To start, let’s answer the obvious question: what is a build around feat? Simply put, it is a feat that's versatile enough, utilitarian enough, or powerful enough to build a character around. Generally, a build around feat does at least both of the following things in some compacity:
Changes something fundamental about another ability or basic game function:
Some build around feats change something fundamental about another part of the game A great example of this is the feat Antagonize. Antagonize is allows you to use the Diplomacy skill to debuff creatures who don’t attack you, and allows you to use the Intimidate skill to force creatures to attack you.
Another example is the undine only feat Hydraulic Maneuver. This feat allows an undine to “use hydraulic push to attempt a bull rush, disarm, dirty trick (blind or dazzle), or trip combat maneuver.” The feat also specifies that it may be used with “your hydraulic push racial spell-like ability, your class-granted use of hydraulic push, or any hydraulic push spells you cast.” Hydraulic Maneuver is the quintessential example of a build around feat. It allows for a common, well scaling spell to be used in a more versatile way.
Infinite or reasonably large number of uses:
A build around feat must have unlimited or nearly unlimited uses to be a true build around feat. One example of this is the Greater Drow Nobility feat. The feat line of Drow Nobility, Improved Drow Nobility, and Greater Drow Noble all improve upon the Drow’s racial spell like abilities. Both Drow Nobility and Improved Drow Nobility and or improve spell-like abilities, but in the end the two feats leave you with at will Detect Magic and 2 uses of each ability, not nearly enough uses to be a build around feat. Greater Drow Nobility, however, makes all of your racial spell like abilities at will abilities, and your detect magic ability becomes constant. Being able to use your spell-like abilities at will allows you to build around their effects more efficiently, and ensure that you will always be able to access your “trick.”
An example of a feat that is situationally a build around feat is Stunning Fist. While hard to build around if you are not a monk, Stunning Fist is a built in build around feat for monks. Normally, it can only be used once per day per 4 levels. so at level 8, you can reasonably use your tricks on 2 opponents. As a monk, you can use Stunning Fist and additional number of times equal to your level. While not unlimited, a mid level monk will still have enough uses of Stunning Fist that she will be able to attempt to stun all of the high threat level enemies she meets.
The dangers of being a one trick pony:
One of the dangers of building a character around a single ability is being a one trick pony, essentially only having one thing your character can do. Whether it’s in the field or in combat, one trick ponies can hurt a small party’s ability to deal with new or unusual challenges. Having other resources at your disposal is imperative to being able to move effectively through a game.
This is the beauty of building around a feat. By building around a feat, a player allows for his class, other feats, and class options to be put towards other resources. For example, say Mike chooses to build an Undine around the feat Hydraulic Maneuver. He could build a sorcerer who focuses on blasting, using Hydraulic Push as a way to add battlefield control options. He could also build an unchained rogue with the major magic talent, allowing him to focus on trapfinding and skill monkeying. Either way, his build around feat allows him to add a significant dimension to his character without becoming a one trick pony.
Anyone who has played the tabletop role playing game Pathfinder can tell you that half of the game’s fun is creating a character and watching it grow. Whether you’re coming up with interesting backstory, finding funny quirks, or choosing the perfect blend of feats classes, character creation is as much a part of Pathfinder as actually sitting at the table.
But how do you actually go about building character? There are two ways to go about designing a character, top down design and bottom up design. So... whazzat?
Top Down Design: Top down design involves breaking a system apart and using the pieces to rebuild it in a way that suits your needs. Through a gaming lens, top down character design is all about flavor. A top down design in gaming starts with a character idea created outside of the game’s system. Generally, this is either an original character or a figure from a comic, television show, book, or movie. The character is the then outfitted with rules from the game.
For example: Sofia wants to create Harley Quinn as a Pathfinder character. She looks at the system and decides that Harley seems like she’d be a Rogue because of her fighting style and mannerisms. Sofia gives her character the Throw Anything and Catch Off-Guard feats to imitate Harley’s style of fighting with props instead of weapon, and gives her points in Profession (Psychiatrist) to reflect her background.
Bottom Up Design: Bottom up design is all about using existing systems to create new things. For a gamer, this means creating a character from existing mechanics and adding a skin of backstory and personality to fill the character out.
For example: Matteo just bought Pathfinder’s new Advanced Class Guide, and wants to try out the Arcanist hybrid class. He grabs a character sheet and fills in all of his stats, maximizing his Intelligence score to make his spell casting more powerful. He also makes his new character an elf to further increase his Intelligence. He likes the idea of being an still being in melee, so he takes the Blade Adept archetype, puts his leftover ability score points in Constitution and Dexterity, and takes the Weapon Finesse feat. After finishing his character, Matteo thinks about what background his character could have. The character’s high Intelligence coupled with good physical stats and focus on a single weapon leads Matteo to decide that his character was a guard in the military, but left because there was nothing left to learn. During the first session, Matteo’s character brags about being the only one to make a reflex save against an area of effect spell, so he decides his character will be egotistical.
Neither of these modes of character creation are better or worse than the other. A character designed from the top down can be for more effective than a character designed from the bottom up, and vice versa. It’s all about the source of your inspiration.