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The Leadership feat is so widely accepted as game-breaking that I feel no need to even source it. However, upon rereading the feat's description in the SRD, it's not immediately obvious to me that it's a game-breaker. It's clearly powerful if optimized around, but it doesn't seem obviously broken enough to earn its reputation. At face value, it barely appears to do anything until you're approaching the mid/high levels. So what is it about the feat that earned its reputation as a game-breaker?

Note: The description of the feat in the SRD is rather complex. I suspect that a good answer will need to break down what the feat does before explaining either why that is in itself broken or how that can be broken.

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You get a second character.

Honestly, I wanted to just stop there—that’s broken, full-stop, right there. Stack Exchange is making me write more, though.

Cohorts are nearly as strong as PCs and you get all of that power for the cost of one measly feat. Feats are powerful and valuable, but “having another character” gets you a minimum of three, so you’re net +2 on feats, and that’s ignoring literally everything else about the character. Sure, the cohort is squishier and splitting feats between two characters limits synergy, so it’s not literally the same as +2 feats, but you get so much else on top of that. What are the most valuable things in the game? Feats? You get more of those. Spells known? You can get more of those. Spell slots? More of that. Actions in combat? You get more of those.

Leadership is so powerful that it is probably the strongest choice for 6th-level feat, even for druids, who would otherwise consider Natural Spell a foregone conclusion at that level.

Also, it’s a headache to adjudicate. Technically, the feat requires a whole lot of DM input—which is a big ask since DMs are already, ya know, pretty busy. And since the DM builds the cohort—the PC only gets to roughly describe desired attributes like race and class—there is a ton of DM judgment on the line here. Exceptionally poor choices on the DM’s part can take the feat’s power down massively, but that’s fraught with problems too. And if you go hard enough, you could turn the cohort into a liability, which is just miserable.

Finally, it’s just... kind of nonsense within the framework of the game. The cohort isn’t a minion like an animal companion, familiar, or special mount, that shares a magical bond with and is explicitly subservient to the PC. The cohort’s supposed to a wholly independent character. As such, you shouldn’t be able to get one just by spending a feat—you should have to roleplay that, and it should be handled accordingly, with the character making truly independent choices and quite possibly not accompanying the PC on some of their activities. While making it cost a feat seems like it would balance things out, instead it means that it’s something the PC has “paid for” and is therefore owed. That’s a really problematic dynamic.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to be clear: The Leadership feat just mechanizes existing rules. Creatures can—without any feats at all—have any number of cohorts and followers… those NPCs are just even more at the DM's discretion if the big dude lacks the Leadership feat. Also, the Leadership feat doesn't provide an unlimited supply of cohorts—causing a cohort's death (yes, it's that vague!) reduces leadership score by 2, possibly rendering the feat pointless after a couple of oopsy-doodles in the dungeon. (A creature with the feat but a score of 0 gets no cohort.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Apr 6 at 18:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Still, 2 characters controlled by 1 player doesn't seem broken at all. It's merely enlarging the party. If another player were to join mid-campaign, no DM in the world would say "sorry, but you have to share a character with another player because an extra character is broken", right? \$\endgroup\$ – Egor Hans Apr 7 at 13:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @EgorHans Sure, but if one person controls two PCs, and therefore gets twice the attention, twice the spotlight, twice the success in facing challenges, and everyone else has one, there is a problem there. And that’s exactly what happens (often) with Leadership. There are also some sort of “side-benefits” to having a completely-subservient character, which can allow a player to reap benefits from pure-support options that might otherwise be quite boring to actually play as one’s sole character. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Apr 7 at 13:39
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The problem with leadership is that it is designed to simulate something that isn't appropriate in a lot of modern games.

If there was a feat that gave you a second character, albeit at a lower level, with all the benefits that came with it. Let's say a free item creation specialist or a dedicated buff bot? That's actually broken. Just imagine a feat that let you gain 8 skill points a level - that's a rogue cohort. Or a feat that gave you cleric casting at level - 2 - that's a cleric cohort. All of these are utterly broken when compared against even the most powerful of feats.

But let's look at it from a different perspective. The first editions of D&D, at a certain level some characters would receive followers. Fighters could build keeps and gain soldiers to guard their borders, clerics would build religious sites that were protected against monsters and had teams of acolytes and followers, thieves could build gangs and guilds. This was all to simulate that at a certain power level, your character isn't just a wandering person with a sword - they're becoming a move maker.

When D&D 3.0 came out, the game was becoming more about high adventure. A few adventurers become heroes, save the world, kill the big bad. Big 1 to 20 epic campaigns that were focused on a single plot and a single story. Having your player suddenly get a bunch of territory and a keep doesn't really work in most of those - it's disruptive at best. Of course, if you are playing something a bit more in line with the old school approach, where it's adventure to adventure and about exploring the world more, it's a different matter.

The leadership feat is intended as a way to represent the old school bit of a character transitioning from a wandering hero to an important part of the world. In that context, the feat is all right. You get a bunch of followers - most of them are non combat NPCs that hang out around your keep or are pickpockets for your thieves guild. Your cohort is the person who runs the organization while you are away - your chancellor, adviser or second in command. They don't run off on adventures with you. Of course, the rules were left pretty vague - the single feat was supposed to represent a lot of different things and was really the domain of the GM to decide what the PC could and couldn't do with the leadership feat. Of course, players without that perspective see the feat and think "oh awesome! I get a second character!" and that's it. In that context, incredibly broken.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already and see the help center or ask us here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Apr 6 at 20:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ I keep going back and forth on this answer. On the one hand, of course you’re right about the history. But on the other, it’s pretty close to saying, like, “well think about it this way: if you don’t use the feat, taking it doesn’t break the game.” Having a cohort that doesn’t actually interact with the challenges that the PCs face is a matter of background, description, roleplay—which is exactly how all matters revolving around cohorts should be handled. But if it’s a feat, it’s supposed to be used to directly aid the PC in facing challenges, which isn’t what this answer describes. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Apr 6 at 20:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ There’s also some intra-edition history going on there, as feats were sometimes, especially early on in 3e, conceived as a way to of adding flavor or backstory to a character, rather than being seen as a character-building resource. But that perspective is fundamentally a mistake when one considers the extremely-scarce nature of feats, the extremely-high value some feats provide, and the need to secure value in order to overcome nominally-appropriate challenges. Anyway, all that said, well written, good point about the history, and solid food-for-thought, anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Apr 6 at 20:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ "The first editions of D&D, at a certain level some characters would receive followers." In the earliest D&D editions (Original, 1st, 2nd, B/X) characters of any level could get retainers/henchmen based on Charisma score (around 1 to 12 followers or so)... in fact, that was the essential mechanic for that ability. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel R. Collins Apr 7 at 3:09
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Conjurations, Leadership, Animal Companions - they all have in common the fact that they ruin the action economy. It is easy to underestimate the effect that 1-2 extra actions can make on one side of a combat. There are of course other ways in which they can be broken (like adding stealthy scouting ability to a heavy combat squad), but that might be the biggest one.

For possible solutions, it usually helps to look at later version of any given system. But in this case, there is no actual solution to be found (personally I think the 4E variant is closest thing to a proper fix, as it actually goes for the root issue). You will not find a "Leader" Feat or something similar in any one of those. So it is not only broken, it is so broken they have not yet figure out a solution for it. Just in case you wondered how broken it is/how easy it would be to fix it.

4E being the follow-up, of course tried to fix it. Their solution was simple: Summons and Animal Companions and the like do not act on their own. Insteads they need to be directed by the player to do something (effectively giving up the players standard action, to give it to the companion). There are some exceptions with instinctive actions, but that is about "it". This preserves the action economy.

I have no precise 5E rules, so I can only repeat hearsay. They did seem to have rolled back the summon changes, but now require concentration - which is a pretty serious thing in 5E: https://roll20.net/compendium/dnd5e/Spells#toc_22 - or the summons are really low CR (so rather useless in combat).

Pathfinder 1.0 has a Leadership feat, being the faithful copy of 3.5 it was designed to be. But google Result Nr.3 was about how abusive it is: https://paizo.com/threads/rzs2nrl7?Abusing-Leadership-Feat And answer Nr. 1 was "remove it from the game". I could not find it for Pathfinder 2.0 yet.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You're correct about 5E for summons I think, but for Animal Companions it is a bit of a mix. They need to be directed but if not just take the Dodge action (imposing disadvantage to attackers). \$\endgroup\$ – Captain Man Apr 7 at 18:41

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