Wednesday, August 26, 2015

4e "Themes" For 5e, Part One: Rambling

I enjoy 5e. I think part of why I enjoy it is that they actually succeeded in realizing their design goals. The game fits different playstyles. I have played a very basic, theater-of-the-mind, no feat game that approximated classic editions, albeit with far more character options. I have played a gridded-combat, option-heavy game with min-maxer types that felt a lot like later editions. While you see many gamers proclaim that 5e is a return to old-school gaming, even going so far as to call it an OSR game, it is remarkable how much 4e there is in it.

I am not sure why this isn't noted more often, but I can speculate. Certainly, a lot of people barely tried 4e, or avoided it altogether, so many are likely just unaware of how much made it into the game. WOTC also mastered the Orwellian art of language manipulation; by using the term "hit dice" for the healing surgish mechanic, it went down a lot smoother. In a similar way, avoiding the terms "daily" and "encounter" and substituting "long" and "short rest", the GNS theory debates largely subsided. The influence of 4e is also felt in what DIDN'T make it in, a point I touch on in this old blog post.

Anyway, I have had the idea bouncing around in my head since the game came out of introducing some 4e mechanics into 5e whole cloth; that is, without really editing them, partly to show it can be done, and partly just for the hell of it. I settled on themes. Themes, originally conceived by Rich Baker, came about late in 4e's run and were immensely popular. Somehow a game that felt bloated to many, with nowhere else to go, was able to handle another minor layer of complexity based on the sheer genius design of them. I didn't want to port them over exactly as they were in 4e however. Part of this is because themes often gave bonuses to skills, something that really would break skills in 5e. With static DCs, an extra +2 here or there almost defeats the purpose of rolling. I always enjoyed swingier skills anyway.

I did like the idea of keeping themes in the lower tier. These are still the most heavily played levels, despite the newer adventure paths. I didn't want to tie them to occupations and the like anymore though, as 5e's backgrounds (a term itself recycled from 4e) covered that design space. I decided to use 4e's utility powers more or less as-is as the theme features, as I was always a big fan of them. My first inclination was to make a theme for each class, thus a sorcerer theme, a ranger theme, and so on, but that didn't work out, partly because I found that the more you dig, the more 4e you find in 5e.

So while reviewing utility powers for 4e classes I ran into several issues that made me change the theme-as-class idea:

1. I wanted to avoid 4e mechanics that had no 5e analog. This included things like shifting, healing surges (as they operate a little differently in 5e), and the like. I still was stuck using dailies, at-wills, and encounters, but these fit fine with 5e: just make encounters recharge after a short rest and dailies recharge after a long rest.

2. I didn't want to give any bonuses to skills for the aforementioned reasons.

3. Many of the 4e utility powers appear in 5e. They might be slightly reworded, but they are there as class features, feats, and spells. I didn't want the themes to be useless to someone who had taken a certain feat, or for them to overlap onto class features.

With this in mind, despite the large number of utility powers, I quickly found there simply weren't enough to fit the criteria and still have them be unique for each class. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it gave me another idea: themes as ROLES. Yes, 4e roles converted to themes. So we have the striker, controller, defender, and leader theme, all able to be taken by any class (although some may suit one or another better), not unlike the choice of race.

This made it far easier, as I only needed three utility powers per role. And so, I started poring over all of the utility lists to find options that fit the ideas. This still proved tricky, as utilities often defy role. Some 4e fighter utilities are very striker flavored, for example. But finally, I think I came up with some good options.

As far as presentation, while I would like to just copy the things word for word, in order to keep within the legal framework of the licensing I have removed the names from the powers and reworded the mechanics. I still encourage people to buy 4e along with all of the other editions. This isn't meant to substitute that, and the powers are not sourced to specific books or laid out in WOTC fonts or anything like that. This is just a little exercise I am providing for free, more to promote their game line rather than take anything away or profit.

That will have to wait a bit for the free little PDF. This was just to ramble about the idea and hopefully whet an appetite or two. Look for the PDF sometime soon.


  1. I am interested to see what you do with this idea. I sadly did not get to play any D&D 4E because two players in my home group dismissed it before we even tried it (one said it was too much like a video game, the other dismissed it because you had to roll to hit with Magic Missile).

    1. Yeah, they later changed MM to be an auto-hit, but by that time it was too late for some.