One of my favorite quirks in that lovable mess of a book adorned with a scarlet butt-ugly hollering efreeti on its cover is the sudden, inexplicable lurching into polemic.
Take this section on Social Class in the DMG:
“There is no random table for determination of a character's social status to be found here. That is because the inclusion of such a factor will either tell you little or nothing of useful nature, or it will abridge your freedom with respect to development of your campaign milieu. That is, if such a table tells you only a little so as not to force a social structure upon your campaign, the table can contain nothing of use...There are dozens of possible government forms, each of which will have varying social classes, ranks, or castes. Which sort you choose for your milieu is strictly your own prerogative. While this game is loosely based on Feudal European technology, history and myth, it also contains elements from the Ancient Period, parts of more modern myth, and the mythos of many authors as well. Within its boundaries all sorts of societies and cultures can exist, and there is nothing to dictate that their needs be Feudal European.”
On the surface that's a totally bizarre way to begin a passage in a rulebook, “let me tell you all the things that aren't in here and why in detail.” Gygax was obviously responding to the trend of second-generation fantasy game competitors to tout background charts as providing a deeper social context.
Leaving aside the obvious self-interest, I love this passage as it reveals two things: 1. a profound insight into the imaginative big-tent reach of classic D&D and it's latitude for personalizing worlds (“why do any more imagining for you”); and 2. it's a concession in a way to the fact that such tables are a powerful way to subtly hardwire setting logic into character generation.
A quick paging through a few of the contenders of that era seems to validate this. Chivalry and Sorcery's starting background chart is a laser-focused on a long list of professions and classes--from serfs up to the lesser nobility--that clearly reflect a very narrow implied campaign world based in Northwestern Europe around the end of the 12th century. It's random distributions while slightly weighted “unrealistically” toward not playing the bottom part of the pyramid. (Harnmaster would go full hog later giving you a 65 percent chance of playing a wide range of dirt-rooting peasants).
On a radically different note, let's take Stormbringer first edition, a game whose more flatly-distributed and divergent class background table typically generates a weird, wonderful, unbalanced grab bag of a party. It's not unusual to have a strange chaotic blend of PC backgrounds. A Melnibonean sorcerer-warrior-assassin tooling around with a pygmy hunter from Oin and a leprous beggar from Nadaskor. It's a set-up for campaigns even weirder than the books really.
Point is that each of these tables alone said as much and more about the setting and how the players fit in as the many pages of text yakking on about medieval society or the twisted words of Michael Moorcock. It's an elegant way to get around info-dump.
Winding up for my second point. What I take away from that DMG rant is not so much that such tables will break your D&D campaign, but that you have a choice as a DM to either run a “background is wholly what happens in the first three levels” approach (banking on bottom-up development) or custom fit a background table or subsystem to fit the contours of your own world.
Either works well I can attest from years running and playing—players in the HC are free to choose either road--but long-time readers will know that I have loved me some campaign-specific background generators over the years.
The background subsystem in the Hill Cantons Compendium says a good deal about the implied HC campaign world. There is both the obvious flavor elements—the landsknechts, dwarven indentured servants, mountebanks—and the somewhat deeper bits in the campaign logic itself.
The Weird touching the borderlands amplifies the chaos of human society. To be in that rootless group of crazies willingly exploring it something must have broken in your head. So the system tends to generate a background that is really tumultuous and zig-zaggy, a childhood and adolescence spent running from a crime to pushing a pike to having a mystic experience and the like.
I'm throwing a wall of text at you—and forgive me if it all sounds like a big stinking pile of pretentious poo—but it's a topic that I come back to a lot in my homebrewing. And I notice more than a few of my friends out there in the ether custom fitting their own tables and it makes me just want to play in their own worlds all the more.
And you? Have you made—or want to make—your own custom fits? Did it work?