A quick comment on a piece of fifth edition D&D.
At first I was generally positive about the idea of the so-called 'background' - the personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws. Now I'm not so sure. It seems more gimmicky as time goes by, more predetermining of narrative as if establishing the characters for the first chapter of a novel, a set narrative, rather than supporting an exploration of another world - and ourselves - wherever it leads; and a shortcut avoiding the need for fuller player engagement, or further restricting player freedom.
Why play to someone else's prewritten background if you can decide one for yourself or start vague, as light as in a DCC funnel, or with a single word or less, and let specifics emerge in play, based on choice and the elaboration of the world in the interaction between players and GM, and characters, factions and landscapes? I'm genuinely curious as to the justification. Surely not just to save more of that increasingly precious time..? If so, I've got a suggestion - do less. None of us have to do everything we're sold.
Linked with this is the question of why so many if not all imagined worlds would run off the same few conceptions, let alone a set of supposed real-world or pseudo-mediaeval ideas typical of what could be considered generic, or 'vanilla', even hackneyed in 2014.
Running deeper than that though, I think the background here may be a counteraction of one essential aspect of D&D since the very beginning in the mid-1970s. Let's remember it for a moment - an era pre-cellphone and even pre-PC, of fewer technological crutches - a time when kids roamed relatively fearless and free, in a world of sweat, grease and cassette tape, and adults had a truer time out, un-networked and unpixellated; a world of hallucinogenic vision, free love, free thinking and freedom fighter: an age of analogue, that is, the continuous real. Of pen and paper, and people with their actual physical bodies in all their perfect imperfection engaging with each other around a table, working between and among the relatively few rules as much as with them: being there, giving it everything and feeling the imagined world maybe closer than foreground - in their beings.
The background, because it's not numbers on a scale, but words, seems analogue. But as a frame or a cell for the character to slot into, a point on a scale itself, it's actually digital. It obscures fuller space and its broader potential. We do have digital measures like ability scores, but these don't generally limit the imagining - they provide a means of testing its suitability for a set of assumed physical laws, underlying constraints. A background bounds the imagining even beyond this, pre-empting the idea or guiding it into a more conducive pigeonhole as a presumed prerequisite. It papers over the cracks as if the cracks are not meant to be there, rather than glorying in them as a feature of nature and encouraging us to fall through, go beyond, like Alice. This doesn't seem true to the history of the game, or more importantly its essence, the potential of living beings.
Maybe not so quick, but that's the argument, devil's advocacy or not. It may be others can follow it further and deeper. I think we're open-minded enough to at least consider it.