This past few days has brought to my attention something about character creation that I'd long forgotten: the interminable 'back story.' The effusive, complex description of how the character's life has gone up to the moment they begin to play in the campaign, rich with murders, revenge plots, life-long enemies, the many twists and turnings - and ever the angst, delivered with pounding hammer, of a character driven of the distant land of their birth and forced to contend with exile in a foreign, hostile country.
Can I just say something here? These characters are supposed to be FIRST level ...!
There is no denying the cognitive dissonance going on here with would-be players who insist of relating their prospective characters to their heroes in the movies or in books. The D&D character who starts the campaign does not come into the frame in the middle of the story, but at the beginning. The character is not Bilbo at his 111th birthday party, with deep dark secrets and a knowledge of the world. The character is Bilbo when the road is nothing more than a place where others come from - not a place where he has gone. The whole point is that the characters are at the START. There is no back 'story.' At best they might have a few things they've picked up along the way, an error or two they've made, a mistake, a skill they've picked up or a few friends they've gathered. But nothing earth-shaking. Nothing where the world has pivoted upon their existence. The character has NO experience. That should give a hint or two.
If the character has travelled some, or hit a bad course, or made a good show for the community, it stands to reason from the total lack of experience that two things are true: 1) the character has never killed anyone; 2) the character has never seized any wealth. What damage the character may have suffered was necessary to bring them along to leveled status. What coin or wealth the character has accumulated is coin that has been given to the character. Earned in wages, perhaps, but I don't give experience for wages. The point is the coin hasn't been obtained through any sort of adventure.
So how can there be enemies the character has? How can the character be the subject of a plot? Who even knows at this point the character exists?
No one. The character is a first level nobody. It is up to the character to play in order to become a somebody. That somebody status isn't given.
It is very rare, but it is possible for a character of my world to be of noble birth. Does this make the character a 'somebody?'
No. He or she still sits at the bottom of the pecking order, even if the character's parents have died and the character sits upon the throne of the kingdom. It's presumed the last parent has just died. The character knows nothing, and has not yet worked out his or her place in the courtly power struggle, and may in fact be murdered at any moment by a usurper. The player may have a wildly different environment to run through, but the rules are the same: the character must establish their reputation. He or she doesn't get given one by default.
It's better that the character has little or no personality in the beginning. This gives the opportunity for the character to develop one as the game is ongoing. The less important the character is at the beginning, the better things are later on when the character can remember when he or she was a nobody. "How things have changed," they can say. "Remember when we had trouble buying horses? Remember how a few orcs were enough to threaten our lives? Damn, remember that bartender in Barracks? What was his name - Pistol, that's right. Almost killed us ... but if it hadn't been for him ..." and so on.
Players who want all this at the beginning of the game, who don't want to work through the process of finding character-defining paths through actually playing, don't really appreciate what the game is about. It is not only what your character IS, but what you hope your character may be someday. Right now, in the beginning, you're only a comer. Everyone has to be a comer first.
That's how the game is played.