep

In the recent Legends & Lore article, Mike suggests that ability score improvements could be a simple alternative for feats. This is not something I would use, because I don’t think it’s a well-crafted trade-off: a bland bonus that is likely to affect the thing you do most often versus something specific that might add some texture. It also encourages numerical inflation.

The suggestion that it will be common for characters to “raise their key ability to 20” seems particularly unfortunate. Players often use ability scores as a form of personality profile. How boring is it that all melee fighters will ultimately have 20 strength? Isn’t class level (with attack bonus and so forth) supposed to capture the idea of progression in class competency?

Having a prestige class be essentially a preselected feat chain is not a bad idea though (sort of the high level equivalent of the lower level “specialties”) and is easy to tie into the setting diegetically, which I like. It also allows people who enjoy complex character builds the opportunity to mix and match feats but means that players who are not interested in that minutiae can just go by high level flavor, like Warhammer careers.

I don’t think there should be any mechanical prerequisites for feats though, except maybe level. Needing to consider the dependency graph for feats in earlier editions is a big contributor to the overwhelming complexity of the feat system. The model for magic-user spells is a good one, from a game design perspective. Distributing the spells over multiple levels keeps the initial complexity down, but allows for significant individualization of characters over the course of play.

7 thoughts on “Feat creep

  1. Gus L

    Two thoughts:
    1) I like the idea of “feats” or special abilities or whatever. The problem is they make the game more complicated, and more complicated means slower, and slower means less exploration focused. How then to make feats that are effective at allowing diversity among character archetypes and yet aren’t a big deal. My previous attempts at doing so with small mods through “skills” make character generation dumb, but seems to be relatively simple in game. I don’t like it – there must be something simpler…

    2)From this it follows that stat mod is a simpler system, but I agree with Brendan – having a wider variety of stats makes using 3D6 or D20 stat checks useful and makes every stat important to every PC ( i.e. WIS if used for spotting checks make it become a thief’s second most important stat – which arguably makes sense as I suppose it includes “street smarts”). So modding stats as advancement becomes dangerous – everyone has a 15 or better everything removes the point of stats except as providing bonuses, which is a snooze. However I don’t think this means stats shouldn’t fluctuate a fair bit. The world should scatter them around, changing PC’s in crazy ways on a regular basis – poison that permanently remove five CON. Magic that increases INT dramatically – all are great, as long as the effects are always in about to be counteracted by other things.

    1. Brendan Post author

      Moving the “character build” out into the game world seems like one of those major paradigm differentiations. Also ties into the idea that many old school folks have of privileging engaging with the game world rather than the game mechanics. And the idea of a game as a particular character’s story rather than the overall setting outcome (related to your recent post on character mortality). Deserves more thought. I definitely think there are some connected tendencies here.

      1. Gus L

        Yeah – in some ways I like the idea of – special abilities generated through play and assigned by the GM either at random or at a specific level goal. Like at 3rd level – Beni would have gained “poisoner”, “archer” or “dog handler” which would have provided a minor bonus and character definition/specialization

        Anyway, this whole “skills/feat/specialization” thing is a bit of a ‘Beast Glatisant’ for me I think.

      2. Brendan Post author


        Perhaps a free-form system would be a good compromise approach. Something that gave a simple bonus. You could get one each level or few levels based on what you had done in play. A few examples could show the proper scope (so, nothing as general as something like “fighting”).

        The AGE system (Dragon Age table top RPG) has a “focus” system sort of like this. Each ability score has a list of focuses.

        “If you have a focus, you get a +2 bonus when making an ability test related to it.”

  2. Keith J Davies

    Trollman’s Tome and Echelon both follow a similar philosophy: no prerequisites for feats, and make their benefit scale with level — in Trollman’s case, by something level-dependent such as base attack bonus, skill ranks, or base saving throw, in Echelon’s case by tier (function of level).

    Consider Whirlwind Attack. In D&D 3.x you need Combat Expertise, Dodge, Mobility, Spring Attack, plus Dex 13+ and Int 13+, plus BAB +4, before you qualify and can take Whirlwind Attack.

    In Echelon I don’t have ability scores, so that goes away. I dropped the requirement for Combat Expertise and Dodge (both are different talents that fit nicely with the Mobility Fighter talent but are not required). Mobility Fighter gives the benefits of Mobility (+4 AC vs. attacks of opportunities provoked by moving) at Basic Tier (levels 1-4, D&D “level 0”). If you have it at Expert tier (levels 5-8, D&D 1-4) you also get the effects of Spring Attack. If you have it at Heroic tier (levels 9-12, D&D 5-8) you can do Whirlwind Attack.

    No prerequisites to keep track of, abilities suitable for level. There are some limitations around taking new talents at higher tiers, but even then it can be done.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Somewhat off-topic, but if you don’t have ability scores, how do you do inherent character differences? And is there something else that functions as a pseudo-personality generator? Because I find that the D&D ability scores tend to be used that way.

      1. Keith J Davies

        Character? Handwave. Roleplay. Definitely leaning toward making use of Fate-style Aspects (I like Aspects).

        If I need to, ‘ability score-modeling talents’ (Strong, Smart, Agile, Wise, Tough, Charismatic) that provide ‘ability score appropriate’ abilities.

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