Feat Design and Dragon Heresy

Over on his blog, Brandon Stoddard offers up an in-depth analysis, from his perspective, of a giant list of feats in the Fifth Edition rules. He might have thrown in some Unearthed Arcana in there too.

You might read his analysis and conclude he’s totally off his rocker. You might agree with every point. Regardless, he makes his case and gives you the reasons he’s saying what he’s saying, so you can fight it out with tact and eloquence.

I really grooved on reading his stuff, so I’m going to comment on his stuff, but I’m also going to give some insight into the Feats in Dragon Heresy, and see if they pass muster based on what he’s noted, in a follow-on post. Some may, some may not. I was inspired heavily by Fifth Edition Feats by Total Party Kill games, though I made changes as required and needed for Dragon Heresy. The single feat in SRD5.1 means you have to start somewhere.

Feat Design (Brandes Stoddard)

As noted, Brandon really gets into it. Go read the whole thing, because I won’t be commenting on every one. I will, however, note that which rings true or as a cautionary tale.

His primary jumping-off point is born of looking at 5e feats that feature +1 to an ability score, plus a few other bonuses packaged into one feat. This basically gives you half the usual Ability Score Increase of +2 (or +1 to two things), and assumes that the other half is of good value. He sets up an upper and lower bound of utility: at the lower end, take your “dump stat” and boost it by 2, giving a +1 bonus to something you don’t care about. If the feat is less good than that, it’s really bad, and the designer has failed, or is aiming at a very different category than a mathematical one of pluses and minuses. At the upper end, if the feat is better in every single circumstance than +2 to your primary ability, it’s probably too powerful.

From my perspective, the second one is the more compelling guideline. What I tried to do for Dragon Heresy, especially for combat feats that were easy to quantify, is to look at what a +1 to the attack stat would do (so a 5% improvement in hit probability – a +1 to hit – and a +1 boost to damage) as a function of level, and then try as I could to gauge how the new proposed feat measured up. I have a few more things to twiddle with in Dragon Heresy than in SRD5.1 as written, so I have more options than most.

As a +1 to the primary attack stat, you can pretty much use that as a multiplier. You’ll be missing 5% less than you otherwise would, and your damage goes up. So if before you were (say) rolling 1d20+8 and dealing 1d8+4 damage per hit, now you’ll be rolling 1d20+9 and rolling 1d8+5.

Against, say, Armor Class 18, that means you’ll hit with a roll of 10+ (55% of the time) originally, and 9+ with the boost (60%), and damage goes from 5-12 to 6-13. All in all, the per-attack damage goes up from 4.675 to 5.7, a per-attack increase of about 22%. That’s not chopped liver, and that 20% figure gives a descent baseline for what to expect (It also neglects the impact of critical hits, to keep things moving for the blog post). Note that as hits become harder, things are different. Against a much more challenging AC 27, the first attack hits 10% of the time, the second 15% of the time, which is actually a rather substantial increase in hit probability, and a 67% improvement in per-attack hit point ablation (again neglecting crits).

The point there is that if you throw down a feat you can use every single attack, as can happen in melee or ranged combat with a stat boost in the primary attack stat, you want the feat to be about that powerful.

Now, if it’s something you can’t use every single attack, but you can use it every single turn, or every other turn, or once per combat, once per short rest, or even once per long rest . . . you can pack a lot more oomph into it. But abilities that recharge per short or long rest do tend to be class abilities; feats tend to be useable more on the turn and encounter scale. Still, a good power guideline is going to be in tune with how frequently it can be used. You might think that a feat that gave you a 50% instead of a 20% boost to effectiveness is one that might only come into play about a third as frequently.

You can’t be that strictly mathematical about it. The GM can contrive situations where it’s always or never useful; the players will bring their abilities to bear as frequently as they can. It’s not necessarily adversarial, but it is highly situational. Be that as it may: the more frequently a feat can be used, probably the closer it should resemble a stat increase in power.

So, with that in mind, let’s see what thoughts come to mind (re)reading some of his notes.

Brandon’s Notes

The first thing I have to note is that many of the feats he lists seem to have dropped from my draft, even when they appear in the OGL-allowed Fifth Edition Feats (5eFeats). Hrm. That must be a version control problem I’ll have to look into. Alert in the basic rules became Alertness in 5eFeats, and is gone from Dragon Heresy. Oops. I know why – we looked really hard at stealth and flanking and other situational stuff, and put that on the back burner while we figured it out. Then I forgot to put it back. Well, good catch. Both Alert and Observant are among my favorite feats, because as a player I hate being caught by surprise. I may die, but I want to see it coming.

Athlete (5e) or Athletic (5eFeats) also have a lot in common . . . but the TPK guys took away the +1 to Strength or Dexterity that was the jump-off point for Brandon’s thesis and went with “giving expertise” in Athletics instead. An interesting shift (and note that while “you have expertise in X” is common vernacular, that usage seems to be deprecated in favor of “add double your proficiency bonus” in official writings).

Brandon’s point about giving a choice in stats to pick is a good one: in fact, I wonder if a hierarchy is generically good. For Athlete, it might be something like “You get a +1 to Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution, in that order.” So if you CAN get Strength, you take the +1 there, but if you can’t, you take Dexterity, and if you’ve got 20 in both of those (wow), then you can throw it into Constitution instead.

If you’ve maxed out all three of those, my sympathy for you is somewhat limited. Cheater-head. 🙂

He makes a point about Actor and a few other feats that I like very much, and did implement (for better or worse) in Dragon Heresy frequently: a Feat is a great way to pick up a mild ability from another class without forcing multi-classing on anyone. ACKS does the same thing with proficiency, as well – a path for differentiation that is orthogonal to class progression. I like that for things like the ability to wear armor, use shields, or pick up fighting styles.

His notes on Charger imply a certain hierarchy on the action economy that is implicit. Things you can do one-for-one in place of attacks are a bit more uber than things you can do with an action. Going down the line, action, bonus action, and reaction all have their place, and I think are roughly desirable in that order. Largely because your reaction is frequently used for last-ditch and opportunistic things like opportunity attacks and helping other folks out. But all of those are scarce resources. Next would be things  you can invoke once per combat, per short rest, and finally, per long rest. That’s a nice way to think about things, as it makes explicit the perhaps-transitory but always real choice you have to make: do I use my feat, and maybe let a foe get by me, or hold the reaction for an opportunity attack. Choices make good drama.

Crossbow Expert/Expertise shows off that many of the feats really require you to parse the words carefully, as they are of broader utility than you’d think. Of the three points in this feat, one is generic to ranged weapons, one applies to any weapon with the loading property, and only the third has to do with crossbows . . . and those are hand crossbows at that (oddly specific!)

His point about sword-and-dagger fighting being the default, rather than the exception, for two-weapon fighting using Defensive Duelist is well noted. Consider that yoinked, and the ability to use two weapons, so long as one of them is a light weapon (rather than both). I will consider whether to add a defensive bonus if both of the weapons are light, so that if you chose to use two light weapons, you’re better on defense, but you can still pick up that bonus action for a light weapon in one hand, regular weapon in the other (but maybe not a versatile or heavy one). A buckler is an optional rule in Dragon Heresy, and would count as a light weapon as well as a light shield, so could be used for defense and for striking.

The point about math on Elemental Adept is interesting. “Treat 1 as a 2” gets worse the bigger the die type you roll. Reroll 1s is a better way to do it, because on the average, increasing die types still hurt, but a lot less, and the boost to “reroll 1s” is about 10% from d4 through d12. In fact, it’s a 15% boost for a d4, and a 7% boost for d12. “Treat 1s as 2s” is a 10% boost for a d4, and a 1% boost at d12.

Grappler got reworked in Dungeon Grappling anyway, as of course I incorporated the new system:

Modified Grappler (5e)

The Grappler feat should be altered when using the rules in Dungeon grappling.

  • You have advantage when you use your action to make an attack roll against a creature whom you have grabbed or better.

  • You can use a bonus action to make an additional grappling attack against a creature you have at least grabbed; you do not gain your attribute bonus for control damage on this attack.

His point about Great Weapon Master (and Sharpshooter, for that matter) being on the bleeding edge of acceptable proved true in my mathy explorations as well. I allow a Powerful Attack to trade having disadvantage on an attack for having a wider critical hit threshold (by +1) as well as gaining +8 to damage, which tones it down a bit while at the same time still giving a great use of the feat.  The math worked out well on that one.

The various armor mastery feats got tweaked a bit, and since armor provides Damage Reduction in Dragon Heresy, Heavy Armor Mastery boosted the DR of heavy armor by 2 points. That is a very nice ability, which at high levels is countered by the prevalence of magical weapons in many respects. Hrm. I wonder if the feat should only apply to mundane heavy armor. Will ponder.

Mounted Warrior picked up some rather different abilities in Dragon Heresy, so his comments about “like Grappler, but more so” don’t apply, though other comments might.

I’ll take his comment about Sentinel and raise it – this one strikes me (with reducing the foe’s speed to zero) as the entire point about threatening someone with a long weapon. They do not wish to enter into your stabbity-stabbity range. I may need to re-look carefully into this, and see if a foe might need to make a morale check to re-start movement when halted by an opportunity attack when out-reached by a a weapon. Reach 1 on Reach 1 (or 5′ reach on 5′ reach) or 10′ vs 10′ wouldn’t do it; that’s an equal contest. But a 5′ weapon against a 10′ one is a bit hairier, and should require some work. Will think on this more.

Tavern Brawler and Sharpshooter both got tweaked for Dragon Heresy into Unarmed Fighter and Sharp Shot, with bonuses that take full advantage of the new mechanics in Dragon Heresy.

Conclusion

Brandon’s conclusion summarizes well the types of feats and boosts available, and I’ll need to make sure that in a year’s worth of edits, some of the types didn’t go the way of the dodo. That’s easy to happen when you put things on the “to be fixed or fiddled with later” list and then don’t return to them.

Still, I like that some of the things he’s pointed out I’ve anticipated already, but others I’ll need to look at more closely, and I also need to go back and ensure that the breadth-expanding nature of feats, short of multi-classing, is properly present and available for all classes.

A nice, thoughtful piece of work, that requires a lot more study on my part.

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