There was an interesting thread on the Treasure Tables web site about limiting character options when you start out a role-playing campaign. Most of Treasure Tables seems to deal with D&D, but a lot of the concepts carry over. I used to keep things more or less wide open when starting a new campaign, particularly for Champions (the usual kind of "let the players come up with PCs, then find a reason for them to unite as a team" kind of thing). But I'm coming around to the story advantages of limiting character options at the outset, giving more focus to a campaign. Below is the comment I contributed to the thread:
I’m coming around more and more to the idea of limiting character options based on the campaign concept. It can actually be a big boost to interest and creativity if done right.
I play Champions, which is, of course, something of a different animal than D&D. Due to the nature of the game, you will typically have a few general guidelines as things start–a point total, a campaign city, and general guidelines as far as level of lethality.
My face-to-face campaign started along these lines. The primary PCs started with 250 points, including disadvantages (this was during 4th edition–it would probably be 350 points now), and all were tied to San Angelo. I ended up with a mage, a firefighter-turned energy projector, and an armored guy. They crossed paths during the first adventure and eventually teamed up, and the campaign has lasted on and off for several years. The upsides include flexibility for the players and a wide variety of play options.
But other games have taught me the value of more specific guidelines and how they can add value. In one of my favorite face-to-face campaigns, all the PCs had to be beholden to PRIMUS (a U.S.-based SHIELD-like organization) in some way, and they ended up under orders as a sort of second-tier superhero team. The initial structure of the campaign was much more limited (they went where their boss told them to go), but the campaign relied much less on coincidence to bring the heroes together and gave them real room to grow (for example, when they began to suspect that their boss wasn’t such a good guy). I run a PBEM campaign where all the heroes work for Disney and have Disney-themed powers (not really tongue in cheek, just corporate heroes and spokespeople, like Doctor Tomorrow who has gadgets and equipment reminiscent of Tomorrowland). It wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but the strong theme and limitations on character backgrounds really helped boost the players’ creativity in some areas and have helped to make for some cool storylines.
Sometimes adding restrictions can really help to get the creative juices flowing.
To carry this back to D&D, I could see a campaign based around the concept “you are all members of the duke’s elite guard” or “you are all performers for a traveling carnival” or “you are all dwarven soldiers separated from your regiment by a purple worm attack” as being more interesting than “you are all adventurers who met in a tavern.”