Kicking over ideas with them about character creation, I mentioned to them an idea I'd had about character quirks, as well as something I picked up on a blog (and I wish I could remember which, it may have been Porky's Expanse but to be honest it might not) and they were telling me about one they'd come across and had used successfully in their games.
Theirs was 'the good the bad and the ugly'. Essentially, pick three people in your life. One is a positive or helpful influence - a friend, relative, lover, ally, someone you need to protect or who will try to protect you. One is an enemy or rival, who may of course be a relative or have been a friend at one stage but doesn't have to have to been. The final person is as random a weirdo as you like, as long as you have some connection to them. These people can obviously be used to drive plot. I liked it.
Talking to them about this I realised that I'd been doing something similar when I started my last game, a little over 2 years ago (it quickly fizzled out). Somewhere, perhaps as I say at Porky's Expanse but perhaps somewhere else (I lost some links in a hard-drive failure, so I'm a bit unsure of anything pre-September 2012) I'd picked up an idea that was pretty similar. I'd made my players each give me sketchy details about two people from their background. I had the idea one would have a character class, and the other would not. I hadn't warned the players about this, just gave them it as a 'by the way, I want you to come up with some characters for background that you know in the village where we're starting the adventure, one can be an adventurer but the other shouldn't be'. Neither Ishi nor Nalyd's player were very experienced, in fact this was Nalyd's player's first game. But their 'friends and relations' were great.
Ishi's player told me about Lartholeus, the baker, who was down on his luck but struggling to keep enough money coming in to feed his family, sometimes relying on Ishi to provide a little extra, and Nurtz, who was a Thief who in turn had a brother (called Lurtz or Gurtz or something that rhymed) who was obsessed with trying to create a golem (so far unsuccessfully. "You see all those wires, Homer? That's why your robot didn't work..."). Fantastic, I thought. Plenty of hooks there.
Nalyd's player didn't disappoint either. He told me about Karl, 'a sad drunken shell of a man', who was Nalyd's bosom drinking-buddy (Nalyd was a fairly stereotypical hard-drinking but garrulous Dwarf, I'm not certain but 'Nalyd' might have been a jokey reference to Dylan Thomas and 'Llareggub'). Then he went on to tell me about Ornlotte, who was a monk, and had a big beard and a kind of cart or wheelbarrow. I still don't know why a wheelbarrow. We didn't have monks in this campaign (it being old-school D&D) but Nalyd's player was happy for me to make Ornlotte a Cleric.
Dylan Thomas's map of Llaregub - not all maps are for D&D after all - in the National Museum of Wales
So they'd given me a couple of solid usable NPCs who might accompany them on adventures, but also some vulnerable characters that could kidnapped, blackmailed, or whatever I liked to get them involved in a plot. I didn't have to twist their arms or anything. The players could have said that they knew the Mayor and a Master Weaponsmith, the head of the Mapmaker's Guild or the Captain of the Guard. It was like they knew instinctively that some chinks in the armour would provide better hooks.
I'm calling the idea I pitched to my new group 'Always/Never'. These are character foibles that define who we appear to be to other people. I'm sure we all have these things in real life. They could be religious vows, they could be cultural constraints, they could be philosophical positions. I started thinking about how I'd apply this if I were a PC. I decided that 'Always wear black; never eat meat' might be appropriate. Some examples I thought of were 'Always wear green: never use a shield'; 'Always address people first in Elvish: never eat indoors'; 'Always pray before a battle: never take the life of an enemy who is subdued'. Hopefully, not things that will prove too crippling to the PCs to always and never do, but which will allow them to have little personality hooks that others will remember them by, and which might just provide some little bits of role-play as situations develop where a player has to go out of their way to keep to their always/never vow.
One of the things I like is not doing things. I like the restriction Clerics have on edged weapons. It gives them, for want of a better word, character. You can do this; but to do it you have to give up doing that. Always/Never is a bit like that, but with characters not classes. It's an individual embracing and renunciation, and hopefully a way to get the players to think about (some aspects of) the behaviour of their characters in a couple of easily-expressible personal 'rules'.