I love the idea of feats in D&D/Pathfinder. They’re the best way of giving a player customization over their character. Classes influence gameplay, but most give little agency in how you build (which is why Pathfinder classes usually give alternate choices for class features). Races surprisingly have very little influence in how you play (which is why I like exotic races).
However, feats in many games have one problem: there’s tons of feats and they’re terrible. Most feats are not simply worse than others — they’re poorly designed, have little flavor, and many are obviously a bad trade. Many feats are traps while others actually make you worse off. Some Pathfinder feats even mention mechanics that don’t exist! All of these terrible feats make it difficult to browse for options and do nothing more than pad out source books.
-C at HackSlashMaster wrote his own frustrations with feat design and gave a list of criteria for what makes a good feat. As I work on designing talents for vScape RPG, I feel like this is a topic worth expanding on. So, I created my own list of criteria for good feat design.
1. The intended purpose should be clear.
Obvious, but very significant. One glance should accurately tell a player why someone would take the feat, but many feats are not clear. There’s several practical reasons to make a feat’s benefits easy to understand: ease of browsing, accessibility for new players, and good communication practice. While Ivory Tower Design might have some merits, it’s counterproductive to creating an approachable game.
-C attacked Pathfinder’s Multitalented Mastery because he found it useless. Ironically, he ended up proving that the feat was terribly written for another reason. The designers meant for players to take advantage of alternate favored class bonuses using Multitalented Mastery. This is a significant benefit not communicated to the player. A designer could easily convey such an intent by pointing out Multitalented Mastery works for alternate favored class bonuses.
Every feat has a design goal. If that goal is not clear to the player, you failed as a designer.
This also goes for feat names and prerequisites. None of my players knew that Point-Blank Shot was the entry feat for ranged builds. They thought it was a niche feat for switch-hitters. This brings me to my next point.
2. Requirements should be simple and make sense.
A feat should have a good reason for having a prerequisite. A very good reason. It should be obvious why it would be impossible for a character to use this feat without the prerequisite. Ideally, a feat should have little or no requirements at all. Unfortunately, many feats have prerequisites only loosely associated with the content of the feat.
Many prerequisites not only hinder the player, but also hinder the designer. Complicating a feat with overloaded prerequisites also complicates feat balance as the power level of a feat less clear. On the other hand, if two feats have similar prerequisites, a designer can easily compare their strength. They can confidently make a feat strong without using complicated prerequisites as a clutch. I particularly liked -C’s suggestion of creating standardized tiers of feats based on common requirements. This was one thing I liked about 4th Edition feats.
While -C demonizes feat chains, I am fine with them as long as the chain is shallow and the feat significantly expands upon its required feat’s abilities or gives them something new, which leads me to my next criterion.
3. Feats should grant new abilities or improve upon existing ones in a significant way.
A feat should let you do something new, like temporarily imbuing your weapons with magical energy to boost their damage. Alternatively, a feat should enhance something you can already do. Most popular 3.5E feats enable you to bend rules or circumvent penalties. Either way, these feats should feel like significant contributions to your character concept and abilities. What’s the point of a character building option if it does not build their character?
Both -C and LS at Papers & Pencils also brought up concerns about feats denying player agency by having the feat enable an action that any person could reasonably do. For example, swinging your sword harder but with less accuracy.
While I agree designers should shy from this, I see merit in this design. Such feats can help a designer streamline the combat system by modularizing extraneous actions. Otherwise, the options would either exist as a long list of optional rules or not exist at all — both unfavorable approaches. Additionally, good GMs should be able use the feats as a guideline for ad hoc rules rather than a restriction on what a character cannot do. For example, a player could get a +1 damage bonus instead of Power Attack’s +2.
4. Flavor takes precedence over mechanics, but the best feats have both.
As with other aspects of a tabletop RPG, designer should strive to create feats where fluff and associated mechanics go hand-in-hand. For example, I personally dislike Weapon Focus. Weapon Focus has good mechanical benefits — any combat character welcomes a +1 attack bonus. However, the feat is so boring! The fluff comes off weak because of the blandness of the mechanics. So much could have been done with a feat that marks you as a specialist in a particular weapon, like with 4th Edition granting benefits based on weapon type.
5. Feats should be fun.
Yes, fun. Remember that, developers? You’re supposed to design things that make characters fun to play! Deflecting arrows with your bare hands is fun. Shish-kabobbing multiple foes with your weapon is fun. Being able to pummel enemies with random objects is fun. Treating all classes as favored classes is not fun. Neither is being slightly more agile.
Overall, designers should give players options that make the game more enjoyable. If a character option doesn’t make the game more enjoyable– or worse and make the player feel miserable for taking it — then the designer has failed.