Until recently, I have had no overall philosophy regarding the creation of characters for D&D. What we play on Sunday nights is what we call a “Sliders” campaign. This has been a time of experimentation and exploration, because the basic tenant of the Sliders game is “any world goes”. Because of various life events, we have rarely had a consistent group from week to week, so the general idea is that the characters are persistent, while the worlds are not. We slide back and forth between worlds, exploring different problems, cultures, events, and so on, depending on who is able to make it that week. This has provided opportunity for each of us to trade the DM’s hat back and forth, and play with different concepts and ideas to test ourselves as DMs and players.
I have greatly enjoyed this game, and the people I play with. But of late, I have developed a desire to run a consistent world, a persistent world, and plumb the depths of a long-term game with consequences that are far-reaching, as well as the opportunity for players to have my players actually establish themselves. I will freely admit, this is due largely to the influence of the Tao of D&D, the blog written by Alexis Smolensk, whom I have mentioned here a few times before. He runs a world of immense complexity and depth, due mostly to his dedication to one world over 25+ years, and also somewhat to the fact that he bases it largely on Earth circa 1650. But I’m not here to talk about his world (he does that for himself at his blog, have you read it yet?).
My point is that I am designing the beginnings of my own world, inspired by the work that Mr. Smolensk has done on his. And, because I am an impatient fool, I hope to start running players in it within two weeks. In order to accomplish this, I’ll be starting them in a time and place that my players are already more or less familiar with, 16th century England. Canterbury, to be precise.
Now, with 4e and especially 5e, character background “generation” has become enshrined in the pantheon of rules systems available for D&D. Which is, to some extent, a good thing for those who are unable to invent a history for their characters off the top of their head without writing prompts. However, in my estimation, poring over various backgrounds (and bonds and fetishes and whatever else they have you choose) to find just the right combination to tailor the character to be exactly what you want it to be makes the whole process resemble an assembly line more than organic growth. They pay no heed to the character’s ability scores, and seem more arbitrary impositions on the free will of the player than anything else.
That is not to say that having a background for your character is a bad thing. Far from it, in fact. Every person alive has a background, and that background influences to a greater or lesser degree every decision we make. But I ask you, how many of those circumstances a result of our “choosing” to endure them? How many were the result of a lack of ability in a certain area, or of an abundance? If you choose to employ a background generation mechanic, it should look to the character’s ability scores for information, and pay no heed to what the player “wants” for their character. None of us is able to choose where we are born, who we are born to, where we live for the first decade and a half of our lives, our access to healthcare, training, like-minded people, or food until we achieve independence and strike out on our own. We control very little about our beginnings. It should be the same for your characters if you want a believable world that will endure the test of time.
The best stories start with adversity, and culminate with the total triumph over that adversity. First level characters have by definition no experience. They have just struck out into the world on their own, their training complete, to see what they can make of themselves now. First level is the beginning of the story. You start with a whole bag of adversity (lack of funds, lack of experience, lack, lack, lack!), and spend the rest of your life in the process of emptying out that bag. Where is the drama, where is the tension, what is the point if you start with the perfect background for your chosen class/race/alignment? Tension and drama are what make performances entertaining. Get your audience invested in the characters, their problems. Make them want the character to succeed as much or more than the characters themselves want to succeed. In D&D, the audience is your players. How long will they play if there is no challenge?
This is a game, after all (or possibly a sport). Games don’t just include challenges to make them interesting. Games are challenges. That is the point of a game, to challenge its players in a compelling way that brings them back to the game again and again. If there is no challenge in a game, then there is little incentive to play it. How many of you are still jazzed up by the though of Chutes and Ladders or Candyland, hm? D&D should be a challenge, and is capable of being a complex set of multiple challenges that have not one, but an infinite set of solutions. Let’s not bring the game down to the level of “roll your dice, move your mice.”
Use a background generator. Do. But let it be informed by the character’s innate abilities, not their chosen profession. No one wakes up on their first birthday and says, “Hmm, I think I want to be a Fighter, so I should steer myself towards the Soldier background.” Nope. That’s not how it happens. Especially not in anything resembling the medieval world. In the medieval world, people are struggling to survive by growing their own food all day, every day, every year. If you had the good fortune to be born to the right parents, you had the golden opportunity to supervise people growing their own food, and giving you some of it. Until some other bloke with fewer people growing food and giving it to him decides that he’d like your people to grow food for him instead of you. Then you plop down on your horse, ride over to him and politely chop his head off and feed his corpse to your pigs. And take over the management of his people who grow food if he hasn’t anyone left to do it.
Point being, life sucked, it was hard, and few people had the wherewithal to strap on a pair of boots, strike off over the moors and leave the farm behind to become the guy who manages farmers. There is a word for such people: PCs. These people have extraordinary ability and personal awareness. It is the base abilities of a person/character that drive them toward one profession or another. It matters little where they come from (because really, most of them are from the same place anyhow), it matters a great deal how they choose to get there and how efficient (& lucky) they are in doing so. Let them choose. Let them live. Make their life worth living, make it worth playing, make it worth running.