One of my major pet peeves with RPGs is feats, and their equivalent. Call them what you will; talents, merits, perks… they’re all the same, a big list of abilities that grant a passive advantage to an RPG character. I hate feats. In my experience, I’ve seen feats run the range of overpowered, underpowered, necessary, and ultimately, dull.
Here’s my main problem with feats; let’s say you’re playing Pathfinder and you have a player who’s playing a fairly unexceptional Ranger. He’s got skill points in Hide, Climb, Knowledge (nature), Listen… all the normal, archetypal Ranger-y stuff. Over the course of the campaign, the group decides they need someone to patch them up should the Cleric die, run out of spells, or decide that she doesn’t want to be used as a walking first aid kit any more. “No problem!” says the Ranger player, “I get to take a feat next level!”
So, he levels up, and gets to choose his feat. Now, he doesn’t have any skill points in Heal, but with his fellow adventurers in mind, he selects the feat Skill Focus (Heal), giving him a decent bonus to any Heal skill checks he makes in future. His untrained Heal skill checks. The fluff of Skill Focus is “Select a skill. You are particularly adept at that skill.”
How is a guy with no training “particularly adept”? Now, you could handwave it by saying that he has a natural aptitude for putting band-aids on people’s boo-boos. You could. I wouldn’t. It doesn’t make sense, story wise. The fluff doesn’t go with the crunch, to use gamer parlance.
Another gripe I have with feats is when taking said feat is a glaringly obvious choice, or when a feat is a boring, mathematical way to cover a weakness. D&D 4th edition was notorious for this, introducing the concept of “feat tax”; if you didn’t take Implement Expertise or Weapon Expertise (and there was absolutely no reason not to take these feats; they were low tier and had no prerequisites), you were statistically less likely to hit enemies, due to the disproportionate way that enemy defences scaled with level, compared to the attack accuracy of player characters.
I will admit, feats can sometimes be cool. Years ago, I played a 10th level character in a d20 Modern Urban Arcana one-night game, and I had great fun building up the unarmed combat feat chains so that I ended up with a martial artist whose bare fists did about as much damage as a shot from a .44 Magnum. But I digress. The thing about feats is that they should be awesome, and cool, and character defining. If you were telling a fellow gamer about your RPG character, you probably wouldn’t even mention they have a boring-but-functional feat like Weapon Focus, unless your character is utterly reliant on a degenerate feat combination, like the infamous spiked-chain Fighters of D&D 3rd edition (lololol tripping up all the dudes within 20 feet of me in one action, lolololol).
Also, lists. Endless, endless lists of feats in core rulebooks and splatbooks, which take forever for players and GMs alike to trawl through. The “Whatever Power” splatbooks of D&D 4th edition usually have about 60-80 new feats each. Urgh.
So what to do about it?
Well, inspiration comes from D&D spiritual successor, Pathfinder.
I think it’s safe to say that there’s a pretty good overlap between people who like to play tabletop RPGs, and people who like to play video games. And why not? Gaming is awesome, no matter what form it takes. Perhaps one of the biggest phenomena in modern gaming is the addition of Achievements (or Trophies, for PS3’ers).
There’s something just so satisfying about that little notification popping up to let you know that you now have extra bragging rights. Gamers love getting achievements, whether it’s just for completing a level, or doing something truly impressive (Hellish Honour on the Devil May Cry HD collection, for example). Achievements are cool. They make you feel like you accomplished something, like you’ve been rewarded for becoming better as a player.
So what did Paizo do? They put Achievement feats in Pathfinder.
Here’s an example from this lovely site;
Prerequisite; Face ten different devils in combat and take damage or suffer some other sort of injury from five or more attacks made by each one without falling unconscious, fleeing, or otherwise becoming unable to strike back at them.
Benefit; Bypass the damage reduction of devils with your weapons.
Is that a difficult prerequisite? Well, yeah. A pain in the arse to keep track of as well. But is that a good benefit? Yes. Is that a feat you would want to bring up in conversation with other gamers when talking about your character? Yes. Does it help define your character, and epitomise the struggles they’ve faced and the challenges they’ve overcome? YES. Is it a good design for a feat? WHAT DO YOU THINK.
I’m currently tweaking around with Gamma World, and slowly morphing it into an RPG of my own creation. I’ll be including feats, and they will be in this kind of “achievement” format, because it’s a fucking awesome idea. It gives players something to work towards, and they’ll appreciate the end result so much more than if they just picked a bland, mathematical bonus from a list of bland, mathematical bonuses. With the “achievement” format, the feat can be much more powerful too, as a reward for all the player’s hard work. Here’s an example, off the top of my head;
Prerequisite; Inflict 15 critical hits with ranged attacks made with guns.
Benefit; Your ranged attacks with guns inflict critical hits on an attack roll of 19-20, and do triple damage.
My idea is that players would pick their Achievements as part of character creation, and then work towards them over the course of the campaign. It’s an idea I’m really looking forward to playing around with.