At a Dungeons & Dragons game, I overheard a player explain that feat was short for feature.
That’s not right, but I kept quiet for 2 reasons:
I don’t want to be the guy who butts into conversations to say, “Well, actually…”
I like the feature explanation much better.
Using “feat,” a word for a stunt, as a game term for a character feature or talent bothers my wish for precise terminology. Back in the third-edition days, this word choice annoyed me to such an embarrassing degree that I griped about the misnomer on the Wizards of the Coast D&D boards. That post probably only exists on a backup tape labeled “GLEEMAX” in magic marker.
How did we end up with feats?
Designer Monte Cook explains that feats came from the development of the third edition’s skill system. Two ingredients from D&D’s history contributed to skills.
The thief’s ability to do things like pick locks, climb walls, and so on.
The non-weapon proficiencies that appeared in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. (See Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D.)
The designers aimed to combine the two threads. “What we saw was that there were certain skills that we wanted to put into the game, but they were unlike the others because there wasn’t a check involved,” designer Monte Cook explained in an interview. Some of those proficiencies granted an ability to use things like shields, but others unlocked stunts that a character learned to do.
The design team called those stunts “heroic feats. As the game element developed, the team dropped the heroic bit. “Feats opened up a way for us to give cool character powers and abilities that weren’t skills and that weren’t tied to your class.”