A little while ago, I pulled back the curtain so I could show you what we were thinking about for backgrounds and themes, and how they act as a delivery system for skills and feats by condensing all the little choices into two bigger choices. Before I get any further, we fully expect players to customize by either swapping out a skill or feat from a background or theme, or by working with their Dungeon Master to create altogether new backgrounds and themes (even if working with the DM means “Do whatever you want!” ).
Now that we’re all caught up, I want to explore these concepts a bit further.
For both 3rd and 4th Editions (and even to some extent in earlier editions with nonweapon proficiencies), class delivered the skills as a smaller menu from which you chose skills. You could access skills beyond what your class provided, but you did so at a cost (cross-class skills or feat expenditures). This technique embedded in the class certain assumptions about where the character came from. Rogues had skill sets that pointed toward some criminal background. Fighters focused on athletics and menace. Wizards had scholarly backgrounds. Letting class shoulder the burden of background was great for folks like Chris (who want to get in and out of character creation as quickly as possible), but for people like Laura (who want to tinker, build, and experiment) it meant other parts of the system had to work harder to provide customization options outside of the class. The 3rd Edition rules leaned on multiclassing and feat choice to help players create characters that matched their expectations, while 4th Edition introduce entirely new systems (themes, backgrounds, and so on in addition to multiclass feats and hybrid rules) with mixed results.
Divorcing skill choices from class means players have a greater degree of customization without having to introduce a new mechanical layer to sit on top of the ones we already know needs to be in the game (class, race, skills, and feats). We will still suggest backgrounds in each class so people who want the implied background commonly associated with classes can use them. But, by giving players the option to swap out one set of skills for another, to swap out individual skills for other individual skills, or to construct a set of skills to match the player’s character concept, we can shade classes in any way we want without having to introduce new subclasses beyond the classic concepts (ranger, paladin, druid, and so on) or put unwanted pressure on multiclassing to deliver these same results.
As I mentioned last time, I can imagine the fighter’s suggested background being soldier. That tells the story of the fighter throughout the editions. By replacing soldier with priest, I suddenly have a very different sort of fighter—even if the mechanical adjustments are shallow and focus on noncombat task resolution. Such a character might have been a temple guard, a crusader, or even Friar Tuck, armed with a quarterstaff.
It works the same way for the wizard. I imagine the default wizard to be a sage—someone knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. But swap out sage for thief and now I might have an adventurer who learned magic after stealing a spellbook from a wizard. Or, I might be something of a spellthief, using magic to help me keep my pockets filled with gold.
And in both cases, I can stick with my original class and feel good about my decision. Does this mean any class can have whatever combination of skills a player chooses? Yes, with the DM’s approval. I can see backgrounds used in several different ways:
DM 1: We’re not using backgrounds at all. Just ignore this stuff.
DM 2: Use the background suggested by your class.
DM 3: Choose a background for your character. It can be the one suggested for your class or a different one.
DM 4: Choose a background for your character. You can trade out one skill for a different one.
DM 5: Come up with your own background by choosing up to four skills.
The same approach to backgrounds also applies to themes. At heart, a theme is a feat-delivery system. Choosing a theme identifies the way you play your character. Your class will suggest a theme, but we expect you to choose whatever theme you like. The suggested theme for a fighter might be Slayer, while the suggested theme for a wizard might be Mystic. As a fighter, I can swap out Slayer for Guardian so I can do a better job protecting my allies. As a wizard, I can swap out Mystic for Lurker, and be all sneaky and stuff. Again, the theme works to help refine your choices, not constrict them. You can swap out feats from your theme for different ones or build new themes, assembling feats found in other themes. 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.
The theme you gain at 1st level isn’t the only theme you get. We’re not mapping out all 20+ levels of character development with one decision point since we also realize that characters, even those played by folks who don’t want to make a lot of decision, change over time. The first theme you choose is broadly descriptive and flexible. Think Leader, Sharpshooter, or Skirmisher. When you adopt your second theme at 6th level, you might choose another basic theme or you might choose something that grounds you a bit more in the game by selecting an advanced theme. Currently, advanced themes, in concept, resemble the prestige classes from 3rd Edition. They focus your character a bit further, building on the foundation established by another theme, to reflect deep specialization or some character-defining quality. Here are a few ideas off the top of my head. A Sharpshooter becomes an Arcane Archer. A Tempest becomes an Eldritch Knight. A Lurker becomes a Shadowdancer. A Mystic becomes a Necromancer or Enchanter or Abjurer. A Slayer becomes an Axe Specialist. A Guardian becomes a Dwarven Defender. And so on.
I imagine some of you might be thinking that this system does not lend itself to using themes as they were presented in 4th Edition, but I disagree. Although it’s true that themes in 4th Edition provided benefits on top of those granted by feats, skills, class, and race, themes in D&D Next can have the same weight for our campaign settings. Let’s take the Gladiator theme from the Dark Sun setting. We get the same thing with the Gladiator background and Weapon Master theme. The Templar might be a Bureaucrat plus Templar theme (bolted on to a sorcerer or warlock class). And for fans of psionics, we could easily do an Awakened background (granting minor telepathy) plus the Wild Talent theme. And an Elemental Priest would have the Priest background and a choice of Domain theme appropriate to the setting (Rain, Sun, Silt, Fire, Earth, and on and on).
As well as they work for Dark Sun, they also work well for any setting. Here are a few examples.
Ravenloft: Occultist + Avenger, Commoner + Werewolf, or Bereaved + Revenant
Greyhawk: Sage + Mystic/Disciple of Tenser, Knight of the Watch + Guardian, Blackmoor + Alchemist
Forgotten Realms: Thay + Mystic/Red Wizard, Harper + Leader
Planescape: You might choose Dustmen, the Fated, or Harmonium
I’ve been thinking about party backgrounds as an optional system. Players might choose a background for their character and then get a bonus skill from the party list (mercenaries, thieves, pilgrims, cult). The party background might also reward characters who have the same skills. Two characters with the same skill might get bigger bonuses when they pool their resources, for example. These are just some thoughts at this stage since the focus really needs to be on the basic backgrounds and themes we’re constructing. I believe the approach I outline above will, in the end, help players construct the characters they really want to play.