A couple years ago, I started a new 4th Edition campaign for some friends. I had slaughtered them all twice before: once during the second session of Scales of War and again during my Freeport campaign (the classic d20 adventures published by Green Ronin Publishing). I felt bad. Really. So we started again, and I promised I would do a better job at not slaughtering my friends’ characters. I turned to the classic Age of Worms campaign (one I had started and stopped a couple times) and whipped up (and by whipped up, I mean labored for many long hours) a conversion of Erik Mona’s “Whispering Cairn.” The players brought in their characters. They dialed back a bit on the madness—no shardminds please! And we got started. One memory stood out from this short-lived excursion into the world of Greyhawk. Fast Runner.
My friend Ian, who is not a min-max sort of player, chose for his paladin the Fast Runner feat at 1st level. He never mentioned it. He never talked about it. He just made that choice and played the game. At some point, someone asked him about his feat. He revealed it and earned a lot of gentle (and not-so-gentle) ribbing and laughter from his fellow players. By the rules, there’s nothing wrong with this choice. Nothing at all! In fact, it was a choice that supported his character concept. Sure, he probably would have been better off with some sort of expertise feat or damage booster or something that would let him win D&D. But he didn’t. And that’s great.
There’s a big, lumpy, ugly thing sitting in my little attic (head space), and I keep walking around it to look at it from a different angle. Basically, this thing is the supposed equivalence between combat options and noncombat options. Back in 3rd Edition, I thought that because Alertness and Power Attack used the same currency for acquisition, they had to be the same. And maybe, when the game had only fifty or so feats, they were close enough. But 3.5 gave us a slew of feats granting a +2 bonus to two skills at the same time as well as feats that granted clear mechanical advantages in combat (revised Power Attack) and with magic (DC-boosters). The more feats added to the game, the clearer it became that even though these feats all cost the same thing, you got different bang for your buck, both in terms of play style and in terms of actual mechanical weight. Unless you played in the Tying Knots RPG, having Skill Focus (Use Rope) was always a poor choice compared to Anvil of Thunder (Complete Warrior).
There are lots of things I’ve fought for with the next incarnation of our beloved RPG, but cleaning up this false equivalence has been one of my top priorities. Looking at the three pillars we’ve discussed (exploration, roleplaying, and killing things . . . er . . . combat), it’s tempting to have all our mechanics speak to these pillars equally. A class should refer back to the big three, just as should race and other choice points. It’s not hard to include something for each pillar in the larger mechanical choices. A class has enough room to do all this. But does a feat?
The previous editions expected that you could have exploration, roleplaying, and combat feats. If feats carry some of our expected mechanical weight, characters who choose all roleplaying feats lag way behind characters who mix it up or focus on a single pillar. Now we could move to make sure that each feat addresses all three pillars. Power Attack, for example, could give you a combat boost, an edge when you’re trying to intimidate a prisoner, and a bonus to hack down doors. This works for Power Attack just fine. Alertness might give you a boost to sense when someone’s lying, a boost to perception, and a boost to initiative checks. OK. This could work. The problem is that feats swell in size, which means we’d likely do fewer of them. Doing fewer of them means fewer choices and also incentivizes us to deliver them less frequently.
Now we could do this another way. We could just bite the bullet and say feats are generally combat focused. Feats reflect customization options that speak directly to the combat pillar. Then we could let skills (delivered through backgrounds) carry the weight of exploration and interaction. And then we could have a third element, call them traits, to address the roleplaying pillar. This ensures that we never have to worry about Power Attack = Fast Hands = Ennui, because they’re all different things.