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During a quest (probably at a point of narrative significance, like a god rewarding a player character with power for defeating some big bad or something like that) would it be unbalanced to reward a PC/the PCs with a Feat or ability score increase (ASI) instead of a Magic Item?

My thinking is that since Magic Items (usually higher level ones) can sometimes give attribute boosts (Gauntlets of Ogre Power, for example) and other Feat-like advantages, how does that compare to actual Feats or ASIs?

If I try to anticipate some answers, I'm thinking that Magic Items can be sold, or passed between the party (attunement notwithstanding) whereas Feats/ASIs are permanently attached to the PC and can never be taken away.

On the other hand, some Magic Items increase an attribute to 19, whereas an ASI on a character whose highest stat is 16 or 17 isn't really going to change the end result; they still end up with a +4 modifier.

At lower levels, the Magic Items won't be as powerful, so handing out Feats and ASIs will be unbalanced. But at higher levels, doesn't this balance out?

Note that I haven't told my group yet (and I have no specific plans to do so), this is simply something that has occurred to me (maybe something to base a quest around) and wanted more information before I commit to this idea.

Specifically, I'm not interested in opinions, since ultimately I can do whatever I like in my games, regardless of how stupid my decisions may be. I am interested from a balance perspective:

How do the two options scale against each other?

Do rarer Magic Items balance against Feats/ASIs or will Feats/ASIs always give the players a stronger mechanical advantage at any level?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This questions is primarily opinion based so don't be surprised if it gets closed or put on hold. You anticipated a large part fo any answer I had when you pointed out that magic items can be taken awy but players will complain if you take away feats. Then there's the crisis of rising expectation. If they get a feat once, they'll want two next time, whereas with a magic item they can just get a more powerful one. And, what sort of quest can low level characters complete that they gain the notice of a god who will break the laws of reality for them? \$\endgroup\$ – Smartybartfast Nov 1 '17 at 9:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Smartybartfast Regarding your last sentence, I was thinking this would suit mid-high level characters better than low character, not only for balance but, as you say, low level characters aren't worth rewards like that. However, I am concerned with the opinion based nature of this question. I suppose I was hoping for more of a numbers based breakdown rather than people's opinions, I'll try to edit the question to reflect that... \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Nov 1 '17 at 9:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ What does ASI stand for? \$\endgroup\$ – Michael Nov 1 '17 at 13:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Michael (A)bility (S)core (I)ncrease; class feature at levels 4, 8, 12, &c. (Your ASIs May Vary by class.) \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Nov 1 '17 at 13:28
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The DMG contains a section "Other Rewards" (starting at page 227) which includes amongst other options:

  • Blessings of the Gods, which usually mimic the properties of a Wondrous Item
  • Charms, which usually grant spell-like abilities or potion effects
  • Special training, which grants a character a new feat or skill.

So what you're asking for seems to be a perfectly acceptable way to do things, and you can probably get some more Inspiration from reading that chapter.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1; I hadn't considered consulting the DMG for advice about this sort of thing. Thinking about it, I suppose I could even grant parts of Feats without having to give the whole Feat perhaps? In any case, this is probably what I need to go read, and at the very least, the part you quoted does seem to condone the giving of Feats as an acceptable reward. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Nov 1 '17 at 10:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ My only issue is that abilities are much less vulnerable to loss than magic items. \$\endgroup\$ – Protonflux Nov 1 '17 at 10:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS: Don’t feel obligated to stick with the Feats from the PHB; you can make your own mini-feats. As long as you don’t mess with bounded accuracy you’re unlikely to mess things up. This is a great place to award situational bonuses or powers that make your players’ characters more flavorful but that they would never pick for a normal feat because they’re too situational. \$\endgroup\$ – divibisan Nov 1 '17 at 12:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Protonflux That's WHY it's a real reward. Items could be lost, stolen, traded, sold, shared, suppressed, cursed, and so on. A feat or ability is more of a reward that won't (likely) subject to the vagaries of the campaign. Nothing angers/irritates a player more than taking away something they are counting on being as part of their character. One of my players is still sore at me (years after the fact) about an item that they voluntarily gave up in order to get past one particular obstacle, as they considered it an essential part of the character build. \$\endgroup\$ – nijineko Nov 1 '17 at 19:44
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While you can certainly do this according to the DMG (See Erik's answer for details), keep the stacking in mind.

When you give the player magic items, those will replace other items they currently use. Reasonably powerful magic items will also take one of the three attunement slots.

When you give the players inherent character upgrades, those will stack with those three magic items and with their usual character advancement.

To keep the campaign balanced, you might want to be extra stingy with magic item rewards throughout the whole campaign. Alternatively you could house-rule that these divine rewards also take attunement slots.

Regarding the permanence vs. transience of character feats vs. magic items: Keep in mind that when you are playing in a campaign world where deities can bestow new feats and ASIs on people, then it isn't far-fetched that they can also take them away. Don't be afraid to make use of this if some of the boni you handed out turn out to be too powerful.

Malicious deities might even curse people with permanent attribute decreases or taking away feats and even class features from them. But this kind of divine punishment through DM fiat is something which should be used very sparingly, as it can easily be seen as abusive DM behavior.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's always contentious to 'nerf' a player like that. Even the most understanding will feel hard done by, so it should be used extremely sparingly. Of course, this also goes for 'removing' magic items that they've "earned" \$\endgroup\$ – Sobrique Nov 2 '17 at 16:23
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Giving feats instead of magic items is fine

For weapon users, an ASI is much less useful than a simple, uncommon +1 sword. For casters neither matters much.

Weapon users

For pure DPR, +2 for your attack attribute is identical to a +1 magic weapon, both increase your attack and damage by one.

If you are Dex primary, an ASI also gives +1 to AC, initiative, a common save, and several skills. With Str the side benefits are not nearly so good. +1 to a less frequent save, and a single skill.

A magic weapon however gives you full damage against all monsters. In my opinion, this alone outweighs any side benefit an ASI might have.
Without it the most optimized barbarian is mostly useless against a CR2 Wererat.

Casters

Most spells don't add your primary attribute to the damage, only to the attack bonus or the DC, so ASIs are less crucial to begin with.
Must damaging spells deal half damage on a save, reducing the importance of a high DC even further.

Offensive magical items like Wand of the War Mage are limited in their application, giving +1 only to attacks, not for damage or DC.
Wands on the other hand provide versatility, effectively giving you a spell known and many extra slots. You have to attune them, still much more useful than any feat or ASI (with the right spell inside).

Diminishing returns

An ASI is great when your main attribute is 18, significantly less so when it is already 20. Sure, it depends a lot on your class and build, a Monk or Paladin seemingly can't get enough of them, while a Rogue has plenty.

After a Wizard has Int 20 and Resilient(Con), there is not much to gain.

Conclusion

Most characters are the strongest if they have a combination of ASIs and magic items.
Once I have a +1 Longsword on my Fighter, another one does not help much, and even +2 one is only a small step up. Here I would prefer an ASI.
If my druid has Wis 20, a Wand of Web is much more valuable to me than any feat.

My point: giving magic items is perfectly fine, and ASIs are weaker, so they can't upset the balance.

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Among the magic items listed in the DMG are (effectively consumable) Manuals, one for each ability score, that increases the ability score and its maximum by 2 points each. These are listed as Very Rare.

An ASI is slightly more flexible since it can be split up, but in practice each character will only do this once if at all over their career. Otherwise, the increase to the score maximum makes the Manuals more powerful than an ASI.

As @KorvinStarmast points out, Ioun Stones are other magic items that provide a similar benefit, granting +2 to a specific ability score (but not its maximum), and are also listed as Very Rare. These have the extra drawback of requiring attunement.

I'd rate a hypothetical ASI/Feat boon as between these two established items in power, so it would also be equivalent to a Very Rare treasure.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Might be worth comparing to the ioun stones that increase some ability scores which are all very rare, but which do not also increase the max ability score above 20. (I just checked SRD, all six have the same rating of very rare). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Nov 1 '17 at 20:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Good point. They're a little different, in that they take up an attunement and are tradable/salable. That's probably a net decrease in utility, so maybe an ASI should be Very Rare after all. \$\endgroup\$ – starchild Nov 1 '17 at 20:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Rare or very rare fits, I am not challenging your answer, just tossing in an idea about the variability of what very rare offers up. The other thing is "was this a campaign where people rolled ability scores, or point buy, or what" which isn't specified, and where value might change based on the character generation method. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Nov 1 '17 at 20:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Making an Ioun Stone the same rarity as a Manual of ... was a huge mistake. The stone occupies an attunement slot, and can't raise the ability above 20, so the Manual is orders of magnitude more valuable. I think they are both worse than a +1 sword, but I know they are not equal to each other in power. \$\endgroup\$ – András Nov 2 '17 at 14:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @András agreed, they are nowhere near each other in power. In designing 5e, WotC was pretty obsessive about tightly constraining ability-score buffs. I'm a little surprised that they printed an item that increases the ability cap at anything below Legendary. I agree that in isolation a +1 weapon gives you as much benefit in combat, but ability boosts are unique in that they stack with everything. It's pretty much the only source of bonus stacking available in 5e, which alone makes it pretty powerful, and important to limit. \$\endgroup\$ – starchild Nov 2 '17 at 19:04

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