I am amused to discover that, just over 24 hours after I posted about feats and feat design (and how the fanbase is calling for more feats), the new Unearthed Arcana does the same. The article opens with a discussion of feat design philosophy, which I think is excellent, and continues into several use cases - a total of eight feats and one discarded draft. At five pages, the article is short enough that I can do a pretty deep dive.
The WotC team has certain constraints in its design that don't necessarily apply to third-party developers, but they are promises that WotC has (explicitly or otherwise) made and I am glad to see them honored. Specifically, feats have to be optional, and other design elements (like classes) have to support that. It may be a bit inelegant (because it contrasts with WotC's design bible) to see a class grant a specific feat, or a prestige class require one (whenever prestige class design comes out of its playtest phase), but it's not wrong outright.
To use one of Mearls's specific cases, a feat that makes you a great gambler can't assume a system for gambling if WotC is going to publish it, but for a third-party publisher (OGL or DM's Guild) it would probably be fine to include a gambling system within the release, and have it interact with the feat. A third-party designer can assume you'll use the whole document, or none of it.
The point about feats not closing the door on people without the feat attempting the same action, perhaps as a one-off stunt, is a very good one, but only intermittently observed in WotC's design to date. Mearls references creating and using an alias as something that shouldn't require a feat - right, good, I agree. (Among other things, that would really screw Charlatans out of their trait!)
But what about feats like Grappler? Is there a sane way for someone without this feat to achieve a pin on a target - some sort of cost or reduced chance of success that keeps this feat worth its cost? Having said that, I don't have a problem with Grappler as-written; my point is that this design rule is more nuanced than it first seems.
Avoiding feat chains is one of the best decisions in the whole design. I love that you would have a hard time getting into a situation of not being able to choose something at 12th level because of a choice you made at 4th level. Buyer's remorse on a long feat chain was a wet blanket on my enjoyment of one of the very few high-level 3.x characters I ever played - remembering that 3.x had no native respec rules, and the ones introduced later were bitterly punitive. Feat chains make the game less approachable for new players and push system mastery as a barrier to entry.
The essay ends with something I'll casually rephrase as "feats should just about be Aspects." You should be making a firm declaration about who your character is when you choose a feat. I agree with that, though that really dilutes the meaning of things like War Caster (since so many spellcasters want it). When particular approaches consistently require a particular feat, you're going to see overlap even within an adventuring party, and that loses some of the interest and self-definition.
One "Failed" Draft
Next up, Mearls presents a draft of a feat called Warhammer Master. Inexplicably this does not involve arguing about the Age of Sigmar and whether or not it is ruining everything by throwing out canon and an incredibly elaborate, indisputably nightmarish meta.
Sorry, I got a little off-topic there. (I don't play Warhammer Fantasy Battles in any incarnation, but I have friends who super care about it.)
Warhammer Master is a feat with two elements, both of which apply only while wielding a warhammer. The first of them triggers a possible knockdown on hit, with a saving throw. This is similar to but slightly more egregious than an Open Hand monk's Open Hand Technique feature - this applies to every hit, not just ones you land with your ki-expending Flurry of Blows. (They may have forgotten just how good Open Hand Technique is at this.) Mearls rightly notes that this feature slows down play.
The second feature is a shield disarm, as an attack that does no damage. Mearls points out that this implies that you can't disarm a shield through other means. There isn't an established rules block for disarming or temporarily ignoring a shield, and they want to leave room for on-the-spot rulings and stunts for that kind of thing. That's mostly good, but without each DM making a ruling, there's no way to guess whether this feature is good or not.
The third problem is that it's warhammer-only. Mearls doesn't go into any depth on why this is bad, but I sure will. Have you noticed that there are no Weapon Focus or Weapon Specialization feats (or the whole feat chain that follows) in 5e? The narrowest that Player's Handbook feats get on weapon choice is Crossbow Expert. Pro tip, probably the majority of people purchasing this feat have no intention of getting cozy with a crossbow and instead want to make ranged spell attacks (or longbow, maybe) with impunity, because its second feature is all that and a bag of chips. It's absolutely great for a game to cockblock over-specialization. It means that finding disappointing treasure is less common.
By comparison, in Arcana Evolved I had a dire greathammer. Any magical weapon that wasn't a dire greathammer was a disappointment for me, because it meant I wasn't getting the benefit of all the feats I had sunk into being allowed to use dire greathammers, and into being better with them. My character also wielded a longsword occasionally, because you should always keep something with ghost touch around unless every weapon-wielder in the party already has one. Over the course of the campaign, we got an enormous variety of weapons that no one in the party had any interest in using, not because they weren't good, but because we had specialized in other things.
The Fix is In
To address the issues of Warhammer Master, the article follows up with Fell Handed. (This is also the name of a Virtue of Mastery - basically a feat-like rules element - in The One Ring.) This feat has four elements, all of which apply to handaxes, battleaxes, greataxes, warhammers, and mauls. That's a fairly broad list of popular martial weapons, and results in a number of different Venn-diagram feat selections, between this feat and presumed future expansions. Based on the theme expressed in the feat, they should really add greatclub, mace, morningstar, and war pick.
Its first feature - and we're going to see this in all of the weapon feats in this document - is a +1 attack bonus when using a weapon of the appropriate type. Why is this here? Mearls says he likes it because it is easy to just add onto your character sheet and never worry about again. So was Weapon Focus. Do not toss out your bounded accuracy. The Player's Handbook feats are very careful about their math improvements, and this is... not. If the +1 to hit is the deciding factor in why you're taking this feat, the design has failed.
There is the related issue that all weapon loadouts and feat selections have to compete with Great Weapon Master and Sharpshooter, which are enormously good because +10 damage is a big deal in 5e, even at a -5 accuracy penalty... which you might well be mitigating some other way.
The second and third features are sort of tied together. Something cool happens when you have advantage and roll really well, and something cool happens when you have disadvantage and don't completely blow it. I've seen a fair number of house rules for situations like this. If you have advantage and both dice would hit, you knock your target prone; in a sense the second die replaces the saving throw (inverted, of course - high rolls cause the knockdown). If you have disadvantage and one die misses but the other would have hit, you deal damage, but only your ability score modifier - no die value, no magical bonuses, etc. They've been trying to find a way to have attacks deal a tiny bit of damage on a miss, to model near misses and to create something other than pass/fail checks, for just about the whole of D&D Next and 5e. Up to this point the fans have been bitterly divided on it. I'm sure this will start a new fight on the ENWorld forums!
This does slow down the resolution of advantage/disadvantage slightly, since you need to do your math twice rather than only paying attention to the higher or lower of the two. It does some really odd things in the rules. If you're rolling a single die for the attack, a miss is a miss, and that's all. If you're suffering from adverse conditions, you might have a better miss. Going back to the Protection fighting style and its issues, there's a weird case where Protection could convert a miss to a partial hit. Overall, it's not a problem, per se, just... weird. I will also have to look up exactly how the bonus from bless interacts with dis/advantage; I seem to recall Jeremy Crawford making a ruling there.
The fourth feature is an attempt to resolve the issues of Warhammer Master's shield disarm. It's now a temporary knock-out-of-line rather than a disarm, which isn't really important, and it's folded into the Help action. Essentially, if you have this feat and fight someone with a shield, your Help action lets the ally you help ignore the shield. This is a lot less powerful than disarming the shield. Shields can be magical, and all of your allies would enjoy the benefit of a disarmed shield.
On the other hand - does it in any way resolve the issue of a feat "locking up" a functionality behind its little paywall? In Mearls's view it certainly does - he says so in the text. He suggests that you could let a PC do the same thing without a feat, at some additional cost or with a relevant check. He doesn't suggest what that would be, and that's sort of the problem. Look, I don't want an itemized list of every possible action in the game - if I wanted that, I'd play a video game so I'm not wasting a human DM's time. But the total absence of guidelines for a stunt system means that this still looks like the only way to knock an enemy's shield out of line. It's a strict/loose constructionist argument, but here applied to matters of life and death rather than paltry Constitutional law. From another angle: players tend to use the abilities they know will work, even when they trust the DM to allow and fairly adjudicate stunts, because the infinitude of possibility is the infinitude of choice paralysis.
My view: I would be okay with testing Fell Handed in my game once I cut that +1 attack bonus. It's a highly situational feat without that bonus, so I would honestly be more comfortable with +1 Strength as its first feature than +1 to hit.
A Bunch More Feats
Blade Mastery is a much more straightforward feat, intended to show the balance of attack and defense that makes swords appealing. It has that +1 to hit that I mentioned, and two other features that both cost your reaction. You can either spend a reaction to gain +1 to AC until the beginning of your next turn, or you can hang onto your reaction and hope that someone does you the favor of provoking an opportunity attack, at which point you have advantage and murder them. I can "see" this feat in my mind's eye pretty well, with a rapid shift between offense and defense round over round, and that's definitely a plus.
On the other hand, unless you're spending your reaction because that +1 AC will convert a hit to a miss, that feature is just terrible and it violates core design elements of 5e. It's a fiddly math bonus. That is the thing that we do not do! (But we're going to see a good bit more of it as this document goes on.) Seriously, almost nothing in 5e grants a situational +1 bonus. Bless got kicked up to 1d4, because that's actually easier to remember than a +1. Just place the d4 next to your d20s when you receive the spell. Anything to get rid of the flow-breaking "no wait, I did hit him" interruptions as players remember their bonuses halfway through the next character's action.
The third feature is fine, but by itself it isn't all that interesting and we see how much competition it faces in the action economy from other reactions. I'm guessing that most Battlemasters pass on this feat, because Parry and Riposte are so cool. We're also seeing a lot of playtest fighter archetypes with very good defensive reactions. Rogues and Hunter rangers, likewise, get to choose between these two reactions and the absolutely amazing Uncanny Dodge. Thematically, the feat is fine, I just think that it needs to drop the attack bonus and grant a more convincing defensive boost.
Flail Mastery is my least favorite of the bunch. For one thing, it only applies to flails, kinda tossing out the foregoing comments on breadth of weapon choice. You can spend a bonus action to ignore your opponents' shields for the rest of the turn (if your opponents have magical shields, you only ignore the nonmagical part of the shield's bonus). Spending a bonus action to get a +2 to hit against certain kinds of opponents is easier to remember than 3e's prayer (the single worst offender among 3e's no-but-wait interruptions), but still it's a fiddly math bonus. Also, shields on NPCs just aren't common enough to make this feel good.
You also tack on a knockdown to your opportunity attacks. This is exactly how the flail-using champion in that AE game I've mentioned fought - she used Improved Trip often, and nowhere so much as when an enemy was trying to get away. This is a lot like a remixed version of Sentinel's first feature - there's a saving throw instead of automatically happening on a hit, and it halves speed (the cost to stand up) rather than reducing it to zero. Prone does a lot more than just reduce speed, though.
Also, it's really weird to me that they have Shove as a mechanic, but none of these knockdowns behave like a Shove. I guess it's weirder that Shove doesn't act like them - why is this one thing a contested check, when so many other things are just forcing saving throws?
Spear Mastery is my favorite of the list, even though it too allows only one weapon - the humble spear. (Retooling it to have an effect with pikes too - if not other polearms, who have Polearm Mastery going for them - would appeal to me.) The fact that D&D warrior-types almost never bother with spears is one of the biggest breaks with verisimilitude, but then D&D has always been reluctant to make spears any good. I don't know why.
If this were the only feat that granted a +1 to hit, I would be okay with it. Spear Mastery also bumps the spear up to the martial-weapon damage scale. Spending a feat to be as good as a longsword might not be a great sales tactic, but that's why I'd be okay with this single case of a +1 to hit. In editions gone by, anyone could set a spear to receive a charge, but now you need to have Spear Mastery to get a clear benefit from doing so. Well, okay, what the text calls "setting the spear to receive a charge" is really more like "form a spear-hedge and wait for someone to get stupid," because closing that last 20 feet against a spear-hedge is murder. (I freely admit that my love of Bernard Cornwell's medieval battle narration influences me here.) Double damage, and spending just your bonus action to Ready an Action? Niiice. The exception clause for Disengage is interesting, but with the various features that let a creature Disengage as a bonus action, I guess it tells us who is good at breaking spear hedges.
Its fourth feature lets you lunge with the spear, effectively spending your bonus action to turn it into a reach weapon for your turn. I have no problem with this, but I think it's an interesting case of putting a lot of pressure on the bonus action.
The big problem with this feat is how much you suck for the first three levels, until your build finally starts working at 4th. Variant human? Sorry, those are optional rules, and we don't design on the assumption of optional rules! Characters do so much to define themselves in their first three levels of play that I wouldn't want someone to start with a sword and switch to a spear once they finally got to 4th. This problem isn't just about Spear Mastery, of course - it's about any major changes to how a character works that get stored in feats or subclass features.
The article closes with four more feats, and these aren't about weapons at all. All four grant +1 to a specific ability score and proficiency or Expertise (not under that name, but with that effect) with a particular tool kit. It's good that they grant Expertise, because all characters can gain proficiency in a tool kit with the Training action - I'd hate to see that be a feat's whole effect.
Alchemist also lets you maximize the effect of one potion of healing (any grade) for an hour, as part of a short rest. This is neat, but because healing potions use d4s, it's less of a big deal than one might hope. I kind of wish it had changed the die size (maybe up to a d8) instead of removing the die roll. It also lets you identify potions through testing, without making an ability check.
Burglar only grants its ability score bonus and proficiency/Expertise, but that's okay because thieves' tools see about five hundred times more use than all other tool kits put together. It's just weird that this feat is mostly not for rogues - it's for people who want to cover the rogue's main exploration function without multiclassing. I like this feat on that basis alone; otherwise I think it could be a little more interesting.
Gourmand is easily the most fun and interesting feat in the document. Guys, they snuck a Cooking tradeskill into D&D, just without any crafting to do. You can detect poison in food or drink for free (fine, no problem... the king requests and requires that you quit all of this stupid adventuring and come work for him for the rest of your natural life, but I digress), and your meals cause diners to recover Hit Dice faster, and gain advantage on Constitution saving throws against disease for the next 24 hours. Not too damn shabby. I mean, sure, it's really close to being better than three days spent on the Recuperating action, but spending a feat to mostly replace a downtime action that doesn't see a lot of use is fine.
I'll say it now: any halfling who waits past 8th level to pick up this feat is probably the sort who would murder a beloved relative for the Precious. Don't trust them. In fact, you should save yourself and drown them in the Gladden River first.
Master of Disguise is one of those feats that needs you to rely on disguises a lot to be worth buying, because you could solve most of this problem with disguise self or a hat of disguise. Curiously, this might let you work faster and more effectively for a lot of applications than being a 13th-level Assassin, which seems to undervalue the Assassin's commitment to that path. Anyway, I'm more or less okay with this.
Taken together, these four feats are really cool, but (other than Burglar) they feel like the missing section on how to adjudicate skill and tool checks in 5e. I think DC 20 wouldn't be a bad target for mimicking some these feat benefits with a skill check. I would like to see more feats like these - one or more for every tool kit, and more for the skills as well.
The document's tool kit feats are good, if a little uneven in interest. To be fair, it's hard to be as fun as Gourmand. Coming up with things other tool kits could do that you'll need as often as you do Gourmand's main feature is tough!
The weapon feats are not my favorite thing, other than Spear Mastery. There are interesting ideas at work here, things I would like to playtest, but there are problems too. I'm seeing a lot of negative reaction to the +1 to hit, because it's so rare to see that kind of bonus that these feats look more necessary than they should be.
The opening half-page on feat design is the best part, as far as I'm concerned. It's clear, and it shows where all of us third-party designers need to be in thinking about 5e's rules and new content. If there were whole UA articles of nothing but this kind of exegesis, I would be delighted.