Within Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) 5th edition a player can customize their character in a few ways, one of which is through feats. A feat is a specific tool that provides a character with new options or added utility that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Feats are available to all characters and are not restricted to any specific classes or races (within the core game) but may have other requirements (such as the ability to cast a spell). This means that a feat is an excellent way to introduce new homebrew mechanics and rules into the game.
Ironically, the addition of homebrew feats may reduce choice for the players, especially when that new feat becomes “mandatory”. In order to understand how that’s possible, I need to explain how feats work, and how players will be able to choose them. Before we go further, we should look at the very basics of feats and ability scores.
- In order to take any feat the player must choose to give up an ability score improvement (either +1 to any two ability scores, or +2 to any one ability score).
- Most characters will be restricted to five total ability score improvements.
- A character will have at most a 16 or 17 in their primary ability score, out of a maximum of 20.
The Ability Score Taxes
The first thing to consider for the majority of characters is that having their primary ability score at 20 is a major goal. It’s almost always best to maximize a primary ability score as quickly as possible. The +1 bonus to attack rolls and damage rolls from this is invaluable, and that’s not accounting for the +1 bonus to skills, or possibly a major saving throw. A character will need to use two ability score improvements to max out their primary ability score at a minimum, leaving at most three ability scores to invest in feats.
For some classes, this problem is more complex than one ability score. There are some classes with secondary ability scores that are highly desirable as well. Paladins benefit from a high charisma, not just strength. Monks benefit from both high Dexterity and high Wisdom. Even a barbarian can make great use out of Dexterity and Constitution, not just Strength. Classes like this may be looking at having only one ability score improvement to exchange for a feat.
The fighter is an exception to this, in that the fighter class has seven ability score improvements, and has no real need for an ability score of 20 in anything other than Strength or Dexterity in most cases, allowing them upwards of five ability score improvements to invest in feats. The rogue is similar, since they acquire six ability score improvements, and need little outside of Dexterity.
This is not inherently wrong. Ability score improvements are designed to act as a simple mechanical progression for the character. It’s clear this was the intended point: Feats are actually an optional rule; one that is in very common usage, but it was designed as an optional mechanic. See this quote from the Player’s Handbook (page 165).
Using the optional feats rule, you can forgo taking [an ability score improvement] to take a feat of your choice instead.
Due to a strong need to increase a character’s primary ability score, the character is restrained in how many feats they can take; a character may only choose one to three feats in the entire game.
In Short: A character should always increase their primary ability score to 20, and as such will likely have few feats.
The Leveling Problem
Some will not see a problem with the ability score tax cutting into feat selection – most characters don’t need more than 3 feats. Those people are often looking at the game in the wrong lense. Those people forget that Dungeons and Dragons does not normally start at level 20. Based on what I have seen and heard, the most popular level for starting a campaign is 3rd level. This is due to the fact that all characters will have selected an archetype and will have enough hit points to survive the most basic of monsters, such as a goblin, reliably.
Feats are not chosen at character creation; the majority of classes acquire an ability score improvement at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level. I can not speak on behalf of everyone, but from my experiences, 20th level is almost never reached, or is only reach for a brief period of time. A campaign that lasts for 12 levels will only go from 3rd to 15th level, and this is a very long campaign. Within that span, a character will only gain three ability score improvements. It wouldn’t be unusual for a character to have zero feats in such a game, since they will need to increase their ability scores.
As discussed previously, an ability score improvement often does great things for a character. It’s true that it is a choice: a player can choose a feat over a +2 bonus to their character primary ability score. But the character will deal 1 less damage each hit, and they will hit less often as well, 5% less often. The save DC of their spells will be 1 lower, making them easier to resist. Their saving throw will be 1 lower. Their skills, likely their primary skills, will be 5% less likely to work. This all is a heavy price to pay, and a player will certainly feel weaker due to this.
In Short: Most campaigns will never see all five ability score increases, limiting the amount that can be traded for a feat even further.
The Illusionary Choice
Many character will have very little chance to take a feat unless they are willing to sacrifice very strong mechanical benefits. One perception regarding this restriction is that it is perfectly fine: feats should be powerful and limited. The problem this mentality cultivates is an illusion of choice for the player. When one of the feats is quite clearly the best pick above anything else then it is not a real choice: the player must take it.
I previously discussed some thoughts regarding the Sharpshooter feat within a past post. Such a feat is so powerful that no other feat compares to it. The problem with this is that a character has limited ability score improvements to invest into feats. Therefore, the character will likely take only this one feat, and no others. This leaves a huge swath of feats unpicked simply because Sharpshooter is so strong.
The obvious response to the above is: why would a great axe fighter take Sharpshooter? The answer is fortunately simple: they wouldn’t, they would take Great Weapon Master instead.
The illusion of choice is not referring to the problem of one singular feat that is a must pick for everyone (though Lucky gets awfully close). The illusion of choice is regarding a feat that is required because of a character’s choice in vocation or weapon. For example, many casters will feel compelled to grab War Caster quickly to maintain concentration on their spells, simply due to how important it is. Now that this has all be explained, I can provide a definition of the focus of the blog post, the mandatory feat.
Mandatory Feat: A mandatory feat is a feat that a character must take to reach their full potential in a way that is not adding versatility. A mandatory feat provides a large boost to a character’s potential in a clearly obvious fashion (such as increased damage) that is so great, a character without it becomes very noticeably worse. The character is forced to take the feat, due to the lack of power otherwise.
In Short: When a feat is clearly designed to provide a direct bonus for a specific weapon or class, the player will feel forced into choosing it, since their character will be undoubtedly weaker without it.
Above I highlighted three facts that restrict feat selection for the players. To reiterate, these facts are listed below:
- A character should always increase their primary ability score to 20, and as such will likely have few feats.
- Most campaigns will never see all five ability score increases, limiting the amount that can be traded for a feat even further.
- When a feat is clearly designed to provide a direct bonus for a specific weapon or class, the player will feel forced into choosing it, since their character will be undoubtedly weaker without it.
With few chances to invest into a feat the player will only take the best one, which is the mandatory one. All other feats will never see any use, since they are clearly worse. If the player could afford to invest into many feats, then this wouldn’t be an issue, they would grab the mandatory feat and then choose their flavor and utility. However, they can’t, so many feats need to be worth considering for each character, but not necessarily all feats.
Mandatory feats also create an ignorance tax—a player that is new to the game will be more likely to pass up these feats for something else and not know why they are weaker than their allies. When a fighter chooses to take up a bow and arrow, they shouldn’t feel like they need a specific feat because of it. An archer without Sharpshooter shouldn’t feel like a bad archer.
This is one part of the game that homebrew runs the risk of breaking further. A homebrewed feat is often looking to create another mandatory feat for someone who didn’t have one yet. An example would be something akin to ‘Dueling Master’: a feat designed to provide a boost to sword and board style characters. With enough homebrewed options, all characters will have feat choices forced onto them, since it will always be the best feat to take.
What Can the Player Do?
So how can a player combat this? Variant Human seems to be the answer within the core game. You have probably seen it at your tables: a player choose variant human so they can get a feat as part of their race. This allows them to keep their ability scores on pace, and still get the value of a feat.
Why is this? A feat will generally provide new options and make your character more dynamic and fun. Because of this, a player is going to want the feat early so that they can use it often and for long periods of time. Getting such a feat at level 12 or 16 is not fun; by this point you have already played most of the campaign without it, but waiting is often the best thing to do.
Of course there is another option. The player can just choose to be bad. They can ignore the mandatory feat and take something else. They can ignore ability score increases to choose more feats. When all players do this, it’s mostly fine, since it just brings the relative power of the game down. But when the other players don’t also do this, it leads to the issue of feeling (and likely being) worse than those who did optimize.
It’s common for people to argue that players should not focus on optimization, that they should focus on their character, and choose what makes sense for them. I say that’s foolish, characters should optimize themselves based on the role they want to play. D&D is a roleplaying game, not just story time, and the game aspect shouldn’t be ignored for roleplay just as much as roleplay shouldn’t be ignored for the game. This is why I do not think choosing to be bad is a reasonable solution.
What Can the Dungeon Master Do?
Dungeon Masters can homebrew some feat changes. They can reduce the strength of the mandatory feats, and improve upon the ones no one wants to take. Perhaps this will lead to interesting and new archetypes, things like an archer in the party who isn’t a Sharpshooter, they’re actually a Magic Initiate. Perhaps the Wizard isn’t a War Caster at all, they’re actually an Actor. Fortunately Half-Cover has a wide array of reworked feat content to browse for this purpose.
Another thing that can be done would be to give every player a free feat at 1st level, and possibly ban mandatory feats from the selection, assuming those feats have not been reworked. The idea being, it will allow players to pick some of the feats that are less mechanically beneficial, but are a lot of fun to have. Things like Linguist or Keen Mind.
What Can the Homebrewers Do?
Stop making mandatory feats! It sounds like obvious advice, but it is a bit harder to actually follow. A feat should never be so good for any play style that it starts to feel required. There are, of course, some exceptions to this, and I’ll explain what they are right now, since it’s important to differentiate these from other mandatory feats.
A feat that open up play styles that were not viable before is not the same as one that takes viable play styles and provides steroids. As an example, the Sharpshooter feat doesn’t make archery viable, it was already viable. It actually just makes it far more powerful. Conversely, the Thrown Weapon Master homebrewed feat is not a problem. Within the core game a character can not effectively throw weapons with multiattack, and all thrown weapons are far below any ranged weapon in damage and range. This feat makes the fighting style a newly viable play style. Yes it is mandatory for a thrown weapon focused character, but such a character was either not realistic or incredibly bad without it. The feat introduces a newly viable play style, it’s not just making an existing play style better.
In closing, remember that feats should be choices. Forcing someone to choose between a twenty dollar bill and a ten dollar bill is not a real choice, they should always take the twenty. Feats are the same way: don’t make feats that force choices.