I know these got a lot of pub from the Dark Sun book, but I haven't read any of them. My first exposure to them comes via Neverwinter and I am underwhelmed.
For those of you who don't know these are an extra thing that can be chosen at character creation in addition to race and class (and build and alignment and background feats if using them). It's kind of like a template in that it overlays your other choices and adds some small bonuses. Most of them seem to be tied to a cultural background or a profession like "Neverwinter Noble" or "Uthgardt Barbarian" or "Harper Agent". After reading through them I am wondering what all of the fuss was about - maybe the Dark Sun ones are cooler? Because I just don't think all that much of these.
One, they don't do all that much mechanically so on some level I feel like "why bother"? Harpers get a magic item that gives them a once a day bonus on a save or something similar and can pick up 2 additional similar powers at 5th and 10th. Whee. It's a pretty small benefit in exchange for tying your character down with pre-set baggage at 1st level. Most of them get a small power or two at low to medium levels and some extra choices among Utility Powers at higher Heroic levels. It's not all that much to get excited about. Mechanics aren't everything but these just don't do much for me.
Two, I feel like Paragon Paths already do this and do it better - at low levels your character is not extremely well defined as a Heroic individual just yet and I think Race, Class, and Build, along with a possible background feat, cover plenty. By the time a character hits 11th level the player has a pretty good idea of what their character is about and can choose a path that fits the character the way they play it. Plus a character at that level is powerful enough to be worthy of some of those titles or being a part of some of those famous groups. It makes sense at that point to add another layer of detail and perhaps tie them in to the world a little more. To me a first-level character has no need for this kind of thing as the character is new to adventuring and the player is going to need some time to nail down exactly how they want to play this one.
Third, it's unnecessary baggage. When starting a new group in a new campaign area I like to have them come from outside the area. This puts them all on an even footing as far as lack of knowledge of the region, both in-game between characters and in a metagame sense for the players. They can't just rely on skill rolls backed up by "well my character is from here so he should know" type justifications. They can gain some general knowledge but the specifics come from actually playing through things, exploring and talking to NPC's - as it should be. The Neverwinter book heavily recommends that every new character should choose one of the themes in the book. There are only 13 however, so options are a bit limited. Some of them are restricted to certain races, further curtailing the choices. Here they are:
- Neverwinter noble - you're a lost heir - humans only
- Oghma's faithful - you are tied to the god of knowledge - any race
- Harper agent - you're part of the Harpers - any race
- Dead Rat deserter - you're an ex-member of the Dead Rats thieves' guild from Luskan and a wererat - human, half-elves, or halflings only
- Illiyanbruen guardian - you're from an Eladrin hidden city - eladrin only
- Uthgardt barbarian - you're part of a particular barbarian tribe - humans only
- Pack outcast - you're a barbarian outcast and a werewolf - humans or shifters only
- Heir of Delzoun - you're a dwarf descended from a lost kingdom - dwarves only
- Renegade Red Wizard - you're an ex-Red Wizard of Thay - any race
- Scion of Shadow - you're a spy for Netheril - human, shadar-kai, or shade only
- Devil's Pawn - you've been marked by Asmodeus and a former Waterdhavian noble - any race, sort of
- Spellscared harbinger - you are touched by the spellplague - any race
- Bregan D'aerthe spy - you're a drow spy - Drow only
So if I have someone all fired up to play a gnome, or a goliath, or a minotaur, or a plain old elf, there is not a lot to choose from. See the level of baggage involved here? What if I want to be a graduate of a magic school in Waterdeep? Nothing! There's one tied to the divine - what if I want to play a Paladin? There's really only one choice for dwarves or eladrin. What about dragonborn?
In my games, if someone decides to play a rogue at 1st level and expresses an interest in joining the thieves' guild I would rather play that out than say "OK choose that theme" and have them in it from the start. Same thing with an Uthgardt Barbarian - OK, take a barbarian and we will work out the details! No longer is it enough to be a "Wizard", no now you have to play a "Renegade Red Wizard". You can't just be a human Thief you have to be a "Scion of Shadow" or a "Dead Rat Deserter" but what if I don't want to be a wererat or have ties to Netheril?
The low levels of the game are the time when things like this are explored the most and the idea that a 1st level character comes into the game with a web of relationships and obligations already in place because of a mechanical feature just annoys me. I don't know that it's wrong, but it feels wrong to me, for my games. In other games where you start off as experienced characters (like Shadowrun) or where a player can choose exactly how they want those relationships to be defined (Hero System) then it can work but traditionally a 1st level D&D character is a neophyte looking for their place in the world and I like to keep it that way. If a campaign demands more detailed and developed characters then start at 11th level and use the ton of material we already have!
So there it is, my trashing of Character Themes in 4E. I'm not proud of it but it's how I feel as I read through these things - it feels more like chrome for chrome's sake than something addressing a real need. If I end up playing in Neverwinter I probably won't use them - I won't forbid them or anything but they hardly strike me as anything neccessary to the game. Like many sub-systems they will strike people in different ways and I am perfectly happy living without them.