This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Twelve on 25th March 2020.
Lennon: No thanks, my multi-eyed friend, I’ve got this. I can find whatever I’m looking for completely on my own.
Ostron: You do know Libby already has a book for you, right?
Lennon: That’s not the book I want.
Ryu (quietly, to herself): But is it the book you need?
Ostron: Look, why are you suddenly interested in finding your own books in the annex?
Lennon: I’ve been practicing my passive perception! If I just walk through the stacks here, I’ll notice the book I want out of the corner of my eye!
Ostron: I didn’t know you could practice passive perception…
Lennon: Well…it’s not exactly how that works, if I’m being honest.
Feats are technically an optional rule in D&D, but many players, particularly those running higher level characters, like the option of grabbing one for their characters. The popularity of the variant human as a race has also bumped up the popularity of feats given that receiving one is part of the variant human’s basic stats.
However, a number of people are bothered by feats in 5th edition. Because roleplay is arguably a more central focus of the games, in many cases feats can be jarring; most of them represent a significant jump in a character’s abilities that seems to happen arbitrarily with little explanation. For people focused mostly on the mechanics nobody really notices, but in-universe it would probably cause a bit of confusion if the wizard who’s never worn anything but cloth robes and silk suddenly walked into an armorer’s and pulled on a full suit of chainmail armor without so much as a “how to these cinch straps tighten?”
Fortunately in most cases using feats doesn’t automatically mean everyone will need to take a roleplay hit. Depending on the feat in question, there are some ways to mitigate the impact taking a feat can have on the roleplay of the group.
First of all, the easiest one to write off is any feat taken as part of the variant human racial choice. Just work the explanation of why you know ritual spells into your backstory somewhere…or just shroud it in unknowable mystery with the rest of your past if you’re one of those people.
Dealing with feats you’re taking mid-game requires a bit more finesse and again it depends on what feat is being taken. The easiest feats to explain away are ones that are mildly enhancing things you’re already doing, for example something like Observant or Dungeon Delver; if your character has been spending a lot of time crawling through dungeons, running into traps, and keeping their head on a swivel looking for threats, it’s not a stretch to say that heightened awareness has given them certain permanent benefits.
Fortunately for roleplay enthusiasts this covers most of the feats available; comparatively few of them provide completely unique bonuses for something the character wouldn’t be doing anyway.
However, those bonuses do exist so it’s worth covering them. A lot of them could still fall into the category of “learned expertise”, where the character’s new skills could be explained by field experience. However, something like Crossbow Expert could show up on a character like a fighter who wants to use their extra attacks to trade the d8 they’ve been getting with a longbow for the d10 they can enjoy with a heavy crossbow. They haven’t been using a crossbow up to that point, so why are they suddenly so good with it?
There are a couple of explanations you can put forward as a player; one option is saying you got training from someone during downtime, but if your campaign doesn’t involve much downtime then that explanation doesn’t really work. If anyone else in the party uses a crossbow that’s another convenient excuse you could lean on; you just started getting tips from your buddy! However, given that we’re looking for roleplay explanations, it would also help if that buddy wasn’t also the one you have a barely tolerable relationship with.
Beyond that you may have to adopt a case-by-case explanation. In this particular example, you could leverage real life information; crossbows are generally easier to aim than bows, and you could argue the extra skills you already have from using a bow gave you an edge when you switched to crossbows.
As mentioned, though, that explanation only works with the Crossbow Expert feat; you’d have to come up with something totally different If you were a paladin going sword and board who suddenly decided “Dual Wielder” was the feat for you.
Everyone take a shot, because it’s time to talk to your DM!
If you’re stuck for ideas, asking the DM for assistance is the way to go; they may have alternative suggestions for you, or they may be able to insert something into the game itself that explains it for you, such as having the skill granted as part of a boon from a diety or other powerful being, or letting you find a magical item that bestows identical bonuses to the feats.
Those solutions are actually most helpful with the last class of feats, ones we’re calling “out of the blue” feats. These are the ones that grant abilities wholesale without any buildup or explanation. The most obvious examples are feats like Tough, Magic Initiate, or the “Armored” feats that grant proficiency with certain types of armor. In some cases there will be build-up to them but most of the time the associated abilities will just suddenly appear.
Explaining these away is often more difficult. Tough, for example, is more subtle but objectively you have a character who suddenly got a minimum of an extra 8 hit points, so they can go toe-to-toe with an enemy taking more hits than usual. That can be a great roleplay opportunity as all of your fellow party members react in various ways to you taking a beating, like in the scene in the Lord of the Rings after Frodo gets stabbed by the cave troll. However, you have to have an explanation ready just like Frodo was able to show them all the mithril shirt.
As we mentioned, using other party members as an out is an easy solution for this as well. A lot of the armor feats can be explained away by finding whatever other character is wearing the appropriate type of armor and just claim to have been studying and talking to them about how their armor works. Same deal with the feats that suddenly grant access to magic, like Ritual Caster; find the group’s spellcaster and say that you kept getting them drunk and asking them how this flashy magic stuff works for the past however long and you finally figured some stuff out.
Again, a lot of these problems can be solved by talking to the DM, because they have the ability to hand-wave anything into being if it needs to happen. We already mentioned the scenario where the DM creates some sort of custom or masterwork item that could bestow the same benefits a feat did, and that can solve a lot of the “why can you do that all of a sudden?” questions.
Another option that needs their buy-in is to take feats with otherwise immediate effects and stretch them out over a longer period of time. If you know you want to grab the tough feat at level 8, that’s going to give you an extra 16 hit points. Instead of those suddenly showing up they could tell you that from the point where you leveled up, every time you take damage in a fight, your hit point maximum increases by some number until you reach the total number of extra hit points the feat would give you, to simulate your body toughening up and callousing based on repeated wounding. Or if it’s something like Linguist that lets you learn three new languages and you want to take it at level 4, you could learn one new language from levels 3 to 5.
A lot also has to do with the pacing of your campaign. It’s a lot easier to explain people gaining new skills if the party is regularly spending days or weeks in towns or traveling overland; a week of walking or riding across fields without being attacked gives people plenty of opportunity to read or practice various skills, and taking downtime in a city gives characters access to a myriad of educational opportunities, particularly if it’s somewhere like Waterdeep.
Unfortunately there’s no blanket explanation that works for all the feats given how different they are, but there also aren’t that many feats to deal with, assuming you aren’t playing in a game using a lot of third party resources. With a bit of creativity and some input from the GM, you should be well on your way to finding explanations for your sudden expertise.
Ryu: Right, so what’s Lennon’s excuse? Um…where did he go? Lennon!
Lennon: Hang on, I think I found some…oh dear
Libby (distressed): Book!
Ostron: Do we actually know that he is more observant than he was before?
Ryu: Well given Libby just tried to give him the book “The Friendly Grell and its Sightless Travels,” I’m guessing probably not.
Libby (annoyed): Book!
Ostron: What? Oh it left another one here…”Owner’s Manual: Arcane Scrying Pool Mark 7″
Ryu: Right, let’s get to it, then. Uh, do we need to get Lennon?
Ostron: Assuming Libby doesn’t beat him into unconsciousness with a book, he’ll be along.