A feat, quite simply, is something your character can do. It represents some special talent, skill, trick, or ability that you have mastered. It may be something that relates directly to your class abilities and makes them better, it may be a special move you know how to do in combat, or it may be an option you have to make some of the rules work a little differently than they do for others. It might even be a natural ability, an inborn talent, a skill you learned growing up in a certain culture, or just a little something extra you’ve worked on to make your skills more effective. The beauty of feats is that they can be almost anything. Unfortunately, that is also their curse.
Feats are a difficult part of the game, not necessarily because they’re complicated but just because there are so many choices! Some feats just stand alone and are not related to anything else. Other feats are organized in a sort of progression, so before you learn one, you have to learn the other. Some feats are clearly better than others, but the weaker feats may be in there to be ‘gateway’ feats for others. That is, the feat itself is not that great, but it lets you take something else that is really good (this also applies to feats that may be prerequisites to enter a ‘prestige class’—a special kind of character class we will talk about in an upcoming column).
Feats can also be confusing because they are similar in some ways to skills, in that they represent things you know how to do, but it’s a different kind of a system because there are no skill points and ranks and DCs for using feats. Feats are things you know how to do that modify other parts of your character. They may boost your saving throw, your attack roll, or your skill checks. They may allow you to ignore some of the normal rules or limits on rules. For example, when an enemy does something that leaves him vulnerable to you, like trying to run past you or cast a spell while he’s standing right next to you, you can often take what’s called an ‘attack of opportunity.’ Normally, you can only do this once each round, but if you have the Combat Reflexes feat you can do it more often, based on your Dexterity score. On the other hand, attacking someone who has a weapon when you have nothing but your bare hands—a dangerous move at best—usually lets them get an attack of opportunity on you unless you have the Improved Unarmed Strike feat. In a nutshell, feats are things that let you break the usual rules of the game.
Feats come in different kinds. Sure, the Player’s Handbook gives you lists of different kinds of feats. There are item creation feats that you use to make your own magic items. There are metamagic feats that let you alter what your magic spells do. There are ‘fighter bonus feats’ that are combat-related feats that fighters can take as bonuses. That’s not what I mean. The categories that follow are more ways of thinking about how you are going to choose feats for your character, depending on how you want to play and how often you want to have to think about what your feats do.
1. Feats that are always ‘on’
These feats are the easiest ones to use, because you take the feat, you make a note once on your character sheet, and you never have to think about it again. If you take Lightning Reflexes, you get +2 bonus to your Reflex saves. You just add that in to your Reflex save bonus and you never have to worry about it again. Every time you have to make a Reflex save, it’s in there. Weapon Focus is the same. You get +1 to attack rolls with that weapon, every time, all the time. Improved Initiative adds +4 to your initiative roll every time. Stealthy or Deft Hands or Acrobatic add to your skill rolls. Add it in on your character sheet and forget about it.
These feats sometimes seem like they don’t give you as much bang for your buck as some of the more complicated feats, but what they lack in sizzle they make up in consistency. A feat that is too much trouble to use or that you always forget about is wasted, because it never gets used. It’s like buying a $200 cell phone with a zillion features that you don’t know how to use; you should’ve gotten the free phone and spent the money on something else. Also, because feats like these usually affect die rolls you make over and over again, those small effects add up.
2. Feats that you use in preparation
Some feats are not things you actually use during an adventure, like feats that let you create your own magic items or that help you use skills that can take a long time, like Craft or Profession. The Leadership feat helps you recruit a sidekick and/or some low-level followers. You have to manage your ‘cohort’ or your followers during the game, but most of the setup occurs ‘off-screen,’ to use a movie analogy. Other feats you may use when you are getting ready for the day’s adventure include ‘metamagic’ feats, which let you change and improve what your magic spells do. Usually, though, you have to decide when you are getting your spells ready which spells you’re going to use those feats on. Once you’ve decided, the thinking part is over and you just cast your altered spells like you would any other spell.
3. Feats that depend on the DM and the style of the game
Some feats you will only use some of the time. A feat that improves your skills on board a ship will be great when you’re on a ship… and useless anywhere else. If your character has great endurance of cold temperatures or thin mountain air, that will be very useful in those conditions and not so much in a temperate forest at sea level (unless it’s wintertime). If you want to play a mounted knight sort of character, your riding feats mean that you need to be places where your horse can go; if you’re always climbing through tight caves or marshes or other mount-unfriendly places, you’ve got trouble. This doesn’t mean you should avoid those kinds of feats. If anything, those feats are the ones that can be the most fun as they help you shape your character to fit a theme. But you should talk with your DM about what kind of game it’s going to be so you can avoid getting stuck with bad feat choices. It’s okay if your mounted knight has to leave the horse at home some of the time, but if your character idea just doesn’t fit with the DM’s idea of what the campaign is going to be about, you need to talk and see how you can compromise.
4. Feats that depend on you
These are the feats for which the responsibility is squarely on your shoulders to make them worthwhile. Sometimes this just means remembering to use them, like choosing a foe to Dodge each round, or remembering when someone attacks your mount while on horseback that you can use Mounted Combat to avoid the blow. Some require you to do some prep work; if you have Augment Summoning, which boosts the Strength and Constitution of monsters that you summon, you should go over the kinds of creatures you usually summon and their statistics in the Monster Manual and add in the benefit of this feat before the game, so you won’t have to refigure their abilities on the fly. Ask the DM or a more experienced player for help if you need it.
The hardest feats that depend on you, though, are the ones that require you to make on-the-spot decisions about how best to use the feat, because its effect is not fixed and static. You can use the feat differently at different times.
The Power Attack feat allows you to take a penalty to your attack rolls to gain a bonus to your damage rolls. When is that a good deal? If you hit less often, that mitigates the greater damage you do when you do hit. The best times to use Power Attack are against a foe that is either very hard or very easy for you to hit. Again foes in the middle, it is a much more iffy proposition.
Combat Expertise is sort of the opposite; you take away from your attacks to add to your Armor Class. If you’re fighting a large number of opponents or creatures with lots of attacks, like a seven-headed hydra or a dragon, then it’s a good deal; if you’re up against one enemy, not so much. If you’re low on hit points, do you boost your Armor Class to try to survive, or do you keep your attack level up and try to finish off your foe before she finishes you?
Using feats like these depend on your ability to make some calculations (or at least some estimates) in your head about how much benefit you’ll gain versus how much you’ll lose. Sometimes you’ll want to go ‘all in’ with these kinds of feats. Other times you’ll only want to risk a little. These kinds of feats are often the hardest for new players to manage because they require forethought, attention to the die rolls around the table (both your own and others’, like counting cards during a blackjack game), and the ability to make snap decisions.
Next time, we’ll talk about how you get feats, including negotiating the wide variety of prerequisites to become eligible to take the feats that you want.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.