We have witnessed the fall of feats. By fall I don’t mean: “what a stupid dead-end of design. Why have we been using it for years?” By fall I mean we have beat the old boy black and blue, and now he is a formless puddle on the floor that people mine with careful fingers for the chunks of solid floating in the sick.
But what can we learn from feat’s bloody demise?
The first thing that I think we can learn is the same lesson that Non-Weapon Proficiencies learned. Some of these are not like the other. Adventuring proficiencies are not the same a craft proficiencies. Those later became skills and feats. That’s a good divide, but that doesn’t seem like the best divide. On the feat side, they become so numerous, the pool becomes so heavy, it collapses for all but a few.
Last time I talked about the game imagined. A few folks have asked me what I mean by that, and how there is any other game. After all, isn’t the entire game the game imagined?
There is a lot of the game that is imagined. There are the daydreams and desire of the gamer stuck in Social Studies. There are the grand designs of the GM preparing for a weekend game. There are the intentions of designers who dream of their gaming in the hands of smiling masses.
And then there is the game that is played. The game that is used as a tool for narrative device, and a vessel for power fantasy. A game where all sorts of things happen, both good and bad. The good is an awesome game that everyone enjoys. On the bad side Twinky builds, druids being ridden by the gorilla animal companions decked out in full plate and a lance (suck that, Narnia!), infinite stun loops, using arrows as melee weapons because they are cheaper than melee weapons. The place where feat taxes and skill taxes live.
Complex systems mutate.
I love the game imagined, but my line of work keep me looking at the game that is played. When those two things can work in concert, you really have something.
I believe that Fantasy RPGs are so prevalent and popular because it is fairly easy to fuse the game played with the game imagined. Strange inconsistencies can be blamed on magic, or the fickle gods of a pagan world, and the game moves on without obliterating any suspension of disbelief. SF needs to be a little more rigorous, or it becomes SciFi or even SyFy. Though Games Workshop has done a really good job of making SF that features magical qualities. God bless the Warp.
This feature of Fantasy not only allow fantasy stories a large amount of leeway, it allows game rules a large amount of leeway. Ever wonder why your favorite Medieval recreation RPG or post-apocalyptic wasteland punk horror didn’t gain traction? Leeway is a big part of it.
But there are people who take their fantasy more seriously than others. Those people also tend to enjoy the rigor of numbers and system analysis (armchair or otherwise). And they tend to gravitate to RPGs. This is what I like to call the Wall of Nerd. It’s a good wall. It’s a sturdy wall. It’s a wall whose challenges have kept me gainfully employed for a number of years. It’s still a wall.
4e, at its heart was an attempt to bash down that wall. It was successful, but not wildly successful. Facebook games came up with a magic formula to get all sorts of people to play a MMORPG that wouldn’t even consider playing WoW at the same time, and WoW was still doing what WoW does. At the same time a large section of the existing fan base was alienated for a variety of reasons. It was also successful in creating its own Wall of Nerd. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Core vs. Essentials fights going on about the interwebz. It reminds me of the divide when Unearthed Arcana came out, and Combat & Tactics, and 3e, and 3.5 and….you get what I mean. To be honest the Wall of Nerd may have an inescapable gravity…but I hope not.
I believe the Wall of Nerd comes about because most RPGs are designed with the idea that they are unified theories of what the game world looks like. Each statement, each permission, each restriction in a rulebook is somehow describing a world that we are peering at though some king of tome-shaped lens. The validity of new statements are measured on the precedent of past statements. There is no escaping this, in some ways, a rule is elegant, when it works simply and seamlessly with other rules. But what if we are looking at the totality of the structure all wrong.
What if we had bags of feats?
We sort of do, in some ways. There are combat feats, and teamwork feats, channel divinity feats and racial feats. Feats have categories, and usually those categories talk to other feats of the same category and connected external rules (like the fighter’s bonus feats, or the cleric’s channel divinity to do the 4e/Pathfinder mash-up). But what if you had adventuring feats, combat feats, and downtime feats, and skill feats, and background feats and whatever other kind of feats that you wanted. When the campaign started, the GM and the players decide what feat bags they want to use in the campaign. The core combat and resolution system could be run with as many or as few bags of feats you wanted. Maybe a dungeon-crawl campaign uses only adventuring feats, combat feats, and background feats. While a story-heavy campaign keeps combat feats, but ditches adventuring feats, which talk mostly to exploration and survival. Bags of feats have their own progression and don’t cannibalize one another. Sure, it can be argued that a character that uses more bags of feats is more powerful than one that uses fewer, but that power is diverse in the types of play it can handle well, and it only encounters the types of play of the bags chosen.
I think we can make the feat divides more natural based on the game that is played, and more satisfying to the game that is imagined, but talking to both at the same time, instead of constantly kludging one and ignoring the other.
Just a thought.