When I first heard about themes in the lead up to the release of Dark Sun for Dungeons & Dragons 4E, my first reaction was that they were just power creep. After all, the theme gave every character a new power and the option to take additional theme powers in place of class powers. That was like getting to multi-class without having to take any of the multiclass feats. The system, like most systems added later in a game’s life time, also felt a bit like it was just tacked on.
Despite that negative first reaction, the idea of themes has grown on me. The increase in character power for the Dark Sun themes is really just a new encounter power and the option to take alternate powers for higher level slots. For those released in Dragon so far, there are added benefits at 5th and 10th level that seem roughly on-par with feats. While it is definitely a boost and I can’t see a player opting not to take a theme, it isn’t enough of a change to really alter the balance of the game.
The Third Pillar
Rodney Thompson described themes as a “third pillar of character creation”, and I think this is where they really shine. Where race describes who a character is and class describes how a character approaches problems, a good theme can help define why a character is adventuring by tying the character to the world. The themes in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting largely take this approach and provide a link between a character and the setting that can’t easily be accomplished with the D&D races and classes alone. For example, the Templar and Veiled Alliance themes link characters directly to organizations in the world of Athas. Those strong story ties can then be used by players to guide roleplaying and by DMs as a source of adventure hooks and story complications during the game.
Unfortunately, this idea doesn’t seem to hold up as well with some of the themes released so far in Dragon magazine. For instance, in the Heroes of Nature and Lore article, Alchemist and Animal Master instead just seem like a collection of new powers that don’t really say anything extra about the character’s role in the world. I hope those two end up being an exception and future themes are more focused on being a link between the character and the game’s setting rather than just a way to introduce new powers.
A theme is mechanically similar to multiclassing without having to take any feats to do so. It definitely feels like the designers have decided that the cost of entry for multiclassing was too high and have offered themes like Wizard’s Apprentice as a third approach* to the problem. I think the mechanics are an improvement on the multiclass feats, but I’ve found that I much prefer themes that can act as a true “third pillar” by emphaszing a character’s role in the world. If you are interested in using the themes mechanics for multiclassing, Ryven Cedrylle has run with this idea and has a great series of posts called Multiclass Mondays on At-Will.
A Unified Approach
Classes, races, and themes all have slightly different mechanics but each fundamentally is a set of features and powers. It’s only a small step to get to a system where the mechanics for each pillar are the same, and by pushing the idea further, you could create a system where a character just has a handful of choices picked from a common pool rather than separate slots for each pillar. While choices could exist that closely match races or classes, there wouldn’t be a requirement for a character to take one choice from each category. For example, a character could be built around the concepts Horse Nomad, Slayer, and Natural Leader. The character would also pick a race, but it would just be a word on the character sheet rather than a major part of who the character is. While I like the mix & match approach of this idea, it does lose some of the structure provided by having distinct categories that each answer a different question about a character.
What do you think of themes? Have you used them yet in your games? Would you be interested in a unified mechanical approach for races, classes, and themes for character building?
*: Multiclass feats were the first approach and hybrid classes the second. Both of those seem to be on the sidelines so far in post-Essentials 4E.