Random background generation

When I play a video game where you get to choose your character from a list at the start (such as Street Fighter, Smash Brothers, or Civilization) I generally go for the random option. It’s a good way to balance out skills associated with a particular play style and get a well-rounded feel of a game. Interestingly, I never go for a random character in D&D (except in a one-shot). I guess there’s too much long term investment to leave the character to chance.

My guess is that my sentiments are pretty common, as the designers at WotC have slowly taken out the randomness of character generation.  In 4e, players are strongly encouraged to use point-buy, starting gold is a given, and gone from the rule books are the random starting height and weights for characters.

I therefore found it intriguing that the latest Dragon article “Where Do I Come From?” presents a table for random character backgrounds. The actual backgrounds themselves seem like a compiled list of what was already available in PHBs and other source materials. And, the random roll only gives a background; you still have to choose the mechanical benefit (e.g. +2 to a skill or add it to the list of class skills, or a  language). The table is also nice in that it separates the background events by where in the life of the character they occur, allowing you to easily stack multiple backgrounds over the course of the character’s pre-adventuring life.

Sometimes I enjoy randomly generating the more abstract aspects of a character. For example, randomly determining the character’s favorite color. It doesn’t affect too much about how the character is played, but does help develop flavor. To me, character backgrounds significantly influence his motivations which in turn inform how I role-play the character. This is not something I want to leave to chance (certainly less than height or wealth).

However the tables are helpful in some situations. If you’re having trouble getting into a character or haven’t yet thought about his background, this a good place to start (better than nothing). This table could be quite useful for DMs who want to create an interesting NPC but don’t want to invest too much brain power.  Adding little flavor like “previously possessed by a demon” to a shopkeeper might not mean much to the party, but when they come back into town next time looking to find out who committed some atrocity, a few villagers might wrongly point fingers back at that shopkeeper.  Also even if your character was never possessed by a demon, it’s interesting to think how she might react if she was.

The other way to use the table is to look for a background event similar to what you might have already chosen and use the listed question to further develop your character. Questions like “who are his contacts?” and “do you still hate all elves?” It’s also useful if your background is a custom one, as the list might help you figure out what an appropriate background benefit might be.

How do you select background for your characters?