Netbook of Feats Design Guide

The purpose of this document is to help you design feats. While this document is designed for those wanting to write feats for the Netbook of Feats, most of it could be applied to anyone looking to create feats for the fifth edition.

Understand Copyright Rules

Before you think too much about design, familiarize yourself with the copyright concerns surrounding the OGL and copyright law in general. Copyright exists to protect intellectual property by giving creators exclusive legal ownership of their creations. If you create something, you have a copyright.

The OGL is a specific license used to grant permission to others to use your copyrighted work. You can only publish other people’s work under OGL if they published it with the license first. Otherwise, you would not only be stealing their work but are giving it away to everyone else. Once you publish your own work under OGL, anyone else is free to use it provided they use and follow the terms of the license.

The lines of copyright can be tricky. Generally speaking, you copyright an expression, not an idea. So you can’t copyright “any story about a dog” you can only copyright a specific story about a specific dog that you wrote yourself. In the world of games, you can pretty much steal other people’s ideas, but you will need to re-create that idea in your own unique expression. If it is too much the same, then you may still be in violation of copyright even though your intent was to be different.

The practical upshot of all this is as follows.

  • Don’t copy other people’s work (but you can be inspired by their ideas)
  • Don’t submit someone else’s work to the NBOF unless….
    • It was published under the OGL
    • And you give us the source and author of the work so we can cite it

Understand What a Feat Is

From the SRD

A feat represents a talent or an area of expertise that gives a character special capabilities. It embodies training, experience, and abilities beyond what a class provides.

At certain levels, your class gives you the Ability Score Improvement feature. Using the optional feats rule, you can forgo taking that feature to take a feat of your choice instead. You can take each feat only once unless the feat’s description says otherwise.

You must meet any prerequisite specified in a feat to take that feat. If you ever lose a feat’s prerequisite, you can’t use that feat until you regain the prerequisite.

From Mike Mearls, Lead Designer of 5th edition

“In fifth edition, each feat is like a focused multiclass option. It comes with everything you need to realize a new dimension to your character. Most feats either give you a number of small upgrades bundled together with a significant new class feature that you’ll use a lot, or a lesser benefit bundled with a +1 bonus to a single ability score.

The design concept behind this approach is simple. If someone at the table is playing a character with a feat, you should be able to notice that by the end of a session. Feats do obvious and interesting things to characters that make them stand out.”

From Sigfried Trent, Netbook of Feats Editor

“If a class is your job, and entails a wide range of skills and abilities shared by others in that profession, a feat is more like a hobby or specialization among others in your profession. In past editions, feats just did one thing, in 5e they can do multiple things that are closely related in a theme.

Often 5e feats are best approached by thinking of something in the game world and then finding mechanics to represent that rather than starting with a mechanic like you would in previous editions. If you are determined to start from the mechanics’ side, you should try and work it back to some wider umbrella that has a place in the game world.”

Avoiding Duplication

We don’t want the Netbook of Feats to be just a collection of every feat we can find or invent. While that is easy, it’s not very useful or fun. We want each feat to be part of a whole collection that represents a wide range of meaningful choices you can make when leveling up your character. To achieve this we want our feats to be unique within the collection.

  • Each feat must have a unique name
  • Each feat should be a unique concept (no two feats about juggling or mastering quarterstaves or the like)
  • Each feat should offer substantially unique mechanics

This last one is a bit tricky. Many feats for instance will offer an ability score increase, a great many of them the same ability score. In other areas, there will also be some overlap. Nonetheless, we want to avoid any two feats having significant overlap. For instance, we don’t want two feats that give you a number of advantages with jumping, one because you are strong and another because you are tall. If we have a feat that lets you gain advantage on all Constitution saving throws, we don’t need one that gives you advantage on such saves for poison and disease even if it has a cool theme. Basically, if there isn’t a meaningful difference in choosing between two feats, we only want one of them.

Feats also should not duplicate other game mechanics. Don’t make a feat that mimics a rogue’s sneak attack. If you really think it makes sense, create the feat to specifically grant the class ability or some limited version of it. Be cautious with this. While having a kind of multi-class light is ok, and found in the core feats, you don’t want to grant a classes’ best features such that it is strictly better to play a fighter with monk-like feats than to actually be a monk.

That said, if you have a feat that is not so unique, but you think it’s better than the one we already have, by all means, we’d like to consider it as a replacement for the collection.

Naming Your Feat

The most important objective in naming a feat is to give you a general idea of what the feat will do or who it might be useful for. So a feat called “Detective” should have abilities that might help you solve crimes, while a feat called Dragon Hunter, should give you some bonus for finding and/or fighting dragons.

Feats are often named using a noun that describes what a person does such as Guardian, or Whittler. In this sense, it is a bit like naming a class. Of course, there isn’t always a good noun available in which case a common second choice is an adjective that sums up the abilities.

Feat names are also ideally concise, not more than three words, and ideally one or two.

Describing Your Feat

The description of a feat is mostly fluff, there to give it some role-playing flavor and excite the imagination of the reader. In some cases it can help connect the mechanics of the feat to the name, explaining why it is a character with Monkey Grip can swing a greatsword in one hand.

Descriptions should be concise, usually one or two sentences. They should also be at least a little colorful and evocative, not just dry text. So “Nimble as a cloud you dance through the battlefield.” is preferred over “You are agile and avoid damage.”

Feat Mechanics

OK, that’s enough of the fluffy stuff, time for the crunch! There is a lot to consider when writing mechanics. A lot of it is fairly intuitive but it helps to spell it all out.

Know the Game Rules

5th edition is stripped down and more focused on storytelling and less on tactics than previous editions, but it is still a carefully designed and lovingly crafted rules system. Game terms have specific meanings and you want your feat benefits to be clear and exact.

Any time you work on a feat, dig into the areas in the rules you are working with. Make sure you fully understand them and are using terms in the same way the core rules are using them. There isn’t a lot more to say on the subject other than this is perhaps the most important aspect of creating well-crafted feats.

Understand the Game Conventions

There are things about the rules that are not spelled out in the SRD but nonetheless are essential to understand. Mechanics that made sense in an old edition of the game likely would create balance problems in 5th edition.

The best example of a fundamental change in design is Attack vs Armor Class. This was a big problem in old editions of the game because the bonuses one got as they leveled in both, made the window of variation between the two values approach a point where characters nearly always missed attacks or nearly always hit thus making attack rolls almost irrelevant. The same went for saving throws and skill checks to a lesser degree. 5e dramatically flattens these with far more limits to the bonuses you can get to these values. Instead, 5e focuses on Hit Points vs Damage, scaling both on characters and monsters. As a result, playing with these values is common in 5e.

Ability Score Increases

The optional feat rule lets you take feats to substitute for ability score increases. Many core feats offer an ability score increase along with other benefits. The clear conclusion is that feats are at least a little better than ability score increases, or at a minimum equivalent to them.

My recommended approach is to work up the benefits of your feat and then consider the question, is this as good or better than increasing an important ability score? If the answer is no, then you should consider adding an ability score increase to the feat.

Once you decide you should have one, the question becomes, which ability score? There are two considerations. The first is to choose ability scores that make sense in the role-playing context of the feat. If the feat is about being a diplomat, Charisma or Wisdom would make good sense while the physical ability scores would not. The second consideration is whether the ability score increase would be helpful. For instance, if a feat that would likely be attractive only to wizards, offering a charisma bonus probably doesn’t do the character much good, and thus it’s not much stronger than if you hadn’t offered one. If you aren’t sure, offering a choice can be the best way to cover your bases.

Game Balance

This is often the trickiest and most subjective topic for feat design. Unlike monsters with their CR rating, there is no fixed measuring stick for how powerful a feat is. The best we can hope for is to give you a range of considerations and hope for the best.

Adding feats to a game increases the power curve

At a baseline, feats replaceability increases, and many feats offer both an ability increase and additional benefits. This alone tells you feats add to the power level of characters in a game.

Feats are an optional mechanic

This is critical to understand because monster CRs and the like are designed to be balanced with characters not using optional rules like feats. The more you push the envelope in creating powerful feats, the more likely a given adventure’s difficulty will be thrown off, removing some of its challenge. Thus it falls on feat designers to show restraint and avoid effects that will dramatically enhance a character’s offense or defense.

Use advantage and disadvantage

These two mechanics are key in avoiding upsetting game balance in key game systems. The bonus they offer is significant (about +/- 20%) but they have been baked into the system so that the game scales up in levels without pushing outside the range of a d20 to provide variability in success and failure. Two things make it a nice balanced mechanic. Firstly, they don’t stack, you can’t do better best of two or worst of two. Secondly, they can cancel one another out, so that if you have advantage there are many ways your foes can counter it and vice versa.

Use Bonus actions and Reactions

Any time you are letting someone do something extra in combat, you should use the Bonus Action or Reaction mechanics. Bonus actions are generally for things you do on your turn and Reactions for things you can do at nearly any time to react to some trigger event. These two mechanics are limited to once per round which provides an absolute maximum of actions that any creature can perform. The use of these mechanics thus prevents out-of-control expansion of additional actions. It also means that if you are providing one in a feat, using it has an opportunity cost of not using other actions and reactions available to the character and thus helps keep things like an extra attack from a bonus action in check balance-wise. They become additional options for your bonus action rather than strictly one more thing you can do every round.

Watch out for combos

The more classes and character options there are in the game, the more combinations of effects you can end up with. Try to be aware of as much of the game as you can be and watch out for these. Combinations aren’t always a bad thing, it can be part of the fun of making characters, but there is a line you can cross where the power level starts multiplying and 5e balance can’t sustain that kind of mechanic as it is a system with a very linear progression.

Balance against other feats

In theory, each feat should be about as strong as any other feat. When creating a feat, seek out anything similar and try not to vary too far in what you’re feat offers. If you make a feat and you think something like, “Anyone playing a Fighter would be a fool not to take this feat.” then that feat is way too strong. Instead, they should be thinking, “These feats are both pretty cool, but this one fits my character concept a little better.”

You can make feats that are a little on the weak side to error on the side of caution, but even this has its perils. A feat that is really weak just won’t see any use and thus is pretty much just taking up space in the netbook. I do sometimes find that if a feat is just a really cool concept and has a lot of potential to make role-playing fun, then slightly weaker mechanics can be forgiven.

Don’t chain feats in progression

In 3e feat chaining was common but it isn’t found in the core feats in 5e. I think this is sound judgment so we are avoiding this kind of mechanic in the NBOF for this edition. If you consider that feats replaceability score increases, and note that ability score increases are roughly always of the same value, in the long run, it makes sense that feats should not get more powerful just because they are themed in some way.

Abilities that improve and build upon one another are essentialy, a class mechanic. Classes reward specialization by granting abilities that improve as you level up. Feats are discrete benefits that are as good at first level as they are at 20th level, at least in theory. If the idea you have doesn’t fit the description of being a fixed benefit, then it probably isn’t well suited for the feat mechanic and would be better off as a class feature or option.

Feats generally don’t get better as you level

Class mechanics are where leveling is primarily taken into account. Characters get more durable and better at dealing damage as they grow in levels. That said, you do want a feat’s benefit to be about as good at level 20 as it was at level 1, and sometimes that means it does need to grow with a character. Take the old 3e Toughness feat which gave you 3 hit points. That was pretty handy at level 1 but meant almost nothing at level 20. Popular revisions granted added hit points each level and that meant it scaled better as an overall percentage of your hit points at higher levels which is often what matters balance-wise when hit points are involved.

If your mechanic is based on other mechanics that scale, such as ability checks or attacks, then you can typically rely on the base game mechanic to take care of scaling for you. For instance advantage on an ability check is just as good at level 1 as 20 because the proficiency bonus of your character and your ability score should keep you in a competitive range for the challenges you face, thus the advantage still has about a 20% boon to your success.

So as a general rule, don’t scale with level, but if on analysis it’s clear that the feat will become useless at higher levels, look for a way to scale it in proportion to the character’s overall level or some level-based mechanic like proficiency score.

Breadth Vs Depth

With Breadth meaning: offering many small benefits in different areas, and Depth meaning: offering few benefits concentrated in one area, it is generally safer to favor Breadth when designing a feat. This also gives feats a unique feeling in 5e by making them small packages of related but not necessarily synergistic abilities.

This is also something we have to watch out for as NBOF editors with regard to the entire collection. If we have 15 feats with awesome things you can do with a Greataxe, then chances are good they will become a bit unbalanced if some fighter takes half of them.