D&D’s last three Unearthed Arcana (UA) playtest packets included tech that hasn’t been printed since past editions: feat trees.
Note: You may also hear these called “feat chains,” which describes a feat tree that only has one higher-level associated option, instead of branching into several. The term “feat tree” can describe both.
Feat Trees in 5e
Historically, 5e has strayed from including progressive feats, where one builds on another. Examining past editions, 5e’s designers looked at how feat trees were handled, and realized that in many cases, they were doing the opposite of what they wanted. Instead of giving characters progressively more interesting powers, they were stripping core competencies from every character and locking them behind multiple feats. Ask anyone who tried to dual wield in 3rd Edition. For years, 5e stayed away from that design. However…
5th Edition has never been shy about experimenting with new mechanics to bring a unique flavor or feel to a setting. In this vein, we are seeing feat chain design creep slowly back into 5th Edition.
5th Edition’s first feat requiring a prerequisite feat was in Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. Strixhaven Initiate-to-Mascot progression allows a character to expand on their magic aptitude by getting some fun tricks to do with Find Familiar.
Here’s the thing: these aren’t true feat chains. Sure, you could pick up Strixhaven Initiate at level 4 and then Strixhaven Mascot at level 8. But, that’s not the modus operandi for Strixhaven characters.
Strixhaven presents players with five different backgrounds, representing the different colleges players can join. No matter which background you select, you are granted a form of the Strixhaven Initiate feat. Repetitive elements of background features have been consolidated into a referenced feat. This really neat design saves some print space.
Ultimately, when you reach level 4, Strixhaven Mascot is just another feat you can take. Basically every character playing in the setting has met the pre-requisite by virtue of their background.
More recently, we’ve received some true feat chains via UA.
The first UA to introduce true feat trees was the Heroes of Krynn UA, featuring Dragonlance-themed options. This UA was revised and rereleased as the Heroes of Krynn Revisited UA, which is nice because it gives us some insight to the evolving design process.
Like in Strixhaven, the first step of these feats is available as a background. While this serves as a mitigating factor, it still applies pressure against taking an ASI at level 4, which promotes your basic competence. Perhaps that’s why two of the Knight feats and Divinely Favored were initially drafted as half-feats (granting a floating ASI bonus among selected scores). In the revision, all the Knights gain half-feats, while Divinely Favored lost the half-feat. This consistency among second-tier options is likely better design.
The big change that occurred to the feat trees between the version came with the Initiate-to-Adept feat tree. While the tree was previously opened for any initiate to become an adept of any flavor, restricted by their alignment. Now, the choice is limited by the selection you made when you picked the initiate feat.
By locking in your choice at the earlier feat, they took a feat tree and functionally sliced it into three feat chains. We can surmise that this was done to move away from alignment, which is a game mechanic that a lot of newer players don’t want in their game. However, it has mechanical implications.
Making players lock in their later feat choice when choosing an earlier feat falls directly into the character planning trap of 3x, where players theorized their ideal level 20 build and had to work backwards to make sure they satisfied all the prerequisites to get there.
Arguably, alignment is an even worse governor. But, alignment can change. And if alignment matters in your game, that means that the features available to the character are reflective of the actions they’ve taken in the world. That’s great game design, if you execute it right.
More recently, a feat chain was featured in the Giant Options UA. While we’ve received no official statements as to the book for this material, Jared Rascher of the What Do I Know? blog points out that D&D studio head Ray Winninger was the designer for AD&D 2e’s Giantcraft:
While the Rune Carver Apprentice-to-Adept line is the only feat chain offered in the Giant Options UA, other feats introduce a new technique that emulates some of the same function: level requirements. Some of the feats require you to be level 4 (locking out variant humans and custom lineages, who can select a feat at level 1), and other feats require you to be level 8.
While there are loose thematic ties between these options, the level requirements seem more closely tied to the power level (with higher levels when the eponymous feats emulate the powers of stronger giants).
One interesting note is that the Rune Carver Adept feat carries a level 4 requirement, despite being the second in a feat chain. This suggests that the designers anticipate that some players may be getting a second feat before 4th level. While this made sense in the context of the Strixhaven Mascot or Krynn Heroes, whose predecessor feat can be taken as a background option, it’s likely superfluous here.
This is a very experimental phase for Wizards of the Coast in their preparation for 2024. You see the evidence of Wizards tinkering with different incarnations of feat trees. Ultimately, we can see 5e’s system suffering from the choice to make feats and ASIs exclusive. They’ve invented some pretty neat tricks to mitigate a little of that pressure: background feats, and half-feats with floating ASIs. But, you can also see some of the design slipping back into the mistakes that made this design burdensome in past editions.
Do you want feat trees in 5th Edition? What do you think Wizards of the Coast could do in 2024 to make feat trees fit better with the new rules? Let us know in the comments below or join the discussion on the ThinkDM Patreon.