Getting Your Hands on Feats

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of feats lately. For the unaware, feats are a catch-all term for one-off segments of rules that can be added to a tabletop RPG character either during character creation or as a reward for progression. Feats I think got their claim to fame in Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, which is arguably the most character tweaking-focused game in existence, although it has since gone on to be a standard in most games.

My game, Blackmarked, also features feats (heh). Generally speaking, I like feats as a way to give characters special one-off rules which let players differentiate their characters from others of the same class/build, and as a way to build character abilities piecemeal to “build-your-own-class”, so to speak. Blackmarked is classless, but you essentially end up constructing a D&D style class from scratch over time by building feats. If you took a character that progressed X amount of time in Blackmarked, and wrote the sequence in which they got assorted feats, stat boosts, and other improvements, you’d pretty much be staring at a class description.

Furthermore, feats in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition help a game that otherwise has fairly limited character customization. Feats let your Warlock wear plate mail, let your Battle Master Fighter throw spells, and lets your Rogue ride a bear into battle. Feats really give your characters legs by spicing them up with interesting and creative abilities. I’m currently playing a Fighter in my 5E game, and finding myself bored with the relatively slow trickle of interesting abilities that Fighters get, even as a Battle Master, so Feats are where I turn to find new and interesting things for my characters to do.

Not everyone thinks feats have a leg to stand on, though (OK I’ll stop). Googling the topic yielded this RPG.net flame war, in which people argue the validity of feats as a means of character customization. Some of the anti-feat points (caltrops?) are valid. They’re massively hard to balance, meaning that games with feats, notably including Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, 3.5E, and Pathfinder, are subject to players cherry-picking broken feats to construct vastly overpowered feats. The power/coolness disparity between feats can be crazy sometimes (one commenter brings this up: “We’re putting ‘cast all your spells while being a fucking bear’ on the same level as ‘uh, don’t provoke opportunity attacks when casting spells, and you have reach 2 with melee’.”).

Furthermore, and this falls heavily into an OSR sort of mindset, is that feats are an example of locking gameplay choices behind character creation decisions. An example mentioned in the thread is the idea of a swordsman swinging his sword in a circle, hitting every enemy within reach, an ability that Dungeons and Dragons 3.5th Edition locks behind the “Whirlwind Attack” feat. In most every game, if a character attempted to spin around with their weapon and hit everyone around them in a circle, the DM would probably either flat out forbid them from doing so without Whirlwind Attack, or impose a massive penalty on the task to the point where it becomes near impossible. What ends up happening is that, if you want to viably spin around and murder everyone within arm’s reach of you, that’s a call you need to make during character creation/progression, and if you’re making the choice during combat, it’s too late.

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And since you didn’t take the feat, you can’t satisfy your dream to become a human lawnmower.

The counterpoint, then, is that you average idiot can’t actually just spin around with a sword and make a series of competent, meaningful attacks against everyone around them. Wielding a sword is hard, and doing that while twirling like a ballerina is even harder. Add on that a bunch of people are surrounding you and, presumably, slashing at you, and you’re pretty likely to mess it up unless you’re a competent swordsman. That competency is what the feat represents.

I think a common theme is thus: people who like feats like them because it allows them granular, precise control over character creation, and people who don’t like feats don’t like how they seem to lock choices about what a character can do behind character creation choices, and how boring and purely mathematical they can be.

To claim that I have a solution to this is ridiculous, but I did have a burst of inspiration whilst reading this argument that gave me an excellent idea. The inspiration came from an obvious source: the literal meaning of the word “feat”:

feet

That’s right, a feat is an accomplishment. It is born of action performed to such amazing effectiveness that it is worthy of elevation. This is where my idea came forth: if my characters want feats, they’re going to have to earn them.

So, here’s roughly the system. Feats up through character creation are identical. You can choose to take some, and they provide little mechanical bonuses for your character, from stat bonuses to new abilities or whatever.

What’s new is how you get feats during regular play. On top of the cost of experience, as well as prerequisites, each feat has an action associated with it. To purchase the feat, you must have performed the associated action that session. By spending experience points on the feat, then, you are canonizing that moment, that action, as an essential part of your character’s story and being.

For instance, say we have this feat:

Acrobatic Fighter

Action: Completely avoid an attack that would have killed you with a Dodge action

Gain 2 Mastery in Dodge.

Ignoring the rules minutia for a second, this technically is just a slight mechanical boost, but instead of just being a boring little statistical buff, by design, having this feat tells a story about your character. It speaks to the time when you were fighting knights in the burning ruins of your home village, and deftly spun out of the way of a rogue arrow, or the time you were in melee combat with barbarian chieftan and rolled out of the way of his warhammer.

This way, you can have these tiny customizations you can make to your character, but you’re not locked out of these options in regular play. In fact, if you want a feat, this system encourages you to play in a manner befitting of a character who would have this feat. Your otherwise boring mechanical bonuses are tied to interesting stories and interesting play, and instead of limiting your choices during play, it offers you a new layer of choices as you map out your character’s progression through your actions in game.

 

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The Journey of a Thousand Miles: How I Prep Session 0

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Session 0 is a concept in tabletop roleplaying games in which the players and GM assemble for a session prior to the “start” of the game, and comprises character creation, group orientation, as well as some general course-setting for the campaign to follow. Generally less useful if you’re running a pre-written campaign, I tend to love Session 0 as a chance to get my players grounded in the world they’re about to embark into. I consider Session 0 an integral part of how I run my games, so I’m going to write about how I prepare.

  • Figure Out The Game

This one’s kind of a no-brainer, but important nevertheless. To have a group going, you need a game for that group to play. Sometimes this is easy, and the group will either unanimously want something to play, or will have formed with the explicit purpose of playing a game (my primary group formed this way, around Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars line).

However, no one’s lucky all the time, and sometimes you’ll have a group, but not a clear idea of what to play. As GM, part of the initiative is on you to select the game to play, but you don’t get complete control. As the member of my group with generally the most RPG experience, as well as the one who tends to own all the books, I like to make a short list of games I’d be interested in running, and let players choose from that list. That way, players get to still choose their game, but there’s no chance of me being stuck running a game I hate. I also tend to make these lists full of very different games, such that my player’s options are varied and they don’t feel like I’m pigeonholing them.

For instance, here’s the pitch sheet I made for my newest group. I selected five games I wanted to run (2E/3.5 Dark Sun, Shadowrun 3E, Dungeon World, Wild Talents, and Eclipse Phase), gave each of them short write-ups on how they play, the setting, and the tone, as well as other considerations that players might take into account (like availability of books, as well as campaign formats).

  • Read The Book A Lot
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You have no idea how many good stock photos there are of people reading

As the GM, it’s your responsibility to know the rules cover to cover, and this goes doubly so for character creation, and doubly so again if your players aren’t familiar with the system. Not only are you going to have to know how character creation works, you’re going to have to field dozens of the same two questions, both of which require intimate knowledge of the rules: “What does this stat actually do?” and “If I want to do X, what should I invest in?”.

Also, I mean, you’re GM! You’re going to need to adjudicate on the rules anyways, so you’re going to need to know all of this stuff anyways, so why not knock it out now? It also helps to scan through now and take note of any rules that you think might not jive with your group, or things you think are interesting and definitely want to include or draw attention to.

You can, however, fudge this. For my Session 0, we ended up doing Shadowrun, and thanks to a delightful Bundle of Holding deal, I had a bookmarked PDF of the core rulebook that I could use to easily flip through the rules to clear up any deficiencies in my game knowledge.

  • Buy A Sick GM Notebook

OK, maybe this one’s just me, but since I handwrite most of my GM notes, I like to have a custom notebook for each of my games. For my Star Wars game, I write my notes in this very cool Kylo Ren Moleskine, and for this Shadowrun game, I got this cool, minimalist cyberpunk notebook off of RedBubble (although I wish it was a little larger, although I guess that’s a problem with RedBubble, not the artist).

  • Gather Friends, and Character Create

OK, so Session 0 begins, and it’s time to create characters as a group. The benefits of creating characters as a group, instead of coming to the table as completed characters, should be fairly obvious. Characters won’t step on each other’s toes in terms of party roles (as opposed to four people coming to the table all having rolled up healers), the GM is present to provide guidance and rules clarification (and that rules clarification gets to be said to the entire group once, instead once per individual), and people also bounce off of each other’s ideas and help each other come up with interesting characters.

As GM, your job is to make this (possibly painful, depending on the system) process as easy as possible, by being there to answer rules questions, by having rulebooks available and searchable to resolve questions and to list out character options, and to explain the character creation process in general. Shadowrun, for example, has a fairly laborious character creation process, partially due to a Priority System used to allow characters to dynamically assign priorities to aspects of their character like their race or magical ability, and partially due to how gear-centric a setting Shadowrun has, causing players to go trawling through pages upon pages of equipment lists. I was constantly bouncing between people, making sure that everybody was getting through the step they were on as smoothly as possible.

Another point to note is that players in your group might character create at different speeds, depending on their familiarity with the game, and with RPGs in general. I’ve found little success in babysitting the whole group, making sure no one goes on until everyone is done with a given step, and instead I have found it totally viable to simply sit down with the players who are maybe struggling and help them step-by-step, while letting your power players charge ahead at their own pace (although, if you do this, it might be work taking a peak at your power players’ sheets prior to Session 1, making sure they did indeed do everything right).

  • Why Are These People Together?

Arguably the most important question that you’re going to ask during Session 0 is this one:

Why the hell are these people together?

Party composition from a mechanical standpoint is important, but keep in mind that roleplaying games are story-oriented, and if you haven’t given some thought to the reasoning why your party is narratively a single unit, you’re going to have moments where a player goes “Wait a minute, why doesn’t my character just leave?”. Worse yet, party infighting might break out if two characters’ ideologies differ too greatly, and while some party tension might be interesting, too much will grind the game to a halt.

Now’s the time to notice if two members of the party seem like people that aren’t going to get along, like a Lawful Good Paladin and a Chaotic Evil Barbarian, or a police officer and a drug dealer. If such a pairing of opposites exists in your group, you have a set of options.

You can just have one character change until the tension no longer exists, which sort of infringes upon a player’s right to play what they want, but generally the fun of the group as a whole is more important than the fun of individuals, and if a character is set to be too destructive, the invasion of agency is worth it.

You can also have the players decide upon the reason why these two characters are coexisting, usually as a result of circumstance. The Paladin doesn’t like the ways of the Barbarian, but in the face of an oncoming demon horde, the Paladin isn’t one to question extra help. The police officer dislikes the presence of the drug dealer, but the dealer has a strict rule to never sell to children or otherwise disrupt lawful citizens from doing what they need to do, and that code of ethics is enough to stop the cop from intervening. Keep in mind that stories in roleplaying games are dynamic things, and if the thing keeping two party members from killing each other is circumstantial, remember that circumstances change, and maybe have a contingency plan for that day.

The final option is to plan for the conflict. Both players recognize together that their characters are going to butt heads, so they plan out roughly how they want that conflict to go, together, in such a way that it won’t disrupt the group as a whole. This way, both players get to play what they want without compromise, and the potential for interesting roleplay moments increases. It may seem restrictive to plan these things out in advance, but you can keep the plan vague: “When the point comes that the Barbarian tries to kill an innocent, the Paladin will try to intervene, and we’ll have a short scene that can resolve these ways, none of which involve PvP or significant disruption to the campaign”.

Even beyond actual animosity between party members, use this discussion as a place to bind the party together in the story. You can potentially craft interesting relationships between party members here, flesh out backstories, as well as simply figure out what motivates the characters. If the entire group is together due to common motivations, even if that motivation is cold hard scrilla, that makes it easier for you as GM to figure out what to dangle in front of players to get them moving.

  • Ask Them What They Want To Do

Finally, and crucially, the last thing I do during Session 0 is ask my players what kind of campaign they want to do. Do they want a lot of combat, or very little? How much diplomacy and politics do they want to get involved with? Do they want to interact with this part of the setting? How about this other part? Do they want long, sweeping quests, or quick jobs to complete?

Some of this is unspoken, too. Look at the character sheets. If a player took ranks in a certain skill, or gave themselves certain specializations, that’s them communicating to you that they want those things to appear in the game. If everyone in your Star Wars game took ranks in Piloting, that’s your players communicating to you that spaceship piloting is a thing that they want in this game, potentially a lot. My Shadowrun players took lots of ranks in Knowledge Skills in relation to gangs and gang politics, signalling to me that my players want to deal with the criminal underworld element of the Shadowrun setting quite a bit.

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With this prepwork, you have a game, a knowledge of that game’s rules, a party that will work as a cohesive whole, and a rough blueprint for what kind of adventures you need to start preparing (and a rad notebook, optionally). With all of this, you should be armed and ready to begin a successful and fun campaign.