Race, Class, Role, Build, Background and Theme

One of the biggest innovations (or perhaps that should be re-innovations, as some of these elements were also present in previous editions) in Fourth Edition D&D has been the broadening of character generation. Your character is no longer a simple Race/Class combo (though he can be just that, if you want him to be) but a multi-faceted being complete with backstory, prior occupation, career path and social class, all in as much (or as little) detail as you choose.

And they’ve managed to do it without turning it into a stewing pile of power-gamery mess too. Way to go, WoTC!

Let’s take a look as each facet of your potential multi-dimensional character to see how it all hangs together.


Your character’s Race denotes the core of his (or her) being; it’s who they are when stripped of everything else. Their race says most about your hero’s appearance, and much about their culture, social upbringing and outlook on life. Unless they are shaped differently by the campaign setting or something particular to your hero’s background, it’s fair to expect that their overall attitude will be much the same as any member of their race. For example, the vast majority of Elves possess an affinity for the Natural world (and forests in particular) but the campaign setting (such as Dark Sun) might change that radically, or this particular Elf have been brought up in an Urban environment.

That’s not to say that all Elves are nature-loving bow wielding hippies of course (though Dwarves may say that’s exactly what they all are), but that this cultural implication is present in their racial makeup. How that upbringing shapes the PC though, is entirely up to you. Maybe this particular Elf is thoroughly sick of the colour green and never wants to see another tree as long as she lives. Hey, it could happen.


In 4e, a PC’s Class is less about who they are and more about how they fight. Class describes where your character gets his combat training/kewl spells/prayers/psionic potential, but also how they use it when facing opposition. Both the Fighter and Rogue are Martial characters, though their styles are very different. One charges forward, while the other runs and hides. Draw your own conclusions there.

But Class is more than that. It helps explain how your character responds to a challenge both on the battlefield and off. Each Class opens up a list of Trained Skills from which your PC selects several and these Skills say more about a character than their Class selection. For example, a Human Rogue is more likely to feel kinship with an Elven Ranger if they both have the Streetwise Skill than with another Human Rogue who lacks it; both the Ranger and the Rogue share a knowledge of urban life and respect for the seedy side of towns.

Class might also explain a hero’s motivation. It’s easy (if more than a little stereotypical) to create a sneaky Halfling Rogue or stoic Dwarven Cleric of Moradin and no further explanation of their motivation is needed. I encourage players to move away from that and instead use Background Options to help explain your hero’s motives. More on those in a mo’.

The selection of Class also chooses your hero’s Power source. 4e D&D has taken a leaf out of the (much loved) Rolemaster’s book with the implementation of Powers. Just as Rolemaster had the Realms of Essence, Channelling, Mentalism and Arms (non-combat), 4e has Arcane, Divine, Psionic and Martial, and add to that with Primal, Shadow and doubtless more to come. These control where the PC draws his powers from – Arcane gain power from the magical world around them, Divine from the Gods, Psionic from within themselves, Martial from their physical abilities, Primal from the untamed chaos of nature and Shadow from freakin’ Batman. I’m looking forward to the 4e take on the Rolemaster Archmage who recognises that all Powers sources are essentially the same and draws from all of them. Badass!

Note to self: Write more contrasting Rolemaster with 4e D&D. Comparisons abound!

In some ways though, your Fourth Edition hero’s choice of Class is the least important choice he has to make, even though it’s the most mechanically complex. Choose Eladrin as Race and  the Background Options Noble & Criminal and you’ve already got a compelling character. Making him a Wizard, Paladin or Warlord just adds another wrinkle to the pie. Do pies get wrinkled?


Waitaminute. Isn’t a characters Role tied to his Class? I mean, all Wizards are Controllers, right?

Well yeah, but I’ve argued before that the two shouldn’t be tied together, and it looks (with D&D Essentials) that this hard-and-fast rule is being loosened, and that’s a great thing for the game.

Right now, if you want to play a Martial Defender (for example), you’re playing a Fighter. But what if you want to play a Fighter who is more of a Striker (fewer hit points, more damage) or even a bow-wielding Controller (even fewer hit points, more foes)? How about a Wizard who specializes in Force Fields (Defender) or one who singles out individual foes with fearsome emotion-controlling spells (Striker)? You could conceivably argue that Gandalf was an Arcane Leader rather than a Controller, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

I foresee this as a direction 4e will increasingly take, and it’s an exciting one. Separating Role from Class opens up a whole new vista for character generation, and I’m stoked!


Builds are a simple shorthand way of saying “if you take this, this, this and this, you will end up with this kind of character”. They’re entirely optional and provide a good newbie-friendly way to guide them through character generation. Want to play a Tactical Warlord or a Great Weapon Fighter? Just follow this build advice, and you’re good to go.

Despite their primary function as a guiding tool, the Builds can also serve as a role-playing jumping point. Your Tactical Warlord is likely to have a very different personality to an Inspiring Warlord both in and out of combat. That’s partially represented by the priority of the attributes (a higher Charisma usually denotes a more outgoing personality) but also with their outlook on life; in this example, a Tactical Warlord is more likely to be coldly clinical in their assessments whereas an Inspiring Warlord knows that it’s the hearts of men (or elves, or dwarves…) that can truly win the day.

Unlike the other optional elements of character generation (Background Options and Themes) your hero gains absolutely no mechanical bonus for following a Build other than the satisfaction of having put together a neat, well-optimised character. Conversely, there’s nothing to lose for not following a Build neither; you’re entirely free to choose between the Class Features, Feats and Powers however you wish. While you might not end up with a character with the same single-path focused optimisation as one of the Build, your hero will be (and here’s the important part) much more fun to play.

That’s not to say Build don’t have their place. They give us much more of an insight into the game designers’ minds. The Build represent how they expect the Classes to be played and a solid foundation for your own tinkering with Class element and Feat selection. For example, you could take Great Weapon Fighter but replace Power Attack with Potent Challenge. Minor changes to the Build like this help make your character that bit more unique.

So Builds are a great way to help get a handle on the Classes, and on the game as a whole. They’re a great starting point for new players and oldies alike who are trying out a new class for the first time. It pays to know when to follow a Build, when to tweak them and when to ignore them altogether. Let’s save that for a blogpost for another time, ok?

Background Options

Now we’re talking! Background Options are my favouritest optional rule in 4e D&D – to the point where I don’t consider it optional at all. Background Options are an Essential part of character generation as they serve to provide your PC with that all-important backstory. And that’s pure gold for this GM.

Background Options also confer a minor (though significant) benefit in the form of a +2 to one skill, adding a Skill to your potential list of Trained Skills, granting a bonus language or some other special boon. That’s a choice of five benefits. No, not four. Clearly you can’t count.

See, here’s how the choices break down:

1. Add a +2 to an Untrained skill. This gives a small bonus to a skill which you wouldn’t normally have access to, or one which you don’t want to spend Training on. This is a good choice if you choose a Background Option that offers Associated Skills that overlap with and Skill Bonuses from your Race. For example, an Elf with the Background Option Geography:Forest could be at +4 to either Nature or Perception without Training at all! That’s perfect if you want to play a Class that lacks the Perception skill and is short on Training points. How about a keen eyed Elf Fighter who specializes in the Greataxe?!

2. Add +2 to a Trained skill. Back to that Elf. Make him a Ranger and (thanks to being an Elf and the Geography:Forest Background Option he can be at +9 Perception even before stat bonus. That’s one eagle-eyed Ranger! Choosing a Background Option that synergizes nicely with your Trained skills is a smart move though taking a Background Option which just emphasises something we already know (Elf + Geography:Forest) is booooring! Think about the more esoteric Background Options to make your character much more interesting. An Elf with Occupation:Mariner can still take that +2 Perception but is a much more engaging character to play. Imagine an Elf with an ornately carved wooden leg……

3. Add another skill to your list of Trained skills. Each Background Option offers two skills. Pick one to either gain a +2 (as above) or add it to your list of available Trained Skills choices. That’s a +5 bonus, but the cost is that you have one less choice to spend on something else.  This is a great choice if you want to create a character who has access to knowledge outside their Class’ normal field of interest. A Fighter who is an Arcane Refugee would make a terrific character as his village was destroyed by magic (rather than orcs – unless they were Orc Wizards) and he could take Skill Training in Arcana, making for one highly knowledgeable warrior who hates spellcasters. This also gives him access to the Ritual Caster Feat too meaning he could sometimes be forced to use the very thing he hates. See what I mean about Background Options being GM gold?

4. Gain a bonus language. Boooring, unless you really want to play a character who can speak both Goblin and Giant. For these kind of multi-lingual characters it’s better, imho, to use the Background Option to gain a Skill-related bonus and burn a Feat on the Linguist Feat.

5. Any other Boon. some Background Options (particularly those from the Scales of War adventure path) offer more unusual benefits to the character. These tend to be more powerful and Feat-like in nature (such as the Assassin background which adds both Arcana and Stealth to your class list, and gives a +1 bonus in both). I try to steer my players away from these options but allow them on a case-by-case basis, depending on just how much of a hard time I can give the hero in-game :D

Background Options cover a whole range of choices – from mysterious happenings during their birth to the geography of their homeland; from their pre-adventuring occupation to wealth level; from Early Life and Parentage to Recent Events. It’s all there and more, in spades. You’ll need the PHB 2 or a D&D Insider account to access them, but for my money Background Options alone make it worth the price of entry.

Your hero isn’t limited to a single Background Option, though he only gains the mechanical benefit from one of them. If you want your hero to be a Former Gladiator Scorned Noble Magic Scholar who is a Fugitive from a Vengeful Rival with a Missing Master that’s very all right by me!

Note to self: Use multiple Background Options and Risus notation? The character above could be Former Gladiator (3), Scorned Noble (2), Magic Scholar(1), Fugitive from a Vengeful Rival (4), Missing Master (5). Hmmm. Food for thought.


So far, Themes are only present in the Dark Sun campaign setting as they provide just a little more oomph to your character. That’s firmly in keeping with the setting as characters in prior editions were generated at a higher level than 1st from the start. Each theme grants an additional Encounter Power to the character, putting them kinda-almost at the same power level as a 3rd level character (only without the hit points, surges, utility power, feats or equipment – so not like 3rd level at all). Every character takes one Theme, and only one. Extra goodies (feats, paragon paths and optional Powers) are unlocked at later levels, if you choose to follow the Theme’s natural course.

Each Theme is a natural fit for one or more character classes (such as the Gladiator Theme for a Fighter) but the real fun comes from mixing things up.  How about a Gladiator Monk, or a Dune Trader Warlord? More on that shortly.

I like Themes. They can tie the adventuring party together (“You’re all Gladiators!”) but still give them plenty of flexibility (thanks to freedom of choice over Race, Class and Background Options)  to make each character unique and memorable. Themes also help to tie the characters more closely to the campaign setting – you’ll only find Dune Traders on Athas – in a way we’ve not seen before. That’s definitely a win in my books! Despite the power creep, I expect to see setting-unique Themes to find their way across all the campaign settings in due course (perhaps requiring a Feat to gain them). That won’t be a bad thing.

Mixing it up

What’s more fun? An Eladrin Paladin, or an Eladrin Paladin Merchant Prince Dune Trader? How about a Halfling Star Pact Warlock Monster Hunter Travelling Missionary? Or a Dwarf Gladiator Rogue who was Born on Another Plane?

Background Options (and Themes) come into their own when you play against expectations. As Elf with Geography:Forest might as well just be an Elf, whereas one with Geography:Wetlands has an interesting twist. Likewise, a Fighter with Occupation:Military isn’t going to win any prizes, but make him a Wizard……

There’s no shortage of Background Options both in the books (regrettably, not in PHB I though) and in the Character Builder so make good use of them.

Your GM will thank you for it, I swear!

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4 Responses

  1. Arrgghh! Information overload ;)

    Nice, informative piece there, Greywulf.

    As someone coming – finally – around to the idea of 4e, where would I find these background options of which you speak?

    • greywulf says:

      Lol! I originally had this as a two-part blogpost but then thought “Nah. Post it all at once and be damned!”. Heh.

      Background Options can be found primarily in the Player’s Handbook 2 and they’re expanded upon in the various Campaign Settings and many Dragon Magazine articles. I *think* the free Characger Builder app includes some without a subscription, but that’ll need confirming.

      They premiered in the free to download (no Insider account needed!) Dragon 366 with “Characters of War” Background Options for their Scales of War adventure path. It’s well worth downloading that particular issue as it’s a great one to read.

      The issues of Dragon from #364 to #367 are free to download right here. Wizards of The Coast hid them well!

  2. Thank you – now to embark on a downloading frenzy!

  3. Elton says:

    Well, they fixed my major gripe with the PHB1.

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