The latest D&D Next blog has been hailed as one of the best news yet about the new iteration. I don't see it as news really: they said from the beginning that they wanted simply made characters balanced with complexly customized ones, and this is probably the only way to do it (using more or less traditional concepts).
The only real novelty is the end of Class Skills, which is good news.
The only problem I see with what they presented is that Themes as they were in 4e were a good "middle ground between background and class" and I from the examples they gave, they're going to change and become much more related to class and more general. I don't like this very much, but it's all in the air, don't want to judge things right now.
What I felt the need to blog about is another problem that I see as very related to the discussion about Background/Theme/Class (and Race) but that they didn't address (yet). And it's the competition for space (within characters) between combat and non-combat advancement.
We have these pillars that constiute each D&D character. We could say they're well represented by Race, Class, Theme, and Background (Skills).
The problem with at least the latest 2 editions of D&D is that we have customization tools for probably each and everyone of these pillars, but they're all competing for space. In 3e we had very little space and it was a problem. In 4e they gave us many more feats, added formalized backgrounds, themes, but guess what, the most common criticism about 4e is that it's all about combat. There are many reasons for that, but one is surely that when you have to decide if you have to use your feat slot for Weapon Expertise, greatly enhancing your accuracy and thus your fun in combat, and a feats such as Linguist, well... You're gonna choose the combat feat, even if you had envisioned your character as a linguist.
Same for Race. True, many racial feats are good in combat (Dwarves, I'm talking about you), but why should an Elf be "less Elf to be more Fighter or Wizard"?
Now, if you tell me it's about balance and choice, I disagree. That's exactly my point: the system of feats doesn't give you choice, and it's not like it behaves like that to balance things out, on the contrary.
If feat slots were subdivided into categories, and you'd get many feats for each category, now that would be choice and balance.
Bear with me for a moment, I'm not saying that every character should be as "racially developed" as it is "combat developed" AND "skills developed". I'm saying that there should be a way to PERMIT this, by not having all these things compete for space.
I'm not even saying we should have characters that "level up in background and race just as they level up in class", let's not go overboard.
What I'm saying is that just as your Theme in 5e(Next is going to be a pre-packaged feat progression for (hopefully) a single pillar of your character, Race, Class, and Background should be more or less the same. Don't call them feats, call them whatever you feel like, but I think that Race could be customized this way (and at different levels), just as Background etc.
Some things, such as Race, could be inherently less customizable, after all it's a biologic thing, it's not like you can change in that from level to level. Then make it something that advances every 5 levels for example. Theme (if made different from just a sub-class or build), could instead be something very "volatile". It's "how you do things", so it should be able to change from level to level with retraining and such. Same goes for Background, when it's seen as a Profession. Give it ways to advance every few levels, and change too. It's not like having served in the city guard will define your hero for the rest of its adventuring life. And Class... Well there you have it in Essentials already. A Knight is like a Theme in Next whereas a Weaponmaster Fighter is like building your own Theme in Next. You either take a pre-made package or go DIY.
Now you could say "But I don't care about skills, I don't want to "advance skills", I want a killer wizard that blasts like no others". Fine: take the pre-made background and race, don't care bout it, and then just optimize the heck out of class and theme. But your race and background, under my system, will still advance automatically at certain levels. You don't want to use those benefits? No problem. But that doesn't mean that others shouldn't care about them. And what's really important is that people wanting to build those aspects ONLY won't be penalized in combat. If they don't care much about combat, they'll take the pre-packaged version of the class and their actions in combat will be a choice of "attack, defend, protect, or pursue", or things like that. Simple, but not less effective, just as the Knight is not less effective than the classic Fighter.
The big change I'd like to challenge the designers to bring to the game is not much about customization, but about giving importance to all the pillars of D&D characters. You have the right tools: pre-made packages versus micro-management. With a system like that you can make people who don't care about one or more aspects just "choose and forget" a package. But that won't mean they'll be sitting and watching in non-combat if they're specialized in combat or vice-versa.
I'd like designers to acknowledge that these pillars don't have to compete. Because it's not how much do you invest in one of them that should define you, but WHAT you have chose while building it. Quantities can be the same for all, the pillars could be all the same height for all, and that won't be a "flat" system, because it's the bricks that make those pillars tall that count, that will make them feel and look different.
Now, a final disclaimer. I'm not calling for an edition in which everyone is able in combat, non-combat and everything in the same "quantity". I think there should be the possibility to build characters that even never actually fight, just using their skills and other things even inside combat to great effect, and at the same time there could be ways to have a character give up some skill or theme or anything to eke out something more in combat. It's ok, but every option should be equally viable, which is different. SO a good starting point IMO, is the one I described: Race, Background, Theme and CLass all advancing (at different paces maybe), offering options both before and during advancement (if not choosing a pre-made package), and ultimately giving the feel of an organic growth in whcih Class and combat capability is just one player, with no more importance (potentially) than the other three.
How to accomplish this within the mechanics of D&D? A way to do this would be to have feats at ALL levels. Note that if taking the pre-made packages for everything, thsi also equals NO FEATS. But in the moment you choose to walk away from the pre-made package, you have options at given levels in just the pillar(s) you chose. I want to be a particular type of Elf and worry only about Elven things in my character. Then the pre-made Elf race becomes open to customization, and I'll be able to choose things at first level and then every 4 or 5 levels (because it's something that doesn't change a lot). Background instead could have associated "pseudo-feats" every 3 levels. Theme every 2. Class, each and everyone (after all, we're talking spells, powers etc here). All these feats/features are not competing. You're getting them even if you don't want them, the problem is "do you want to deal with them, choose them?" - From a framework like this, a lot of different things could be made. For example, the player of before with a fascination for Elves could decide that he/she wants to give even more importance to Race, not satisfied with the slow "racial progression". Well then, bring on the Elf theme and Elf class, and Elf background. All of these potentially micro-manageable., We're talking optional modules of course, but still, look at the power of such a system. You could just write "Elf" in your character sheet, but you'd be choosing a lot of things each level, some related perhaps to your being a classical Elven Fighter/Mage, some related to your place in Elven society, some related to your classic Elven wood-watcher "profession", and others still related to what type of Elf you are. The good thing here is that the player wouldn't be sacrificing any of these aspects for any other.
And the same could be done with any aspect other than race. One could be wanting to take a theme to the extreme, a class to the extreme, or an area of skill expertise to the extreme. True, you'd need an unhealthy number of splatbooks to cover all the options, but isn't selling books what WotC wants to do?
Tell me what you think about this in the comments!