The 4E character background system found in the PHB2 offers up a fairly comprehensive set of backgrounds to choose from. There are 62 backgrounds that fall into five broad categories: Geography; Society; Birth; Occupation and Race. The last of which is the largest since there are two or three backgrounds for each of the 15 player character races in the game (thus far). Each background description is limited to one short paragraph and a set of one or more associated skills.
At the time of character creation, players can choose as many of the modular background components as they like, but one of them will provide any in-game benefits to skill rolls, bonus languages, class skills, or regional benefits. Its very straightforward and provides a foil for players (especially those new to the game) to help shape their characters backgrounds by picking a couple of these and making them work together.This was a welcomed surprise in comparison to the 3rd Edition PHB2 - which only provided 11 archetype backgrounds drawn out over 8 or 9 pages in the book. It was too unwieldy of a system to use effectively.
The basic template for each background is:
[NAME]: One or two statements, followed by two or more questions.This very simple system is not meant to be all inclusive. It also allows DMs who are home brewing up their campaign worlds with a quick way to add a few backgrounds seamlessly into the mix. While this no doubt may be regarded by some as "too formal" or "too regimented"; its important to remember that not every player is a creative genius, and 60 or 70 backgrounds in a modular format can be just the trick to help fuel their imaginations.
Associated Skill(s): A list of skills; one of which can be chosen to give a +2 bonus or be treated as a class skill.
This system also works extremely well with an emerging complexity approach to generating character background. How? Simply don't answer all the questions presented in the background until there is a need to do so in game. For example, below I've included the character background Birth:Among Another Race from the Players Handbook 2.
Among Another Race: Your were born among a race other than your own. Did you grow up among the trees of an elven forest, deep in a dwarven mountain fortress, or in a halfling caravan? Did your family live among that race when you where born, or did some other circumstance bring you there?Lets say that you are playing a human that lived in an Elven community as a child. Don't answer the second question at the time of character creation; leave it open ended. Then, later in the campaign you answer the second question to make the storyline a bit more connected. Let's say, for example, the DM introduces a new villain into the game and you decide then that this villain killed your family, which is why you lived with the elves as an orphan.
Associated Skill: A skill the other race gains a bonus to.
Another thing to consider is to start with those first questions, and then - without answering them - brainstorm a few additional questions. Write them down on the back of your character sheet or in your notes, and then use those unanswered questions to help build your character's background on the fly as the campaign progresses.
For the DM, remember too that using these background with an emerging character could be applied to any longstanding NPC or villain that needs fleshing out. It works very well.
I am curious to know how other players are balancing character background generation with the in-game rules. How are you limited "power-creep"? So, how are you handling character backgrounds in your campaigns in general? NPC backgrounds? Does this new modular background system presented in the PHB2 work for you?