Behind the Screen03/30/2003

All in the Family

In last month's column, we explored the tricky proposition of how to deal with love and marriage in D&D campaigns. In examining the close personal relationships in which characters may become involved, it stands to reason that we should also think about the relationships within which the player character came to exist. These can include his or her heritage, religion, culture, and community--the social building blocks from which the person's identity is constructed--but in the most immediate sense it means family. Who were the character's parents? Where are they now? What about the rest of the character's family? Is there something within the family history that led to the character choosing a particular career path?


1. Who creates the family background? The player or DM can draft it alone, but it should be discussed together to avoid abuses and to ensure that it harmonizes with the campaign world.

2. Reflect family background in the character. How might family experiences (including parents' social class, profession, religion, race, marital status, etc.) have influenced the skills, class, alignment, or attitudes of the character? Are there ongoing issues with relatives?

3. Integrate the family into the campaign world. Where do family members live? How are they regarded in society? What connections exist between the family, the adventuring character, and others?

4. What are these relatives like? Come up with some notes on the personalities, quirks, or important features of significant family NPCs to explain why the PCs' relationships with them are the way they are.

5. How does an adventurer's career affect the family? Does the wealth or fame/infamy of the PC affect family members? Are there repercussions (either directly or in terms of reputation) for family members if the PC makes enemies or gets into trouble (or vice versa)?

Many of the same concerns that apply to love relationships apply here, especially in terms of in-game effects. Family members are in many ways a liability for an adventurer. They are a vulnerable spot, where enemies who know about them can strike at the character to make him or her suffer. Family members are plot devices waiting to happen. You and your players have seen movies and read books by the truckload in which some relative or close acquaintance is waylaid by the bad guys, or converts to evil and betrays the hero, and so on.

Often, players prefer to avoid such unpleasant--and often contrived--situations and for that reason minimize the whole issue of family in the adventure game. You could argue that a PC with no family is equally contrived, but that fact is easy enough to ignore by simply focusing on the here and now of the PCs' adventures, keeping the spotlight on them. A game can work perfectly well without dealing with family background and such issues at all. This is particularly true if the players and DM are more interested in the mechanics of the game and the characters than in crafting a personality and history for the characters. Different people play D&D for different reasons and get enjoyment out of different facets of the game, and if you and your players are not especially interested in drafting a personal dossier for the characters who will populate the campaign, then nothing further needs to be done. Family is a non-issue. For those who seek more depth of character in their campaigns, however, this column is directed at you.

Once you have decided to include character families as an element of the campaign, you must decide how you will determine family background for the characters. The simplest answer is to just make it up. This process should be a collaborative effort between each player and the DM, which will help avoid either party being suddenly surprised with a background he or she considers unacceptable. The creation process need not be a 50/50 collaboration, and in fact might be done almost entirely by one person or the other, but both the DM and the player should have a final say over the character's background. As a DM, you should encourage a player to think about the character's background during character generation, so that the player can take it into consideration when selecting feats and (especially) skills. A character whose parents were farmers, for instance, might have a few ranks of Profession (farmer) or Handle Animal, while an orphan taken in by an order of monks under a vow of silence might learn Innuendo and Sense Motive, but would be unlikely to learn Speak Language. These are not requirements per se, but rather an attempt to model the character's background within the mechanics of the game.

Some DMs may feel that open-ended free choice in a character's background is too vulnerable to abuse by players. ("Hmmm . . . I guess I'll be the second son of aged King Harnott, and the first son is the black sheep of the family who is forbidden by law to inherit. Plus, I've always been mother's favorite son. I RULE!") It also might lead to significant incongruities between the player's idea of the campaign world and the DM's idea. Since players have only incomplete knowledge of what is going on, they may create a story that does not easily translate into the politics, geography, or social structure of the campaign world--requiring a lot of revising on the DM's part to translate the essential elements of the player's background story into something that fits.

You might also find that neither player nor DM has a clear idea of what a character's family background should be. In this case, the DM might generate a family background randomly, perhaps with tables like those in the 1st Edition AD&DUnearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures rulebooks. In such a system, you randomly determine the parents' social class, profession, and marital status, birth order and total number of children, and whether relatives are living or dead. You might also consult other game systems, or supplements that are not specific to any particular game system (e.g., Central Casting). You can be as detailed as you wish in such generation, but you must beware of systems that will cause complications for the player's choice of character. Random generation systems for parentage and background are most useful as idea generators; they can inspire and elaborate a character's background, but should not be its sole determinant. Ultimately, the background should support the kind of character the player wishes to play. If the system you propose to use might invalidate the player's chosen character concept (for example, by sticking him or her with parents of the wrong social class or profession to qualify for a given character choice), then the DM and player should work together to "massage" the random die rolls into a result that allows the player to have a character he or she wants to play.

Keep an open mind to ideas suggested by your players as something of particular relevance to their characters, as you might find some good adventure hooks there--ideas spawned from the texture of the individual characters and therefore with built-in resonance or appeal as something that character (and presumably the player) would like to do. Whatever the scenario, it can now be played through with the added texture of involving someone related to the PC. However, be careful of overdoing the importance of the family in character background (e.g., a search for a long-lost mother) if you have no intention of shaping the campaign to include that character goal. Avoid dumping a pile of meaningless detail on a character. There is only so much information most players need or want to know about their character, especially if you run a highly lethal campaign. Why do a lot of background work for a character who might not last all that long? Decide what is important to the campaign and what is not. Emphasize the points that are relevant, and fill in the "flavor text" of the character's background as you feel the need or find the opportunity.

A character should know the names of his or her parents, where they are from, what they do for a living, and their present status and condition. Are they dead or alive? What is the PC's relationship with them? Do they live near the area where the PC will be adventuring? How often do they visit the PC (or vice versa)? Do they ever appear "on stage," or are they purely background figures mentioned in passing when the PCs take time off from adventuring? The same basic rule applies to siblings, though this depends on the number of people. A character with just one sibling should probably know the same sorts of information as noted for parents, but if there are 15 brothers and sisters you don't need to create statistic blocks for every one of them. Extended family--uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, and so on--usually fall into the "deal with them as you need to or want to" bin. You can even extend relationships more transitively, to people who are not related to the character at all, but who know (or know of) the character or are known to them by association with relatives. ("Ah yes, your Aunt Nennia was my best customer!")

To the extent you deal with the PC's relatives, you should think at least a little about who they are as people apart from the PC. Beyond the direct "onstage" interactions between family members and PCs, significant familial NPCs should have some personality of their own. You can invent personality traits for family members or generate them randomly, much as you would with a PC. (See Table 5-5: One Hundred Traits in Chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide as a source of ideas, or use tables and charts from a previous edition of D&D or another game. The rule system doesn't really matter, since quirks, attitudes, and personality are rarely system-specific.) The personalities of NPC family members are important because you must establish why their connection with PCs is the way that it is. For example, just being brothers is not enough to explain a close bond between the PC and another character--Cain and Abel were brothers, and look how that turned out! You must establish the basis for the relationship, including the personalities of the people involved, for it to be credible. You don't need encyclopedic detail; like a lot of things in crafting the texture of your game world, a little effort goes a long way.

The important aspects of familial NPCs are those that directly influence the PC in some way. Perhaps a female cleric PC was driven to her present calling after seeing her younger sister seduced by dark sorcerous powers. The PC has striven for a life of personal purity, to ensure she would never be taken in by such influences, but also seeks redemption for others who have fallen to temptation. She may see her parents as failures and fools, blinded by their love for their younger daughter and not protecting her from the dark forces out in the world. Or she may believe that her parents' mysterious "boating accident" was no accident at all, that her darkling sister was secretly responsible, and has sworn vengeance on their parents' graves. Familial pathos can be a powerful motivating force and can enrich a background or an adventure. Likewise, a pattern of benign family history and in-game interactions (which should be the case most of the time) makes it that much more dramatic if something tragic does occur.

An adventuring PC's career can pose a threat to any NPC loved ones, but as a DM you should avoid inflicting tragedies upon a PC's family simply because it's easy to do so. Such things might happen, but they certainly should not be an automatic occurrence. In fact, contrary to the idea that it is realistic for a PC's family to suffer threats from enemies of the PC's, it is patently unrealistic if the only impact of a PC's adventuring career is to bring death and danger down upon the heads of those he or she loves. Consider the approbation a family might receive as a result of their connection to a well-known and/or wealthy adventuring hero. PCs with family might, in fact, choose to apply some of their earnings toward the care and support of family members, or use part of their fortunes to enrich or improve the standing of the communities where they grew up. An orphaned PC might adopt an orphaned child, or establish an orphanage to care for many children in a similar situation to the one she found herself in long ago. In a campaign that makes use of rules for a PC's reputation, fame, and honor (such as those found in The Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game , 1st Edition AD&DOriental Adventures [and to a lesser extent the current D&DOriental Adventures], or the 2nd Edition AD&DComplete Bard's Handbook), the DM should consider what effect the reflected glory of PC might have upon their families, or what blot on family honor an infamous PC might impose. The family could stand to gain prestige and perhaps wealth (through increased business) due to their connection with a famous personage like a successful PC, or it might be ruined by the whispering campaign about what a no-account child did.

If you are going to address a character's family issues in the campaign at all, deal first of all with the immediate family who helped form the PC's career path. Establish how (or whether) these relatives and the character get along and why. From there, you can slowly build the details of other family connections as necessary to suit the growth of the campaign and the integration of the PCs within it. As their fortunes and reputation rise and fall, so too will those of their families, forming one more strand in the pattern that ties the characters into the ongoing tapestry of the game world around them.

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle and is a full-time homemaker (taking care of his 8-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son, and new dog), a part-time graduate student (working on a Ph.D. in education policy), and an active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981. He currently runs a weekly D&D game, having just completed a seven-year-long AD&D (heavily modified) campaign set in the Forgotten Realms. He also plays in a biweekly campaign with a 3rd Edition D&D version of his very first character (Tjaden Ludendorff, a psionic paladin) from 21 years ago.

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