Behind the Screen07/25/2004


The Agony of the Feat
Building a Campaign Story Arc, Part 3



"So Eddie, what's in the pile of papers?" Samantha asked. "Those aren't your usual campaign notes. Did my showing up early interrupt your secret plans?"

"Well, if you must know," Eddie replied, "I'm working up some new things, some tweaks to old things -- some ideas for the campaign."

"I figured. Well, if you need any help with mechanics, I am the princess of powergaming and the mistress of min-maxing!"

"I think I knew that already, Sammy." Eddie smiled. "Okay, then, I'm setting up some character regions to help tailor a couple cultures in the game world, but I'm wondering about how to work in the whole 'regional feat' idea. Since we have a little time before the others get here, do you have any pearls of wisdom?"

"I don't suppose you'd compensate my time and expertise with a little preview of what we're talking about," Samantha asked slyly. "Yeah, didn't think so."

MUNCHINGS AND CRUNCHINGS

These are sample feat lists Eddie has developed for the sivs, along with two new feat descriptions he created to fit his theme:

Recommended General Feats: Battle Jump, Exotic Weapon Proficiency (net), Eyes in the Back of Your Head, Forester, Greater Kiai Shout (Croak), Improved Energy Resistance, Improved Natural Armor, Improved Swimming, Kiai Shout (Croak), Powerful Charge

Regional Feats: Discipline, Marshwalker (as Forester, but in swamp/march terrain), Slippery, Step of the Lily, Treetopper

Slippery [Regional]

Your skin is so slippery that you can rapidly wriggle free from tangles and bonds.

Prerequisite: Siv or bullywug

Benefit: Escape Artist is always a class skill for you. When another creature attempts to grapple you, you may substitute an Escape Artist check for the normal grapple check in making your opposed roll to avoid being grappled. This does not apply when you initiate a grapple. In addition, using Escape Artist to escape a grapple or pin is a move action for you. Escaping from a net or an animate rope, command plants, control plants, or entangle spell is a standard action, and escaping rope bindings, manacles, or other restraints or squeezing through a tight space as a full-round action, as is moving when caught in a web spell.

You can't use this feat if you are wearing armor (shields are allowed).

Normal: See the Escape Artist skill description on page 73 and grapple rules on pages 155-157 in the Player's Handbook.

Step of the Lily [Regional]

You have uncanny balance and grace, with a smooth and light step.

Prerequisites: Siv

Benefit: You gain a +1 bonus to Balance, Move Silently, and Tumble checks. You may use a Balance check to maintain water walking in combat or while tumbling.

Normal: A Dexterity check is required to use water walking in combat or while tumbling.

Welcome back to our Behind the Screen workshop on building campaign story arcs. Last time, we started examining the process of setting up a framework for your campaign's typical NPCs, exemplified by the "character region" Eddie drew up for the frog-folk sivs that he has made the centerpiece of his story arc. Now we'll finish off that discussion with feats, which are complicated enough to deserve their own column.

Feats are a nifty way of working in special abilities for characters in a manner that keeps the game in balance -- maybe too nifty. If every supplement adds a dozen new feats, pretty soon you end up with hundreds of feats spread across a bunch of books, and you're right where 2nd Edition AD&D was with nonweapon proficiencies. It's a catch-22: You want neat new content, but every sheaf of new goodies just further bloats the list. Further, unless you let players retrofit their characters each time a new reference comes up, most of those new feats will never -- can never -- get used, because their PCs are already set up for the prerequisites and feats that fit with established character concepts.

Remember, however, that everything in the campaign need not be for player use. As DM, you're the one with the flexibility to mix and match NPCs and monsters with all the weird feats you like. As with other aspects of the game, take care to balance material that is probably only for the DM's use. If some feats are clearly light years better than others but only the bad guys get to use them, then you have a problem. Sure, everybody has favorites, and different feats fit better for different character types, but some feats are just better than others (Improved Trip anyone?). That kind of thing should be the exception, not the rule, and extra-good feats should be limited in some way. Look at existing feats and what they let you do, and try to keep new or modified feat ideas in line with that (at least in the ballpark).

Eddie has already looked around for feats that would be fit the siv culture. Regions are big in the Forgotten Realms setting, and some of those feats fit quite well. Sivs are highly organized and structured, so Discipline seems a natural fit. Since Eddie has moved his sivs into a jungle setting (though still marshy), the Forester and Treetopper feats actually make a great deal of sense for those sivs who skulk and hunt in the jungles around their home. Resist Poison also makes sense in a jungle setting rife with venomous vermin and animals. Another interesting possibility is Foe Hunter, which could grant "favored enemy" benefits against dinosaurs, lizardfolk, dire animals, or perhaps some jungle humanoid such as goblins or halflings (using the Jungle Races variants in Unearthed Arcana, pages 13-15). Races of Faerûn offers the Disentangler and Jungle Stamina regional feats as appealing choices, as well as the more general Improved Energy Resistance, Improved Natural Armor, and Rapid Swimming. And Eddie needn't stick to Forgotten Realms feats. For example, because sivs use nets, Exotic Weapon Proficiency (net) could be taken as a regional feat. Or maybe sivs could enhance their wide-angle frog-eyes with Eyes in the Back of Your Head or unleash a Kiai Shout (Croak!) from Complete Warrior.

However, many of these feats have prerequisites (aside from race/region), and this is where Eddie wanted Samantha's advice. Can you have more than one regional feat?Are they something you take at 1st level or can you take them later?You could use the Eberron model where regional feats are just suggestions of typical feats for your culture. You can take as many as you like (and qualify for), but only from your area. The World of Greyhawk (see articles in Dragon #315 and #319) is similar, but there you can qualify for feats from regions other than your own by taking ranks in Knowledge (local), and some feats must be taken at 1st level or not at all. The v.3.0 Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting and its companion books (e.g., Unapproachable East) used this idea also, with the extra feature that characters of a "preferred class" could even get a bonus regional feat at 1st level. The v.3.5 Player's Guide to Faerûn is much more restrictive: You get only one regional feat (which is generally much better than other feats), and you must take it at 1st level.

There are enough cool feats out there that Eddie is leaning toward a mix of ideas, starting with letting sivs take more than one regional feat (maybe Samantha's power-gaming influence showing through!). Some make sense as feats that are typical for siv culture, like the Eberron model. At the same time, taking a single powerful regional feat at 1st level appeals to him, too. In fact, it's a way to make distinctions within siv culture: Each siv must take a regional feat at 1st level, with each different feat-group belonging to a different caste (or perhaps bearing particular color markings), while all sivs can possess the recommended (general) feats.

You will probably find a number of existing feats that could suit your purposes, but you can also adapt existing feats, tweaking them a little to fit better. That could mean taking the basic structure of a feat but altering it slightly; Eddie, for instance, might switch the Hide, Listen, Move Silently, and Spot bonuses from the Forester feat to work in swamp/marsh terrain instead. Likewise, it makes sense that a frog-race could have some sort of "Hopping Charge" feat, as they leap to the attack. This could be identical to the Battle Jump feat in Unapproachable East or maybe Powerful Charge from Miniatures Handbook. Remember your theme and stick with it -- play it up.

If you don't find any existing options that are just right, you can always make stuff up! Eddie would like a feat that enhances the siv water-walking power. The ability is nice for show, but actually very difficult to use in combat: Ability checks are no sure thing! One way to improve it is to change from a straight Dexterity check to a Dexterity-based skill check. That way, a siv can boost its chances of success by spending skill points or using a skill-based magic item. Water walking is not that powerful, so maybe the feat should just make the ability automatically successful. You could go both ways on this, but given how it is likely to be used, it could put sivs at a large advantage vs. PCs, so Eddie decides to stick with just improving the check, throwing in minor skill bonuses as well. If the feat gave auto-success, he'd probably drop those bonuses.

Another feat might emphasize the sivs' slippery frog-skin and how hard they are to catch. Like the water-walking feat, you could make this auto-successful, like how kuo-toa automatically slip out of webs and nets and such. That feels like too much for a feat, though; maybe he could just make Escape Artist better, easier, or just faster to use. He could add a skill bonus, but for variety he could instead make Escape Artist always a class skill, so it's easy to put points into. Remember the theme, though, because that might put limitations on the feat. Slippery skin, for example, means your skin has to be exposed, right? An armor restriction seems very appropriate for this feat.

Speaking of skin, Eddie is fascinated by those tiny poisonous jungle frogs and would like to create a feat inspired by them. Can a feat give you a whole new special attack? Kiai Shout sort of does, or Stunning Attack, but they are limited in use. A poison skin would make more sense if it's always "on." Can you use the toxic skin offensively? Is it more effective when someone grapples you than if they just touch you? What if you're wearing armor or clothing? As DM, Eddie could just add it to the sivs as an innate racial ability, but how much does he want to change the basic creature?

Part of using feats is to help you as a DM think about how to build creatures within the rules, rather than just completely ad hoc. Something that adds an entirely new ability to a creature might go beyond the intended purpose of feats. Next time we'll look at creating creature templates -- probably a better route to go for more significant changes like this "toxic skin" concept.

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife (Judy), daughter (Meshia), son (Allen), and dog (Bear). He is a part-time homemaker, part-time medical transcriptionist, part-time Ph.D. candidate in social & cultural foundations of education, and is an active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in two others.

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