Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Drinking the Kool-Aid or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Themes"

Around GenCon time last year (2010), WotC reintroduced a favorite campaign setting from back in the 2nd Edition days - Dark Sun. While reviving many of the great "survivalist" features from the older edition, The 4th Edition version of Dark Sun also introduced a new optional rules mechanic - the Character Theme.  Themes were written to help better incorporate a character's background into that of the campaign setting. The theme added an additional power at 1st level, class features at 5th & 10th level, and optional utility powers at 2nd, 6th, & 10th level.

I didn't like them.

I made no bones about it, either. If you listen to the Dungeon Master's Roundtable, you'll find episodes where I simply state that while I think the themes are fine, I wouldn't use them in my own campaign, as I simply didn't need the extra layer of rules complication. At the time, my game was well established, and "retrofitting" themes seemed like a bad idea at the time.

I've since changed my mind.

As an old man, I consider that my prerogative, but I want to explain why. If you follow my Twitter feed closely, you may have grokked that I have begun "dipping my pinkie toe" into the freelancing waters. I've been running my little backwater blog for awhile, but this was one my first attempts to work professionally. Back in June, I had a proposal accepted by WotC.  Excited, I wrote out my lengthy article and submitted it for consideration.

When feedback for the article was finally returned, the message was pretty clear. Make it better. Make it more D&D. It was nice that they didn't outright refuse it. Instead, they gave me a week to clean it up and resubmit it. It was a hell of a challenge, but I faced it down and turned it in before my given deadline.

Side note: I still don't know if the rewrite will be accepted. It it is, awesome! If not, it was a good opportunity to get to know the process and to (as they say)..."try, try, again".

While I can't discuss the article (NDAs being what they are), I feel safe to say that while rewriting the article, I discovered the beauty of themes. What dawned on me during this writing assignment, is that themes accomplish two things that really struck a chord with me in my own game. While I was a little slow on the uptake for these revelations (which were probably obvious to others), here's what's important to know:

1)  Themes are indeed an excellent way to provide alignment between your campaign setting and the characters that are participating in that setting. For example: Let's say your campaign setting is set in a land of strange fungal forests. Commerce, even basic living, is all based on fungi of different kinds. You might wish to have characters with abilities that relate specifically to that kind of world (fungi). With that in mind, you may want to build a Fungal Potion Brewer theme. Perhaps there are living fungi that are evil. In that case, you might want to build a Fungicide Slayer theme. The important thing is that you're not building an entire class. You're just providing a background and character hook in a form that provides the player with a little "meat" for their character. With the addition of the appropriate character theme, the player is more immediately immersed into the campaign setting.

2)  Themes satisfy that subconscious OCD layer I have. Since theme benefits top out at 10th level, they're clearly designed for Heroic tier characters. The natural result is a tripartite set of character development tools: Character Theme, Paragon Path, and Epic Destiny. Neat, huh!
Presented this way, it makes perfect sense. As the character advances, every step is governed by a set of tools that not only provide stats, but help the character develop beyond simply being that list of stats.

For my players that might be reading this blog, themes are coming your way. I'll be introducing them retroactively (I know, I said I'd never do that) in the form of small solo mini adventures that will take you back to 1st level. They should be fun, fairly fast-paced and interesting.

For the rest of you, I now highly recommend giving themes a try for your own 4th Edition campaigns. If you're having trouble with player immersion, it just might do the trick!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.


  1. Good explanation. I think I was in a similar state of mind to you about themes, although maybe not as extreme as you seem to imply you were.

    It's similar to what I'm thinking of trying to do for our Pathfinder character creation on Saturday (where I'm a player, DMing Pathfinder and 4e at the same time doesn't sound like fun) but without the benefit of the mechanics to back it up. I'm just going to have to use skills as best I can and add everything else as flavor. Themes would make this much easier.

    Good luck with the WotC article.

  2. I'm not as familiar with the Pathfinder rules, but it wouldn't surprise me if enough information was there, that some kind of "crunchy theme action" might be possible. Best of luck with that Pathfinder theme creation!

    And...Thank you!

  3. They're just not necessary, is all. Of course, "if you don't like them, don't use them" always applies. And I haven't, so I can't speak to how they affect the game, but I have played & DMed evocative "theme characters" without themes. The power of 4E is in its abstraction and representing more things mechanically rather than narratively is a step backwards to, I fear, pander to those who can't grapple with abstraction. I see that Wizards has to do that, but it saddens me.