The Peanut Gallery Presents: De-Feat-ed

pg_titlecard_031Hello Everyone! It’s time for another Peanut Gallery, and time for some reminiscing. Or at least, time for a look backwards. It’s been a chilly, if dry, July, with a lot of things happening, most of them sadly outside of my gaming life. But I did find time in between to pick up a starter set of X-wing: Star Wars miniatures game. I’ll probably tell everyone about once I’ve had a few more games, but I hear good things!

But this month I’d like to talk about one of the traditions of D&D that I feel has been overused. A system in dire need of overhaul, and one that may simply be too broad and ill-designed, something that, quite frankly, is used too liberally and often to be considered good. I’m talking about Feats.

Feats first made their debut in third edition, serving as a method of altering abilities and allowing for character customisation. In time, they became a significant part of D&D’s history, surviving from 3 to 3.5 to 4th and 5th. Their influence can be seen in Pathfinder and other d20 games of the genre, and even such games as 14th Age and Dungeon World contain feats.  But, while idly browsing various books, three major problems began to stand out.

The first major problem was this: Feats are everywhere. Every time a new concept or design idea comes out, there’s a new feat. any time someone wants to add something to existing game mechanics. Characters, meanwhile,  have the same number of feats as they began with. In the beginning of a game’s life, this is great. New options, new traits, new character designs, or even ways to shore up slightly shaky or underpowered characters. But as time goes on, you run headlong into feat bloat.

As of this writing, I’ve been counting the number of feats I can find in 4th edition, since that’s the edition I have the most books of. And my number? Over 1500. Over 1600 feats in levels 1-10. Now , to be fair, this includes supplemental products, monthly supplements and every book that has been released for 4th edition, It’s unlikely that the average gaming group will see that many feats. And no matter the character, you will be able to use, at most, a small selection of them. But 1600 is a massive number, one that can paralyse a person with indecision.

The second problem is complexity. Quite simply, asking a person to define the most useful or most powerful feat in a list is an exercise in futility, a problem defined by the second half of 4th editions life cycle.

Mike Mearls, the lead designer of 5th edition, was also responsible for the development of the essentials line, the last series of products designed for 4th edition. In it, he wanted to emphasise simplicity, to do away with many of the conventions of the previous books, and create a clean, streamlined game. In many ways he succeeded. But while the characters within were simplified in their control of powers, abilities and ways to interact with the world, the number of feats continued to grow, and Mike Mearls didn’t streamline the process of picking feats. The end result is that Essentials characters, while completely compatible of with earlier classes, simply lose some of the flavour and interesting synergies of their earlier counterparts, and yet are still as complex in feat management. Worse, the simplified Feat lists of Essentials added more feats to the pile, many of them slightly tweaked versions of existing feats.

And the final problem of feats? They’re simply too broad. Want a feat that makes you better in combat? There’s a bunch. But these same feats that you use for combat are also used in skill challenges, and yet again in social situations. Which feats are the right kind?

I’ve talked about this problem before, in fact, in which I questioned how useful ability scores really are. And the same is true for feats. A character using their feats for combat is hamstrung in a social situation, especially compared to a character who used their feats for social ability. The problem is the same when reversed: a character who spent their feats on social skills suffers unduly on the battlefield, and when a game such as D&D has both, someone is suffering.

But what to do about it? Do we separate the two, creating feat lists for different situations? Do we do away with feats entirely? Whatever decision is eventually agreed upon, how will we replace them? With other feat-likes? With something different? With nothing at all?

What do you think will happen when we become de-Feat-ed?


  • I know we’ve had this conversation before, about a different topic, but still, I don’t see a problem with some characters being more proficient in certain situations. Using the fantasy genre storytelling as a basis here, it’s not often you find someone like Conan, who is the best there is at combat, being able to talk his way out of a situation that requires finesse of social graces. Chances are he’d just decapitate everyone in the room if it means getting his way.

    A feat that ham strings a players ability to bluff or otherwise woo an NPC, because they are more focused on combat, means that they need to find a different solution to the problem. Same goes the other way around, someone who doesn’t have that bonus to combat because they have chosen a social feat, doesn’t mean they can’t fight, it just means they can’t fight quite as well as someone with a particular combat feat.

    Ultimately it’s the players choice to have whatever feats they want and design a character as they choose, while it’s not 100% balanced 100% of the time, it does means that the player is choosing their difficulty level in those specific areas, and I think it’s a positive in this regard because, well frankly, that’s life for you, no one is going to be good at everything, and if characters are equally good in all situations, then the only real difference between them would be their names.

    That’s not to mention that people play D&D as a group usually, so where one person falls short, others are generally around to pick up the slack, that’s the whole point of team games. It’s not like you only find enjoyment in your own personal success, you are elated by the success of the team.

    I would argue the importance is equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome, because otherwise why bother being a member of a party?