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I'm DMing a group right now in Eberron (so I already have to take Action Points into account for encounter design), and my players, who are fairly new, are super intrigued by all of the interesting feats they have to choose from (they have PHB, Eberron and the Complete line of books to choose from). In an effort to give them more interesting choices at levels up, I've decided to speed up their feat progression somewhat. They now gain a new feat every other level.

Now, I've done the math, and that means they'll have one feat more than they normally would at level 5, and from levels 7-10. Which means for half of the levels from 1-10, they have the same number of feats they normally would, and for the other half, they're essentially no better off than humans (none of them are playing humans).

Do I even need to bother re-balancing encounters until the number of extra feats gets much higher? And how does one go about balancing encounters for characters with more feats than usual for their level? The only resource I've been able to find that even acknowledges the issue is E6, which just kind of shrugs its non-existent shoulders and basically says "I dunno, at some point bump up the ELs".

Does anyone have any experience with that system, or experience being an equally foolishly gregarious DM, that can shed light on how this feat progression impacts balance at mid to higher levels?

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While I'm not an expert, I don't think you can do more than just play and then, when the players start regularly plowing through encounters faster than you feel they should, bump the difficulty until it's even again. –  Dakeyras Sep 19 '13 at 19:54
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I think part of it depends on which feats they are selecting. Eberron has it's fair share of non-combat feats (Investigation, most of the Dragonmarks, etc.) which shouldn't effect the EL. On the other hand, if they're taking a Ranged or Melee combat tree, you might see an appreciable difference. –  Discord Sep 19 '13 at 19:59
    
Some clarifying points: My players, for the most part, aren't optimizers. I've got one player who's planning on going Scout/Ranger, and from what I can tell that's going to end up pretty sick. My biggest concern are actually my spellcasters (I've got a druid & an archivist) FALLING BEHIND the rest of the party, in stark defiance of the tier system. Then again, we are still low level. This is also the first time I've tried to balance encounters by EL and use EXP. I used to just kind of wing it and give out levels when it felt appropriate. Maybe I'm over-correcting with my concerns. –  agradine Sep 19 '13 at 20:39
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@agradine If they're full spellcasters like wizards/clerics/druids, they won't fall behind. There are spells that easily make up the difference, and they're always useful even if they're not optimizing due to their versatility. –  Tridus Sep 19 '13 at 22:59

4 Answers 4

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Short answer

Probably not. Leave encounter balance alone until at least L10.

Long answer

The real answer to this question depends heavily on the nature of your players.

At mid level: well, if you ask on one of the charop forums "what could you do with an extra feat at level 5", it's a safe bet that someone will be able to think of something incredibly broken that can be achieved.

On the other hand, as you correctly point out, anything that broken could be achieved one level later at most - and that level comes with other benefits as well, like hp and skills. And even one full level isn't such a difference in power that you'd normally worry about it. (Giving the party a feat a level or so early is probably pretty equivalent to having one or two party members be one level higher - which is not something you'd usually redesign an encounter around.)

So if your party aren't dedicated optimisers, you're probably pretty safe in balancing exactly the way you usually would, at least for the middle tier.

At high levels, the party isn't just getting feats a level or so early - the extras will start to add up to a total increase

D&D balance at high levels, however, has always been DM judgement more than inherent balance. 3.5 improved on this a little, but making top-level games work is an art, not a science. Since high-level characters are near-unstoppable anyway, save by more of the same, I suspect you'll not see a fundamental change in design.

Instead, I'd stick with a general design principle - write to the PCs you have. (If a fighter uses the extra feats to improve cleave, add the occasional extra light minion to kill with it. If someone starts optimising for magic item creation, give them business opportunities. And if they take Skill Focus (Ride)... you probably don't need to alter anything.)

If, instead, the whole party optimises for insane extra damage by some convoluted combination of character traits... start jacking up the encounter levels.

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Considering that at the highest end of optimization, you can RAW get true infinite power at level 1, a feat a level early or a feat or two extra pretty much doesn’t matter. –  KRyan Sep 19 '13 at 20:38

No, a faster feat progression does not need to be specifically balanced for. The effects of the feat progression rate is very much eclipsed by the differences in power levels of classes (see JaronK's Tier System) and the optimization prowess of individual players.

Further, additional feats do in most cases not directly increase the maximum power potential of a given character - there are usually only so many feats a character can apply to a given situation. A more usual situation in the case of extra feats is that the character gains increased breadth. For a classic scenario, a Fighter/Barbarian going for a Shock Trooper combo can pull that off with a normal dose of feats - additional feats to the combo are likely to hit diminishing returns rather quickly. Instead, the character is likely to pursue feats that would help in situations where the Shock Trooper combo would not be applicable.

But there are exceptions, which you may want to be aware of:

  • Ease of PrC access - PrCs are powerful, and many require the character to pay a feat tax to enter. In some cases, this may be significant enough to enable a primary PrC + feat chain combo that would not otherwise be accessible.
  • Builds whose power is directly proportional to the number of feats they have available - Metamagic-stacking casters are the prime culprit here.

That aside, you're unlikely to run into specific problems. See Tridus' answer for caveats and auxiliary advice.

(For what it's worth, I base this on what I believe is rather extensive experience running both feat-accelerated and non-accelerated games.)

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Encounter balance was always done on an ad hoc basis. Player power can vary massively depending on choices, monster power at a given CR varies massively in the books, and basically balance is a rare thing that takes a lot of work to achieve regularly.

A few extra feats aren’t going to change any of that.

Generally speaking, I do feel that 3.5 gives too few feats (or, put another way, feats aren’t strong enough or don’t do enough individually, so you need a lot of them), so I tend to bump that number up, especially at low levels. I recommend the Unearthed Arcana Flaw rules, not because they’re actually balanced (it’s trivial to take flaws that barely matter), but because another two feats to start with is a good thing (and cuts into the Human’s hegemony, which is also a good thing – getting 33% more feats at 1st level is awesome, but getting 100% more feats is insane). Also worth considering is a feat every odd level, rather than every third (which is what Pathfinder uses), though I think that’s less useful because it only matters after several levels (and at that point you usually have a fair few feats to play with).

I feel that doing these things improves balance because the weakest classes are the ones that are most feat-dependent, so giving them more feats improves them relative to the most powerful classes (who care more about spells than feats).

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The one caution I'd have is stacking together feats; this usually won't impact balance but the ability to cheaply buy Augment Summoning, for instance, could unbalance low levels. –  Kyle Willey Sep 19 '13 at 20:05
    
@KyleWilley There are very few feats that are likely to imbalance the game. Augment Summoning is not one of them. The two that come to mind as issues (Leadership and Natural Spell) don’t require other feats so don’t even come into play. –  KRyan Sep 19 '13 at 20:36

Be Reactive

At the end of the day, encounter levels are guidelines, and encounter balance depends mostly on your players selection and skill level in using the abilities they have (along with things like magic item availability, teamwork and organization, which make a difference). Really good players can blow through encounters even without the extra feats, while newbies or players who don't put as much effort into combat power will struggle more, even with extra feats. Heck, someone who really wants to RP a concept may spend that extra feat on Skill Focus: Disguise, which will almost never impact encounters. :)

Based on that, there is no one correct answer to how to handle this. It depends on how your players are doing. If they're easily defeating five or six encounters a game day and never needing to struggle, you need to increase the difficulty. If they're having significant hardship making headway, you don't even if you are giving them extra feats (and may need to lower the difficulty).

Don't overthink this at the beginning. Just see how they do with it, and respond accordingly.

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