Posted by : David Guyll April 22, 2012

Backgrounds in 4th Edition were introduced in the Scales of War adventure path, as an option that gave characters a dash of flavor material as well as a small bonus (usually +2 to a skill or something similar...usually). Themes came about much later with Dark Sun Campaign Setting, and were also much more complicated; you got a bonus encounter power, and the option to swap out powers for theme powers and also nab theme-only feats. Later themes not only gave you the free power, but also minor bonuses at level 5 and 10. Basically they gave you variable mechanical benefits at no cost, with the side effect of potential flavor material if you wanted to bother with it.

5th Edition backgrounds and themes on the other hand, well...they sound like prepackaged skills and feats. Like, you pick soldier and theoretically gain skill training in four skills related to doing whatever it means to be a soldier (Athletics, Endurance, something knowledge of military hierarchy and tactics?), and a slayer theme and theoretically gain a damage-boosting feat (perhaps an encounter- or daily-based maneuver?). 

While I can kind of get behind the idea of grouping things together to speed up character creation/ease new players in, the fact that you can just ignore them anyway and pick whatever you want makes them feel kind of pointless. I mean I can already do the skill part by just letting my current players pick whatever skills they want, and the second would require lots of combing through feats looking for thematic packages (or just making up whatever I want).

The flexibility of any skills is nice. Certainly it will help players better make the characters they are looking for (though 4th Edition's multiclassing and Skill Training mechanic made it stupid easy for minimal cost). I am wondering if the themes really will just be lists of feats, or if they will add in unique class features. If the former then I am pretty meh on the whole thing, and hope that books do not waste too much page space on them. I really enjoyed paragon paths and epic destinies as no-charge perks for focusing your character and mechanically justifying what you do, so hopefully they turn out more like that.

Edit: I just realized that these sound like more heavily encouraged "builds" from 3rd and 4th Edition. Again nice for players scoping out a class or looking for iconic styles, but unless there is something more to them I hope we don't get too many pages devoted to them.

{ 7 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I think it's important that themes, backgrounds, or whatever, don't add power creep. Anything you get from a theme should require trade-offs with other class features. So, a simple theme might only be a preselected list of skills, feats, equipment, powers, or whatever. As someone who greatly prizes character generation simplicity, I think this is very important (not all of us want to "build" characters mechanically). However, this need not be all that themes can provide. I can also see them having theme-only feats or skills, or replacing other class features (for example, maybe a control undead ability that could be swapped in for turn undead).

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  3. You actually reminded me of this bit from the blog:

    "And, as with backgrounds, a DM might decide he or she doesn’t want to mess with feats and prefers something very old school. If so, the fights might be a touch harder, but you can play the game just fine without them."

    So it sounds like that themes might give something extra, or be the way you get feats by default. Or rather, a DM saying no to themes might be saying no to feats?

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  4. From what I understood, it made Ranger a variant build of generic Fighter, using the backgrounds and themes to turn it in that direction. I might be entirely off-base.

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  5. @Brendan, I see it more being that some of the class features are in the themes. If you want the simplest system, you say that people can only take the default theme for their class, and that is the baseline power level. It's no more complex than having those features on the class list instead of the theme list. It's still not 1e complexity, but I don't think people that want that level are going to pay for 5e. Swapping out different themes would be replacing certain features. By controlling the theme list, the GM can control complexity and balance.

    This seems similar in some ways to Pathfinder archetypes. Classes have a set of class features, and the archetypes swap out specific features for other specific features. If you were to roll the feats into class features and archetypes features you would have something similar to the way I think 5e will happen.

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  6. Given that he said that if you go without themes that the game will be harder, I am thinking that themes might just be feat packages designed to fulfill a concept. If you don't want to use them, you don't have to, and the game will only be "a touch harder". It is because of that statement that I don't think that you end up losing anything.

    For example, I guess the default fighter is the slayer, which is just extra damage or something. This could mean that the slayer theme gives you a class feature that gives you a damage bonus, or that the first feat is Martial Maneuver (Power Strike), which lets you deal bonus damage once per day. Something like that.

    If you don't want that, you can just take the guardian theme instead, giving you an attack-penalizing aura, which gain could just be a feat called Defender Aura. I actually would like feats to deliver neat things like this, as opposed to minor passive pips here and there, because it means that I can take damage-boosting slayer feats, but still defend my allies if I want to.

    Makes it feel more like Dragon Age or Mass Effect 3, where you are not locked in a set path like so many 3rd Edition classes. I am assuming that this means that classes get everything that they need by default, such as scaling damage and extra, non-penalized attacks for fighters. At least, I hope that they are trying to balance classes without "needing" feats.

    Note: I just remembered that you get a second theme at 6th level...hrmm...maybe it is just more than feats? Maybe they want to make sure they can dump thousands of feats on us without forcing players to Scrooge McDuck them in order to find the stuff that fits a concept.

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  7. I strongly agree with you regarding feats being more substantive. If they are going to exist, I want them to be more than little blobs of optimization (e.g., nothing like toughness or improved initiative; those are both so boring).

    The more I think about the approach outlined in the Wizards blog post, the more I think it has potential. My thoughts turned into a whole blog post of my own:

    http://untimately.blogspot.com/2012/04/5e-backgrounds-themes.html

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