So what, exactly, is a theme?
D&D and Pathfinder make a clear difference between PCs and NPCs. PCs are heroes, the stuff of legend, several cuts above the average person. PCs are stronger, faster, braver, and all around better than a farmer or village priest or even royalty. While NPCs ostensibly use the same system as PCs, they’re restricted to different, lesser classes, ability scores, equipment, and opportunities.
This is mostly because D&D and Pathfinder are games about adventuring, and PCs are adventurers. A PC is expected to dedicate their life to whichever cause is relevant to the game, whether that’s promoting the interests of a guild, saving the kingdom, uncovering arcane secrets, or even just accumulating wealth and prestige. They’re better than other people because they throw themselves wholeheartedly into this cause, forsaking other interests and pursuits to advance their career with single-minded commitment.
To that end, all non-adventuring interests fall by the wayside except as they apply to adventuring. A blacksmith who taught herself swordplay and became a fighter isn’t a blacksmith any more, except in that she may choose to increase her Craft ranks. A lesser noble born with magic in his blood is a sorcerer, and his nobility is only relevant as a single social trait and perhaps an opportunity for later adventuring hooks. Even a character who owns and operates a current, functioning, persistent business can only manipulate it during her downtime, using optional rules that apply to the space between traveling and killing.
This is because, as far as the system is concerned, everything that isn’t directly relevant to adventuring isn’t worth a focus. It’s a single skill check at best and a background footnote at worst. This is why there are six Knowledge skills that cover monsters, but only one Profession skill to cover every type of crop a farmer could possibly grow. The things a character did before they became a PC are irrelevant, and when they become a PC they reject all outside interests. Life is adventuring, and adventuring is life.
This is bull.
A real character has interests outside being an adventurer. They have hobbies that don’t fit as common skill checks. They have beliefs besides those that manifest as a class’ spellcasting. They have relationships beyond NPC boons. They have backgrounds that mean more than a +1 bonus to a single skill. A person is more than their occupation, and a character should be more than an optimized murderhobo whose only relevant personality trait is where they stand in a party formation.
This is what themes are, a mechanic for the parts of characters that don’t fit neatly into a race/class structure. They allow these backgrounds and interests to be part of the game, not a line on a character sheet about which a player can quickly forget. With themes a character can not only use their non-adventuring passions as a way to help them as adventurers, they can also advance in said passions without sacrificing resources, like skill points and funds, that they need to keep pace with the system’s expectations. They bring backstory to the table in a tangible way.
What I’m looking for is something like what existed during a phase in the 5E playtest, where a character’s background advanced as they did. For example, a 1st-level farmer may have gotten a bonus to working with crops, but at 5th-level also did better in the market or dealt better with livestock. This occurred regardless of your class, and it showed that even as you fought kobolds and raided dungeons, you were still a farmer and you were expected to be working on that as well. It meant a wizard-farmer had different abilities from a wizard-thief and neither felt they were worse at wizardry for having come from a different background, and that colored the characters and the classes in ways that mattered during play.
Instead, 5E ended up with backstory, which gives players a benefit at 1st-level and allows them to choose from a list of relevant character traits for the opportunity at a +2 bonus at some point after the DM decides you are playing the character appropriately (the especially astute might gather that I think dimly of this mechanic, and they are correct). Besides that the backstory has no effect. It’s done. You’re not a thief any more, you’re a ranger, and your thievery is static unless you choose to sacrifice ranger abilities for it.
While I think I run in circles who have a much stronger opinion about the “character=person” approach than is standard, I still think there’s an opportunity here for the game to work with us instead of against us. We shouldn’t have to cobble together ways to make our characters fit the rules in a system ostensibly designed to handle anything you can throw at it. The intent of a theme is to fill this void, and allow characters to let their background progress in a way concurrent with, but separate from, their class level.
I know that by adding a new system I’m increasing complexity, and I’m okay with that. I also know this increases the power level of play because it gives characters abilities they wouldn’t otherwise have, and I’m okay with that too. I am trying to keep the power jump relatively low because these are supposed to be supplemental rules rather than a subversion of the class system. I’m also letting the DM mitigate the rate of progression in a theme and how much it’s likely to come up during gameplay. I’ll discuss that later around theme quests. I suppose an enterprising (read: insufferable) player could still game the system by choosing a theme designed to matter in a campaign more than the other players’, but I contend that’s actually the DM’s fault for naming it the “The Corn Isn’t Coming Along Sufficiently” campaign in the first place.
Over November I plan on posting these about themes as I write them, including the alpha-test structure for a theme, what the bits of it are, and a few varied examples. As I said before this is more of a “see what I can do” activity than a “write 50,000 words” activity, so I don’t know exactly how often I’ll be posting or what those posts will contain, but the goal is to have enough for you to sink your teeth into.