A few years ago I came to the realization that I was sick to death of character histories. Some of it stemmed from the cliche that, really, no back story I had ever created had really been used by any given GM. Although, if I'm being honest, I was usually the GM and, while I encouraged back stories, rarely did I do anything with them: Mea culpa too.
Some of it also came from years of playing indie games where mechanically-relevant back stories were created during play, sometimes by the player alone, sometimes with the help of the group (Polaris is a really good example of this, as is In a Wicked Age, mentioned a few posts ago); this all made the "Orcs killed my family" clunker seem less than useless.
So enter my first attempt to let go and roll up a character for ODD completely randomly, right down the line. My task was to create a character out of whatever the dice gave me. Here were the results:
Hm. Not too inspiring. Years ago I would've whined about it. However, that wasn't an option here---whining to yourself is usually just silly...
So, I thought, he may as well be a Magic User, even though that Con score is going to mean a -1 to all HP rolls. Except I had a sudden flash: Oh no---even with the Con, he's going to be a Fighting Man. He constantly drinks wine to deal with a persistent hacking cough that has sapped his strength and soured his disposition. His alignment was obviously Neutral at best, sliding toward Chaotic. I bought him a scimitar for pure color, a quart of wine for character and who knows what else, decided he could speak both Gnollish and Elvish, named him Ballantine, and he was ready to go. I'd play this guy in a second. And you know what else? I would make Con rolls after every fight to see if he didn't double over in a coughing fit. And if he did, well, that'd start to shape the rest of his actions. There's no way I'd ever have come up with that had I rolled 6d6takingthebestthreeofeachrollandputtingthemwhereIwanted, or allocated points, or whatever.
Ballantine's patron god is Randomness.
I was so excited I rolled up another character on the spot:
Okay. Better scores on the surface. So, as the rules allow, I knocked his Wis down to 4 and raised his Str up to 15. No mechanical effect, but it does get him the 10% bounus on XP earned if I make him a Fighting Man. Anyone with a Wis of 4 is obviously Lawful, and probably a dwarf. So, a Lawful Dwarven Fighting Man, almost foolishly devoted to some kind of cause, most likely (given his Cha) with a couple of devoted followers. I named him Redbeard, made sure he was wearing platemail, and would defintely load him down with first hirelings, then henchman, for him to awe and boss around. Not bad either!
And the thing is, these details aren't really "backgrounds", per se; they're more like hooks upon which to hang some quick and dirty characterization during play. Each of these characters, of the uber-generic classificaton "Fighting Man" are already starkly differentiated from one another, all through the simple, built-in game tool of Randomness. Oh, Randomness, how I used to loathe you.
And how I love you now.