This blog post over at Adventuring Archives got me to thinking about the whole idea of character back stories and how they fit in with the game world and all.
You see, I am of two minds about the subject, especially now that I am hardcore Old School; on the one hand I like the immersion that it brings a new character into the game world, on the other a single dagger blow might wipe that same character out wasting all the time and energy put into a decent, campaign immersive back story.
There were periods in my DMing over the years where I would give bonuses to people for coming up with a good back story for their character, anything from 100-250 XP to start out with, or an "Heirloom" of some sort that would be helpful, but not campaign breaking for a low level character to have that their class could use. Now, there were downsides to this too, I had to give DM approval to any back story. Some were so poorly written that they were just dreadful to read, others were written with power-gaming in mind, a lot of them seemed to skip over the part where I gave them extensive notes about the campaign world and were entirely inappropriate from that angle, and then some players just didn't care enough to try and either turned in crap or nothing, because the reward wasn't worth the effort.
Now, if you really want to go old school on this, just use the "Secondary Skills" table from the DMG and assume that's either what your father did or what he apprenticed you to do at a young age. Unearthed Arcana adds some tables to cover family and social status. Oriental Adventures is where random family generation and family history really shine, but rolling up an OA character can take a while, so you're adding time to character creation to draw the character into the setting, and that character still may not survive the first encounter.
Taking an old school approach, but of newer vintage, both versions of Hackmaster do the job pretty well. The parody version 4th edition Hackmaster, can be played straight, I have done it, but you have to rely less on randomness and more on point buys for Quirks and Flaws, otherwise it can go south fast. Hackmaster Basic is a lot more realistic in it's Quirk/Flaw random assignment. Both versions also build a family for you, so you can rip that section directly to your Old School D&D game if you want, hack D&D with Hackmaster. Now I'll put in a good word for Hackmaster, both 4th edition, which saved me from 3e D&D and Hackmaster Basic, which I have a lot of things I like about it, but it is a little too rules heavy for my current tastes. Seriously, if it wasn't for Hackmaster, I would have quit gaming probably.
So I guess I'd like everyone to come equipped with a basic idea of who their character is and how he or she fits into the world, the Character Questionnaire is a nice idea, it asks not just for a pysical description of your character, but also about your hometown, your place there, your friends and family; all stuff I can use as a DM to make a more immersive experience for my players, but I guess I can see this questionnaire being abused too. Making your acquaintances all Arch-Mages and yourself a Prince and stuff like that.