One of the problems with holding onto a love of random character generation is that it originally went hand in hand with another major facet of D&D: if you rolled poorly on your character, that character would probably die quickly and you’d get to try again. Conversely, it’s probably likely that players that rolled really exceptional characters had a decent chance of getting overconfident and losing them. Ultimately, that meant that the dungeon was serving as a filter: weak characters tended to die (or be lucky enough to be very interesting to roleplay), and, in the long term, it was hard to get stuck with a character meaningfully weaker than other PCs for the campaign.
Meanwhile, in modern games, most tables that I’m aware of don’t really have a high PC body count. If you use random chargen and roll poorly, you could be stuck as the effective sidekick to the more powerful characters in the party for the whole campaign.
I had an idea while attending the Horror in Gaming panel at Dragon*Con this year that would allow you to reintroduce the filter in a specific circumstance. My original idea was for something I’ve seen in modern action horror movies like Freddy vs. Jason and House of the Dead: dozens of teens at a rave in a dangerous location, suddenly fleeing when monsters attack. It also works for disaster-movie scenarios. But the idea possibly best in that old D&D trope: survivors of the big bad wiping out a village.
I may expand this idea to a loose module in the future, but the basic idea is:
- The GM (with the help of the players, if they’re interested) generates a bunch of extremely rough character descriptions and puts them on notecards. This would be the kind of details you’d notice in a crowd scene of a disaster or horror movie: race, sex, hair color, age, and a significant item of clothing (possibly just using something like the Pathfinder Face Cards instead). It’s enough to give the players some idea of whether they’d like to play the character long term.
- The players take turns claiming cards (or get them randomly) until they have an equal number of characters.
- The GM sets the stage for what’s going on. Players used to games where they improvisationally portray characters with no stats might pick a character or two to do a bit of ad libbling.
- Something awful starts killing everyone, and the crowd scatters to escape. The PC cards might represent the whole crowd, or be surrounded by NPCs also getting slaughtered.
- The GM puts obstacles in the way of escaping: dodging monsters and explosions, having to scale walls and fences, stumbling lost in the dark, remembering how to bypass something, soldiering on through choking smoke or light injuries, and begging others for help.
- Each of these obstacles is an attribute challenge (e.g., in D&D 5e, an ability check for skill or save). When characters get to it, roll up their applicable stat and make the test. Characters that make it through might, if the context makes sense, help those that failed (but not all of them). The goal is to have pretty heavy carnage of characters that fail challenges.
- After every such obstacle, give the survivors a new character trait (possibly also randomly chosen) like name and other personality highlights (e.g., again for 5e, background, then personality, ideal, flaw, and bond). Allow a little time for roleplaying if the players want to: they should be figuring out which characters they might want to play.
- Also after every obstacle (or round of obstacles, if the characters split up into different mobs), have the players hang on to one or two characters they like the most right now, put the rest back in the middle, and then redraw until everyone has an even number. This is just in case players have a different rate of attrition.
- You might also give the players a small set of rerolls to use across all their characters, to get characters they’re growing attached to through a poor roll or two.
- Repeat obstacles until the character pool has been whittled down to one PC per player (possibly with a few left over to be backup characters/friendly NPCs). If attrition was high enough that not all the necessary attributes and personality traits are chosen, roll those now.
- Narrate the last of the PCs escaping to a moment of safety long enough to catch their breaths… and worry what they’re going to do about the thing that just wiped out everyone around them. Finish generating the characters (such as picking a class and everything that goes with it).
Ultimately, this method should wind up with PCs that are above average and more-or-less on par with one another, but that still feel random. And you’ve also got a nice baked-in traumatic experience and plot hook to motivate roleplay from there on out.