Monthly Archives: May 2011

Taxpertise, and 4e’s Math Hole


You may roll your eyes that I’m harping on this again, but it’s been whole months since I’ve talked about the math fix feats. Last month I decided to search out professional opinions — especially professional opinions that contradict mine.


This is the thread I started on ENworld. After a month and 300 replies, nobody has yet come up with a single professional opinion to the effect that “No, really, Expertise and Improved Defenses are just options. Really.” Granted, there aren’t many professional opinions, but those that do exist all support the idea that some feats are ‘taxes’ that should be given for free. Here’s what they say:


Mike Donais gives his players Expertise for free. All of them; for every weapon. Because he wants them to be free to pick interesting feats. He made this comment two years ago, and things have changed since then. For example, he probably doesn’t give the new and improved Essentials feats for free, but I’d bet good money that he started giving away Improved Defenses when it came out.


Greg Bilsland gives his players Expertise (again, all of them) and a slew of defense feats for free. Why? Because they’re just not fun for a lot of players, and because “some players might not realize they should take the feats at all.” A direct quote; emphasis his.


Robert Schwalb talks about how these kinds of feats exist to correct gaps in the game’s math. (Scroll down to “Math Feats,” about halfway down his post.) “Currently, every character should take an accuracy feat, a damage feat, and a defense feat.” I don’t think damage is important enough to use ‘should’ with it, but I agree with generally agree with Rob’s sentiment: “If every character has to have these feats, why require them at all? Why not build them into the game directly?”


And then there’s Aulirophile’s firsthand account of GenCon 2008, where the dev panel explicitly said ‘Oh, we changed the math scaling halfway through playtesting and didn’t notice the gap that resulted. We’ll fix the problem in the PHB2.’ (Referring to the first Expertise feats and the second generation of defense-boosters.)


I understand that many DMs are reluctant to deviate from the RAW, lest their campaign be destroyed in an angry explosion of player entitlement and nerdrage. I understand that generally, the rules are well-designed and work out for the best in the end. But to demonstrate how the RAW has its own pitfalls, allow me an anecdote from my current gaming group. This isn’t meant to be a dig at anyone in my group, or any kind of passive aggressive hint to them.


We have a mix of characters, [no pun intended], as do most groups. One player can’t be bothered to worry about optimizing, balance or rules minutia. He happily takes skill trainings and other ‘suboptimal’ feats if they best fit his character. Another player loves D&D’s tactical elements, and likes optimizing. All of his characters have Expertise, a 20 in their prime stat and an accurate weapon or implement. The difference between the two isn’t exactly huge–no more than a few bonuses. But over time, it becomes noticeable. Particularly when we’re in a tough spot on Athas, and the difference between hitting and missing could be a TPK — I’ve practically seen the steam coming out of Tactical Player’s ears after Character Player misses for the second or third time in a row.


I’m not saying that players have to take Expertise and Improved Defenses; I’m not saying that having those feats suddenly makes a character “good enough.” (There are often many factors involved like un/lucky dice, rules mastery…) But I am saying that those bonuses are an assumed part of every character, like the half-level bonus, so I understand the frustration that results from one character not having them. Charging feats to get those bonuses is just like if we were charged feats to get the half-level bonus. The only difference is in degree. Which is why I’m going to use the Complete 4th Edition rules when we play the Fading Earth again. It builds those bonuses right into the game, and addresses a lot of issues that WotC hasn’t.

Here’s a brief history of feat taxes in 4th edition if you’re not in the loop:

Core Game: Most groups don’t play past the heroic tier, especially so early in the 4e era. Those groups who do venture into high levels, particularly paragon and epic, give conflicting reports. Some say high level is too easy for PCs; some say it’s too hard. Gamers of both opinions often report ‘grindy’ combat due to low accuracy, low defenses and low damage. Many DMs notice that PCs effectively lose bonuses between 1st and 30th level. (-4 attack rolls, -2 AC, and -4 to -7 NADs.) These lost bonuses become known as the ‘math holes.’

PHB2: The PHB2 introduces seven feats that just happen to fill the attack and NAD holes with remarkable precision. Anyone who knows anything about game design realizes that they’re too perfect a fit to be coincidental – the devs must have noticed the math holes and released these feats to fill them. Anyone who knows anything about math also realizes how overpowered these feats are – especially Weapon and Implement Expertise. These feats become known as ‘feat taxes,’ because the only reason for any player to not take one is to prove that they don’t have to.

PHB2 Errata: The Expertise feats become feat bonuses. This makes them effective replacements for most attack boosting feats, making the weaker feats obsolete.

PHB3: PHB3 introduces Versatile Expertise, for weapon-implement (weapliment) wielding PCs.

Player’s Strategy Guide: The PSG lays out clear guidelines about what PC attacks and defenses are supposed to look like — guidelines that are almost impossible to live up to without taking feat taxes. The PSG makes several mentions of the Expertise feats as easy attack boosters.

PHB Errata: Great Fortitude, Iron Will and Lightning Reflexes are lowered to heroic status, and are made better at the same time. They now completely eclipse earlier NAD boosting feats, and so become feat taxes.

Essentials: D&D Essentials will make the Expertises even better by adding extra benefits.

More Essentials (Nov 2010): The Improved Defenses feat is published, which effectively replaces Great Fortitude, Iron Will and Lightning Reflexes–for the cost of one heroic feat.