D&D 5th Edition Feats, don't fail me now! - feat design in 5e

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  1. #1

    Feats, don't fail me now! - feat design in 5e

    One of the cool things about 5e is the refocusing they've done with feats. Feats were a mess in 3e, varying all over the board in relative power, purpose, and complexity; 4e feats may have been improved in some ways, but there were still "feat penalties" and lots of boring +1s and minor effects.

    In 5e, feats seem both more powerful and more exciting. With very few exceptions, they open up new options and even new playstyles. The "specialty" packaging system is cool in itself, but it would be pointless if the feats didn't hold up too.

    So when considering homebrew 5e feats and fixes to existing feats, I thought it would be worth trying to figure out what the guidelines are/should be for a good 5e feat. Here's my interpretation:

    1. Feats are combat-oriented. Since feats are part of "specialties" which determine how you play your class, they're almost without exception applicable to combat situations. (The only "exception" that springs to mind is Jack of All Trades, but obviously there are plenty of ways to apply most trained skills in combat.) This is, in my mind, a GOOD thing for roleplaying: if you want to be a shopkeeper or have a bunch of followers, that's either strictly roleplaying or it's part of your background. No need to sacrifice combat prowess for the sake of in-depth roleplaying and character development.

    2. Feats fit into a specialty. IMO there should not be a list of stand-alone feats. If a feat can't be formed into a cohesive specialty that defines how a certain type of character does his job, it's not specific and exciting enough to be a 5e feat.

    3. Feats are not class-specific. While some feats work best for a narrow range of classes/builds, no feat should ONLY apply to a single class. There shouldn't be a fighter feat that gives you more CS dice, or a cleric feat that gives you more uses of Channel Divinity; while these things might be useful ways to distinguish a character, they belong under the tent of in-class customization (styles, domains, schemes, etc). This is as much to keep class design on track as feats: if the cleric NEEDS help to get his Channel Divinity up to par, the class shouldn't be sucking up a player's main other mode of customization (specialties) to get that done. It's a cop-out to rely on specialties to make the individual classes sufficiently flexible.

    4. Any feat that affects HP or money should scale with level. Thanks in part to bounded accuracy, most abilities and effects that are powerful at first level are pretty decent at higher levels too. The big exceptions are hit points (and damage and healing), which increase drastically with level, and wealth, which does even more so.

    There are two big rulebreakers here in the current playtest: Toughness and Herbalist. Both of these feats are awesome at first level but barely noticeable by 10th level, much less 20th. This is unnecessary. Toughness could be adjusted to give you 1 or 2 hp per level (along with the fixed 1d8 HD), and the maximizing of Healer's Kits could be moved over from Healer's Touch to Herbalism (perhaps with some nerfs), so that Herbalism is awesome for non-magical healers of any level, even if they don't care about dropping a few extra GP on store-packaged healer's kits and potions.

    5. It should take a dedicated action to gain advantage on an attack roll. No feats that give you advantage when flanking, or when fighting goblins, or whatever. Advantage is awesome and hard to get, because with it you almost never miss - not to mention rogues getting to sneak attack every round.

    6. New powers must be useful options for the appropriate build. There are three basic types of feats in the 2nd playtest: feats that give you a new action or reaction to use, feats that dramatically alter or improve an existing action or reaction, and feats that give you a generic passive bonus. The first type (e.g. the Defender feats) is my favorite, and the rule of thumb should be that the new action types will be about as good as a normal (at-will) class ability of the same action type. So if I can use a reaction to give an enemy disadvantage on an attack against my ally, as a defender, that's at least as useful to me as using that reaction for an opportunity attack. The Necromancer feats? Maybe not quite as good, but still viable in the right circumstances.

    7. Passive bonuses must be interesting and character-altering. The other extreme type of feat is the purely passive bonus: Jack of All Trades, Toughness, armor/weapon proficiencies, etc. These aren't as flashy as other kinds of feats, but that can actually be a good thing for a player who doesn't want to drown in options. If I want to just focus on smashing things with my fighter, I can pick Toughness and not worry about special reactions and whatnot. But the trick is that these feats shouldn't be flimsy little +1 bonuses or other barely noticeable advantages. The biggest offender here is Two-Weapon Defense, which may serve a good purpose for the system (making a dual-wielder about the same AC as a sword-and-board fighter) but is snoozeworthy to the max. You're not doing anything differently due to that feat. Jack of All Trades is borderline, but at least a new trained skill can alter the way your character behaves (especially for rogues). Toughness is currently great at first level, completely altering the way a wizard or other low-HP character plays at low level, but as I said above this is more of a scaling issue. I would argue that +1hp and +1d8 HD at first level would still be very sweet, and you'd appreciate is much more when it's +10 HP at 10th level.

    8. Feats that improve existing powers need to be carefully examined across all applicable classes. Healer's Touch and the Necromancer feats come to mind here. But I was also thinking of this when trying to design a Swashbuckler specialty for fighters using one finesse weapon with nothing in the off-hand. For a fighter, this style comes with big tradeoffs, since you're giving up 1d12+mod (greatsword damage) for 1d6+mod (rapier damage) with no big corollary benefit - so a fighter specialty that gave you +1d6 damage might seem good, right? But then, for a rogue, fighting with a finesse weapon in one hand and no off-hand is the default fighting style, so this would basically be free damage. The only solution (I can think of) would be to make the benefit something that would appeal to fighter-swashbucklers more than rogue-swashbucklers, like maybe a marking effect.

    What rules would you add (or subtract)? What feats in the current playtest break these rules, and how could they be amended? And finally, what new homebrew feats would you add, using these rules as guidelines?

    For starters, here's a feat from my homebrew Swashbuckler specialty:

    Artful Dodge. When you fight with a finesse weapon and no off-hand weapon or shield, as a reaction you may grant an opponent disadvantage on a single melee attack against you.

    "Artful Dodge" gives you a new reaction, which is useful and appropriate to a character with the swashbuckler archetype. It's useful for both fighters and rogues (and presumably rangers, etc) without overpowering any one class or build: fighters get the bigger benefit since they're more likely to get hit in combat, but a rogue with the swashbuckler archetype probably gets mixed up enough in melee to appreciate it as well.

  2. #2
    Already Nr. 1 breaks it for me. I want a RPG, not a dungeon crawler.

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by Derren View Post
    Already Nr. 1 breaks it for me. I want a RPG, not a dungeon crawler.
    Ditto. I want 5e to bring D&D back from the "combat is the dominant pillar" point it got to. Saying feats are combat specifics just goes in the wrong direction for me.


    Edit : Though I do take your point about role-playing being detached and non-mechanical. Problem is that when character features are always combat oriented, then putting together a character and then RP/ing come game time means you arent doing anything that was part of level gain, which is awefully un-rewarding.

    Players WANT to use that cool new feature that they got last level, and how do you do it? Pick fights. Sneak around that pack of goblins? Well, that doesnt let me use that cleave feat I just got! Lets fight em! As characters are a series of combat definitions, fighting becomes the predominant way to resolve every situation.
    Last edited by BobTheNob; Tuesday, 25th September, 2012 at 11:46 PM.

  4. #4
    Ditto. I want 5e to bring D&D back from the "combat is the dominant pillar" point it got to. Saying feats are combat specifics just goes in the wrong direction for me.

    Then how do you feel about the feats in the playtest already that are combat focused?

    I don't think the simplest solution to insist they muddle up the system with different types of feats, or say to change ALL the feats to not affect combat, but just do what has been claimed is a totally viable choice, and drop "specialties" altogether.

    Sure the default assumption will probably be that most people use specialties, but then again, a whole lot of people like the focus on combat.

    By focusing all feats on combat it should conceivably be easier to run a non-combat focused game you'd seem to prefer. All you have to do is decide not to use that "module" instead of reworking the mechanics of the entire system.

  5. #5
    Personally, I'd also like to see a focus on more role-playing than combat, but I'd say it'd be easier to do that by creating different systems to give non-combat options. It's not always the player that decides what kind of game is run, but the DM (or the three overpowering personalities at a table of four).

    Say you have two characters, one with all combat feats and another with feats that give mechanical benefits to "role playing"
    In a combat heavy game the guy with all the combat feats is going to be more effective, and vice versa if the game is biased towards RP that is influenced by mechanical options. Then you end up with people who play in organized play (or whatever some guy assumes is the "default" manner) complaining about "Feat taxes."

    Much easier I say to create systems that focus on different "pillars." Then DM that wants a very combat heavy game can say "we're going to use only specialties and no backgrounds" and a guy who wants more RP can say he's dropping specialties and using backgrounds and ____*.

    *Some other hypothetical system that gives more or different mechanical benefits for "role-playing"

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by bogmad View Post
    Personally, I'd also like to see a focus on more role-playing than combat, but I'd say it'd be easier to do that by creating different systems to give non-combat options. It's not always the player that decides what kind of game is run, but the DM (or the three overpowering personalities at a table of four).
    I do agree with this. Asking players to give up combat feasibility for RP feasibility just doesnt work. Players um and ahh come level up and almost invariably go for the combat option. The one guy in the group who doesnt ends up feeling slighted as the rest of them resolve everything by committing to fight after fight.

    Ok, there may be an argument for feats being combat only, but I cant agree with this "RP'ing is purely played out" part. When characters are just collections of combat synergies, players will naturally feel inclined to fix problems through combat. It also misses a great opportunity to make the characters cool for something other than their ability to kill things.

    So, ok, maybe feat can be combat only, but dang nam it, lets also do something to make characters cool for non-combat reason as well, and not just this "Non combat is pure RP" approach. Beef up backgrounds a bit maybe...(Whilst being VERY careful to keep them loose enough to give players and DM's latitude to solve problems)

  7. #7
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    Agreed with @bogmad, though I can't xp you.

    For most games, combat is a pretty big part of the game, but not the only part (IME). Those games will use Specialties and Backgrounds.

    Some games will want to refocus a bit towards the other pillars, and don't want to overburden their character sheets with excessive combat options. WotC has suggested that those people can drop Specialties (AKA feats) altogether and still have a playable game.

    Other games will go in the opposite direction and drop Backgrounds, keeping Specialties, and focus on hacking and slashing.

    A few games will subscribe to KISS and drop both, yielding fairly simple characters that are easy to track and level up.

    I think that's a good balance, and a way to keep everyone happy. And it works best if feats are kept as combat options, to standardize their worth and allow the party "face" to be good at combat and negotiation.

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    Quote Originally Posted by BobTheNob View Post
    Ditto. I want 5e to bring D&D back from the "combat is the dominant pillar" point it got to. Saying feats are combat specifics just goes in the wrong direction for me.
    I totally agree on wanting D&D taking a step back from being a miniature combat boardgame.

    But I have to say (even tho I like the 3ed approach to feats), that if feats were all combat-based, then I can easily opt not to use feats at all, and voil my campaign is immediately a little less combat-centric.

    If feats are all-purpose, then in order to have a Druid with Herbalism or a Wizard with a Familiar, I have to take the whole feats/specialties package into the game, or alternatively I have to go through the list of feats and pick which ones are in (it might be easier to just say "only non-combat feats" if these are enough).

    The flip of the coin of course is that if there are both combat and non-combat feats, you can then leave it up to each player which pillar to focus more, so I think eventually the designers will go this route (as we have in fact seen so far).
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    Quote Originally Posted by Derren View Post
    Already Nr. 1 breaks it for me. I want a RPG, not a dungeon crawler.

    I think the OP is right...and so are you.

    Feats SHOULD be combat only...what we need is a new term for non-combat "feats"...lets call them talents.

    If you got both Talents and Feats, you could build a decent combat character as well as have decent non-combat features. The problems usually arise when you have to choose between RP-oriented feats and combat-oriented feat. You always feel the 'other' pillar is short-changed.

    So I say, Bring on the Talents!

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    @jrowland - I completely agree. I think we're running into a semantics problem here. The claim has been made that feats should be combat-oriented. The reply: "But wait! What if I want non-combat feats?" (Jack-of-All-Trades aside; see question below.) That's a valid concern, but it's skirting around the issue. The issue at hand is that we're going to define some new terms before moving on. Let's take this concept of "feats" and apply them only to combat. There, done, we now have a dedicated design space for combat abilities. What we can then do is take a look at non-combat abilities and dedicate a design space for them as well. Saying that Backgrounds are not sufficient to handle non-combat abilities does not logically lead to the conclusion that non-combat abilities should instead be covered by feats. It's one conclusion, but I think the more elegant solution is to develop Backgrounds. Let's leave feats as the combat design space. I think it's a good thing that it has been siloed. What we're left with is the question of what to do with the remaining pillars of social interaction and exploration. Can Backgrounds and Skills handle both of these? Or can we come up with a different solution that tackles each of those pillars separately as well as Specialties/Feats tackle combat abilities? One thing I mentioned in my last survey was that I think Backgrounds should continue to give you benefits as you level up. I'm a thief; why can't I keep becoming a better thief as time goes by? Likewise for knights, bounty hunters, sages, book binders, whatever. If so, perhaps "Background" could become "Occupation," I don't know. Whatever the case, the fact that Specialties/Feats only deals with combat is a good thing. If the current system for handling social/exploration skills is not robust enough, then let's ask WotC to make that system more robust rather than ask them to intrude on an existing design space that already does a good job at what it intends to do.

    On another note, I have a very legitimate and sincere question. For all those folks who want to get non-combat prowess with their feats, I'll assume that Jack-of-All-Trades is not sufficient, or this would be a non-issue. Why is it not sufficient?

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