This is the most important part of creating a character; finding out where your character is. This requires the DM to have a clear picture in his head of the campaign world, such as it's history and geography, and it's demographics. The player needs this information in order to begin the character creation process.
As an example, I am DMing a campaign (via PBeM) which is set in Semphar in the Forgotten Realms. I posted two separate advertisements for players on the net, purposefully including or excluding details of the campaign on each. The first was quite descriptive, giving a brief overview of Semphar, the geography (plains and desert), the climate (temperate to hot), the demographics (predominantly human, with Dwarves in the hinterland, and elves are extremely rare), and that much of the game will be spent in the desert or surrounding steppe. The second was very vague, just detailing what level characters I would accept, the name of the country (Semphar), and a very rough outline of the initial adventure.
From the first ad., I received some good PCs, extremely suitable for the game. They included such things as a retired soldier from the country's army, with a rich history, a local thief which was equally as good, and a nomad type character, which was equally appropriate to the setting.
From the second, I received an aquatic elf (in the desert!), more drow elves than I could count, and a plate-mail wearing sailor. None of these were suitable for the campaign, largely because I did not give the players enough detail to create the characters. The DM must give the player a very clear picture as to where the game begins. I believe it is vital that long-term games begin at first level , and that the player creates the character with the DM. This helps create characters that are both believable, and that are able to 'fit in'.
So, here are some pointers for the first step, aimed mainly at DMs to give to players. They should answer some basic questions about the setting, the campaign, and establish some norms for players to build on:
- What is the country you are in?
- What is the climate like?
- What are the predominate races?
- What are the relationship between the races?
- The history of the area/country/world.
- The main types of industry (i.e. mining, agriculture, commerce, slavery)
- Is the country at war?
- What is the social structure? Feudal, Caliphate, Monarchy, Democracy?
- How does the populace view different character classes? Wizards, thieves, etc?