Themes: Competitor

Actually I think I don’t have anything to say about this one.


You live for victory. You constantly seek to improve yourself, and your greatest triumphs come at the expense of others in your field. Your focus may be on individual accomplishment like a master of games, working with allies as in a team sport, or proving yourself in combat against ever-more-deadly threats. You won’t rest until you’re not only the best you can be, but the best in the world, with all the recognition and perks that entails.

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Themes: Atoner

This is the only theme I’ve written where I really, really feel like it should have an alignment restriction. I have a hard time believing a character could have this theme and remain non-good, and that bears itself out in the class features. But it is theoretically possible to take this theme and be some flavor of neutral or evil, so I’m not putting any such restriction in the rules themselves.

It’s also my first foray into Paizo-style design, where you take some existing character and try to write rules for them. I didn’t go fully down the nonsensical well of “you can play the character we had in mind and nothing else, so I hope you like Sherlock Holmes/Harry Dresden/Batman/etc.” but you can see glimmers of the character I had in mind here and there.


You’ve hurt a lot of people. Through ignorance, apathy, or outright malice you have caused a great deal of suffering, and you’ve now seen the error or your ways. Whether you want to make reparations to the families of those you killed as an assassin, fight for the rights of a race you tried to oppress or wipe out, or help the people you used to rule as an evil overlord, your journey is fueled by a need to balance the scales. You may never be forgiven, and you may be a pariah until your dying day, but you have to try.

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Themes: Survivor

One thing I’ve really enjoyed about themes is that multiple themes can work for the same character depending on what the character’s focus is. Consider a person who grew up in a small farming village that was wiped out by orcs. That character could be a farmer, if they want to focus on their old profession; an epicurean, if they’ve recognized how fleeting life is and want to make the most of it; an expatriate, if they want to keep their small-town lifestyle and ideals alive even after they’re forced to move to a city; a pacifist, if they’ve seen enough death for one lifetime; today’s theme, if the orc attack itself drives them forward, and so on. Each sets a different tone for the character and provides wildly different powers. It’s not as simple as “I learned to farm, so I am a farmer”. It’s more like “farming is what I want to do with my life” and deciding how that fits into an adventuring career.


Your life is defined by disaster. Some natural, magical, or monstrous tragedy left it mark on you when you were young. Whether it left you an orphan, destroyed half your town, or only affected you deeply and permanently, it still haunts you wherever you go. You aren’t proud of your scars, but they do galvanize you and give you the focus and experience you need to help others in the same situation. If you can survive the worst of your past, there’s nothing the future holds that can stop you.

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Themes: Expatriate

I freely admit this idea came form the 5E Player’s Handbook, which provides the background “outlander”. But that background only covers people from the wilds, not people from civilized but remarkably different cultures. I’ve watched enough professional wrestling to know that “foreigner” isn’t just a character archetype, it’s also a personality and often an alignment. And a city mouse in the country is just as lost as the reverse, so there’s no need to split that into two themes.

More than most, this background relies on role-playing. A farmer might not always talk about farming and a dragonkin might not always talk about how great their ancestors were, but a person lost in a confusing culture is always lost in a confusing culture. As such, I tried to dodge a lot of the obvious cultural differences like “everybody from around here cooks weird food” and “I can’t understand anything said with that accent” and “the phrasebook says that word means something else”. In reality that’s frustrating and in fiction it’s hilarious, neither of which is really the scope of optional mechanics. It’s up to the player to decide how much of that they’re willing to tolerate, and it’s up to the theme to provide small but tangible mechanical effects related to it. As such, you’ll probably need to justify each of these abilities in-character. And that’s fine. In fact, it’s kind of the point of themes in general.

An aside: I think one of the abilities in this theme is among the best mechanics I’ve ever written. See if you can spot it.

You’re not from around here. You were born and raised in a very different culture, like a nomadic tribe in the desert who have never even heard of iron, a small town deep in dwarven lands, or a secret underground society beneath the capital city. Uprooting your life taught you many important lessons, but you don’t want the old you to wither and die. You want to expose your friends and associates to your culture, fostering it and building acceptance for it in a new environment.
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Themes: Pirate

So far almost every theme I’ve written has been something from my initial list of concepts. Only two themes came about because a player wanted something specific for a character. The first is the noble and the second is this one. Both of those characters are in the same campaign, and the second season of that campaign is starting very soon. Coincidence!?


You were trained on the sea, but not in the mundane life of an ordinary sailor. You may have been a common smuggler, lived the riskier but more rewarding lifestyle of waterway bandits, or joined a government-sanctioned crew commissioned to stop the former. Your dream has always been to lead your own crew, and if you keep yourself alive long enough your exploits and experience will inspire loyalty in your allies and respect in your enemies.
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