I’m writing this post just to keep it all straight for myself, because now and then I’m explaining to someone how it’s done, and now and then I have someone asking me to run in the online campaign. So I’m going to outline it here, as a template for people to follow if, and when, they want to roll up characters.
I prefer the method where 4d6 are rolled, the lowest die being discarded. I still use the same six original stats, having never been convinced of the versatility of any new stat, and I allow the player to arrange their six rolls among the stats however they like. Stats must meet the minimum requirements for characters, even after modifications for age and race, although neither modification is made at this time.
At this point, I usually point out that multi-classed are accepted, adding that the stats must meet all criteria for all classes. Standard practice, I'm sure.
At this point the character makes their class or classes known, chooses race and chooses gender.
A player unfamiliar with my world generally asks at this point, or offers, a character background. I am under the philosophical notion that persons are not in control of their lives up to a certain point - that point being up until the time that the character starts being a character. Everything prior to them appearing in my world is, therefore, not under their control - except that they are the class they are, the race they are, and the gender they are. That's it. They can sort themselves out after they start, but until that time they have made decisions which are chosen randomly by the die.
This is done by a system I have whereby six d20 rolls are made, and compared with the original stats. Where the d20 roll is lower, a generally positive aspect of that trait results. Where the d20 roll is higher, a generally lower aspect results. I posted about this here, here, here, here and here. The tables have been upgraded bit by bit, and are due for a complete overhaul, something I plan to do in the next month or so (I want to make them more complicated).
Generally, this gives the player experience, social and familial connections, greater or less wealth, notes on appearance (we don't decide this when we're born, either), and so on. Occasionally, normally expected abilities are restricted (a character might roll an inability to use two handed weapons, for instance), or unexpected abilities are added (characters having no penalty modifiers for using two weapons). I try to incorporate everything I can think of, to make characters unique. There's no rule that says the background rolls must be 'balanced' - players are either lucky or unlucky.
Fairly often, players are given 'disorders' ... which can be quite annoying to play with. The table is part of the last link I posted above, the one about constitution. It is possible to roll on the table more than once, thereby increasing the nature of the disorder. For example, one roll indicating an audial disorder might indicate tinnitis; two rolls would almost certainly indicated the character was stone deaf. I am very definite on two rolls indicating a severe condition, since the chance is so markedly low. I came very close to rolling a character as blind a few months ago. This table, as posted, has also undergone some changes, and will be reposted when it, too, is expanded (with the help of wikipedia, of course).
Once the rolls against stats are modified and described, the character is given his age and his birthday. The latter simply requires a d12 and a d30 ... the latter die being useless for almost everything. Players are thus not often born on the 31st of any month (so what if it isn't an equal chance?) If 2-29 or 2-30 is indicated, I roll a d8 to determine if the player was born on the 31st of Jan, Mar, May, Jul, Aug, Oct, Dec or the 29th of Feb. I have yet to have that happen once.
I've added a feature on my market tables that allows me to calculate the chance of a particular nationality being in a particular place, and use this to determine the place of birth for characters. It is often quite far away, though the highest chance is that the character will be from a nearby province ... the randomness of it allows a fair collection of types. Players generally seem to like being told their characters are Egyptian, Scandinavian, German, Russian or what have you - I haven't had anyone complain yet about their place of birth. So far, I haven't added the Orient or the majority of Africa to the system, and so there are no African blacks, Chinese or Southeast Asians. I look forward to when those are incorporated. Players, in my experience, are not remotely biased or bigoted about such things.
Elves, dwarves and so on also come from specific areas, most times from where the population is highest, but sometimes from regions dominated by other races. I try to produce an explanation for this - father travelled, child was raised by others, etc. ... this is helped by the background rolls against the stats, by the character's class or by the profession of the character's parent. Often other players will offer their own suggestions, most often being quite brilliant.
For example, a character will be found to have accidentally caused the death of a parent, to be wanted for a crime in the area, and to have had a father who was a mason - and finally, to be despised by their family. Each of these results are rolled independently. The story writes itself; the character failed to check the ropes on a construction site, father was crushed, character is blamed (right or wrong) by owner of the building, family believes the character guilty of murder. Add to this that the character was a dwarf living in the Crimea, and it becomes obvious why he wasn't believed by the owner; though why the family didn't believe him might be due to his intelligence (he was always a half-wit), his wisdom (he was always a crooked-minded little brat) or his charisma (makes me sick just to look at him). Or, he might just be unlucky.
By combining the results, a character study develops.
At this point I generally roll height and weight, on a table loosely similar to the one in the DM's Guide (though I've never really liked it, I can't think of one that's better and allows the occasion wild result). Characters are short, fat, very tall, massive ... I often get a nice mix, though now and then someone is made excessively tall. I have a 7'5 character, and one that weighs 313 lbs. Of course, it makes for interesting problems.
The next step is to determine the profession of the father (and sometimes the mother also, if two professions are indicated by the character's wisdom), which identifies the character's worth. You can find my online post about that here. This is another set of tables due for expansion, and will be worked on at the same time as the others. I've never been happier with a secondary skills table. Let me assure you, this one works brilliantly.
Giving the player his wealth, and access to the daunting equipment table, most of the normal things must now be done. The player chooses spells, weapon proficiencies (I don't allow doubling of proficiencies, improvement is a question of level, not skill-choosing) and knowledge fields & specialties (clerics, druids, mages and illusionists each have different tables, found here) . Thieves and monks get thieving skills (the same as always - for years I tried to incorporate those from the Unearthed Arcana, but players didn't find them useful and I quit trying; dex checks proved more practical).
At last, I calculate hit points. All players start with maximum, adding constitution bonus, then one more die according to their mass. Generally, players begin with 12 hit points or more.
And all they need is a name.