Friday, October 10, 2008

3E Feats Have One Flaw

A brief observation, I think: After OD&D, Gary Gygax seemed to go through a lot of iterations of trying to balance or strengthen Fighters, in comparison to the other spellcasting classes. (I guess some people still pursue that today.) In Supplement I he introduced exceptional strength (the 18/% score) that could significantly boost Fighters, and only Fighters, in melee. In the 1E PHB he gave Fighters (and subclasses) a special multiple attacks capability in a table. He also allowed them to make as many attacks on "normal" creatures -- under 1 full Hit Die (minion-types, if you insist) -- as they have levels. And a weapon-proficiency system was established, with Fighters getting the most slots. In Unearthed Arcana he gave them a weapon specialization capability (extra attacks, to-hit, and damage with specially selected weapons).

Now, in 3E one of the several truly wonderful systemizations (IMO) was the "Feats" system which provided a single overarching framework for all kinds of stuff like this. Most of these Fighter-advancements were folded into Feats, and as a Fighter you could pick and choose which ones you wanted. You could weigh these boosts against each other. And they provided an elegant mechanic to support future supplements or expansions in the set of choices (unlike, say, how expanding cleric spell lists were always a net power-inflation to clerics through the years).

But, can you spot which AD&D Fighter boost was left out?

Okay, actually 3 of the above got turned into feats. They're (1) the special Weapon Proficiency feats, (2) the Weapon Focus/ Specialization feats, and (3) the potential for many attacks on very weak creatures via the Cleave/ Great Cleave feat chain. So that leaves 2 of the above out of the picture.

The first one is very minor: Exceptional strength (18/%). Not a big problem --- darned if I don't like the ability modifiers than I can just remember off the top of my head. I suppose you could throw in a special Feat just to boost Fighter strength by a point or so. (Stay away, you other abilities. You're not invited.)

The second one is, in retrospect, an enormous gaffe: Multiple iterative attacks. The 3E designers should have seen the pattern in their own work and also turned this capacity into a Feat for Fighters (or anyone else) to select from. But they didn't. Instead they baked this capacity into the raw attack advancement for every class and monster type. What a bunch of overhead! Every attack progression got turned into a series of slashed numbers that you had to track. I saw lots of people confused, when adding BAB from different sources, about what point the extra attacks kicked in. At high levels you might have a single person with 4, 5, 6 or more attacks to resolve in a round, bogging down combat. Wizards and everyone else had extra attacks by default. Big powerful monsters like giants got extra attacks (multiple swings per round) when logically you'd picture them as lumbering, slow brutes.

Whoops.

Okay, I'll actually forgive the 3E guys because they gave me the Feats system in the first place (even the name makes me happy, I'm immediately in an Irish myth when I hear it -- 3.5/4E designers, you are entirely disinherited on this score). But wow, that was a pain to deal with for 8 years.

In my Diminutive d20 system, everyone has one base attack, and iterative attacks are wiped out of the picture. There's a feat called Rapid Attack (prerequisite: Combat Reflexes) which just does the same thing for melee attacks that Rapid Shot does for missiles (two attacks, each at -2 to hit). Less to remember, less to record, doesn't junk up every class/monster/PC listing, and doesn't explode into crazy bloated numbers at higher levels. So much nicer, and so obvious in retrospect.

Anyway 3E designers, I forgive you, at least you gave a crap about what you were doing.

11 comments:

  1. You'll have to pardon me for suggesting that 3E feats have more than one flaw. But I do see your point.

    One of the major problems with fighters in the basic edition - red box was the d8 hit points. That combined with the fact that they really had no way of augmenting their damage or to hit abilities beyond what other classes had access to made them very hard to make powerful.

    The original attempt to make them stronger was to reduce their XP requirements below the magic user class (2000 xp vs 2500 for lvl 2 if memory serves) but then they let the Cleric advance at 1500 xp.

    They tried to fix it with iterative attacks etc., but the truth is that these fixes just didn't feel right from a role-playing stance. Why should a natural ability like strength be tied to a profession? Why can't another profession learn iterative attacks?

    Feats came along to try to cure some of that, but some feats and feat trees simply weren't well balanced.

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  2. It’s odd to me that so many people criticize iterative attacks when it is one of the few things in 3e that I like. The idea is that once your attack bonus reaches a certain level, you’re hitting most of the time. By adding attacks at lower bonuses, you regain the fun that comes from a hit being less certain.

    It’s such a simple idea. I’ve never seen it cause any difficulties.

    Since the “problem” iterative attacks seek to “solve” affects any class with an attack bonus that can get high enough, it should be available to all those classes.

    Personally, Fighter has always been my favorite class, and I never like it when complications are added to it. If you feel the Fighter is at a disadvantage to the other classes, instead of adding on new complications, just increase his combat effectiveness directly. (Or decrease that of the other classes.)

    Anyway, those are my thoughts on the matters, for whatever they’re worth. Whatever works for you and your group.

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  3. Hey Robert, we'll definitely have to disagree on this one.

    (1) I don't experience "hitting most of the time". Against level-appropriate enemies, if anything I see more misses by PCs as levels go up.

    (2) "It’s such a simple idea. I’ve never seen it cause any difficulties." Another example: Notice how WOTC observed so much confusion that in 3.5 they had to put additional lines in every monster stat block for "Standard Attack" vs. "Full Attack".

    (3) "Personally, Fighter has always been my favorite class, and I never like it when complications are added to it." My point exactly! (Nor do I like complications to other classes or monsters, either.)

    If you've got the Feat system in the first place, there's no need for iterative attacks. Just fold them into the Feat options (to choose or not -- by Fighters and non-Fighters alike), and you avoid an unnecessary extraneous sub-system.

    Avoiding an unnecessary complication is in fact my whole point.

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  4. I'd say there is more than one flaw as well. My biggest beef with 3E flaws is that some are dead end traps. The novice player might take Toughness, thinking it will make their character more durable, when in reality its a trap. Same with any number of feats that look like they might be appealing but are really just a bad idea.

    And that is the problem with encompassing core class features in a choice-based feat system -- if you give players choice, someone will make a really bad one. That gimps them and it penalizes the whole team, who now have to pull the weight of the gimped character. It also makes encounter design more difficult for the GM, as the gap between "optimized" characters and gimp characters has widened.

    So, I prefer "hard coding" these sorts of things into the class itself rather than giving players the option to make a bad choice.

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  5. And that is the problem with encompassing core class features in a choice-based feat system -- if you give players choice, someone will make a really bad one.

    I have mixed feelings about this.

    Some of the most interesting PCs come from suboptimal choices. Plus, in my experience, a PC’s effectiveness is more about the player than the mechanics. So, I don’t have a problem with this kind of choice...per se.

    The first issue, of course, is whether I even want mechanics for the stuff being chosen.

    You’re right about the “traps” in 3e. Once you study the system, you can see there are “feat paths” they intended you to follow. These should’ve at least been made more explicit, if not turned into pre-programmed classes. This isn’t so much a problem of having choice, however, as the particular implementation. If the feats had been more independent, then you’d have less of the trap problem.

    (And Toughness could’ve been made more useful long-term or the cases where it make sense spelled out.)

    Most important, however, is that the current edition of D&D—for good or ill—is the flagship of the industry. It should, therefore, be a more accessible system than 3e was. 3e wasn’t a bad system, it might not have been a bad AD&D, but it was a bad D&D.

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  7. There is a difference between a suboptimal choice and having the power to make truly horrendous choices. Say you're the GM and have two fighters in the party.

    One selects "good" feats; they don't even have to be super optimized. Perhaps Power Attack and Weapon Focus and Exotic Weapon Proficiency for big-damage wallops, or Combat Expertise, Improved Trip, Combat Reflexes, and Exotic Weapon Prof (Spiked Chain) for a trip monkey. That's just core, even.

    The other selects bad feats; toughness, diligent, skill focus (profession pastry chef) -- because you know he was a baker in his backstory!

    One of them clearly can do the fighter's "job." He is a melee threat and kills monsters, and he also can keep the squishies safe by tripping monsters up before they get close. The other has a decent BAB but does nowhere near as much damage and can't help keep wizard safe. If you're the hapless GM that has both in the party, how do you build encounters that challenge both without totally overwhelming the poorly built fighter?

    I do not like a system that allows a player to make an incredibly suboptimal choices, selections that are so bad that they can't fill their role.

    This is one thing I like about 1E and 4E. In both, about the worst thing you can do is not put a high score in your prime stat. If you're a fighter with 16+ STR in either system, you're good to go. Sure, there are choices you can make that will help you be more effective (long swords and plate mail are better than clubs and leather armor in 1E; some feats are better than others in 4E), but there are few choices that will totally screw your character and render you unable to perform your class functions.

    I think the latter setup is more fun for the typical group, where maybe one or two folks take optimization very seriously, one or two are bad at it (either due to willful intent or ineptness), and the others are in the middle.

    That, I think is the main problem with putting main class features into feats.

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  8. "I do not like a system that allows a player to make an incredibly suboptimal choices, selections that are so bad that they can't fill their role."

    If you have little to no choices to customize and define your character, regardless of whether or not it is the "optimal" (personally, I prefer the term "min/maxed") choice or not, what is the point of playing any of the classes? Eventually you'll wind up with a cookie-cutter definition of each class with minimal variation and no depth of character that comes from inherent strengths, weaknesses, and talents.

    If someone wanted to make and play a "weaker" fighter with "sub-optimal" combat abilities, why should the game not allow this?

    It is unlikely that someone would do this - and if/when done it'd certainly not be very often or without direct intention to do so - by accident or by random chance.

    "This is one thing I like about 1E and 4E. In both, about the worst thing you can do is not put a high score in your prime stat. If you're a fighter with 16+ STR in either system, you're good to go. Sure, there are choices you can make that will help you be more effective (long swords and plate mail are better than clubs and leather armor in 1E; some feats are better than others in 4E), but there are few choices that will totally screw your character and render you unable to perform your class functions."

    I don't see very many (and see it as arguable, at best, that there are any at all) choices that have the potential to do this in 3e, at least not the to the extreme "screw your character and render you unable to perform your class functions" degree. I'll concede that a skill focus in something inane is a stupid and horrendous choice, however it IS the player's character to design as they want to.

    The moment the game becomes designed to remove these "sub-optimal" choices to ensure you can't do anything to screw up the designers' ideas and concepts of what the class should do and be is the moment that any and all characters of that class cease to be the player's character concept. Instead they become the player's character conforming to someone else's concept of what the character's profession/class should be. And, on that last note, a class and profession need not always be one and the same. It is perfectly reasonable for a character to have an adventuring class and have an entirely different career when not adventuring (this is very much like the national guardsmen and military reservists who, in times of military service, are soldiers/airmen/seamen/marines/etc with some "warrior-like" training and abilities (regardless of specialty and training in their service), and yet when not engaged in service duties (comparative, in this example, to adventuring) can have a career entirely separate and unconnected with/from their service training/field of expertise.

    Simply put: a person could be a common infantryman in the army when called to serve (read: "adventure") while having a completely unrelated career when not engaged in the duties and activities of their service/adventuring commitment.

    "I think the latter setup is more fun for the typical group, where maybe one or two folks take optimization very seriously, one or two are bad at it (either due to willful intent or ineptness), and the others are in the middle.

    That, I think is the main problem with putting main class features into feats."


    I see these as two different points. First, your assessment that the latter is "more fun for the typical group" is entirely subjective to your experience. My gaming experiences, while admittedly limited compared to more experienced gamers like my father and his friends (who've played together since high school and college for more years than I've been alive), have been just the opposite. I've seen, and played with, gamers who find the "character" of their characters more engaging and interesting (and more fun) than the purely "optimal" mechanical aspects of their characters' classes.

    I do agree, however, that making class features into feats where any and all characters can have identical abilities regardless of their chose classes is a problem in some ways. While I completely love the concept of customization and the flexibility that comes from the feats and the smorgasbord (HA! Told ya I could use that word in a "normal" conversation Tiffy!) - sorry for the sidebar here.- of choices, I do see a problem making all the class abilities available so that, in some regards, all the classes are "too vanilla" and lack individuality and a flavor all their own too.

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  9. "My biggest beef with 3E flaws is that some are dead end traps. The novice player might take Toughness, thinking it will make their character more durable, when in reality its a trap."

    Admittedly there are better and worse feats -- and of course you picked on Toughness, which is the star poster child for that.

    But my opinion is that that indicates specific feats that should have been tweaked/fixed, which could have been allowed over time. The overall structure of the system is great, and allows players/DMs to swap out abilities systematically without continually house-ruling everything or making up brand new classes for every new power they think of.

    You can say the same thing about the spell system, right? Conceivably a wizard player could pick really weak spells and be gimped because of it. But the overall structure is strong because it provides an opportunity to grow and refine the system in small manageable chunks.

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  10. I think one of the bigger problems with making Fighters more powerful is that players and DMs would often ignore the fighter's inherent advantages.

    For example, thoughout the editions, only fighters could wield the most powerful weapons and bring the most powerful magic armours to bear. In fact, in OD&D, this is among the very first things mentioned in the fighter's description!

    To make this design element relevant, it actually has to be true. The fighter's +3 Sword doesn't really matter much when all the thieves get +3 Bows and all the mages get +3 daggers. A fighter lives and dies by his equipment, and he should have access to the best of it. Powerful intelligent swords, axes, hammers, spears, magic lances that the fighter a terror on horseback. Give the most powerful weapons special powers that rival powerful magic effects. When the fighter is stuck using a +2 sword, and the thief has a +2 bow and the mage a +2 dagger, all the advantage of being a fighter is lost.

    Only fighters, demihumans and clerics could really use the best armor. Granted, 3e clerics are VERY potent, but in older editions they weren't the terrible offensive forces they were prior. The fighter classes had the benefit of using mighty armor AND wielding the weapons that could do the most collateral damage.

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  11. Heh... serves me right for commenting too quickly. Hopefully my point got across despite grievous errors and repetition. :)

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