The release of the first public playtest packet and blogs such as Wizard with a License to Kill and Backgrounds and Themes: A Closer Look generated forum discussions, feedback, and questions about backgrounds and themes. Many of these questions asked about our current approach to how backgrounds deliver skills and themes deliver feats.
First, I’m gratified that some people noticed the pregenerated character sheet note beneath the Background and Theme columns, and decided to try it out. Apparently they played a game with a more “old school feel” with great success. Already our goal of providing modular play is proving amenable.
Most of you, however, did use the backgrounds and themes provided. So to help answer some of the questions about them, I’d like to introduce you to the human wizard named Seren. Seren has the Spy background (not that she’s told anyone) and the Magic User theme.
A background is something Seren, and all other characters, comes to the table with. Her background is who she was and still is. All the skills and the single trait provided by a background are delivered immediately upon selection, regardless of level, which means the “handler” trait (potentially) provided by the Spy background is immediately useful to Seren. Every so often, a mysterious contact (the “handler” ) answers Seren’s questions, when she can find him. Other times he approaches Seren with tantalizing information that leads her on new adventures. (For instance, her handler recently left a cryptic note about something called “The Sundering.” ) In addition to providing her with a handler, Seren’s Spy background might grant her skills such as Bluff, Disguise, and Decipher Script, all of which make her slightly better at doing things she could’ve attempted without training (but when you’re a Spy, every little bit helps).
As earlier noted, Seren also has the Magic User theme. A theme reflects the manner in which she (and other characters) interact with the world. So as she gains experience and knowledge, her theme grows with her, adding to her expertise over time. As the rules iteration currently stands, a theme is how a character gains feats. Like earlier editions, feats offered by a theme come at specified levels. Currently, we’ve set the default for feat acquisition at character levels 1, 3, 5, and so on. Which means that Seren, when portrayed as a 5th-level D&D character, has three feats. Her 1st-level feat gives her two extra minor spells, her 3rd-level feat gives her a familiar (Seren likes ravens), and her 5th-level feat gives her a flourish with a favorite spell. In Seren’s case, it’s fireball, baby!
To be clear, race and class do not provide skills or feats in the current rules iteration. Skills (and one trait) are provided in a story package called background, and feats (and a level progression) are provided in a story package called theme. If you want to run a game using skills and feats but let players pick and choose their own mix, you’d use the same framework. The guidelines we’d provide for such a total customization option would tell you to encourage your players to create a background that matched the skills they chose, and come up with a theme to explain the feats.
And so Seren infiltrates a mysterious temple using a disguise to impersonate a priest, uses her raven to provide additional intel, draws on her training in deception to fool those who question her presence, and relies on fireball when, on the brink of discovery, she launches an explosive distraction to make good on her escape.