Four Character Elements
Based on the pregen characters, which represent the majority of the information about how character creation and advancement works, there are four major choices made at character creation: race, class, theme, and background.
All of these things seem to have, at least within the three-level preview shown, a pretty similar method of operation: they provide a bunch of elements at character creation, and then might give a modular ability at higher levels. Unlike 3e, there don’t seem to be a ton of scaling or conditional bonuses to keep track of as you level. Instead, characters so far seem to be getting one-off abilities that provide new options. These options might have synergy with your previous options, but they don’t require them or alter them.
I’m tentatively very happy about this. I currently maintain electronic copies of all my players’ sheets for Pathfinder without the use of a calculator program like PCGen. At mid to high levels, having to remember to check the numbers on special abilities and feats every time a PC levels to see what rate the bonus improves at is a chore. Further, while there’s no evidence that multiclassing has been considered in the playtest rules, it seems like it might be pretty straightforward to allow with modular abilities.
On to the elements themselves, the first choice is, as usual, race (though you might back-select it based on what class you want). There aren’t a lot of surprises here, other than the whole ethos of even more explicitly treating racial abilities as small, modular bonuses. Some of the races seem clearly meant for certain classes, but this isn’t exactly unusual in the history of the game. And given the compression of combat and skill bonuses, it might actually be possible to create some unexpected synchronicity (e.g., a halfling stealth-based fighter may be suboptimal, but interesting). One thing that there’s not evidence of is any additional racial abilities past first level. Again, this isn’t exactly a surprise, but it was an idea that 4e promised but didn’t deliver on in core that seems like it might be easier to do here.
Classes do seem to present a few scaling bonuses (such as the rogue’s sneak attack increasing each level), but they’re simple enough that they seem like they’ll be easy to keep track of. In addition to these bonuses, it seems like class periodically just has you choose from a short list of options for a new ability (rather like 4e or monk and ranger feats in 3e). For example, at 2nd level a cleric chooses a new Channel Divinity option. So far, these options seem like a hybrid of 3e and 4e in that some are reusable limited effects while others are more powerful with an arbitrary cap on uses per day. It remains to be seen whether they’ll feel too disassociated to some, but their modularity means they should be easier to tune (rather than uses per encounter and per day being built into the core of the system).
Themes are a new character creation mechanic. They’re effectively subclasses like kits from 2e: is your fighter a slayer or a guardian? The interesting thing about them is that they don’t seem to be hard-locked to class: they’re probably best for a small range of classes, but the language of the ones on offer seems to indicate you can apply them to any character. For example, the Healer theme possessed by the cleric is mostly based around making and improving potions, with an eventual addition of a buff to healing spells. It’s obviously best for a cleric or other character with cures, but you could retain most of the benefits of it on any character. This is a neat feature that will, of course, be swept away in general use by optimization almost immediately, but I expect to have some fun with less powerful but more versatile characters at my own table.
Finally, backgrounds are a new mechanic that allows you to personalize your character’s origin and give him or her a few tricks that make sense for this history. Mostly, this involves giving a few skill bonuses that might not be available to your class (so it helps a lot to give classes like Fighter something interesting to do outside of combat). It also tends to include a limited special ability related to the theme (e.g., commoners can craft, knights get accommodations from the local nobles, etc.). Like race, based on the limited information available, a background doesn’t seem to improve after first level. Hopefully something like that does happen or, more interestingly, more backgrounds can be picked up later (possibly even independent of levels; it would be cool to be able to give players a new background as a quest reward related to new status in the world). Unfortunately, like theme, even the small list of backgrounds includes some with more utility than flavor (like soldier for the fighter), so I expect optimization to quickly disregard some of the more fun but less generally useful ones. Hopefully I’m wrong, and they’re able to come up with a lot of backgrounds with both flavor and utility.
Overall, I’m liking what I’m seeing from character creation and advancement so far.