14 November 2009

Why I Dislike 'Feats'

My participation in this thread at the RPGsite prompted me to reflect somewhat on exactly why I dislike 'feats' in 3e and 4e D&D, that is, why I loathe this game mechanic in the more recent versions of 'Ye Olde Game.'

'Feats' in 3e and 4e are an 'exception-based' mechanic. That means that if a PC/NPC/monster (hereinafter simply 'character') has a certain feat, the normal rules do not apply to him/her/it. Instead, other rules apply to the character. Feats provide 'exceptions' to otherwise universally-applied rules.

My dislike of feats has nothing to do with 'fairness.' Indeed, such a concern would be laughably misplaced, given how concerned the designers of 3e and 4e were to ensure overall 'balance' within their systems (i.e., all character classes, races, and so forth, are equally 'powerful' and 'useful' -- sadly defined exclusively in terms of combat ability in 4e).

Feats require one to remember more rules, or at least be willing to look up more rules during the game. The 'more stuff to remember' aspect of feats is irritating. I have to remember too many things in my job ("what is today's lecture on, again?"; "is there a faculty meeting on Friday?"; "what was Kant's argument for the 'Formula of Humanity' again?"; etc.) -- having to remember loads of fiddly rules for my hobby is a burden that I do not care to assume. I'm simply too old and lazy. Ultimately, though, my dislike for 'feats' is primarily that I find the mechanic aesthetically ugly. It is unacceptably 'clunky,' in my opinion, to have a game with the following structure:
(a) here are the rules to govern the actions of characters; and
(b) here are hundreds of fiddly exceptions to those rules (often with their own 'sub-rules').

Blech! In contrast, a system like 'Basic Role-Playing,' which uses skills, is not 'exception-based'. The same rules apply, all the time, without exception. Some characters will be much more skilled at certain things than others, and thus enjoy much greater success rates at those things than others. However, there is no need to provide 'rules-exceptions' for those characters. The overall mechanical structure is far more parsimonious, and intuitive in my opinion, than the feat-based mechanical structure of 3e and 4e. To some extent, the same thing is true of older versions of D&D. Higher-level characters will have a greater chance to hit, make their saving rolls, etc., than lower level characters, but the basic mechanic is the same for all characters. (I'll concede that there are some 'exception-based' rules in older D&D -- namely, class-based abilities -- but they are far, far fewer in number than 'feats' in 3e and 4e. Consequently, they do not really bother me.) So that's it, gentle readers. That's why I hate feats.

Phew! It felt good to get that off my chest.


  1. I've had this discussion with a lot of people over the past few years. From my experience, a lot of people who are pro-Feat (I am not, btw) complain about the non-spellcasting classes not having anything "interesting" to do. If you look at 4E, this is especially prevalent in that spells are either 1.) Powers with much the same format as the special abilities of the martial classes, and 2.) Rituals, which take all the non-combat spells and give them to everyone. (Well, everyone who takes a feat)

    My gaming tastes have shifted away from "balance uber alles," and if you think about it... a fighter knows how to fight with weapons. A magic-user knows how to conjure cosmic forces. They are not equivalent, nor should they be.

  2. I never like them because I hate "building" characters. Writing up back stories and motives can be fun, but deciding between Power Attack and Weapon Finesse, or allocating 27 Skill Points to class and non-class Skills, is a PITA.

    I am of the opinion that you should only need to know three things about a D&D character to know everything you need to know: Starting Conditions (race, class, alignment, stats), Stuff (notable equipment, spells memorized) and HP/Level. That's it.

    The stat blocks in 3E/4E got absolutely crazy because just knowing "LG Hum Clr 7" was no longer good enough.

    -Irda Ranger
    The Tombs of Akrasia

  3. I recently bought the Pathfinder core and bestiary and the books are beautiful, well written and streamlined in comparison to 3.x.
    And yet, Feats. I agree that they make exceptions to rules. I am goinf to run Pathfinder, but just with these two books and the third one coming out, I don't plan on adding one Feat not in these three books ever.

    I really appreciate the oldschool way of gaming the more I see how simply overwhelming the Pathfinder game is. The core book is over 500 pages! And with Feats!

  4. A lot of people love their 4e. But book upon book of feats? ANd book upon book of treasure that give me additional feats? It's not just the information I can't keep up with, it's the cost of owning all the materials.

    Some will say I don't need them all, just the 3 core books. Right. SO when my players show up with the Martial Power 2 or Players Handbook 3, with the latest uber-feat, then what?

    Give me simple rules. I've got other stuff to worry about, and spend my money on.

  5. When I DM, I have one inviolable rule, if I don't own the book, nothing from it is allowed in my game. Never had a problem.

  6. This is a nice summation of why I ditched GURPS after many years in favor of BRP for my universal system needs. (As well as ditched 3e/4e for simpler iterations.) Exception-based design is too much to keep track of! And nothing feels worse than realizing well after the fact, "Oh, you had advantage/feat X? Geez, that would have totally made a difference in that encounter!"

  7. It certainly is annoying if a rules discrepancy holds up play. But that goes for spells as well as feats. In the C&C game I play, my wizard has a spell book - all the spell descriptions are copied and there for me to check without paging. How are spells different from feats?

    My own answer to that question: at least in Vancian spell systems, a spell is a limited resource. Because you can't always use it, the player HAS to think about what else they would do instead. Maybe?

    But my gripe at feats, and more defined character fiddly bits in general:
    Players don't examine the situation that the DM has described, they look at their character sheets. They have a tendency to look at their list of feats and skills and make their choice only amongst those options - choices that others can't make unless they also have the feat. It brings the free form role-playing game that much closer to a board game.

    If players need ways to mechanically diversify their characters, I would prefer bonuses to actions: +1 to jump, +1 to bullrush gives a bonus to an action without (hopefully) limiting your character to those actions or limiting other characters either.

    A dislike of feats and defined character fiddly bits is one of the reasons I prefer C&C (which Akrasia knows seeing how I've linked to his review of the game a few times.) :)

  8. The vast chapter on D&D Feats is something every new player must study, lest he select something impractical. Having too many Feats isn't the problem, having ones that don't equal "Cleave" is! Thus, an imperative rule, "pick the best Feat", worms its way into place, and the game suddenly needs "rebalancing".

  9. Very well said -- this post encapsulates my own feelings about D&D 3.0 / 4.0 and feats in particular, which are the "clunky" bane of those systems, as you so accurately point out. I too am too old and lazy to mess around with that shit. Thanks for putting this so succinctly into words.

  10. I personally prefer to think of Feats as selectable class abilities. When they fit this definition, they seem to work out pretty well. It's when they step beyond that role that I become frustrated with them. I agree that the "exception-based" nature of many Feats can also be frustrating, but I still like them, within the concept of selectable class abilities.

    My Two Cents Worth,

  11. I like feats, but I think you have summed up the main problem with them. IMO, this is most problematic with feats which affect combat situations (Maneuver type feats), than feats which allow exceptions to the restrictions of your race/class. The latter are the feats I prefer since they allow you to both have the niche protection of a class based system, but also the flexibility of a classless system at the same time...

  12. As a 4e DM, I've found the best stance for my table is this: I'm the DM, so what feats my players have access to is meaningless to me. My monsters don't use 'em, so I don't worry about them.

    The caveat to that is that you need to trust your players a little: trust that they don't abuse something and actually read the full description of their feats and understand it. Lucky for me, I have smart players! But some people just don't grasp rules the same way, so many GMs aren't so lucky.

    In which case, I totally agree with this article. I'm glad it doesn't apply to me, but it's definitely applicable to some (many?) groups, and is a major reason why an entire group should come to consensus on the games they choose to play.

  13. For me and my group, it's not so much a question of intelligence as it is a question of time. Most of the people I game with are quite busy with their regular lives and simply don't have the time to sit down with a rulebook and pore over a chapter full of Feats to figure out which ones are good, bad, or indifferent. Similarly, during play they want a system that lays everything out for them on their character sheet. Since we game every other week at best, it's easy to forget what something with an enigmatic name like "Combat Marauder" (or whatever) means precisely.

  14. I'm right there with you, Akrasia. I'm not a Feat fan for a lot of reasons. One of the biggest is that I don't like character career planning. I also think that it's bunk that magic users overshadow fighters at higher levels. The GM/DM/Referee is there to challenge the group as they are not by formula.

  15. Another interesting take on Feats that I've heard in the past is that since you can only take a select few Feats by the time you're 'X' level, then the list just represents things that you CAN'T actually do.

    Exclusive rather than inclusive.

    But I like your take on it as well.

  16. I have to agree with the main message, I really hate feats too. First there are way too many of them. Second most of them just duplicate things you were going to get next level anyways. Third the most popular ones seem to be the game breakers. Most of my min-maxing friends pile one poorly written broken feat on top of the other until they have a completely ridiculous character that ruins whatever the DM can come up with. A least in 4e unlike 3rd you don't have fire up the spreadsheet to figure out which first level feat you must take to claim the right prestige class at 15th level. Unfortunately even in 4e you still have to google the world wide web to find the right combination feats to keep pace with the bonuses handed out to the monsters for free. Take me back to old school where the fighters out hit the monsters right off the combat chart.


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.