Tuesday, 10 November 2015

My feat are killing me

Henceforth a long, rambly exposition around the topic of feats.

So for whatever reason I've been messing around with a lot of D&D 5e chargen recently. I've put together about 20 different characters for various reasons, ranging from "this idea entertains me" to "I wonder if this is mechanically possible".

For example, I started wondering how feasible it is in 5e to make single-class parties. That is to say, parties composed entirely of characters from one class, with no multiclassing permitted. Because subclasses grant certain odd capabilities, this isn't quite as mad as it sounds. You can't make a party that replicates the classic Fighter Thief Wizard Cleric pattern, but you can arrange them in other ways.

The one I've actually completed is a wizarding party. It features a Skulky Wizard who does stealth, recon, and manipulative control; a Tanky Wizard who soaks damage, to the extent a wizard can; a Blasty Wizard who hurts people quite effectively; and a Wizardy Wizard who handles weird stuff, with a control role on the battlefield. The hardest things here seem to be the tanking and the blasting. The changes to concentration make it very hard to make a flimsy character tough, and wizards are designed more for area blasting than single-target damage.

Right now I'm excitedly playing with a circus performer character. I'm quite excited by the idea of a circus-based game, where your party is a troupe of performers. You've got the Strongest In The World, you've got the Escape Artist, you've got the Circus Tricks one, maybe a Clown, maybe a Lion Tamer... As always, the problems with such things are a) lack of gaming time, and b) the fact that you can propose running a specific game far more readily than you can propose someone else runs a specific game for your entertainment, but running the game you'd really like to play in is a special kind of melancholy.

Anyway! All of this character generation has brought me back to something I've been thinking right from the start with 5e, which is that dude, I just don't get enough feats. I mean seriously.

Essentially, I think this stems from a desire for simplicity. 5e is deliberately harking back to older times, and specifically makes feats optional to make it more palatable to the 2e crowd. You can't balance characters around the assumption of getting feats if they're optional. At the same time, you don't want to put in more ability increases that might be swapped for feats, because then everyone's stats will end up through the roof early on.

There are two reasons why this is a problem for me, and only one of them is that I just really like feats as a concept. That degree of customisability, and that choice? Yes, please. Both getting a new special ability that builds on a character concept, and just getting to step aside from the default rules, are very appealing to me.

The second one, though, is that some perfectly reasonable character concepts just don't really work unless you have access to feats. In some cases multiclassing can alleviate this, but that has its own problems - like the way ability score increases (aka feats) are deliberately tied to class level, so as to limit the power of multiclassing. Great for discouraging powergaming, but also very good at discouraging perfectly reasonable concept-based multiclassing. This tends to mean that either you simply miss out on increases, even though you aren't benefiting unduly from two levels in some class or other; or that you multiclass in blocks of four, making for a rather weird character experience; or that you drag on for 7+ levels without any increases or feats, then suddenly get two at once.

The rather peculiar end result of this is that most of the time, if you want to do anything fairly unusual, you need to play a human. Or at least, there's a strong mechanical incentive to play a human, even if another race would be more thematically appropriate. The benefit of being able to pick one feat at 1st level is hard to overprice.

Let me give some examples instead of waffling vaguely.

Life is a cabaret

One of the characters I wanted to try out was the aforementioned circus performer. I'm thinking of an acrobatic, dashing character, someone who does stunts on horses, throws knives at underdressed ladies, puts candles out with a whip, that sort of thing. The whip thing in particular stuck with me as a distinctive and unusual feature of a character. Rather than getting stuck in melée, they'd be a non-traditional sort of swashbuckler, darting between enemies and slashing at them, with the reach meaning they didn't have to worry about opportunity attacks. A bit of Indiana Jones, a bit of a character from one of the Famous Five books, a bit inspired by some characters in a couple of Chinese TV shows.

Obviously, someone with a whip should be pulling manoeuvres, which means they'd be physical, because annoyingly all of those now come off Strength. So we have a strong rogue, who should also be dextrous for all that bounding about and also wearing a glittery circus outfit instead of proper armour. A bit of a glass cannon, since of course they also need to be Charismatic. One advantage of being a rogue, though, is that your die size matters a lot less when you get Sneak Attack dice. It's all looking fine, except... rogues don't get whips.

This is a bit of an issue when your character concept is build mostly around a specific weapon. Rogues get various weapon proficiencies, but (to my mind, infuriatingly*) they don't get to choose which weapons any more. I checked bards, since they're also more or less appropriate for this class, but the same problem applies.

* Basically, I'm not especially happy with WotC deciding quite so specifically which weapons are thematic for a class, because they're not necessarily right.

Rogues get all simple weapons, plus the rapier, hand crossbow, longsword and shortsword. I've nothing against those weapons, which allow you to build a mugger type or a swashbuckler type, or a concealed-crossbow assassin type. What they do, though, is sort of tell me that some rogues are more roguey than others. I don't really understand who felt that the longsword was a thematically roguey weapon (um.... no?), but the whip wasn't. I mean, who else is going to use a whip, if not the tricksy light skirmisher? All of those weapons only work for a specific rogue concept, so it's not like they're generalised thiefy weapons.

Older versions had a tendency to let you pick X weapons of Y type to be proficient in. I'd be happy with "three martial weapons that are not Two-Handed" or something.

This doesn't prevent me from building my character, but if we assume that characters are likely to enter play at 1st level - or that you should build level-by-level for reasons of realism - then there's only one possible race for my character. He has to be human, because only humans get feats.

Obviously, I could multiclass and have my character start out as a fighter, but that's a massive investment for very little benefit. I don't want to prance around in heavy armour, or wield lots of weapons. I don't want to pay the dipping tax on ability scores just in order to gain proficiency in one measly weapon. Even more importantly, I don't want to miss out on all those appropriate proficiencies (including lots of relevant skills) in favour of some largely irrelevant ones.

The solution to Whippo's problem is, of course, the little-used Weapon Master feat. I say little-used, because there are remarkably few situations where it's worth giving up a +2 stat bonus or just a highly useful feat simply to wield a specific weapon. This is one of them. It shouldn't have to be, but it is.

Once you commit to taking Weapon Master, it's actually not terrible. You get one stat boost, and since I'm already taking it, I might as well go all-out and take Whip, Blowgun, Net and Longbow. These cover my bases pretty well, and are nicely thematic for my circus performer. Hurling nets around and doing sharpshooting stunts are very appropriate, and probably somewhat effective. Because rogues only get one attack, you aren't giving up much by using a net, particularly if you wouldn't get sneak attack anyway. The important thing isn't the net itself, which isn't hugely effective and is quite easy to escape - it's that you can steal the enemy's action.

Wizarding wizards

My second example will be that wizard party I mentioned. Whereas my first example was a purely thematic one, this is as mechanical as you can get. When you want to do something that's outside the intended scope of your class, feats are almost certainly your best option.

Our wizard tank needs to be tough. There are some options for accomplishing this, but fundamentally it requires having lots of hit points and high AC. Essentially, that means good Constitution, and either good armour or a high Dex. Because wizards have a very small hit die, not being hit is your best option. Especially at lower levels, even a tough wizard can be killed in one hit. We want armour. As much armour as possible. But wizards don't get armour.

You know who gets armour? Dwarves. Mountain dwarves can wear medium armour. Annoyingly, they can't carry shields. In fact, there is no way whatsoever to get shield proficiency*, other than multiclassing or buying the Moderately Armoured feat, an incredibly wasteful investment when you're already allowed medium armour. Now, if you were building them at higher level, you could go for the Heavily Armoured route and just take full plate for an AC 18, but if you're starting out low, that's extremely suboptimal. Why? Because you need a high Dex to survive the low levels at all, and if you have high Dex, getting heavy armour is self-sabotage.

* This seems really short-sighted. Do they realise that being a lightly-armoured skirmisher with a buckler is a thing? In fact, that quite a lot of actual real-life warriors relied exclusively on shields for protection? There should absolutely 100% be a feat that lets you get shield proficiency plus whatever stat bonus.

Alternatively, a human wizard could grab light armour and high Dex at low levels for an AC around 14, and rely very heavily on defensive spells, but would be a much worse tank until they hit 4th level and could get better armour. At that point, however, the human would suddenly spike in effectiveness. A +2 Dex bonus, plus half plate, and a shield lets you have an AC of 19. Because wizardly HP are so low, that couple of precious shield points to AC is incredibly helpful. In theory the dwarf has toughness on their side, but in practice both can have a +3 Constitution bonus.

Again, this would be less of an issue if you had a feat available at 1st level. You want one thing: armour. Our dwarf could skip spending points on Dex entirely, buy heavy armour proficiency*, and invest those stat points in Wisdom or something. Wisdom's always good for not dying (although in fairness, Dex can be pretty useful too). Or Strength, for resisting effects. They'd have an awful lot more options, is what I'm saying

* By RAW, Heavily Armoured does not grant shield proficiency. This seems pretty much to be a pure oversight, since most people either have it anyway, or need to buy Moderately Armoured first. Any game I run will always rule that both feats grant shield proficiency - indeed, maybe Lightly Armoured will too - to avoid unnecessarily screwing over mountain dwarves.

5e assumptions?

It feels to me as though 5e is built partly with the assumption that your characters will be built around I'm a Race Class. I don't mean just bald mechanics, but starting with those two features and then fleshing out a character from them. I'm a Dwarven Cleric. I'm a Dragonborn Mage. I'm a Halfling Assassin. The subclasses provide a certain degree of flexibility, and there's room within each class concept. They seem less good when you have a concept for a character in mind before chargen, then try to fit them into the class structure, because it's more likely that the concept doesn't neatly fit any of the options.

This is partly because hey, it's a class-based game, not a skills-based one. You aren't supposed to be able to do anything with any class. I suspect it's also partly because the game quietly assumes that you're building a character arc, not a character. It's not necessarily obvious from the source material, but D&D is a dramatic game, not an iconic one. This means that your character is a case of what you are becoming, rather than what you are.

With some character types, this works just fine. You want to be a humble farm boy who got drawn into adventuring, and is now growing from a green warrior into a seasoned veteran who will one day return to rule his people? No problem. You want to be a halfling kid with a talent for magic, whose inquisitiveness will draw her into trouble, but who will grow wiser and end up as a powerful archmage? Easy.

On the other hand, if the character you imagine is more of an iconic archetype, it's problematic. I had an idea for an Oath of Vengeance paladin whose (class-derived) immunity to fear isn't due to some kind of divine courage, but a mind-numbing experience of horror: someone immune to fear in the same way that the blackened ruins of a castle are immune to fire, because there is simply nothing left to burn. Except you can't do that because in this edition fear immunity doesn't kick in until 10th level.

This isn't a specific criticism of 5e, just an example of the iconic problem. You can't even really run that character as a dramatic arc, because you'd need a) motivation for the first 10 levels, and b) to introduce an incredibly traumatic experience for the character at 10th level which nevertheless left the rest of the party pretty much normal and didn't overly derail the campaign in progress.

It also, um, has nothing to do with feats. Oops.

If you want to play a character defined by using a whip, but you have no way to get a whip until 4th level, that's problematic. If you'd like play a cautious wizard who's clad in iron from head to foot, that's problematic even though the rules allow you to do so because you have to spend (and survive) the first four to twelve levels working in a completely different way. Want to be a fighter with just a tiny bit of spellcasting? Nope. Anyone at all with some unusual skills? Nope. Those require feats. Feats require 4th level. Or being human.

There's a fair bit of talk about how Variant Humans are better, and the thing is, I think it's kind of true. They're not optimal in all cases, not at all. A half-orc barbarian is probably optimal, and a halfling is genuinely probably the best rogue because they have abilities that specifically help. A hill dwarf cleric is an excellent tanky cleric because they get high Con and high Wis and bonus hit points all together. But humans get choices, and that's often the best thing of all. Humans can put their stat boosts anywhere. They can choose a skill completely freely. And they can take a feat that may allow an otherwise impossible character concept, or dramatically change their capabilities.

For example:

Arcane Initiate can turn a non-caster into a magic-user. You can use magic instead of a ranged weapon, or pull stunts that are otherwise impossible. A rogue can use true strike to really boost those surprise attacks, or manipulate items with mage hand during scouting runs. Or use guidance to get a valuable boost to various skills used in calm situations. Or get a magic melee weapon with shillelagh.

Ritual Caster again grants access to magic, which is thematically very strong. Almost all options are sadly pretty weak, leaving the wizard as the obvious choice. However, the wizard option grants access to find familiar, and having a familiar is just amazingly fun. Whatever With Intelligent Pet is a pretty common trope in fantasy, so this is very useful. Waiting until you earn a feat to do this will be unsatisfying if it's part of your core concept.

The two grapple feats allow you to be a wrestler. You can't realistically begin play using wrestling as your core strategy unless you have at least one of them, which means unless you're starting at 4th level, you need to play a human.

Obviously I have a tendency to exaggerate, and I don't mean to suggest that the current feat model is some kind of great injustice. However, I do suspect it has a regrettable tendency to mean that humans are the race of choice for characters who depart significantly from the normal. I find that regrettable because to my mind, there's already a tendency for elves, dwarves, halflings et al to feel two-dimensional, because Being An Elf tends to push people in particular directions for roleplay, whereas humans are always considered basically limitless. The fluff and the racial bonuses combine to promote certain character decisions for those races; giving humans the immense flexibility of a feat, which actually extends the scope of what a character can do, just adds to that.

I just feel like this means that interesting characters drift into being Human By Default because it gives more options, whereas the demihumans end up as options to pick when someone feels like Being An Elf. Other than possibly the Halfling, I don't think the racial features of most common races are really interesting enough to be attractive, compared to that flexibility. My newer players pick demihumans, where Being An X is an obvious cool basis for building a character - this is exactly where the 5r Race Class combo works well. But those of us with a bit more RPG experience seem to gravitate towards human except where Race X Class Y is a specific mechanically-optimal combination, like the Halfling thief - which again serves to reinforce a limited set of stereotypes.

I don't really have anything to conclude with here, other than that something here seems slightly sad, and that I'm inclined to say in future games I run that everyone should start with a feat.


  1. I have exactly 8 responses to this.

    1: One of the things that feats were criticised for in 3E was the whole "trap feat" thing, where the designers seeded the list with feats which were actually just plain bad picks and regarded the ability to discern between them as being one of the rewards of system mastery. This makes a lot of sense if you are working in an environment where lots of people are designing CCGs, which the idea comes from, but is regarded by many as sheer dickery. 5E seems to take the view that for the most part system mastery should be rewarded in play, rather than in character gen, and so they really didn't want to include trap feats. This contracted the list partly because they junked shitty feats, partly because they needed to make feats broad enough and useful enough that it would be genuinely worth passing up 2 attribute points in order to get the feat in question.

    2: The other reason the feat list was probably contracted was because they moved away from feats allowing you to do stuff that anyone should at least in principle be allowed to try, in favour of feats that either make you specifically better at the stuff in question than the average person or unlocking stuff like spellcasting which is already established as something that not all characters will have access to.

    3: It's also worth remembering that feats are not the only source of customisation in 5E; you also have backgrounds, and some fairly nice details on how to homebrew them. A "circus performer" background which gave you appropriate equipment, proficiency in a set of relevant skills, and a trait negotiated with your GM could be the way to go, for instance. In fact, it seems to me that since there are some instances outside of the context of backgrounds where you can choose to apply proficiencies to either a skill or a type of equipment, that this means that a proficiency is a proficiency is a proficiency as far as 5E goes, and so a background which instead of giving you proficiency in 4 skills instead gave you proficiency in 3 skills plus shield wouldn't be particularly unbalancing.

    4: The whole "go human unless you have specific reasons not to" bit is probably a backdoor way to introduce some old school humanocentrism into the game. After all, if humans are meant to be common throughout most D&D worlds as a result of their particular adaptability, then it kind of makes sense that game mechanically they are, in fact, particularly adaptable. I also see nothing wrong with encouraging being an Elf only when you are actually invested in Being An Elf, because nothing makes elves feel more boring and pointless than someone playing them who has no real investment in their particular culture or worldview and just wants to play an elf for the mechanical snackies.

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  3. 5: Feats seem to me to be the smallest building block of character customisation 5E offers you, and even then they are by design quite chunky. Adding feats to cover concepts not currently covered would be an endless task because after the first pass you'd want still more feats to cover ideas which fall between the cracks, and so on and so on.

    6: The number of possible combinations 5E offers when you consider class, subclass, race, background and feats is already enormous enough. The more feats you add, the more potential breakage you build in, particularly when there are better customisation options available.

    7: 5E does not assume that you're starting at 1st level, so if you want to run with a character concept using a power level unlocked at 10th level, lobby your GM to let you do that. If they won't, then dial back accordingly. (Maybe the paladin wants to overcome fear as a result of past terror, but needs to work towards that goal.)

    8: 5E also seems to realise that there's plenty of games out there which allow much better character customisation by providing more granular units thereof. (1 skill point in BRP/CoC makes very little difference, shifting proficiency from one skill to another in D&D 5E is a huge deal.) The 5E team decided against it because they presumably decided that offering a game based around niche protection and offering a game presenting limitless customisation are mutually exclusive goals and that to feel like D&D they kind of had to go with the former.

  4. Shit, I forgot the bounded accuracy point I made in the deleted version of the second comment. Point 9 then:

    9: Bounded accuracy means that you don't actually have to be mechanically optimal at something to be pretty good at it. So what if your thief-wizard isn't as amazing at stealth as my halfling thief sneaking specialist? He'll probably still be decent at slipping past monsters and doing stealth stuff.