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So What is a Feat, Anyway?

Posted in Indies & More

Mike’s looking at feats again, asking what a feat is, anyway?

The answer, apparently, is a +1 stat bonus:

A feat can be used to gain +1 to an ability score, to a maximum of 20, or to gain a special ability that is equivalent in power to that ability bonus.

The new idea for feats in Next is to allow the player to either choose some new ability or increase a stat by 1. Before we talk about the actual design, let’s look at how we got here.

Mike’s analysis boils down to: feats are fiddly. They’re a way to fine-tune your character. They reflect that your wizard is just a little more skilled in combat, or your fighter is just a bit more knowledgable.

This isn’t a bad thing, until you try to make a game that does everything. Some people just don’t need to reflect that their character is a little more diplomatic than their stats would suggest. Some people really don’t care about feats.

The answer that Next is using is to make feats optional. You get a feat or you increase a stat by 1, your choice, and those options should be equally good.

That seems like a strange answer to me. Faced with the feedback that feats are more than most players want to deal with, they could have made them a bigger clearer choice, with more good options—something like how the various class powers work in 4E (where you couldn’t really go too wrong). Or they could have done away with them entirely and focused on making non-mechanical choices matter. If my character is the son of a diplomat, do I really need a diplomacy skill bonus, or is it enough for that fact to have an important role in the game?

The answer they’ve ended up with is the middle ground: feats are still there, but if you don’t choose one you get a stat bonus instead.

I’m not a huge fan of this approach. I appreciate the ideal—provide a default to avoid analysis paralysis—but this implementation seems a little weak.

Increasing a stat is, depending on the current score, either a complete no-op (nothing changes) or a slight increase in power (+1 modifier bonus) without any particularly interesting outcomes. A +1 modifier amounts to a 5% increase in success on a d20 roll against a fixed difficulty, which isn’t much. Even when it does make a difference, it’s purely a numerical advantage—it doesn’t give the character new opportunities, abilities, or ties to the game.

In short, it’s not something that I’d be excited to get at any given level. For anyone who’s not too excited by numbers it’s back to culling over the hundreds of feats.

Specialties mitigate this by providing default choices, which is a pretty sensible idea, and probably one that could be emphasized more. Right now the number of choices to make a character is large unless you take the default. Just speaking for myself, I tend to not take defaults in RPGs—they’re all about creation, right? Moving each class from having one recommended background+specialty+gear to having two or three suggestions for each might make it simpler. This would be a little like character creation in Apocalypse World: here’s the choices you need to make, pick one for each. People who don’t really care will just go down the list. The average player will make a few custom choices in a few minutes. The player who really wants to customize will have to do a little work to change things up, but that’s probably what they want anyway—a chance to really dig in and mess with the system.

Next keeps on layering on decision points where you can choose the kind of game you want, like the choice between the default specialty for your class (which is really just another set of defaults), or another specialty (which is a set of defaults), or making your own specialty. The goal here seems to be to help you make the game you want, but it’s not quite getting that free-wheeling open-ness of early D&D. Instead of being a minimal toolset from which you have to make something, it’s a bunch of pre-made things that you choose between.

I’m not sure what to make of that. On the one hand, it makes me fairly uninterested to play. If I wanted to craft my own thing, I’d play early D&D, or find a game that already does what I want and build on that. This feels like choose-your-own-adventure version of a system that emphasizes building what you want on top of it. On the other hand, this is a stealthy way of getting people to find out what kind of D&D they want. Everyone comes to play D&D, then through character creation they have to figure out what D&D actually means for them. Sure, that may mean not using a lot of the book, but it’s an interesting concept.

I’m not sure how it’ll make for a marketable game, but I guess we’ll see.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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