4e: The Yakuza Theme

There’s a chance if you played 4th edition, you never even knew Themes were a thing. They were introduced in a campaign sourcebook as a way to flesh out characters under level 10, to give more of that kind of granularity you might want if you say, belonged to a particular organisation, or had something that just made you a bit different to every other character in your class. Themes are great because what they often give you serves really well in offering a bit of a mechanical variety to builds without necessarily making things worryingly more powerful. The idea is very sound.

Art by Remy PAUL

The execution on the other hand, phew, the execution, well, let me tell you.

I have talked in the past about how themes are a problem because there are only a few of them that are as strong as one another; this creates a smaller pool of possible options. Melee combatants usually take the Guardian, which gives you a way to get a free extra basic attack and a bunch of other powers you’d never bother taking. If you follow my How To Be series you might have seen the commonality with which I bring up the Werebear and Werewolf as ways to open up a build’s options. Also, almost all builds that have no better reason to be anything else are going to benefit from the Fey Beast Tamer.

These themes are good because they give you something robust, consistent, and reliable in all situations. The greatest failing of themes are when they break these rules, and when they do it, it is often in service of 4th edition’s worst habit, which I’ll just shorthand as fiddly bookkeeping bullshit. As an example, let’s check out the Yakuza theme.

Now, before I go on let me say up front: The fact this theme is called the yakuza, and the things it’s trying to do and represent, is probably orientalist. I don’t have the book that the Yakuza’s web supplement was meant to interact with, and without that source I can’t know if the purpose of calling this theme a Yakuza is in fact very grounded and nuanced, or maybe it’s just the same orientalist bullshit D&D has been doing its whole life.

Like, I have a bet, though.

But set aside the orientalism for now, and just treat the title ‘yakuza’ as a branding label. This could be easily rethemed or renamed, it’s not something that mechanically needs to be named Foreign Word For Thing We Have. That’s not the problem (in this situation (and if it is it’s not a problem specific to 4e)).

The problem the Yakuza outlines is that a lot of its effects are heavily contingent. Consider its starting feature, Ruthless Demonstration. This effect is an encounter power, an effect that triggers off you killing or bloodying a creature. Enemies who see you do it suffer a -2 penalty to attack you until something else hits you and if you bloodied the triggering enemy, you can try and intimidate them.

This is not a bad power per se, but what it’s doing is kind of unnecessarily complex and doesn’t actually stop anything that bad. Consider the different conditions that you need to track:

  • You need to decide if you’re using it whenever you bloody an enemy, because you don’t necessarily want to fire it off every time you do that
  • After all you may want to try and intimidate the subject
  • You need to determine who can or can’t see you when it happens
  • Then you need to track the next time you get hit, and when that happens, your penalty goes away

By comparison, the Guardian’s power is a lot simpler; if something triggers it, you shift and then make an attack. The Fey Beast Tamer’s power is simpler too – you have a pet and it can run around and hit things with its big dumb fists like you do. It is a bit to get over the load, but once you know what it can do, it remains consistent.

By comparison, this starting ability from the Yakuza is fiddly. You need to determine the best time to use it and the effect you get out of it is pretty swingy; if you intimidate the enemy, it knocks them out of the fight, but also it’s very likely that enemies get to just ignore it. And you have to bloody them to get the effect off, too.

This is the weakness of a lot of 4e design. It’s not just ‘you get +2 to hit elementals’ it’s ‘you get +2 to hit elementals against whom your allies have combat advantage,’ it’s stuff where you have to track expanding complexity.

It’s more telling in the Yakuza’s passive ability at level 5: When you hit an enemy against whom you have combat advantage, you get a Charisma bonus against them on opportunity attacks until the start of your next turn. Which is to say, a potentially huge benefit (you could multi-attack on your turn!), but it’s completely under their control and you can’t do anything to force it.

Neither of these effects are bad ideas, but the fact that they need so many factors working mean that playing this theme is effort intensive and your rewards for it aren’t good.

I would simplify all of this; no need to manage uptime on charisma bonus to opportunity attacks. Maybe members of this theme just have scary attacks of opportunity. If the demonstration is a demonstration, make it so that you can execute an enemy in a particular way and it has an immediate impact like a daze, on people too close to you, and that works on a standard model.

Yes, making these ideas more specific or complicated, like working until someone else attacks you and makes you bleed is exciting to write out but the actual play pattern is really tedious. Either make it worth the bookkeeping or get rid of the bookkeeping!

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