Unearthed Arcana: Feats – Commentary

The latest Unearthed Arcana came out recently, and its topic is Feats.

Now, feats are interesting to me, especially in 5e. They’re supposed to be boosts, not taken in any particular order, roughly equivalent in value to the +2 to one stat or +1 to two stats that you eschew by taking one.

This particular Unearthed Arcana gets into the design and crafting of such things, and has some truly cool little nuggets in it.

So, let’s get cracking, and do what is effectively a review article.

Introduction


The text here isn’t labeled as such, but it’s an introduction, and delves a bit into the purpose of Feats.

Firstly, it notes, feats are optional. Classes can’t refer to Feats, and Feats should never be explicitly part of a core class ability. 

Huh. Makes sense, I guess, though a lot of feats that I’ve seen online and on the internet effectively duplicate class abilities, usually plus or minus some features. I’ve seen Feats that basically grant a fighting style, and others give class options such as armor proficiency or weapon proficiencies.

In fact, I’d pretty much love to see a generic D&D version where nearly all class features and advancements could be expressed in terms of something like a Feat. What a powerful way to make generic the most popular RPG out there (broadly classing all D&D-flavored games, from old-school basic to Pathfinder to D&D5e as “the same” from this perspective, though bitter fights have just been started, gauntlets thrown down, and friendships destroyed. Alas.)


But that’s neither here nor there, and the purpose of Feats in 5e is cool flavor that doesn’t outweigh (or isn’t supposed to) a +2 to a stat, which is +1 to an attribute bonus and all related skills. Keep that in mind, because it’s key.

That should mean that any given feat should not give more than +1 to hit and +1 to damage on the average with a favored weapon. Oh, you might get more than that, but that should require some sort of activation situation, like using a reaction or bonus action, so that you’re giving up something you might need to get that bonus. And since that bonus action (for example) can be used to deliver an extra attack with an off-hand weapon, the upper bound for what you’re giving up to earn that extra can be high. 

The other thing that the text mentions is something I’d love to see expanded upon, which is that there are things that anyone can attempt, but a person with the Feat can do better. I’ve always loved this construction, because there are things like grappling throws, trips, takedowns, pushes, sweeps, etc. that anyone should be able to do, but that people with training should do better

There’s already an example of this in the off-hand weapon attack. Anyone can do it, but you don’t get your stat bonus . . . unless you have the right Feat, which allows it. The attribute bonus and the proficiency bonuses are both roughly equivalent – +1 to +5 for attributes (and +7 if you’re a Barbarian with uber-Strength), and +2 to +6 for proficiency.

So you could easily imagine actions where everyone could do a task with one half of that (all characters can do X and add their attribute bonus to the roll), but with a Feat, get both (but if you have the Experienced X Feat, you also add Proficiency).

Lastly, avoid chains of Feats. I like this because it makes it such that characters can grow organically, and it avoids some of the “system mastery rules over cool concepts” issues that games that have skill trees that stack up to be a dominating megapower can build.

It ends with a good rule of thumb: much like Backgrounds and the features beneath them, Feats should never overshadow the Class (and race) that are supposed to be the dominant choices in the game.

Weapon Mastery Feats


Interestingly enough, the first example is a negative one, which offers up a cool-sounding feat, and proceeds to illustrate what’s wrong with it.

Let’s start with the summary

  • Avoid additional die rolls. Good advice mostly, it tends to slow the game down. Look for other ways to activate something that still hew to the D&D core mechanic – roll once vs. a static target number, then apply effects. Only in rare circumstances like Contests do you roll twice, and then, it’s the target number that’s randomized.
  • Think hard about if everyone should be able to do something, and if so, invent a ruling that allows this, then make the Feat have limited application if required.
  • Think hard if your Feat is too narrowly tailored. While the warhammer example is in the forefront, looking closely at existing 5e Feats shows things like “crossbow master” don’t always just apply to crossbows, and some other weapon Feats apply to any weapon in two hands, not just the class of weapons called out in the title.

Fell Handed


The example “do this instead” feat provides both rules and unpacking of them.

  • A +1 to hit with the class of weapons used in the example is a very, very common thing. I was initially cautious about this, because it’s a +1 that’s equivalent to the +1 you get from +2 to your stat, and you’re only going to take this feat if you use it all the time in combat, or nearly so. But (!), it only applies to combat, and if you’ve got a nice wide range of challenges (lifting gates, arm wrestling, leaping chasms) that bonus to only attack rolls (but not damage!) really does cover significantly less ground than +2 to a stat.
  • The second example is a bit of rulesmongery that I never expected to see, which is using the advantage/disadvantaged condition in a way that utilizes both dice. It’s long been said in 5e games in which I’ve played “It’s a shame that double-20 I just rolled doesn’t mean anything!” Well, using the best die for the primary effect (or the worst in the case of disadvantage), but the normally-unused second die for a different effect? That’s freakin’ brilliant, and something I will shamelessly yoink at the first opportunity.
  • The last boost gives you a bonus to hit if you knock a shield aside, giving a +2. This is, again, a good “oh, that’s obvious when you say it” thing, but that +2 to offset the shield is a great way of doing it. D&D rolls devolve to “roll a flat d20 against a target number” mathematically, so rather than futz around with targets, boosting the hit roll does the same thing mathematically, and is faster. You can also easily envision expanding this – pulling or knocking a shield aside could be done by using an entire attack, a bonus action, or a Help action, and a Feat might give you proficiency (if you always get attribute) or attribute bonus (if you already get proficiency). This gets into the area of combat maneuvers, which I love as adding tactical flavor. 
  • The “Why I like it” section amplifies on the reasoning, and hits a few things I didn’t mention above. Flavor, for one, and 5e has a lot of good flavor elements, as well as mechanical crunch. 
Other Weapon Feats

The article then gives more example Feats. Let’s see if there’s any overall generalizations that can be made with the rest.

Blade Mastery gives you the +1 to attack rolls. It gives an example of using a reaction to gain a defensive boost, which is a neat way of using that feature. It gives a major boost to opportunity attacks (you get advantage), but since the victim always knows he’s walking into one (the triggers are not hidden), this is a boost, but not a game-changer. Walking into the range of a ready swordsman (or any other fighter) is risky, so deal with it. Also, the opportunity attack is also a reaction, so if you take it, you give up the defensive bonus that you can get with the other option. Getting +1 to AC when using a sword or other weapon is also part of many fighting styles (and presumably this would stack) so it’s not unheard of or unusual as a benefit.

Flail Mastery covers the same +1 to attack rolls (a common thread), allows you to bypass shields by burning your bonus action, and can use an opportunity attack (your reaction) to knock a person prone. This is better suited to Witchking-like flails than nunchuks (also a flail), but sort of includes the ability to wrap legs. With that in mind, it would be very interesting to, instead of this, make the user proficient in using the flexible weapon as a grappling aid, either giving advantage on Athletics checks while grappling, or enhancing an attribute or proficiency bonus. Having used flexible weapons to enhance grappling in my own marital arts training, weapon-enhanced grapples are a thing, and would be a great addition or substitution here.

Spear Mastery turns the spear into the martial weapon it has been through much of time, and when I read this, I nearly cheered. The nearly omnipresent +1 to attack rolls is there, but so also is turning the spear into a martial weapon, doing d8 in one hand and d10 in two. You can also set a spear to receive a charge, though this is more complicated rules-wise. It’s effectively an attack of opportunity (or at least, uses up your reaction), and has an escape clause via Disengage. Finally, a neat alternate use of reaction to extend the reach of a spear by 5 feet; I’d probably give disadvantage if this is done with a one-handed spear, but not if two-handed. Hard to control a six to nine foot pole with one hand gripped at the butt.

Tool Feats


The last three examples show that Feats aren’t only for weapons. No, really.

In a general sense, for these Feats:

  • An ability score goes up by 1, so that means that the rest of the bonuses are limited in value.
  • You get proficiency, or if you already have it, the equivalent of expertise (double proficiency bonus) with the tool set.
  • You can use your knowledge to instantly determine a piece of knowledge (such as identifying a potion as if you’d tasted it, or poison as if you could see or smell it) from a distance with no roll and no risk to yourself. 
  • You get a benefit that terms out with either a short or long rest that is in genre. Getting maximum benefit out of a healing potion or boosting hit dice for preparing a gourmet meal. 

A note about the Master of Disguise Feat. The third benefit, which is spending an hour watching a person in order to spend 8 hours making a disguise to mimic that person seems like a textbook example of something that you can do without the feat, but better with it. So, I’d probably look at things like

  • You need to study someone for 2-4 hours, or maybe 2d4 hours, in order to see and note everything about them in order to make a disguise. The Feat allows you do all of this in 1 hour, no roll.
  • If you have proficiency with a disguise kit, or by rolling at Disadvantage with Performance, you can craft a disguise in 8 hours. The Feat gives you double proficiency on the check, so that’s a win.
  • Donning the disguise takes but an action with the Feat, but 1d6x10 minutes without it.

So the Feat makes it all more slick, but with care and preparation, you can do this anyway.

Parting Shot

There’s a lot of great under-the-hood conceptual advice here to help make balanced and varied Feats. Given that Fifth Edition Feats presents rather a lot of these, and this Unearthed Arcana opens the door to still more, the two together provide a whole lot of inspiration, and no small amount of common-sense application knowledge, for creating such flavor on your own. Since every Ability Score Increase you get as a level advancement is (optionally!) a Feat instead, this gives yet another method for characters of identical class, race, and ability scores to differentiate themselves in a useful manner. I could easily see this sort of thing evolving based on weapons found in the dungeon. The character that picks up the enchanted flail can now craft a Feat to not only make the flail her own, but to make it obvious that it’s now a preferred weapon and fighting style. And that Barbarian that you modeled after a Viking Berserker now has the ability to treat the spear as the martial weapon you’ve always pictured it. 

In fact, the option to make a simple weapon into a martial one is interesting because it opens the door to things like Horsebow Warrior, which might allow a shortbow to do the same damage as a longbow if you spend time (weeks or months likely) crafting it yourself. Since very small horn and composite bows could easily hit 150 pounds of draw weight by virtue of just being that damn thick, having a shortbow hit for d8 won’t break belief or the game. Having an extra-powerful longbow hit for d10 (but no higher) puts it in the same range as a two-handed spear (OK, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch) or a cut with a two-handed longsword. That extra damage (which is really the equivalent of a +1) is also the same bonus you get with a +2 to DEX, but losing the +1 to attack rolls. Again, not game-breaking and directly inspired by the Spear Mastery Feat.

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