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.
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”:
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:
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.