Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons provided a new avenue for character customization with the release of Dark Sun: the character theme. Later printed supplements and the online magazines expanded on this concept of themes.

As I understand them, character themes are really not so different from the alternate class features of 3.x or sub-classes and specializations of previous editions. They’re another level of character classification beyond the race-and-class package.

Interestingly enough, character themes contribute rules bloat to a part of the game that’s already crowded with class features and powers. Adding a theme to one of the “classic” classes found in any of the three Player’s Handbooks can add an additional page of character options at even the lowest levels (especially to an arcanist).

But what does a character theme actually contribute to a character? That’s really hard to say. Every theme is almost totally different from every other theme printed in every other supplement. Some expand class powers, some expand racial powers, some replace feats, and some contribute almost no perceptible benefit to the player.

Here’s a question I think I can answer though: what should a theme contribute to a character? My answer is “something basic a race or class might overlook.”

Certainly, a character theme can and should be used to expand on some concepts found at the race or class level, and races and classes are the most effective ways to explore or expand design space within the game rules — but themes are not.

Character themes are not an area to introduce new rules. I think my first grievances are probably with a few of the themes introduced in the Dungeon Survival handbook. Trapsmith is a cool theme, but it lacks the kind of support that would make it truly effective because it was created in a void. Other classes don’t use traps.

“Trip the Trap” is a power that deserves a class built around it, and probably its own associated keyword. Traps are so difficult to effectively integrate into the 4e combat system as presented, I think a “trap” keyword is something GMs could have used a long, long time ago — it’s something that could have used system development.

So how does that bring us to “healing as a keyword?” Well, unlike the trap keyword I just suggested, healing has received tons of system development. Every leader class has at least one major healing power hard-coded into it, whether they need it or not.

While it’s true that healing is an important aspect of teamwork and party survival, it’s been “done to death,” and seriously — not every leader needs to be able to heal. Further, the other roles need not be denied the ability to heal.

Ironically perhaps, one of the most effective leader classes — the warlord — grants attacks to allies and has access to some of the most effective healing powers. Only one of those is necessary for a warlord to do a good job — and it isn’t healing.

It seems to me now that every good character class comes with a built-in theme. That’s where the majority of utility powers come from (this based on my investigation of utility powers and their connection to themes). But themes provide important alternatives.

Sometimes a party needs more healing, but adding a leader class would disrupt the functioning of the party. Sometimes a party needs a backup healer but lacks an adequate number of players. And that is where you use healing themes.