For those who roleplay, but aren’t familiar with D&D specifically, feats are options for customising characters. They appear in other games under various names (edges, schticks, etc…), but the intent is generally the same; to add new features to a character in a modular fashion, in order to create the character you want.
Generally, they’re implemented in a couple of different ways. For class based systems, they are for customisation; they are part of what makes one fighter or wizard different from another fighter or wizard. One fighter might take feats that boost his toughness and let him wear heavier armour, while another might take feats that let him fight with two weapons at once and disarm opponents; the same basic class has diverged to give us an armoured knight and a dual wielding swashbuckler.
For non-class based systems, feats often replace the classes themselves. If you want to play a wizard-like character, you pick feats that let you cast spells; if you want to play a fighter, you pick feats that let you wear heavy armour or perform certain combat actions.
To me, feats are a make or break aspect of any RPG. As I mentioned in my recent review of D&D 5e, I felt that the increasing number of feats was what marked the decline of 3e and 4e. There are many issues with having too many feats, but here are the three main issues that I have:
1) They become harder to balance
I imagine that “usefulness” of feats, if such a thing could be measured, would describe a rough bell curve. At the bottom end of the scale would be a small number of “useless” feats; feats that simply aren’t worth taking because their benefits are so small (there were a couple of cases in D&D 4e where feats were genuinely useless, in that there were other feats that offered the same benefit and something else on top). At the top end are a number of feats that are so good (high bonuses, broadly applicable) that anyone wanting to create a competant character is pretty much obliged to take them, especially if everyone else in the group does (for many, the D&D 4e “maths fix” feats were this). Obviously, in between these extremes, the bulk of feats are worth taking, with some variation depending on how situational they are.
The ideal situation would be to have a very narrow and steep bell curve, where all feats are equally useful and there are no “useless” or “mandatory” feats; this is reasonably easy to achieve if you only have a small number of feats. However, as more and more feats are created, it is inevitable that the bell curve will spread out and feats will start to be created that are thematic, but just not that good, or that are just dull bonuses, but that mathematically beat more interesting options.
2) They start to require more planning
D&D 3e was somewhat infamous for requiring characters to be planned from level 1. Obviously this wasn’t literally required, but due to the large number of feats, many of which were in chains that had to be taken in order, if you wanted you high level character to have access to a particular ability, you often had to lock yourself into a particular path early on. D&D 4e had a lot less feats with prerequisites in order to combat this issue, but by the later stages of the game, there were so many feats available, that characters needed to consult class guides and such like to cut out 90% of the dross and bring things down to a more managable level. In contrast, a small number of feats can be easily read through when levelling up without worrying that you’re missing something crucial that’s going to take several more levels to fix.
3) Low level characters become disappointing
As a result of the previous two points, when there are too many feats, low level characters started to become somewhat disappointing. A D&D 4e character usually needed three or four feats that played off their class features and brought them to full strength, plus a couple of “maths fix” feats to remain competitive with everyone else, which meant that they didn’t really feel complete until about 10th level (at which point, they would be on the cusp of unlocking another couple of “required” class feats). With a smaller number of feats, a character might only need a couple to feel like they’ve covered the basics, which can be done at a much lower level.
So, to finish, let me just state what I hope to see from the new D&D edition, when then PHB comes out later this year.
1) A reasonable number of feats, but not too many – 50 would be a good number, as that’s enough for about 3 class specific feats for each class (with no expectation that a character would need all three) and a similar number of general feats that anyone can take.
2) No pure numeric bonuses – Numeric bonuses quickly become a requirement for a character to feel that they’re “keeping up”; if everyone has +2 to damage except you, you’re probably going to take it as well… at which point the DM could just knock a few HP of each enemy and everyone could take something more interesting. I want to see feats that add new abilities and options; breadth, not depth.
3) Not too many additional feats as the game develops – The reason that feats snowballed in D&D 4e was that pretty much every Dragon or Dungeon magazine article included a handful at the end. Article on Drow ecology? Have a couple of drow feats. New setting specific organisation? They’ll want some feats too. Essay on the nine circles of hell, where PCs cannot even originate from? Here’s a couple of feats anyway… just in case. Wizards of the Coast need to clamp down on this and limit additional feats to controlled releases that actually add to the game and don’t just add to the noise.
Anyway, that’s my opinion, but I’m always interested in hearing others’ opinions, so feel free to comment.