The Alphastream Game Design Blog

D&D Next: A Model for Feats and Other Build Options

Our playtest of the opening scene for Murder in Baldur's Gate.

I could only later reveal that this was from our playtest of the opening scene for Murder in Baldur’s Gate.

Legends & Lore discussed new options for acquiring Feats. Neither those options nor the current D&D Next packet meet the goals I have for character generation:

  • Personality: Character generation should help me create a PC that feels like an individual. At the conclusion of the process, I should have a feel for who they are.
  • Foster Imagination: The choices I make should foster imaginative play at the table.
  • Fast: A new player should be able to create a level 5 PC in 10-15 minutes.
  • Robust: An experienced player should find enough robust options to spend hours on character creation, if they so desire.
  • Balanced: Options should be balanced, such that new DMs do not have to struggle with overly powerful or overly weak PCs.

An Essentials Model, Applied to Feats

The Hunter is one of the Essentials classes that really pleases both new and experienced players. The way it does this is by providing strong basic options, such as an accurate shot, along with options of varying complexity (often depending on the player). A new player can hit a bunch of targets close together and feel like a champ. A tactical player can apply one of several conditions (knock prone, push, daze, etc.) based on their tactical assessment. Both cases can be effective and richly imaginative – the class very much feels like a wilderness sniper regardless of approach.

D&D Next could similarly present several options of varying complexity for Feats:

1. One Default Option

Iconic, simple, and effective.
This option is used for fast character generation or for a new player that doesn’t need to or want to read through every option. The feat is simple and easy to grasp. A new player can easily know what it does, when to use it, and gets that this is an iconic part of what they want to play.

Iconic is important because we want to realize a new player’s vision of what the class does. It doesn’t do away with class features (because those are necessary in all builds to capture the essence of the class), but could build upon them or add an additional iconic element.

Charge is a good example from the current packet of a possible iconic low-level feat for a fighter. It is something fighters are expected to do in battle, simple in concept, and fairly simple in execution. It isn’t an ‘in the background’ feat, such as a static bonus, because new players can’t sense or derive pleasure from those. A new player will see other players doing exciting things and feel that their character is lackluster. A feat like charge gives a simple but cool iconic option.

2. Several Simple Options

Relatively simple, extend iconic experience
These feats are additional simple options. They can also help to extend the depth of an iconic build or to enable other iconic variants seen in history, fiction, or previous editions. The combat cleric is an example.

Improved Initiative is an example of a simple feat. Interposing Shield is an example of adding an iconic variant – that of a melee guardian, to an existing class (or classes).

3. Many Complex Options

Complex, may feed off of other elements, can play against type or create new vision
These feats usually require some expertise to use well. Often they are taken with another build option, so as to realize a very specific type of character.

A two-weapon fighter or a pole-arm fighter are both made possible through feats with some complexity that often interact. A feat like Covert Strike is best for an experienced player, helping them realize a specific strategy or vision.

Potentially, all feats could be available as options, but ideally the system would identify the default very clearly and then present some suggested simple and complex options. There is the danger of drowning in options if players can choose from all options.


Feats and Specialties/Themes

In the current packet, feats are gained through Specialties (previously named Themes, a term first used in Fourth Edition). The L&L article suggests feats are part of class levels, but doesn’t mention what happens to Specialties.

Discussion should include Specialties/Themes, because they are an important attempt to help define Personality and Foster Imagination (two of the goals). Various RPGs have done this in very different ways (Dresden Files, Spycraft, and Legend of the Five Rings are some of my favorites).

For D&D, the sweet spot for me was Themes in Dark Sun. In the campaign book, each theme is a very iconic element of the society: gladiators, merchants, templars, Veiled Alliance members, etc. The selection isn’t a time-intensive endeavor, and there is no wrong answer. The choice, however, drives all kinds of interactions in a Dark Sun campaign. A player learns something about the setting and about their PC, but also is now poised for rich interactions with the DM.

Since that time, 4E Themes and their derivatives in D&D Next have felt lackluster. They don’t tell me much about my PC. I’m an ‘Ambusher’… there isn’t much there I can use to guide my gaming.

Additionally, by packaging feats into Specialties, we put mechanics and RP at odds. I might like the concept behind a specialty, but the feats might not match my class. They might duplicate class features or simply be at odds with my other choices. This can be very frustrating for casual players, who want to realize a concept without endless work and customization.

To that end, I would like Specialties to go back to being Themes, and I want them to be campaign-specific. I want them to be the really rich vehicle by which any PC cements their relationship with the setting.

We can have default Themes, but they should be modeled on what really works in specific settings. For example, we could have the default for Bards be that they are Sponsored by a Noble Family, with ideas on how DMs can integrate this into their campaigns. The system of Default, Simple, and Complex can be used here if there are mechanical benefits.


The Current Approach

While I started with an emphasis on solutions, and that is the important part, I want to underscore some of the problems with L&L before closing.

Don’t give new PCs the boring/transparent option: A +1 to an ability is a very boring benefit. It exists in the background, and a new or casual player probably won’t notice it. I decide to play a tomb-raiding rogue because I want to be like Indiana Jones. I notice Indy’s capabilities, but I really don’t think about his dex score. The same is true of my PC. I want cool stuff to do and simple ways to interact with the game, not transparency. +x is boring, and it will seemingly be overshadowed by the ‘crazy’ stuff other players will be doing.

Don’t let the game become dominated by tons of feats: Even with the online character builder, building a 4E PC is really tough when it comes to feats. There is never a good way to present all the possible feats such that I can figure out what I want. If we let the game be dominated by feats, the game will drown. It drowned in both the editions with feats (3E and 4). Feats are fine, but don’t make them the spotlight. Make them the flourish, and keep the number down as long as possible.

It isn’t easy to do this, but it can be easier if feats aren’t meant to solve problems or make PCs effective, but rather to extend what they already do and provide fun options.

Don’t try to create separate game levels for different players: I’ll reserve judgment on the concept of a ‘apprentice’ levels, outside of one comment. The game isn’t played by new and casual people at one table and experienced hard-core gamers at another. It is played at one table by people of all gaming stripes. D&D should be designed to appeal to every kind of gamer at all levels of play. Apprentice should be awesome for my friend’s significant other, for the hardcore gamers that have 30 campaigns under their belt, and for the old school gamer that has a baby and can’t play that often.


Lessons Learned

When it comes to feats or any other build option, the system should provide awesome default options that are simple enough for anyone to pick up. These default options should still be effective. They shouldn’t be dumbed-down versions or exist ‘in the background’, because new and casual players want cool characters.

Options should be imaginative, helping create iconic experiences. Going through character creation should help us visualize who this PC is, helping to create a personality that can further develop during play. The seeds planted by the process should grow during play, creating imaginative experiences.

Robust options should exist. Experienced players want a deep experience and to feel rewarded for system mastery. Layered and chained options can help these players create really interesting characters – all without damaging game balance. However, feats should not be the central experience. We want feats to be flourishes, not pages and pages of options players must comb through to create an effective character.

(Update: Now that 5E has been released, I think the design did end up taking this into account. There are several classes that provide good choices, such as the Fighter’s maneuvers (allowing a player to steer clear of them, choose simple ones, or get highly tactical with them). There are cases where I think the design could have benefited from being more along these lines – the warlock seems convoluted in a way that doesn’t gain a lot from that, while the Monk options and Ranger options often have difficulty balancing exploration with combat. Specific to feats, I find feats in 5E to be one of the weaker aspects. They often don’t quite do what you want them to do, often fail to really capture flavor or define an identity for the character, and their strength varies greatly from feat to feat.)


Tavern fights on a ship? Should feel cinematic for any player, regardless of experience level!

Tavern fights on a ship? Should feel cinematic for any player, regardless of experience level!

(Originally posted in April, 2013, on my WotC blog)


This entry was posted on October 20, 2015 by and tagged , , , , .


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