Some of Rob’s latest blogs have described a possible approach to D&D character construction, using themes and backgrounds (Backgrounds and Themes, and A Closer Look [links]). As we continue to consider the benefits of such an approach, we must also consider the implications.
Of course, backgrounds and themes nicely serve players who want to follow an obvious “through line” of character creation. Someone who wants to play a fighter will discover all the puzzle pieces neatly fit together to create a dwarf fighter with a soldier background and the slayer theme, assuming all those components are in play at a particular DM’s table.
However, themes and backgrounds also give a character of one class access to “the feel” that’s traditionally been in the keeping of another class. For instance, if I wanted a spy character, in many editions I’d either play rogue/thief, or multiclass my non-rogue character into rogue/thief to gain access to those kinds of benefits.
As things stand in our current design iteration, I could create an elf wizard with the spy background without multiclassing, and play a secret an agent of Thay, on the road to learn what I can in a foreign land, and just perhaps, sow discord and unrest in my path. (And if I liked to wear red, I’d of course disguise it.)
Yes, I know a wizard of any edition could act like a spy, to great and wonderful effect. But if I want mechanics that help me stay disguised or deceive others, then the spy background provides those benefits.
One question that this design question creates that we’ve noticed gain a lot of traction in the forums is this: What separates theme and background options from full blown multiclassing?
The answer is actually simple--every class we design must have a core identity and handful of related mechanics so fundamental to that class that only the class itself and the features it offers can reasonably grant it. So, sure I could play a wizard with a spy background. But if I want a spy who’s also handy with a knife in the back and also incredibly stealthy, I’ll multiclass into rogue as well.
Themes and backgrounds can provide great through lines, and at the same time allow wonderful ways to modify the feel and play of your character. However, multiclassing will remain as the method for changing the way your character plays at an even more fundamental level. It’s one thing to be a wizard spy. It’s another thing to be a wizard/fighter spy, or more devious yet, a wizard/assassin spy...