At a basic level, everyone gets the same number of feats. Every character gets one feat at 1st level, and an additional feat every time you reach a level that divides by three (3rd, 6th, 9th, etc.). You can use these feats for anything you want, provided you meet the prerequisites for the feat.
Additionally, some classes give you bonus feats as a class ability. Sometimes this feat is chosen for you, like Endurance as a 3rd level ranger or Scribe Scroll as a 1st level wizard, or maybe an alternative choice (like a 1st level monk’s choice between Stunning Fist or Improved Grapple). Other times, you get to choose the feat you want, sometimes any feat you like. For example, human PCs get a bonus feat at 1st level, and a high-level rogue can take a bonus feat as a special ability. More often you choose from a selected group of feats, like a wizard’s ability to get a free metamagic or item creation feat (or Spell Mastery) every 5 levels, or a fighter’s ability to choose extra combat-themed feats at 1st level and then at every even level.
Qualifying for Feats
Some feats require that you meet some requirement before you can take them (like some classes in college). These are called prerequisites, and they come in many different flavors.
1. Skills: Some feats require you to have a skill, like Mounted Combat, which requires the Ride skill. Other feats are pretty pointless if you don’t have a skill; taking Skill Focus doesn’t actually require you to have the skill, but it’s kinda silly to take if you don’t.
2. Class features: To take Extra Turning, you need to be able to turn undead. To take Natural Spell, which lets your druid cast spells even when using her wild shape ability to turn into an animal, you need to have the wild shape ability. Other feats don’t necessarily list prerequisites, but as with skills it’s dumb to take them if you can’t use them. Why take Silent Spell or Spell Focus or Spell Penetration if you can’t cast spells?
There is actually one reason you might do it. If you have a class ability that you will be getting later that can make use of the feat, even if you don’t have the ability yet, you might want or need to take the feat anyway. This happens most often when you have a multiclassed character, like a character with some fighter levels and some cleric levels. You might take a feat before you can actually use it, knowing that the feat will become useful maybe the next time you gain a level. That’s not usually the best way to spend your feat slots, but sometimes it may be the only way to get the feats you need in the right order.
3. Class levels: There are a few feats that require you to be a certain level. Sometimes this is to restrict some abilities only to certain classes, like Weapon Specialization for fighters or Spell Mastery for wizards, or magic item creation feats where you need to be a spellcaster to be able to use your magic to enchant the items.
Another reason, though, is to put off certain abilities until you go up some levels. Leadership for example, requires your character to be 6th level, and this is supposed to represent that your character needs time to become successful and famous enough to be able to attract a sidekick and some hard-core fans looking to follow his fame. Likewise, some magic items are supposed to be harder to make than others: rings are harder than potions, a magic staff is harder than a magic wand which is harder than a magic scroll.
4. Base attack bonus: This kind of prerequisite has two purposes. One is to restrict your choices of feats when you first start out your character by having a restriction of a +1 base attack bonus. This bonus is determined by your class and doesn’t include any other bonuses from a high Strength, racial bonuses with weapons, size, or anything else; that’s why it’s called your ‘base’ attack bonus, to differentiate it from your total attack bonus. When you’re at 1st level, only combat-focused characters like barbarians, fighters, paladins, and rangers, start off with a +1 base attack bonus. As a result, only they can take feats that have that as a prerequisite when they are first starting out. Hey, these are the classes that focus on combat, so they have a leg up on everybody else when it comes to learning special combat tricks.
The second purpose of base attack bonus limits is to delay access to the very best abilities until you gain some levels. Some tricks are just too good to allow you to get too soon, so you have to wait until you gain some levels to take Spring Attack, or even more to get Improved Critical. These feats are the good stuff, and you need to build up to get these special tricks at higher levels. Again, since fighter-types have their base attack bonus increase faster than anybody else, it lets them access these abilities much earlier than other characters.
5. Ability scores: Sometimes, you just have to have talent, or no amount of training will let you master a trick. If you’re a 97-pound weakling, you just aren’t going to be able to use Power Attack, no matter how hard you try. If you don’t have quick hands and super reflexes, you will never be able to draw weapons quickly using the Quick Draw feat. If your fighter doesn’t have a good head on his shoulders, he will never be able to understand the fine nuances of tactics, positioning, anticipation, and timing needed for Combat Expertise. If you have a feat in mind that you want, look at ability score requirements and make sure your character measures up.
6. Other feats: As mentioned earlier, some feats are organized in sequence, so that you need to take some feats before you can take others. Often you’ll have one ‘entry’ feat that opens up several options for specializing your skills afterwards. Having learned Power Attack, you can then move on and take Cleave, or maybe Improved Sunder if you like the idea of smashing your enemy’s weapons. Sometimes you have to take a couple of feats in a row, like Spring Attack requiring Dodge and then Mobility beforehand.
In addition to being prerequisites for other feats, feats are themselves sometimes used as prerequisites for other things. As you go up in levels, you may be able to change from a regular character class described in the Player’s Handbook to a special kind of class called a ‘prestige class,’ which is described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and to gain entry into a class like this might require you to take certain feats. Also, if you are making magic items that give you the benefits of a feat, you might need to have that feat yourself to be able to make it.
Multiple Feats at Once
One last thing to remember is that if you have a level where you get more than one feat, you can take feats in sequence if you like. For instance, if you are a 1st level human fighter, you actually get to start play with three feats: the feat everyone gets at 1st level, another bonus feat of any kind you like for being a human, and another bonus feat that has to come from the ‘bonus fighter feats’ section. Let’s say you have a Dexterity of 16. You could choose to take Dodge (which has a prerequisite of 13+ Dexterity) and Mobility (which has a prerequisite of Dodge) and still have a feat left over. You couldn’t take Spring Attack even though you have the first two feats it requires because you don’t yet have a +4 base attack bonus. Both Dodge and Mobility are on the ‘fighter feat’ list, however, and so you could take one of them with your bonus fighter feat and still have one of your regular feat slots left over to take Improved Initiative or Alertness or whatever you liked. In effect, if you get more than one feat you get to say what order you take them in, so even though you get them at the same level, you can say you took one before the other, so that you meet the requirements.
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.