Some of Rob’s latest blogs have described a possible approach to D&D character construction, using themes and backgrounds (Backgrounds and Themes: A Closer Look and Beyond Race and Class).
Backgrounds and themes can serve players who want to follow an obvious “through line” of character creation. With these two tools, someone who wants to play a fighter will discover that all the puzzle pieces can fit together neatly to create a dwarf fighter with a soldier background and the slayer theme, assuming all those components are in play at a particular DM’s table.
Themes and backgrounds also give a character of one class access to “the feel” that’s traditionally been in the keeping of another class. For instance, if I wanted a spy character, in many editions I’d either play rogue/thief, or I’d multiclass my nonrogue character into rogue/thief to gain access to those kinds of benefits. As things stand in our current design iteration, I could create an elf wizard with the spy background without multiclassing. This character could be a secret agent of Thay who is on the road to learn what he can in a foreign land and perhaps sow discord and unrest in his path. (And if my character liked to wear red, I’d have him disguise it.)
Yes, I know a wizard of any edition could act like a spy, to great and wonderful effect. But if I want mechanics that help me stay disguised or deceive others, then the spy background provides those benefits.
One question that the concept of backgrounds and themes brings to mind (and we’ve noticed this question gain a lot of traction in the forums) is this: What separates theme and background options from full-blown multiclassing?
The answer is actually simple: every class we design must have a core identity and a handful of related mechanics so fundamental to that class that only the class itself and the features it offers can reasonably grant it. So, sure, I could play a wizard with a spy background. But if I want a spy who’s also handy with a knife in the back and also incredibly stealthy, I’ll multiclass into rogue as well.
Themes and backgrounds can provide great through lines, and they can allow wonderful ways to modify the feel and play of your character. At the same time, multiclassing can continue to be the method for changing the way your character plays at an even more fundamental level. It’s one thing to be a wizard spy. It’s another thing to be a wizard/fighter spy, or more devious yet, a wizard/assassin spy . . . .