I often encourage my players to keep an alternate character handy, in case of fatality. In a good D&D game, you need a sense of constant danger; and that feeling can be inspired by a decent mortality risk.
On the other hand, isn't it in the spirit of RPGs to create a character that is rich in personality and background, and not just a hack machine? Why waste all the time a player spends fleshing out his character's background by subjecting the character to an early death?
We have a contradiction here. As an old-school DM, I feel it's very important to allow characters to die whenever circumstances dictate, and not when a player or DM deems appropriate. The here today, gone tomorrow randomness of death is what we expect in reality, and we should expect the same in a realistic game. Yet we also want our characters to feel real, and that takes preparation -- preparation that could be wasted if our 1st-level characters are killed before seeing much action.
So I present to you a list of PC Motivations: One-statement summaries of PC aspirations, attitudes, and personality quirks. This list should not only supply quick background info for players who want to minimize the time required to create a PC, but it can also inspire character-centered campaign subplots. Take a look and tell me what you think:
1. PC is a naturalist, who wishes to document sightings of as many known low-intelligence creatures as possible. He is not interested in killing these creatures, just observing.
2. PC is a sociologist, who is highly interested in humanoid culture. She wishes to observe some humanoid society (choose one, like goblin or giant), and seeks to establish a peaceful relation with a local community so she can conduct her work.
3. PC is a historian, and wishes to chart as many ancient settlements as possible, hopefully claiming an artifact or two along the way for his local museum. He may be a sole proprietor of the museum, or work for an employer. Chaotic historians may intend to save items of particular interest for themselves.
4. PC is an evangelist cleric who serves a chaotic or neutral deity. She travels from village to village, staging revivals for profit. Her charisma and healing ability attracts devout followers, whom she relies upon for a comfortable standard of living. She is otherwise a good, kind person.
5. PC is in love with a woman who will not marry him until he can prove he earns a good living. He turns to adventuring to get off to a quick start, hoping to use the money he earns early on to open a shop.
6. PC is a rogue posing as a medium. She uses cold reading techniques to dupe clients into believing she speaks with the dead.
7. PC's father was an infamous, ruthless villain -- perhaps a slave master or serial killer. The PC struggles to distance himself from his father's memory, while also trying to live up to his father's reputation.
8. PC owes a very large debt to a shady guild. This could be money, or services rendered for a "favor" the guild bestowed on the character (extra points if the favor was something the PC didn't initially hope for -- like a "message" that went too far).
9. PC is a pathological liar. He brags about his fantastic exploits, but hesitates to accept a truly dangerous assignment. Then someone or something finds his "hot button" and he hastily takes on something too big for his party, much to his partners' irritation.
10. PC has a death wish. She lost a loved one to a particular rare monster, and seeks revenge, only to get a thrill out of staring death in the face once she has her chance to make things right.
11. PC starts the game with a curse that must be removed in an unreasonably systematic manner.
12. PC is a member of the noble class, who frequently takes leave from court responsibilities to pursue adventure. Her private escorts are sworn to secrecy.
13. PC is getting very old, but cannot find a place in normal society. He continues adventuring despite his increasing handicaps.
14. PC is masochistic. She insists on allowing foes to injure her before she tears them apart.
15. PC is an overly action-driven leader. Perhaps he is a knight, who leads his party into dangerous situations without giving much thought to alternative strategies.
16. PC has an obsession with flight, and would give anything to be able to fly.
17. PC believes an unpopular, unconfirmed rumor about a lost treasure hoard, which is ridiculously difficult to reach (perhaps underwater, or in the middle of the desert, or under tons of earth), even if it exists.
18. PC took on an adventuring lifestyle to escape the pressures of marriage and motherhood.
19. PC believes he can do just about anything, at least after only a couple attempts, and is likely to volunteer for tasks best suited to other members of the group. If held back by others, he might take initiative when no one is paying attention.
20. PC is clearly ill-suited for her class. Perhaps she is an unwise cleric, or a weak fighter.
21. PC is a wizard who shuns violence. He tends to learn non-offensive spells.
22. PC is a cleric who is losing her faith. She has been raised to serve a specific deity, yet has never directly witnessed any evidence of the deity's presence in her world.
23. PC is a Jekyll/Hyde case. For example, in the city he may be shy and withdrawn; but underground, he cracks wise and causes trouble -- perhaps by failing to exercise due restraint in combat, or by blowing the group's cover in stealth situations.