d20 Design Diary: Feat Prerequisites
One of the things I have mentioned several times in my ongoing series of articles converting Pathfinder Core Rulebook feats to Starfinder, is that Starfinder tends to have much less restrictive, less extensive feat prerequisites. What I haven’t done is go into any particular details about WHY that is the case, or how it impacts gameplay, or why Starfinder has any feat prerequisites at all.
To understand the answers to those questions, you need to understand why any feat has prerequisites, and what the different game function of various categories of prerequisites are. Since the core concepts here tend to apply to a broad range of d20 games, they seemed deserving of their own Design Diary (which, if popular, may be the first in a series of such posts looking at the unwritten logic behind various elements of d20 game design).
There are basically three kinds of feat prerequisites.
The first are balancing prerequisites, designed to limit which characters can take a feat based on character build. These include things like ability score minimum (so feats that make a character seem strong are limited to characters who have some minimum level of Strength), level minimums (so you can’t get the benefit until a certain level of options have entered the game in the form of class features, spells, and items tied to that level), and base attack bonus minimums (which ensure lower-level characters can’t get the feat immediately, and that full attack-bonus classes have access to them earlier and therefore can also get more of them). These tend not to be things players have to plan for–eventually a character hits these values, or doesn’t.
(A quick aside — Ability scores are slightly different, in that they can be a case where you can plan to gain the needed score to pick up a feat eventually. This is one of the reasons Starfinder and Pathfinder 2e grant you boosts to more than just one ability score when you hit the appropriate level–to allow characters to pick up feats they didn’t original qualify for due to a secondary or tertiary ability score without requiring the character give up boosting their primary ability score. It’s also why ability score prerequisites are always an odd numerical value–since ability bonuses are tied to even scores, having feats have odd scores as prerequisites can be the only gem mechanical difference between a 12 and 13 Intelligence, for example. In turn, this is why themes grant a +1 ability bonus in Starfinder. The design is intended to ensure any character build can work with any theme, since the theme does not change what your ability score modifiers are. But since they do cause one of your ability scores to have an odd value, taking the mercenary theme can be the difference between qualifying for Heavy Armor Proficiency, or not.)
The second type of prerequisites are those where just by the nature of the rules for someone to be able to do what a feat grants, they much have some previous ability. This is a like our Starfinder version of the Extra Rage feat, which gives you a benefit with a specific soldier fighting style–obviously if you don’t have that style, the feat is useless, so the style becomes a prerequisite. Often these are things a character is going to have as part of their core concept, or not. It’s less common for a character to evolve to gain these things, except as level locks (a feat that requires 7 ranks in a skill is level locked in that you can’t get it before 7th level, but most characters won’t pick up those ranks just to access the feat).
A subtype of this are prerequisites that are just a good idea for a character to have to make things effective–for example combat maneuvers in Starfinder are difficult to succeed at, so we are adding Improved Combat Maneuver with the appropriate maneuver as a prerequisite for each of our Greater combat maneuver feats. You don’t have to be good at disarming things game mechanically to theoretically benefit at the additional benefits for Greater Disarm, but it makes sense to avoid having frustrated players who end up with extra options for a combat maneuver they rarely succeed with by requiring them to be fairly good at the basic option before taking an advanced option.
The third type of feat prerequisites are conceptual ones, where it makes sense within the setting for you to have to be able to do something before you can gain a feat’s benefit, but they aren’t directly tied together. This includes things like not being able to use a skill for some advanced task unless you have ranks in it as a prerequisite, or needing a simple improvement before you get a complex improvement. This is where Pathfinder feats often have long chains of prerequisites which may have nothing to do with the game mechanics of a feat, they exist purely because it was considered logical by the designer. For example, you can’t get Greater Disarm in Pathfinder without Combat Expertise, since obviously disarming someone is an expert combat maneuver. But that also means you can’t get it without a 13 Intelligence, and that you must pick up the purely-defensive Combat Expertise feat before you can get the unrelated offensive combat maneuver-boosting Greater feat.
One effect of this is that it tends to create niche protection for what characters can gain what abilities. In Pathfinder if you have a fighter and a rogue in the group, and only the rogue has a 13 Intelligence, the rogue is more likely to be the only character with Greater Disarm because the fighter likely won’t be motivated to get the 13 Int AND Combat Expertise just to pick it up. However, this niche protection is haphazard–the Pathfinder fighter may have a much higher Combat maneuver Bonus and thus still be better at disarm than the rogue even with no resources dedicated to the idea–and it can create frustrations where a player finds some feat that feels thematically appropriate, but the feat has a chain of 7 prior feats they must have to take it, requiring the character be dedicated to that one concept for many levels of game play.
This category is where Starfinder has cut out a lot of prerequisites, so characters are less likely to be required to access unrelated feats to qualify for the things that interest them. As much as possible, the game is designed to allow any character of an appropriate level, who has the basic concepts to support a new feat option, to be able to select that feat option.
Long feat chains can also be designed in an effort to enforce game balance, in two different ways. First, if a feat is under-powered on its own, having it serve as the prerequisite for a more-powerful-than-average feat can, theoretically, lead to characters being more balanced overall. However, this means a player must choose the under-powered feat first, and live with its underwhelming performance until the more advanced feat can be gained. Second, if a feat has a huge list of prerequisites it obviously won’t be taken by low-level characters who don’t have that many feat slots. However if the feat is powerful enough, players will constantly seek ways to gain the prerequisites through other means, and may end up picking it up earlier than its designer intended. If a feat shouldn’t enter the game until 7th level, it’s simpler to just make being 7th level a prerequisite.
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Posted on December 9, 2019, in Game Design, Pathfinder Development, Starfinder Development and tagged d20 Design Diary, Development, feats, Game Design, gaming, Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook.. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.