New on Desk #81 — A Study on Martial Feats

Another mid-week newsletter as I play catch-up on July. Because we’ve been doing some fairly involved campaign development for Coup, I was thinking that an overview on one of the big topics — also of interest for D&D in general — would be merited.

Why have feats in D&D combat system?

This is going to be succinct and technical, so maybe skip it if you’re not into D&D theory.

“Feat” is a technical term here, it means the kind of thing that 3e calls Feat: a specific character capability, an exception rule or a special power or trick that the character is privileged with. Feats are particularly a combat concern, and in our on-going campaign I treat them as exclusively such. “Martial Feat”, as the rules jargon goes.

Feat-like special powers weren’t unknown to earlier editions of D&D, it should be noted. Having players pick them out of long lists is a particular 3e dysfunction, but the concept of special combat rules accessible to high-level Fighters goes all the way back to the ’74 original D&D. So maybe keep that wider concept in mind when answering the question of feats.

Feats are a controversial design choice in D&D for two reasons. They might not actually be concerns for the kind of D&D that you wish to play, but nevertheless; these are issues for old school D&D of the kind we’ve been playing recently:

Unnecessary complexity: The game actually has very ambitious, substantial goals related to the art of war. We don’t need opium-like mechanical whirligig parts in the game just to distract and amuse. If all feats provide is busy-work that distracts the players of Fighters from substantial issues, then feats are a problem.

Compromising the simulation: The core resolution engine of the game is organic task resolution; the assumption is that characters can do the things they can do, no more and no less. The fiction is queried to find out what characters can do. We don’t need a rule that says that actually, only Fighters with a specific character build can attempt to swing from a chandelier. If all feats do for us is setting up arbitrary, unrealistic boundaries for what characters can try to do, then feats are a problem.

If that was all there was to it, feats could be kept safely out of the Coup framework. However, there are also two significant benefits that feats have the potential to grant to a D&D campaign:

Tracking extraordinary skill: This is the origin of the concept of “feat”, the idea that a highly skilled individual can have an extraordinary “trick” that others can’t hope to match. It’s a very legitimate mid-to-high level concern for Fighter type characters to be able to do things like standing on horseback in full gallop, sword-fighting with a blindfold, or whatnot. Rules that structure and define character capabilities of this sort have a reason to exist.

Pushing the boundaries of the combat system: The simple core combat system does a good job in treating with mundane combatants, and with power differences between mundane soldiers and heroes, in general. However, in simplicity the system cannot focus on interesting details and complex ideas. Shunting such complexity off into modular-exceptional rules related to individual combatants can allow the same game to be both simple and complex as appropriate.

Those are my two reasons for having feats in wargamey D&D: they’re appropriate for simulating the capabilities of mid-levels fighters (who should be romantic action protagonists, hyper-competent), and they’re appropriate for keeping up the combat system’s overall dynamism.

Case study: Cleave

To illustrate the point about appropriate feats, let’s consider my single favourite D&D feat, Cleave. Here’s a gloss for those who don’t know what it is:

Cleave: The character charges forward, dealing death to inferior opponents, felling several in a matter of moments.

Cleave is mechanized in various ways in different campaign rules, but what it’s about is a higher-level Fighter being able to attack and slay weaker enemies with a better action economy ration than 1:1. Check out the various ways the idea has been treated:

  • A Fighter can gain several attacks per combat round depending on the HD ratio between the Fighter and the opposition: for example, a 4th level Fighter could attack twice against 2 HD opponents.
  • A Fighter gains more attacks per round as they go up levels. (This is bad, don’t use this one. It’s not even really a Cleave.)
  • If the Fighter drops an enemy, they can attack again right away.
  • The Fighter gets to spread excess damage from a successful attack between several opponents.

Those are all ideas, and what you want in particular depends on the organic whole of the campaign’s literary and technical style, so that’s fairly arbitrary. The important part is that however you’re dealing with Cleave, you have a legitimate and interesting artifact of the game’s rules chassis to address here: should Fighters have specific tech to use against hordes of mooks?

Answering that question, please consider the way hit point pools scale linearly by level, while attack damage stays static. (Or doesn’t; either way, consider it.) Consider the case of the 15 HD Tyrannosaurus Rex fighting a troop of 1 HD human hunters, and how the insurmountably great T-Rex is nevertheless limited to slaying only one hunter per combat round. This may or may not be appropriate for the T-Rex, but is it appropriate for a high-level Fighter?

And continuing from that, consider in turn an equivalent-level Wizard: the Wizard with his trusty fireball, hitting every single one of those hunters after him in one action. The T-Rex and Fighter both are not quite so fortunate in action economy terms. Is it appropriate for the Fighter to be entirely linearly limited to a single target, single attack per round, even if that means that he is relatively easy to overcome by a horde of relatively weak mooks?

The answer might be yes, but if it’s not, then you’re going to need some kind of Cleave rule in the game to soften the stark action economy limitations. Arguably the simulation goal — qualifying what it means to be a romanticized Hero, what the game is trying to model at mid-levels — demands that you give the Fighter some way to be fairly effective at “mowing down mooks”. That’s what the pulp fiction heroes the Fighter is trying to model do.

You could make Cleave a default rule that everybody gets to use, or you could make it a class feature that Fighters get, either scaling or coming online at some specific level. Or, you could make it a feat that some Fighters have and others necessarily don’t.

Assuming you’re favourable to the idea of feats, I would argue that Cleave is absolutely a core good idea for a feat to have in a campaign. We could call it a gold standard feat: when populating your feat library, put in feats like Cleave. It serves an important purpose in making the combat system work in a more interesting and appropriate way.

Case study: Weapon Specialization

This is an example of a problematic, bad feat. First, the gloss:

Weapon Specialization: The character is expertly trained in the use of their weapon, making them more effective in combat with it.

An old and popular idea for a Fighter class feature, and it sucks ass: the Fighter is already the class with the good attack bonus, you’re not making it more interesting by giving them a free accuracy boost like this. It would make some sense if you had real circumstantial reasons to use a variety of weapons in different situations, but I think we all know that’s not happening; it’s just a free bonus with no downside. This feat does nothing, and the idea of what’s going on in the fiction is entirely useless as well.

When gathering good ideas for feats to have in the game, don’t have “math fix” feats like this. A good feat should present a clear idea of what happens in the fiction, and an interesting mechanical concern. Weapon Specialization has neither. It would actually be actively better if the feat was understood to enable the character to make “trick shots” with their weapon, impressing people with their showmanship (you could work for a circus!), but without granting attack bonus.

Case study: Power Attack

This is an example of a feat that might be good or might be bad; I’m torn on it! Let’s look at the gloss:

Power Attack: Gathering all their strength, the character strikes with great force to finish the enemy decisively.

The basic idea of this feat is to grant extra damage to a Fighter, thus fixing a perceived issue with Fighter damage output scaling negligibly as they level up. (In a vanilla D&D implementation a Fighter only gains more damage in the form of attack bonus that indirectly increases their damage output by causing attacks to succeed more often. This effect will at most double a character’s damage output over time, practically speaking.) The classic 3e Power Attack allows you to exchange attack bonus for attack damage, which is simultaneously pretty neat and absolutely horrifying in the big picture of how the combat system functions.

Also worthwhile to consider is the Mentzer implementation, called Smash, for its sheer effrontery: -5 to attack, add STR score to damage. It’s such a drastic contrast between the 8th level character without it and the 9th level character with it. Beautiful in its brashness.

Why it’s a good idea: Fighter class write-ups tend to make a big deal of a strong attack bonus progression, but attack bonus is something that is less useful the more you have of it. Power Attack fixes that by allowing the player to modulate the amount of attack bonus they “use”, spending the excess on something useful, namely damage. This makes the Fighter core feature of having plenty of accuracy more useful.

Note that Power Attack is even more legitimate in an old school game than it is in the modern game: the modern game presumes that you only ever fight level-appropriate foes, which means that monsters have either relatively high armor class (can’t Power Attack because you’ll miss) or plenty of hit points (proportionately less useful to deal damage at all). A hypothetical old school sandbox game with Power Attack would find it very potent, as the Fighter could measure out the exact amount of damage they need to drop an enemy with each hit. A mid-levels Fighter could e.g. strive to reliably drop gnolls (2 HD evil humanoids) in one hit while still having a fairly good hit chance, and gnolls are very much something you could expect to encounter at such levels, too.

Why it’s a bad idea: The entire point of having hit points in the game is that higher-level fights go longer. (Or, if you will: that higher level combatants last longer.) If you’re trying to fix that by allowing higher level Fighters to have linearly scaling damage, you might as well drop the level-up conceit entirely and save everybody a bunch of time. There are better ways to make high attack bonus useful, or if we must have damage add rules, then at least make them more conservative than Smash.

Gathering good feats

I won’t go into how Coup organizes feat discovery and feat libraries here (the players who want to know already do), but I will note that I think that inventing good feats for D&D is not trivial, and it’s not trivial exactly because feats address a substantial, complex mechanical system in the game, the combat system. This means that a good feat landscape for a D&D campaign is a sparse one. The very opposite of the modern D&D all you can eat buffet. I have great difficulty, right now, imagining myself as inventing say 40 feats for Coup. Coming up with just one good one seems like a challenge.

I actually currently have a very small list of gold star feats. Here are the good feats I know of:

Cleave — Discussed above.

Called Shot — Allow characters to aim attacks before attack roll, taking a hit penalty but inflicting a status effect on successful hit. Legit approach to fighting powerful foes who stick around for several rounds, as the injury you impair them with keeps benefiting you. The notion that a character can’t do this without the feat is questionable in general, but in Coup it works (you can get the same effect out of stunting).

Shield Splinter — Allow the character to cancel/diminish one hit they’re taking per fight, after seeing the damage roll. Perfect defenses are interesting foil to “spike damage”, excessively strong single attacks.

The common trait that these “good feats” share is that they address prominent mechanical features of the combat system in a way that adds dynamic uncertainty: without these feats in the game the big picture of how to conduct combat is less varied and simpler, and arguably off-tone from what it’s trying to be like as a literary simulation of heroism. These feats break the assumptions about how things match up in mid-levels combat.

Cherish the good feats. There’s enough of them to challenge you to either finesse them into the class writeup as traits, or to figure out a more general feat system.

I guess I should add for clarity’s sake that there are also many perfectly fine feats that introduce interesting, flavourful and appropriate capabilities for characters. I don’t have anything against a Blindfighting feat or a Jump Really High feat, all power to those. But they’re of a lesser caste compared to the gold star feats, which challenge the very bones of how the combat system plays out.

Catchup: Coup de Main #54

As discussed earlier, during the Gnarley Summer of Love I’m not GMing, and might not even be playing! I also hear that it’s actually called Coup-de-Gnarley, which is admittedly entirely fair and makes much more sense in the light of these actual play reports I’ve been receiving. They’re not very… lovely.

Speaking of actual play reports, I asked for volunteers to document the events for posteriors, and Teemu graciously accepted the challenge of putting down some notes. Here, I’ll let him explain what the crew did with Tuomas behind the ref screen:

Session 54 began with the already agreed-upon hook that there was apparently a dragon wreaking havoc in and around the village of Brandonsford, and a promised reward of 1000gp would go to the slayer of the beast.

The hook tickled everyone’s fancy, and a brave party set out, consisting of:

  • Sven, a 3rd level Swedish berserker warrior on a planar jaunt
  • Artemur, a 3rd level warrior, elf-slave and weredeer from Holland (and his dog, the mighty Fisto)
  • Ælfstan, a planar traveler also, a 3rd level monk from parts unknown
  • Kermit the Hermit, a forest hermit of first level, from the local area
  • Bob, The most mundane man in the world, a level 1 commoner
  • and Cifnygg, a noble wizard of first level, but great funding and ambition.
  • With them was also Stone Battlecreek, a stout half-orcish warrior of 3rd level, with an unhealthy infatuation towards bastard swords. He was here mostly as Sven’s behest, as great loot and adventure had been promised.

To clarify, Stone’s a NPC adventurer the party discovered and rescued in Castle Greyhawk earlier. Him and Sven seem to get along pretty well.

Cifnygg, having more so coin than any other virtue, save perhaps his great ambitions about becoming a wizard-lord akin to Zagyg himself, brought with him a cartload of supplies, retainers, entertainers and rations, all greatly appreciated and well-received by the party.

The journey to Brandonsford was mostly uneventful, but the party was constantly harried by foul summer weather. Constant storms forced the party to make a stop in the village of Illmire, whose locals were of questionable countenance and apparently had some problems with fishmen. The party, though, had no interest in dealing with their ilk right now, and instead continued on their way at the first opportunity. Some rumors were collected about the Brandonsford situation, but nothing definitive yet.

There was, also, a circus stopped near the village, but the party paid no heed to them, since they had nothing to say about Brandonsford.

The trip continued mostly safely, but storms forced the party to camp for multiple days in a cave. Cifnygg’s hired entertainer kept the party in high spirits, and the party’s multiple strong warriors prevented any tents or mules from being snatched up by the storm.

Nearing Brandonsford in a few days’ time, the party finally found conclusive evidence of a great beast of some sort: something had crossed the road, overturning trees and leaving acidic burn-marks. The beast was the size of a rhino at least, it was estimated, and certainly did not seem like a fancy of some frightened locals (which was certainly a prospect some had entertained). Still, the party elected to go to Brandonsford rather than follow the tracks, partially so they would be equipped with knowledge before making any attempts upon the beast, partially because their mulecart was not suited to roughing it in the woods.

During the last night before reaching Brandonsford, Artemur was alerted during his watch by unknown figures in the woods. They seemed unconcerned with the party though, conversing among each other with strange, possibly fey language, and thus the party gave them a wide berth too.

Next day, the party made it to Brandonsford, and wasted no time meeting locals, interviewing them about the dragon situation and generally looking for adventure hooks. The locals were much afeared by the dragon and made no attempts to hide this, so they were easy and forthcoming with their knowledge. What they found was rather promising and gave them many possible leads:

  • The dragon had attacked a group of local hunters, one of whom (Georg) was still alive, althought an arm poorer.
  • Georg described to the party a reptile of great size and foul countenance, which had attacked them mercilessly and slain all but him. By all accounts the man was lucid and seemed to believe his words, and with the earlier trail of destruction, none in the party found reason to doubt this creature’s existence overmuch.
  • Georg also had an approximate area where he believed the beast to roam for the most part, and revealed this to the party.
  • The dwarves who’d made a mine in the nearby hills had not been heard of for some time. The local smith, Warwick, was concerned since he hadn’t received a shipment of iron in some time, and would be greatly appreciative if someone could go and check on them.
  • The local cleric, father William, was a stout man of St. Cuthbert, and most affronted by the local fey creatures and their ways, as well as the pagan traditions the local folk had about them. He wasted no time emptying his cup of woe upon anyone who would listen, bemoaning the local alchemist a pagan heretic.
  • More relevantly, William also mentioned that he’d sent a man of his, Brother Dirk, into the nearby tomb of the titular Sir Brandon, a dragonslayer of yore. It was said that he’d used a sword of great might to slay a dragon in his life, and for this he’d been knighted, and with the current fear about the dragon, Brother Dirk had been sent to fetch the sword from the knight’s tomb. He hadn’t been heard of for days, though, so surely someone should go and have a look…
  • Less relevantly, the village also had a place of healing maintained by the clergy of Pelor, which was of no immediate interest but was of note.

Having gathered all this, the party conferred amongst themselves and decided that both the tomb and the dwarves intrested them greatly. Of the two, the tomb would be closer and potentially more helpful, and this it was decided that they would set out the next day to look for Brother Dirk and see if he or the blade could be retrieved.

The next day, the party made their way to the nearby tomb without issue. It was an old, ill-kept burial mound, with a great stone slab set into its side to seal the route inside. The tomb itself though, it was said, was large and ran well under the earth.

No signs of Brother Dirk were found while looking around the mound. They did, though, find giant tracks, three times the size of a man’s foot, but these seemed to meander and depart without approaching the tomb. A worrisome prospect, that, but the party did not hesitate to pry open the tomb and descend into its gloomy depths.

Within the tomb, the party’s attention was immediately drawn to the lavish mosaics depicting the life of Sir Brandon and his retainers, and how he’d slain a great wyrm in the past. A glorious tale to be sure, but the more avaricious eyes of the party were drawn to the glittering amidst the colored stone of the mosaic. Gems! Or possibly just cut glass.

While some hesitated about looting the place, Artemur, not caring overmuch for the laws and decency of men, took out a knife and pried out one of the gems, so he could inspect it in daylight later and determine its worth – and thus whether or not he should later take the rest as well. This was mostly met with quiet consternation by the others.

Any questions of lootings would have to wait in any case, as some of the party heard noises from a nearby room, and then shouts that challenged them: who be these intruders upon the tomb?

Upon questioning, the voices quickly and proudly declared themselves to be men of the “Goblin King”, here to claim the tomb in his name. Goblins, then! This realization set dark mien upon many of the party, having no love for such creatures and no grief for their death.

Before the goblins could muster their (doubtlessly large) numbers or countenance any devious plans, the party’s stout warriors, Sven and Artemur and Stone, set upon them with a furious charge. The goblins struck at them with panicked jabs of their spears, but Sven drew out his blade of ensorcelled steel, short and wicked, and with a furious and mighty blow smote all four of the creatures! None of the party sustained any true injury upon themselves despite some scrapes, and silence soon reigned the halls again.

And thus was the session ended, in the darkness of the tomb, with knowledge that the foul Goblyn foe was waiting for them. Whether the party was here honorably to seek the aid of a knight of yore, or with base greed to loot and plunder, it was apparent that they would first have to smite any other goblins before them. And if the place was already teeming with their ilk, then who was to say that there would not be other unpleasantness waiting for them, besides?

Thanks for the detailed write-up, Teemu! I feel like this helps me keep abreast of what’s going on in the campaign while I’m away, which I at least really appreciate, as I’m pretty fond of the campaign for all that I decided to take a hiatus.

Also, respect to Tuomas. I’ve played with him GMing old school before, so it’s not surprising me that he’s rocking this, but it’s still very satisfying to see somebody else take a stab at running some Coup stuff. The situation development is great, very actionable. The players have plenty of maneuvering room, which we’ll hopefully see them make good use of in future sessions.

Catchup: Coup in Sunndi #32

Last week, on Tuesday, we started resolving this funny side adventure that arose out of the Tournament of Fear, our fighting tournament adventure arc. Let me set the stage:

Slave Paladin John Hawkwood was a mysterious entrant in the Tournament of Fear, brought to fight by a trio of Dark Trolls. Hawkwood is a 3rd level Paladin, hailing originally from Medieval Sweden. Antti played him in our last bout of old school D&D, the “Swedish campaign” of our long-running historical fantasy D&D meta-campaign. A legit player character developed with pains, only to meet his near-demise when he was captured as a slave by the humanoids of the Caves of Chaos.

Hawkwood has, for reasons obscure, a Dark Fate, and it just so happens that his horrible future kept him alive through three years (from 2018 to 2021) of slavery in the Underdark. And now he popped up again in our new campaign, which is I think pretty funny.

Hawkwood attracted attentions in the Tournament: as a Paladin he’s the natural prey of the Blackguard Grandmaster, Sinister Thaal. However, other eyes were attracted as well by his chivalrous behavior on the field: Eccentrix the Dragon revealed to John that rather than being a bloodthirsty monster desirous of victory in the tournament, the dragon has infiltrated the tournament to rescue Iron Arush, the young champion of Pelor, from under the thumb of the cunning Apostle Nigma, the local head of the church of Wastri. Apparently the Apostle has some kind of hold over Arush, for how else would such a champion of Good be fighting in an underground blood sport tournament such as this…

Hawkwood isn’t in the best position to help somebody else, what with his own slavery and precarious position as a metaphorical Paladin in Hell (it’s a classical reference, look it up), but confronted with a Noble Quest, what else could he do but agree to help Arush, and himself, escape this hell-pit? Eccentrix has proved a pretty handy manager, as the dragon hired some other good-hearted fellows to join the conspiracy as well. Bolstered with the other players making some more less-evil-than-usual player characters, we now have a commando team intending to bust out Arush and themselves from the Temple of Doom!

(For those following the fates of the tournament participants, Eccentrix’s team of do-gooders also includes Melvin the Musketeer and John Steele the Guy with the Car. Nice people who Eccentrix picked out during the tournament as men of such honor that they would choose to follow a noble quest to peril.)

Antti, the player of John Hawkwood, has a slow and meticulous playstyle, which I have to admit is working out for him. Without going into particulars still in play, the adventure is very much a high stakes, high risk affair. Check out the difficulties:

Unknown motives: Eccentrix does not know why Arush is obeying the Evil Wastrians, why he’s participating in the tournament. He does know that Arush, as well as his family, disappeared from home, which motivated Arush’s parents to summon Eccentrix to rescue him. But what hold does the nefarious Apostle Nigma have over Arush?

Language issues: I find it hilarious that the only character who keeps finding opportunities to talk with Arush in any length is the slave paladin himself. This is funny because he doesn’t know the Common language practically at all, so the two are limited in what they can transmit to each other. Based on Arush’s behavior so far, though, he might not even want to be rescued. The Wastrians keep Arush cordoned off, making it difficult to talk with him during the tournament. Just what is going on?

A fortress shrine: The Wastrian shrine is a dungeon inside a dungeon, as befits a megadungeon such as the Temple of Doom. They evidently have at least ~20 armed guards, and who knows how many acolytes. There are a limited number of entrances, and Arush is only taken out for his fights in the tournament.

Escape issues: Even if the party somehow assaults the Wastrian shrine, and even if they manage to convince Arush to follow them, then what next? Getting out of the Temple of Doom is roughly comparable to dungeoneering out of the 3rd level of a megadungeon when you didn’t see the way in. Slightly challenging.

Time limit: Eccentrix, at least, is concerned that Apostle Nigma might just make away with Arush after he wins the tournament. We simply don’t know. Well, I know as the GM, but for the purposes of this overview let’s pretend I don’t.

The players have tackled these concerns in what I would characterize as a dry, technical infiltration mission. I like it! It’s particularly amusing how the preparations for this dangerous, rash commando mission happen interleaved with the Tournament of Fear. Everything from sleep schedules to security, from available resources to timing, depends on the way the tournament rounds cause commitments to various characters. Hawkwood decided to throw his own match against Arush rather than risk either of them getting seriously injured, which did simplify matters compared to them both still pursuing victory seriously.

The big success of the session involved the party sort of hanging out at the Shrine of Wastri during tournament day 2, in between the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the tournament. The Shrine is a semi-public service building in the wider context of the Temple of Doom, so it’s not that exceptional for strangers to be spending time there. Like any church, really, even eerily normal at times considering how cartoony evil the Temple of Doom can get at times.

The party managed their social hacking (interviewing, exploring architectural spaces, pushing very lightly against the security services) well, and got a fairly good overall sense of the layout of the Shrine, including a rough idea of where Arush is accomodated during the tournament. All in all, they have most of what they’d need to plan and execute a daring night-time raid to kidnap Arush. That would be what we’d focus on in the next session, then.

Man vs Law𝕟et, follow-up

(Combination of “lawn”+”net” is spelled “law𝕟et” because it’s a double-n digraph, see? I’m so clever. Also, infected by the disease that is typography. And the Internet lets me do anything at all in these Unicode days…)

As discussed in the last newsletter, I’m adapting the yard to robotized lawn-moving, which mostly means blocking off flower beds and laying copper wire around the yard and any particularly sensitive areas the robot shouldn’t wander in. The copper law𝕟et takes a fair amount of effort to place, as the lawn needs to be pierced with suitable tools and the wire pushed in there, to a depth of a few centimeters. The summer heat wave (yellow press has been calling it the “red exception”) makes this a particularly fun sort of work, the kind where you court heatstroke.

The installation speed so far is about 50 meters per day, but we’ll presumably improve on that as skill goes up. With 100 meters installed and maybe 200 to go, I can expect maybe four days of installation fun yet. Five if inspiration strikes about law𝕟et-related garden improvements.

We have about two thirds of the yard in the roboticized zone at the current plateau in the project, and aside from the need to set up various minor barriers and tidy up details in its way, it seems that this might work out in the long term. I calculated that we can expect the robot to have worked off the installation debt in 8 years or so. Totally worth it.

State of the Productive Facilities

Literally the only things I’ve been doing since Sunday are setting up the law𝕟et and running the Tuesday night Coup, so aside from some incidental Coup development chats on the side I’ve done nothing much. At least this newsletter is sort of topical, I need this combat rules development theory to live. Or at least to breathe. Wait, no, I actually just need it to make Coup the greatest D&D campaign ever.