by Mike Shea on 12 September 2011
Introduced in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, character themes add a new layer of mechanics and story to your players' PCs. While typically players would choose a theme to fit their character, today we're going to look at selecting character themes randomly, thus pushing players to come up with a new and unknown concept for their character and prevent them from simply picking the themes that fit best.
The following list of themes can be used for any typical D&D campaign. This list comes from all of the general themes released on D&D Insider at this time. During character creation, have each player roll 1d20 and consult the list to see which themes their PC possesses.
For some campaigns you might have characters whose themes are yet unknown. They might unlock their backgrounds as their memories return to them. This can work well for a Gloomwrought adventure.
For both Dark Sun and Neverwinter campaigns, you will likely want your party to roll their themes before they determine anything else about their characters. Themes from those books contain prerequisites that often do not fit the class or race a player might already have selected otherwise.
Building a theme list only requires that you build a list of themes applicable to your campaign setting. You should feel free to select a set from all available themes to fit the story you want to tell. Pay particular attention to the prerequisites and themes stories. Not all Dark Sun backgrounds will fit well in a Forgotten Realms campaign, for example. The general themes, however, should fit well into any campaign setting.
There are a few things to consider when you implement random themes into your campaign.
First, random themes work best in smaller campaigns up to sixteen sessions. Players are likely to want greater control over their characters' themes in longer campaigns.
Second, players are likely to come up with strange combinations of themes, races, and classes. Reward their strange combinations through storytelling. Random backgrounds are a way to ensure your players haven't fully optimized their characters. Reward them by not optimizing monsters or skill challenges against them. Find ways to draw their strange combination into the story.
Good artists and storytellers know that some of the best art comes from the constraints placed on the artist. The same is true for building a character's story. Your player's half-giant barbarian might not fit well with the Alchemist background she rolled, but the strange combination might lead to some really interesting stories that the player might never have come up with otherwise.
Give random backgrounds a try.