When 5th Edition was first a thing (in a playtest I didn’t play that may never have actually happened thanks to an NDA), there are a few things that were awkward but that really excited me. I like having a bunch of different builds of a base class, something I got used to in 4E and Pathfinder and wholeheartedly endorse. I liked having static DCs, something that 4th Edition failed at with its “hills get steeper” mechanic. I liked having static attack and defenses, so that a CR 3 monster isn’t a total joke by the time the party is L6.
But the neatest addition by far was a theme, something that all editions of D&D should have, forever. The idea was that you had a class, but that wasn’t really your whole character. You were also something else that was relevant in some way to adventuring. For example, you were a fighter and you hit things really hard. But you were also an alchemist who was good with potions, or a farmer who knew how to handle livestock, or a spy who was good as disguises. These weren’t tied to classes, so an acrobat could be an elven rogue or a dwarven wizard. It made characters different and interesting and it showed that your entire life wasn’t defined by your feat list.
Over time, a lot of the things I liked about 5th Edition have been whittled away. Before, the worst offense was that escalating bonuses came back (Wizards says they’re trying to prevent this while increasing the ways players can do it, so yeah). But in this week’s This Week in D&D, it became clear that themes had been replaced by backgrounds. These represent a character’s past rather than their present, so all of the bonuses and abilities are conferred at L1.
That is, you were a farmer, but now you’re a fighter so you can never improve at farming. That is, unless they introduce farming feats, except that feats aren’t allowed if the DM doesn’t like them. If they do, training in farming comes at the expense of training in weapons, or spellcasting, or whatever else you have. It’s designed to be a small but direct decrease in power for the sake of personality, and suddenly we’re back to a world where power and personality are at odds. Before, themes and classes could live in harmony, both improving and changing as the character advances. Now every fun option is at the expense of an option that keeps the character alive.
On the other hand, perhaps this isn’t required. Wizards is making it clear that they don’t expect characters to always take the “best” option. They want a game where a character can still be competitive even if they’ve neglected most of the powerful feats. Which means that a character who has selected the best feats blows the game wide open by being too far beyond the expected curve, and we’re back to the balance problems of every other edition.
I liked themes, a lot. I liked them in 4th Edition too. Seeing that they’re going away for backgrounds, a mechanic that by definition is backstory rather than something that can and should be a focus, is another note in the “5th Edition isn’t for me” column.
Don’t even get me started on the notion that skills and backgrounds are “a DM’s tool” rather than a player’s. I’m starting to become convinced that 5th Edition isn’t for players at all.