Re-Post: The Narrative of Feats in D&D 5e

For the next several weeks, I’m going to be migrating several of my old posts from the original version of Loot the Body to this new version. I’ll be going in chronological order, and they will be posted every Wednesday. They will be minimally edited (there are a few wherein I promised future posts that will likely never be completed). Also, they will be posted without any of the pretty pictures I had, nor my witty captions. And that’s mostly because those pictures are gone off my hard drive and it would be far too difficult to retrieve them.

To start us off, I present my very first post written about 5e, on the narrative of feats.

This post was originally published on January 5, 2015.

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It took me a while to like feats in 5e. My first impression was actually quite negative. But, as in life, first impressions of RPGs are bullshit. And as I examined the feat system and its narrative potential, I grew to adore it.

See, my first real edition, wherein I understood what was happening behind the screen of the game, was D&D 3.5, and feats functioned very differently back then than they do now. Back then, feats were special abilities or bonuses that you gained as you increased in level, representing a constant march forward into superhero-levels of power. And that works great for that system. There are literally THOUSANDS of feats in 3-3.5e (not to mention Pathfinder), so having a suite of automatic feats that you gain as you increase in level seems appropriate. And, for a while, it seemed that such a style was the status quo. Pretty much every OGL-compatible game out there uses feats the same way, from Mutants and Masterminds to Iron Heroes (though IH does have some neat ideas in creating a more dynamic feat-character relationship). Hell, feats were one of the things that basically remained unchanged as 4e launched, and the folks over at Paizo essentially maintained the status quo with the launch of Pathfinder. Feats have essentially remained exactly as they have always been for close to 15 years.

Then 5e had to come around and fuck it all up. And in the process of flipping the table and shaking up the feat system, they created a concept and a system which is entirely genius.

Before I dive in, let me first define the 5e feat system, as well as how it differs from the systems of old. In 5e, a character gains Ability Score Increases as class abilities as they increase in level in their class. Certain classes gain more increases than others (fighters and rogues, in particular), but the minimum seems to be 5. A character may, at their discretion, instead choose a feat rather than an ability score increase.

This differs from previous systems because, as I mentioned before, feats used to be automatic. The same goes for Ability Score Increases. They were separate entities gained within the level-up progression, measured differently within the balance of the system. They were also NOT tied to class. This is integral to the narrative of feats in 5e. It was assumed that all characters would gain the same number of feats and the same number of ability score increases as they progressed.

From Character Level to Class Level

As I mentioned, the tie between Class Level and Ability Score Increases/Feats (I’m going to call them ASIs from here on out, as I predict it’s going to come up a lot.), rather than Character level, is extremely important to how feats function within 5e. In part, this is intended to balance multiclassing in 5e. It is excessively easy to multiclass in this edition, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a penalty for doing so. However, by tying ASIs to class level, you ensure that multiclass characters do not gain excessive power as they increase in level. That Fighter 3/Wizard 3/Bard 3 might be able to do a lot of cool things, and might have access to heavy armor and some pretty cool spells, but they are also a level 9 character who has gained no increases to their ability scores, nor feats. While their single-class compatriots are all benefiting from at least 2. This puts them 4 ability points ahead of the multiclass character, or up to 2 feats. And feats in 5e are friggin’ badass, so that can be a big damn deal.

However, while the balance note is important, I find another aspect to this link between class level and ASI/Feat progression much more interesting. It changes what feats MEAN, within the context of the game world and the characters who gain them. Back in the old days, feats were treated as tricks you picked up along the way. Things you learned through combat, experimentation, or research. ASIs were the same way, representing your character’s natural inclination toward getting naturally stronger.

In 5e, that all changed. ASIs and feats are no longer things that just happen to your character. They’re representative of where your character’s focus lies, and how much attention they must pay to their studies as a fighter/wizard/rogue/etc. Why, do you think, a fighter gains more ASIs than a Wizard? The mechanical/traditionalist answer is that fighters have always been feat-masters, gaining a bunch of feats as they go. Therefore the best response to that would be to grant them more ASIs and, therefore, more potential feats. And while that’s likely true, I prefer the answer that draws a connection between the mechanics of the system and the narrative it is trying to tell.

And that is, in my opinion, genius.

The Power of Choice

You may not know this about me, but I adore choice in my RPGs. Choice is a HUGE factor in my games. When I present players with options on how to progress the current story, I always give them the option to not progress at all. They can say “no” and leave the princess to be consumed by the dark ritual. It might have repercussions, but I never force them to do something they don’t want to do. This is a big part of game design that I feel is being lost, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, let’s talk about how CHOICE has influenced even the building of your character in 5e.

I’ve already noted that tying ASIs to feats is integral to the narrative of D&D 5e. The reason behind that is choice. When you reach level 4, and your first ASI arrives (assuming you did not multiclass), you get to make a choice. Do you want to use it to increase an ability score (or two), or do you want a feat? As I said before: feats are badass. They put the feats of 3.5 and 4e to shame with how much you get. Hell, some feats even include exclusive ASIs of their own. This choice does two things. Outside of the game, it maintains Player Agency even outside of the “what do you do” aspects of the session. They are forced to make a meaningful decision with personal consequences while updating their character sheet. And that is awesome.

Inside the game, though, it betrays something about characters in D&D 5e that is distinct from characters in previous editions. Characters in 3-4e had it all. They had a full progression of class abilities, ASIs, and feats, and got them all as they increased in level. Characters in 5e are more rugged. They’re more real. They don’t have the damn time to flex their brain for an hour a day, strength-train their glamour muscles, learn how to speak Abyssal, AND learn a new level of spell, all at the same time. They have to make real choices. When a character increases their Strength score by 2 instead of choosing the Alert feat, it means that they made a conscious choice to work out with their free time, rather than train to improve their reaction time.

And I love that about this system. The very relationship between ASIs, feats, and class choice work together to create a system that has real meat on its bones. It SAYS something about your character and where their priorities lie by its very nature. There’s no need for Role-Play apologists to come in and defend the system by saying “well, if you ROLE-PLAY X, then you don’t NEED it to be a mechanical boost to your character.”

It’s just damn good game design.

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