Back in November, my friend Kody wrote a spectacular Review for Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (XGtE). After reading that review and the entirety of the book, I became curious about the character backstory generation tables at the end of Chapter 1. This section, properly called “This Is Your Life” (XGtE pg. 61-73), provides an assortment of tables to help players create in-depth backstories for their characters.
Being an inquisitive reader, I wondered how well these tables created interesting character backstories and what kind of results would a player rolling on them expect. At first, I was hopeful, because every dungeon master runs into the trouble of a player who can’t make a intriguing, yet believable, backstory. Yet, I also had my doubts. Generators and roll tables can be tough to build because of their random nature. Likewise, other generators provided by Wizards of the Coast, such as the random dungeon tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (pg. 290-301), have yielded mixed results.
So to that end, I decided to get a bunch of Half-Cover contributors and friends together to test the various tables and gauge their opinions of the system. For added fun, we decided to ignore the advice posit by the authors of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and create our characters entirely off of completely random results.
Testing & Our Results
In total there were five testers, including myself. These participants had a variety of experience with Dungeons & Dragons from those who have never been a DM to those who have been creating dungeons and characters for decades. Unfortunately, because of scheduling issues, I was unable to get a tester completely new to D&D.
During the rolling process, the participants recorded the results from our misadventures in a spreadsheet. We tried to record everything including the question being asked, the number of sides, and our results. For all results, we used the same dice generator (the D20 Dice Bag) to ensure some form of consistency.
Although the tables ask a lot of questions, we wanted truly random characters and rolled a few extra things whether that is the character’s gender or their ideal from their background in the Player’s Handbook. We highlighted any of these extra rolls in orange to signify them being outside the actual test.
Overall, we enjoyed rolling on the tables. The experience was entertaining and humorous to say the least.
The biggest strength of the tables were that they created a diverse cast of characters. Some were stereotypical but fun like my half-elf rogue who is greedy, falls in love too easily, and apparently has a bad habit of making enemies (who are justified in hating her). Others were out there, such as Chris’s fighter who was born in a wizard’s lab with apparently eight siblings and was enslaved for 9 years of his life by fey. It was even possible to get a character that was relatively simple, such as Steph’s barbarian who is married and has a kid.
This diversity shows that the tables balance unusual aspects with the expected fantasy tropes. In general, the tables will create a relatively straightforward bio but throw in an odd wrench here or there to make the story unique. Through that method, the tables walk a delicate tightrope between ordinary and extraordinary that players sometimes mess up on when creating character histories.
Still, there were issues with the tables.The most pronounced was that the biographies generated only catered to first level characters. The tables make no mention of previous adventures or anything else that might help in the creation of higher level characters. Perhaps this is as designed, but we felt it was a mistake because rarely do campaigns actually start at level 1 because of class archetypes.
The tables also appear human-centric and therefore generic. A character’s race plays little into the tables’ results. It is only in the tables concerning the parents of a half-elf, half-orc, or tiefling character that race is even considered (XGtE pg. 62). We felt this was an odd choice, especially since races play a huge role in D&D campaign settings. D&D also likes to express how races can shape a character’s life such as their family, how old they were, where they lived, and much more. One simple way to improve this situation would be to give each race their own table similar to the ones for classes and backgrounds (XGtE pg. 64-69). Another easy solution is to make sure races have modifiers on the age table (XGtE pg. 69) like they did on the sibling table and that the ages listed went higher than 99.
Lastly, there were complaints about specific, but important tables.. Some tables seemed skewed to odd results, particularly the siblings and the alignment tables. Other tables, like the Life Events table, we felt needed more results simply because of how important they were to the entire process.
In the case of the siblings table (XGtE pg. 63), two of our five testers had very populous families of 8+ siblings. We weren’t sure why there was such a high likelihood for massive families. We guessed it might have to do with historical family sizes in medieval times, but this didn’t seem to check out because rolling for a family member to be dead on the status table was unlikely (XGtE pg. 73). Regardless, the huge amount of siblings proved to be a time waster and a burden for the testers because the siblings likely didn’t add much to the player’s story as an adventurer. Additionally, 8+ siblings would be a burden for a DM to include in any game, unless the campaign was dedicated only to one family of characters.
As for the alignment table (XGtE pg 79), the table appears skewed towards the evil or neutral alignments and getting anything good aligned was extremely rare. For example, not a single person rolled a Lawful Good character or NPC. We felt this was odd because, in our opinion, most people in the real world appear to be either Lawful Neutral or Neutral Good. The biases of the alignment table also bear no connection to your characters personal alignment. This can lead to awkward results where your Lawful Good character is friendly with a multitude of evil characters. We believe these kind of results could have been improved if the alignment table or relations table (XGtE pg. 73) influenced one another like how a character’s family lifestyle (pg. 63) could influence the roll on a character’s childhood home (pg. 64).
Participants also had strong feelings about the Life Events table (XGtE pg. 69). We felt that the table needed more than 13 results because it was mandatory for character generation. Participants particularly expressed frustration at rolling the same result more than once, since some results felt like cop-out (such as “You spent time working a job related to your background”). In some ways, it may have been a bad design idea to institute so many supplement tables, as this made it unlikely for any one particular strange and unique event to actually occur and made it more likely for boring results to appear. Moreover, results could have incorporated other aspects of your character (e.g. siblings or parents) that were already rolled, allowing for character bios to feel more cohesive.
Advice for Dungeon Masters
Obviously, we can suggest a litany of things to improve the tables in XtGE. We could even suggest whole new systems that may yield better results and maybe we will do that in a future blog. Yet, that wouldn’t answer the most important question: should you use XGtE’s tables with your players?
The answer is yes and no. We believe that the tables are probably best for the average D&D player. We define this average player as someone who loves to play the mechanics of D&D, but isn’t always the best with roleplaying or making an in-depth biography. These average players sometimes produce only a patchwork of ideas for character submission. Worse, they may give you nothing at all or make a character idea that is completely random and unreasonable. Having your players use these tables would prevent a lot of those issues.
The tables are also great for short term or one-shot campaigns where characters may die at any time or be played only once or twice before being tossed aside. The results will produce radically different characters for each player and the amount of work needed to produce a character is minimal.
Of course, we recommend players use the tables with the caveat that they should be used only for inspiration, not for end results. This is even the recommendation Wizards of the Coast provides on page 61 of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything
Nevertheless, we do not recommend the tables for new players or players who can make excellent character biographies on their own. .For the former, we believe that new players would be simply overwhelmed rolling this many times and it can take a long time to roll on these tables if you are a newcomer. In addition, new players might also be disappointed with relatively mediocre or generic results that are entirely possible in these tables. With the latter, players who love making character backgrounds will probably find the ideas in the tables intriguing but will likely create more detailed bios that are consistent to the themes and narrative arc they want to play on their own.
Hopefully you found this blog entertaining and insightful. I hope to look into character generation more in the future. If you enjoyed this kind of content where we experimented with certain aspects of the game, definitely let us know. As well, if you have any experience with using the tables in the Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, we would love to have your opinions in the comment section below for future research, articles, and projects down the road.