You may have read some recent talk about using themes to fill some gaps in 4e. If you haven’t, head over to Loremaster.org to read Matt James’ take on Themes as a way to multi-class and make valuable race options. Then check out Robert Schwalb’s Response. [Edit: It seems Ryven Cedrylle started talking about this as early as 2/18/11. I missed those articles, but they're worth looking into. - BAL 4/9/2011]
This is actually a concept that I’ve been playing with for a couple of weeks now. Since everyone else is talking about it, let me get my ideas out now.
What are themes?
Themes, for those who don’t know (and didn’t follow those links), were introduced to 4e in Dark Sun. The idea is that they represent a sort of background or training, not covered by your race and class, which helps identify you and provides new choices for early powers. Dark Sun gave us themes like Dune Trader, Gladiator and Noble. Those who read my review of Soldiers of Fortune know there was a Mercenary theme there as well.
Mechanically, they give you a power source, which may not match that of your class. Power sources can open up access to feats, items, Paths and the like. They give you a power at 1st level for free. You don’t get a choice as to what the power is, as there’s only one per theme. These tend to be either a utility-like power, or a weaker-than-normal encounter attack power. After that, you get one power to choose from for each normal level that you would choose a power, between levels two and ten. If you select the power from your theme, you do not get your class power for that level.
Themes for Multi-Classing
There are primarily two ways to multi-class. The feat system has been part of 4e since its release. Its main drawback is that its cost (multiple feats, and then loss of powers) arguably does not equal the small amount of the second class that you gain. The Players Handbook 3 introduced the hybrid system. Its main drawback is that you gain severely reduced class features, making it difficult to create a character on par with others in the party.
Themes could represent another third option. With a theme, you could drop the free 1st level unique power for a class feature of the additional class. This may be reduced slightly in power, like in hybrid system. However, characters shouldn’t feel weakened by this because it is purely additional. They would still have full features from their base class.
They could then choose from a second list of powers for the first ten levels, without having to spend feats. They wouldn’t be overpowered in this regard, as long as all other players also choose themes, multi-class or otherwise.
Themes for Racial Bloodlines
The current racial system treats half-races as their own race, mechanically. You can choose half-orc or half-elf, and it’s assumed your other half is human, because the half race is a full race mechanically. There’s no mechanic to have two halves!
Themes could be used in this way, but to represent any sort of addition to the main bloodline. You could have human as your main race and then take the half-elf theme or you could have githzerai as your main race and take half-giant! Alternately you could now have themes that harken back to 3.5 templates, like half-dragon, or themes that represent new conditions, like lycanthropy.
Instead of a power source, these characters would gain a new racial keyword, so they could qualify for new feats, paragon paths (and the like), that has their added race as a prerequisite.
Themes for Modern Play
Here’s the main reason I started to play with what themes can be used for. I have a secret desire to play D20 Modern. However, I don’t want to DM any more d20 games. It’s not that I don’t think running this system, or something like Pathfinder, wouldn’t be fun, it’s just that 4th edition has spoiled me horribly. I’ve been working on some Pathfinder creations recently and there is distinct increase in time resources there, compared to creating something for 4th edition.
So I want to have Modern 4e. I started playing around with conversions of the basic classes and advanced classes, but it seemed silly to build 6-20 classes if my players wanted to play D&D 4e. Especially since the kind of game I was going for was halfway between Modern and Fantasy. I wanted a Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a Thor, or even a King Arthur & the Knights of Justice style campaign. There should be guns and swords and the possibility of drow casting out of the back of a jeep.
Why not keep the classes we have and just add a little modern? Themes can do just that. Now if I need a Buffy for my group I can take Ranger or Monk as a class and add a Student or Slayer theme. My boardroom exec with secret ties is a Warlord with a Personality or Genius theme.
If we keep things using the same rules, it becomes much easier to use all the books I own in some way as well. I like my books. After all, I bought them for reason.
What themes don’t give me, in this regard, is way to add new skill and weapon proficiencies that would come with a modern class. However, if everyone had a modern theme, then getting a little something extra for your theme wouldn’t be unbalancing. Another solution, so you could have modern themes and current themes in play at once, is to slide this mechanic into other areas. A modern background could provide you with the ability to swap a certain number of current class skills (say two) with modern ones.
Weapons could also be added to the current categories. Instead of a Modern classification, guns, baseball bats and flamethrowers are all either simple military or exotic. That means a fighter/gladiator that gets dropped into a modern setting can potentially pick up a Desert Eagle and not take a penalty. Considering the mind flayer mobsters showing up next, I don’t think this is to far fetched for a fantasy game.