Life paths for finding a character

If I know I am going to be playing a character for a while I like to know a bit about them. I am really bad at just coming up with that kind of stuff off the top of my head. There are a lot of tools out there to figure this out, but right now I want to talk about random (or maybe pickable) lifepath generation. A simple favorite of mine is found in the lovely PWYW Hill Cantons Compendium II (CW: the full tables have results covering slavery, torture, and cruel parents)

It assumes that you will be using a D&D-alike (rolling 3d6 for 6 classic attributes) to get extra attribute specific dice (for when you roll), free gear, or NPC connections based on rolls on four main tables which then have possible subtables. These tables are:

  1. Birth Order
  2. Parent Occupation (gives attribute dice and gear, subtables give attribute dice)
    a. Craft (ex Tailor: 1d extra to roll DEX)
    b. Government Officials (ex Tax Collector: 1d STR)
    c. Clergy (ex Clergy, heretic religion: 1d WIS)
    d. Nobility (ex Knight: 1d STR)
    e. Merchant (ex Innkeeper: 1d CHA)
  3. Significant Childhood/Adolescent Events (roll twice, give attribute dice, some subtables give attribute dice, others NPCs)
    a. Guardians (ex Lived on the streets/no guardian: 1d DEX)
    b. Relatives (NPC)
    c. Others (NPC)
    d. Crimes & Misdemeanors (ex Political dissidence: 1d CHA)
  4. Significant Young Adulthood Events (roll twice, give attribute dice, subtables give attribute dice)
    a. Military Service (ex Deserted: 1d INT)
    b. Other Services (ex Palace Guard: 1d CHA)
    c. Virtues (ex Defender of the oppressed: 1d STR)
    d. Vices (ex Quick Tempered: 1d STR)
    e. Religious Experience (ex Vision of deity: 1d WIS)
    f. Magical Occurrence (ex Discovered ancient book: 1d WIS)

What I love about this is that I learn a whole lot about who this character was up until the point I am starting to play them. But it is all light enough that it is up to my own interpretation. But it all informs how I will play them. And when it is connected to a stats system (which I don’t think is a necessity by any means - I think you could be totally system agnostic with this kind of thing) it also tells you the “why” for the things they are kinda-sorta ok-to-better at.

The other thing something like this does is - depending on how flavorful you want to go with individual entries - you can tie huge amounts of setting stuff into just the lifepath entries. This is how Burning Wheel does it - the setting is very strongly implied by the lifepaths and skills you get from them.

The amazing PWYW game Dark Designs in Verdigris does something similar (though without the branching) - it has a number of questions you choose/roll answers to on tables, each giving an attribute increase and a boatload of flavor about the setting and the character you are creating.

Are there other games you know of that do this well? I wonder if there is a Game Jam here for designing worlds to play in just through “simple” lifepath tables like this…


Jaquays’ books Central Casting (one volume for fantasy characters, 1988, and one co-authored for modern/sci-fi, 1991) are simply enormous sets of interlinked tables to generate system-neutral backgrounds. I often just played through them to generate characters for fun on my own. These are books I wish I hadn’t given away.

I never played Traveller (1977), but the character generation rules for life-path backgrounds are famous, especially for allowing you to die during character generation.


I found Central Casting somewhere online. That is… extensive. Super impressive, but definitely overkill for what I think I’d be wanting for sure. And definitely Traveller does its thing really well. Though it does a very specific military-related thing.

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Beyond the Wall does my favourite version of this. A lot of life paths goes into details that have very little to do with your character being an adventurer. BtW gives interesting results strongly tied to your character and actually influences another character in the party too, creating bonds. I love that approach. Barrow Keep does the same thing but less system bound.


I have always loved Goblin Punch’s career paths pdfs.

The ones there have aspects that I like and don’t, so I have been trying to smash them together but I know there are bugs.


I find lifepath systems really fun - I’ve spent a lot of time just making characters that will never see the light of day, but I enjoy coming up with stories based of all those rolls on random tables. Will need to check out Hill Cantons as I am always happy to roll up a character with a new lifepath system.

All of my favorites were already mentioned (Traveller, Central Casting, Beyond the Wall), but there’s one very niche lifepath system that I always like to mention. The (sadly now unavilable) Life Board for Operation: Fallen Reich.


It’s a boardgame for generating characters! You roll a die, move that many spaces, and apply where you landed to your character. If you roll a 6 or land on a specific space you also draw a “random event” card.

While it sounds like just a bunch of fuss just to get some random outcomes, it is more than that. The board is arranged into sections corresponding to different “foci” for lack of a better word. Do you keep your head down and focus on your clerical work, or maybe you want to explore your spirituality or go into the life of crime?

When you roll your die you choose which direction to take (you always have at least 2 ways to go, sometimes more). So if you want to get out of your life of crime and get into high society, you can do that, but some (un)fortunate rolls might change your plans and you find yourself running a struggling theater company.

While the game is not really my cup of tea (it’s a semi-serious take on Brits fighting occult Nazis), I find the board a really cool idea. It let’s you make both immediate as well as long term choices for your character, and the entries are vague enough to let you fill in the details and make it your story.

Ever since I discovered it, I wanted to make a similar system for fantasy, but using modular board made of cards. I still might one day.

P.S. There are two pretty in depth writeups of making characters with this system here and here, for those interested.


I’ve been toying with using Traveller-style lifepaths for games (replacing my previous obsession with Beyond-the-Wall-style lifepaths), and have been really enjoying seeing how they work when they’re no longer military.


I think Burning Wheel does this too, but it seems to be more of choice in what paths you pick, rather than it being randomized. Don’t have the game myself so I might be misinformed.

The Fate Toolkit has an option for lifepaths (as an example for you to work it out yourself) for use instead of regular Fate Core or FAE character creation. But again it’smore of a pick your path rather than generate with randomness type deal.

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The Burning Wheel lifepaths are kind of complicated to use, but yeah, you choose your path. You can play around with BW character creation here: Charred - The Burning Wheel Gold Character Burner

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Id love to expand the events a whole lot, heck if you were building around a setting you could use them to communicate setting details! Lifepaths are definitely underutilized (perhaps in part because they take way more work to write!)

I also just remembered this blogpost from the TAO of DND, where “Lifepaths” or “Secondary Skills” are tied to ability modifiers. I like this idea and wouldn’t mind trying my own hand at it. He gives examples in other posts of his tables and explains his reasoning for it. Strength and Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma.

I thought this might be of interest in this discussion :slight_smile:


Hmmm… I think I might go and make some life paths.