Themes: Rules

I have a few key points to keep in mind as I work on themes:

  • They can’t be too strong. The point is not to give players a significant power jump or suddenly allow new game-breaker builds. Themes must be significant enough to matter, but not so much that their overshadow classes (or, heavy sigh, races)
  • They have to be flavorful. “+2 to Heal checks” is boring. “+2 to Heal checks because you’re using the home remedies your grandparents taught you” is much better.
  • They have to inform, but not dictate, the character. They have to be general, like “soldier” rather than “military brat” or “draftee” or “trained in swordplay by an elven master”. Similar themes would overlap too much, and very specific themes restrict a player’s ability to make them relevant to their character.
  • They can’t just be another way to say “adventurer”. A theme designed for rogues and only rogues is worthless. We already have a mechanic for that: the rogue. A single theme needs to apply to multiple classes. This isn’t to say every theme needs to apply equally well to all classes; a wizard will get more out of the scholar theme than a barbarian, but the barbarian will still be able to use it (and probably be awesome.)
  • They have to adhere to reasonable mechanic design. You know, low levels should offer less powerful abilities than high levels, there should be no dead levels, the abilities can’t be meaninglessly specific or too-good-to-not-take broad, etc. I think points like this are obvious, but they may only be obvious to me.
With those in mind, here are the general rules for themes:

Themes work in tiers, not unlike mythic power. All characters have a theme and begin in the 1st theme tier. Your theme tier is separate from your class level and cannot be advanced with experience points. Instead, you increase your tier by completing quests specific to your theme. Each theme includes examples of such quests, but you can work with your DM to create quests that work with your campaign, setting, and character. You can use a single quest to advance themes for multiple characters as long as the quest is relevant to each theme. The point is not that you gain a tier after having so many adventures or gaming sessions, but that you advance whenever you work with your theme and improve within it.

Every character gains abilities based on their theme. These abilities are gained based on the character’s theme tier.


Theme Tier Theme Abilities
1st Theme ability
2nd 1st theme skill
3rd Theme ability
4th Expert advancement, theme feat
5th Theme ability
6th 2nd theme skill
7th Advance advancement, theme ability
8th Theme feat
9th Theme ability
10th Legendary advancement, 3rd theme skill

Theme Ability: As you advance within your theme you find ways to use your expertise in your adventuring career. At 1st tier you gain a theme ability. You gain another theme ability for every two tiers beyond 1st. You cannot select the same ability more than once unless otherwise specified within the ability. Once you select a ability you cannot change it.

Theme Skill: Your experience within your theme applies in limited ways to the skills you use as an adventurer. When you reach 2nd tier, select one skill from your theme’s skill list. You gain a +2 bonus on checks with that skill. At 6th and 10th tier you may select an additional skill. In addition, at each such interval, the bonus for any skill you chose (including the one just selected, if so desired) increases by +2.

Expert Ability: You have gained great skill or prestige, enough to be recognized by others who share your interests. You gain a +2 bonus on Diplomacy checks when interacting with characters who share your theme. In addition, you gain an ability based on your theme.

Theme Feat: When you reach 4th tier and 8th tier, select one feat from your theme’s feat list. You gain this feat as a bonus feat. You must meet all prerequisites for the feat.

Advanced Ability: You are renowned within your field, and it is likely that other characters have heard of you even if they do not share similar interests. Your Diplomacy bonus when interacting with characters who share your theme increases to +4. In addition, you gain an ability based on your theme.

Legendary Ability: You are legendary within your field, perhaps more famous for your theme than you are as an adventurer. You gain your theme’s legendary ability.


This is still an alpha, so it’s subject to change. I’m really not sure about giving characters a theme ability at T7, when they’re already getting an ability from advancement, and only a feat at T8. Switching them is probably better design. I also don’t much like that characters only get one ability between Expert-level at T4 and Advanced-level at T7. But there’s a persnickety part of me that really wants to say “you get an ability at every odd-numbered tier.” I haven’t reconciled it yet.

Unless I completely redesign something, that’s it. Themes don’t take several pages of rules or a whole bunch of cross-checking to figure out, by design. If a player has already put together the several flowcharts and footnotes they need to understand occultist spellcasting, they don’t want to crack open three books to see how to be an urchin.

And since that’s the full set of rules, for the rest of the month I’ll probably be posting the themes themselves. Right now I have five done and a sixth this close to done, so I’ll have a good list of themes from which to pick.

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3 Responses to Themes: Rules

  1. Blake says:

    Oh boy, oh boy. I’m excited now. I wanna start playing with them already.

  2. Mithorn says:

    I’d love to see something like this adapted for 5e. The current background system WoTC came up with are missing the crunch your themes provide. Looking forward to seeing more.

    • MssngrDeath says:

      I don’t know 5E as forward and backward as I knew 3.5E. Something like this could totally work but I’d need more experience with the system to do it myself.

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