Do you prefer to build a character with a unique concept, or do you prefer a simple or more standard concept to start with?
I’m pretty prone to the unique concept. I like characters with an odd angle, or with weird hooks. The most “normal” character I’ve played in the last couple of years has been a half-orc barbarian, and even he was a trifle strange. He was on a quest to prove that half-orcs were a people, just like elves or dwarves or gnomes. Despite his unattractiveness, he might have wound up founding a church or something. I’m not the kind of guy who delights in bringing out the unique aspects of the standard character types, although I respect that tendency.
Mind you, I’m not the kind of person who plays mind flayer PCs. It’s useless to be offbeat if you don’t have the ability to interact with the rest of the PCs on a long term basis. Being weird is not a license to make other players unhappy. The oddities tend to be more psychological than physical, since those are easier to adjust for party viability.
Do you find that your preference correlates with a preference for elaborate initial backgrounds or with background development in play?
Maybe. I tend to be a Develop At Start kind of a guy. I want interesting things to happen to my characters on a psychological level during the campaign, but I have a pretty firm idea of what the character is going to start out as. In order to enjoy the journey, though, the point at which I started from has to be firm.
Since I almost always play wonky characters, I almost always have the personalities set when I start playing, since the personality is usually the biggest wonkiness.
If you?re a GM, do you find unique-concept characters easy or hard to GM for?
Easy. They come with built in hooks. I don’t really think unique-concept characters covers munchkins, because those aren’t character concepts, those are collections of numbers. It’s pretty easy to tell the difference, in my experience. If they can’t give you a rational story as to why the half-ogre (or insect spirit, or right hand man of Alex Able) is going to be able to interact with the party, they’re likely munchkins.
Come to think of it, it seems to me that player willingness to overcome the obstacles inherent to weird characters and party viability is a good way to distinguish between munchkins and people who just want something offbeat. In my book, munchkins are both those people who want their PCs to be uber death machines, and those people who want their PCs to get all the spotlight — and forcing the rest of the party to accomodate their strange quirks is a way to get lots of spotlight time. Being the best in the world at swordfighting is, when you get right down to it, just a specialized form of spotlight hogging.
What about playing alongside them?
Again, not a problem for me, given the comments above.