Designing Feats (and #Microfeats)
I got asked on Facebook what my process was for designing #Microfeats, and while I responded there, a slightly longer versions seemed like something people might be interested in.
In many ways Microfeats are easier than other F20* design things I do, because these are specifically pre-development and pre-editing, so I can release them into the wild without nearly as much vetting. If I get something wrong, people point it out pretty quickly, and these are all presented as “pre-production” items so no one expects a perfect finished product.
That said, the “process” is pretty close to how I go at designing any feat, and it’s hard to explain without waving about useless platitudes like “more art than science” and “it’s a ‘feel’ thing.” I’ve been writing feats since 1999, so it’s pretty well second nature to me at this point. The main things are to 1: Try to make something that as a concept could reasonably apply to a broad range of characters, but isn’t mandatory for any of them; 2: Try not to duplicate anything that already exists, 3: Make sure a feat is as least as useful as Skill Focus/Toughness, but not more useful than Power Attack, and 4: Make sure it speaks both to an interesting narrative and engaging game mechanics. That frequently involves looking at noteworthy features of characters in various forms of fiction, and wondering if they represent something compelling and different enough to justify using a character resource to add them to an RPG character.
There are a LOT of feats (thousands for Pathfinder, tens of thousands for all T20 games), which is both bad, and good. It’s bad because that means coming up with something genuinely new, interesting, useful, and balanced is increasingly challenging. One trick of balance is to remember synergy between feats. A feat that lets your first melee attack each round do +4 damage, but every other feat you make until your next turn take -4 damage might seem fine… but when combined with Power Attack, Furious Focus, and Vital Strike, it might not be.
The existing field of feats is also good, because there are tons of design tricks you can look to when trying to figure out the mechanics of an idea. For example, the Advanced Class Guide added feats that give you a magic ability you can apply to foes when you hit them, but only a limited number of times per day and only when using Vital Strike. That’s a really interesting way to modify attacks (much more interesting than a flat +4 damage), and the mechanics speak a great deal to what kinds of characters will find it useful, and how it’ll interact with the flow of play. It’s also a fairly new idea as a feat framework, so it’s something that could easily lend itself to a lot of expansion for new feats.
When designing feats, you have to decide if the benefit it provides will be constant (always active) or triggered (requiring some specific act on the part of the player or character and possibly with limited uses per day), broad (applying all the time or so often you can expect it to come up at least once per game session and sometimes multiple times per session) or circumstantial (only applying less than once per game), static (the benefit doesn’t change as you gain levels) or scaling (in some way improving as the character becomes more experienced). These things form a matrix of considerations both for ease of play (a flat +2 bonus to Will saving throws is easier for a player than one reroll of a Will save each day, since it always applies and doesn’t have a resource imitation), and power level (a flat +2 bonus isn’t as powerful as being able to reroll a failed saving throw), and at least sometimes impact a game’s tone (players easily accept magic powers that only work occasionally, but expect martial talents and skills, such as Power Attack, to be accessible always, though they will accept circumstantial requirements, such as critical feats only working when you score a critical hit).
For the #HalloweenisComing series of #Microfeats, I’m looking to create feats expressing themes appropriate to horror stories. Obviously in many cases the major features of horror characters are hindrances, so you have to look at ways to encourage players to WANT to add negative features to their characters, and that leads to things like Stigmata – a feat that gives you a constant but circumstantial bonus, and links it to major but circumstantial penalty, and ties those two mechanical effects into a specific themed idea – the impact of divine wounds on a character.Since the hindrance is noteworthy and scales, it can offset a benefit that is too much for a normal feat, but only by a little. Players will always build characters to work around hindrances, so you can’t expect them to be a major balancing factor.
Stigmata has tons of flavor, and doesn’t ask the player to make any decisions in play (you need to remember you have it, but the penalty can’t be declined and there’s never a reason not to take the benefit), but getting the balance of hindrance to benefit is extremely difficult (and the current version may not have it right yet). You want a feat a player enjoys having (the benefit adds more to the player’s total fun than the hindrances withdraws), but one that isn’t so good every player wants it.
One good way to measure these effects is to compare a new feat to existing options that do similar things. On a d20, rolling twice and taking the better of the two results is pretty close in average impact to a +4 bonus. Comparing Stigmata’s +4 to two categories of Will saves (one a common category) looks better than either Iron Will or Improved Iron Will in benefit when applied, but certainly there are circumstances (charm spells that aren’t compulsions, for example), where the existing feats are better options. Playstyle can have a lot of impact on that balance (if a GM much prefers using murderous compulsion over charm person, Stigmata becomes more useful), but there’s not much a designer can do about that other than be familiar with common playstyles. This can also be beneficial sometimes, as a GM and players can adapt feats with strong playstyle implications to match the narrative needs of a campaign.
That’s a REALLY short overview of my feat design process, but it does cover the basic steps and concerns.
*Term coined by Robin Laws, but basically means “d20like games”