Behind the Screen09/28/2003

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

The party, laden with loot from its latest dungeon raid, entered the City of Terah. The heroes paid off the gate guards and the customs officials as usual. Then Ally suggested that they head for the Temple of Morab.

"Don't forget, guys, Melantha is a direct descendant of Eleazar the Wise, the great warrior-priest of Morab the Peacemaker! He founded the temple in this city over three hundred years ago."

"Yeah, we've heard it before," said Michael. "Whoop-de-doo! Mikko is an orphan -- no family, no history. He's a street-smart dwarf from the wrong side of town, and he depends on nobody and nothin' to make his way in the world! Who cares if your great-great-grandfather ten times over was some big muckety-muck? Once you get out into the wide world of adventuring, it's a true meritocracy. That family name isn't gonna buy you much at Crazy Joe's Treasure Hunter's Emporium."

"Well, it's important to Melantha," Ally said. "Besides, in the Middle Ages family lines and parentage and stuff were very important."

"Maybe, but D&D isn't the Middle Ages in about a hundred different ways, Ally," countered Michael. "For starters, Melantha there would probably be forced to mind the kitchens instead of having learned how to fight and hunt and preach in the temple. So let's not get too carried away with the whole Middle Ages comparison!"

"I suppose that's true, but it seems like in fantasy stories the heroes are always the descendants of the Great and Powerful So-and-so. Why doesn't that happen in D&D? Shouldn't that sort of thing matter?"


Do bloodlines really matter? What difference does a character's background really make, especially something like long-ago family history? Do you need to deal with it?

How big a benefit should characters get? The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting and Oriental Adventures pretty much set the precedent that benefits should be treated as feats, and PCs should be able to get one bonus feat that is appropriate for their heritage. You probably should not combine these and give one bonus feat for a region or culture and another bonus feat for a specific ancestor.

Is there any downside to the heritage? A few feats have built-in downsides, but not many. This question is really more about whether some people in the campaign world will hate characters because of their heritage. The answer is probably yes, but don't overdo it and make clear how big a downside will really be.

How free are players to design their heritage? In general, the player decides what character to play, not you. Set limits and be mindful of people trying to take advantage, but give players plenty of room to imagine what they want their characters to be -- to try new ideas and tweak old ones.

The generational campaign. Think about setting a new campaign long after the conclusion of an old one, with the old PCs (and/or important NPCs) as the sources for new lineages that the players can really identify with.

Ally asks a good question. The whole idea of being a descendant of some famous (or infamous) person is pretty much a staple of fantasy stories. For style and flavor, it shouldn't be too hard to fit into the D&D game, but how do you set up your campaign to reflect the idea?

Or should you instead take Michael's position that historical bloodlines are irrelevant? You start in anonymity, and either die alone and unremarked or adventure your way to fame and fortune. There's something pretty appealing about Michael's point that adventuring is the ultimate meritocracy. But once you fight your way to the top, then what? What do you do after you 'win'?

Michael's idea might seem better suited to a computer game, with a definite beginning, middle, and end, than an ongoing face-to-face game, but he's not alone in preferring to play the game for the game. For players like him, deep background is something they'd just as soon keep to the margins. For other gamers, background adds interest, and for some it is the most important thing. Wherever your mix of players falls, it's something to think about in setting up the campaign.

In fantasy stories, sometimes an entire nation or clan descends from a common ancestor, and the people all live pretty much in one place and share certain common cultural traits. The family tree starts at the famous ancestor and then branches out from there. A PC descendant is way out at the end of one of the branches. From our own real-world perspective, though, we usually start thinking about a family tree with ourselves, branching up through our parents to grandparents and so on. You look up in the branches of your family tree, and you might see a famous leaf or two. It is a lot easier for Melantha to think about her ancestors than trying to figure out every person who might be a descendant of Eleazar the Wise!

There have been several different approaches to this idea in D&D. The most developed example was the AD&DBirthright setting, wherein PCs could descend not just from famous people but from the gods themselves. Based on the strength of your bloodline and which deity it came from, you could have an array of special powers and/or an extraordinary appearance. Not all characters were "blooded," and there were downsides to it (like being drained of your divine blood-power by certain spells, monsters, and magic items), but it was definitely a big part of the setting, and you knew who belonged to whom!

The Birthright setting also made strong differentiations between human cultural groups, an idea that is also present in the 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, wherein characters can select regional feats based on their cultural heritage. This set-up doesn't tie the characters to a specific bloodline per se, but it assumes a generally common lineage for everyone from a certain region. The Oriental Adventures hardbound takes the opposite tack in its use of ancestor feats, which do assume your descent from a very specific individual; the feat represents something for which the ancestor was famed. Ancestor feats are loosely tied to your clan, though you can choose ancestor feats outside your clan with the assumption that somewhere up in your family tree someone from another clan married into yours.

In each of these examples, the choice of background has some meaning in terms of game mechanics. You don't have to do that; choice of background, or even having someone famous in your heritage, could be entirely a roleplaying device. Does Melantha actually get anything out of being descended from Eleazar the Wise? Only if you want her to. In Eddie's world, he gives her a circumstance bonus to Diplomacy checks with the folks at temples of Morab the Peacemaker, with a bigger bonus at the temple he founded in Terah. Not much there, just a little DM reward for Ally putting some work into her character design and rooting the character in the world.

There are roleplaying considerations, like family fame or reputation (as discussed in an earlier column), or how the character's connection to a long-ago ancestor is viewed by close family. Maybe Melantha's parents were pacifists who followed Rao the Peacebringer and disavowed any connection to the more militant Morab the Peacemaker. They might consider the whole connection to Eleazar an unpleasant and embarrassing skeleton in the family closet, and might have disowned their daughter when she so openly embraced her connection to him. Maybe she gets a Diplomacy penalty with followers of other faiths that don't like Morab or Eleazar. Some heritage might give you distinguishing features, like hair or skin or strangely-shaped birthmarks or anything else you like.

Ultimately, though, these are all flavor effects. If you decide you want a character's heritage to have more impact than that, then you need to answer a few questions (see sidebar). Should you make a character's heritage something that has substantial game effects, follow the D&D principle that it's an option. You can choose to embrace your heritage or not, but you always give something to get something. If Mikko wants to be an orphan with no history, he doesn't get to take a feat based on an ancestor (unless you want to pull a Harry Potter, where he gets something based on a family history he knows nothing about), but he can take other feats instead, which might include a generic regional feat based on where he grew up. At the same time, he keeps a low profile and has no entanglements. He is not easily marked, as Melantha might be.

One last point about bloodlines is that they can seem kind of arbitrary to players, because they are! You, the DM created them, or borrowed them from some published work. You've made them a part of the framework of your campaign, but why are the descendants of Panthra bright and skilled with machines while Zurg's line traditionally wear masks in battle? They just are. An idea you might try when you're starting a new campaign is to set it a century or two later than the previous campaign and establish the characters from the earlier campaign into the background of the new one. That way, the bloodlines you reference can include characters whose names and traits are well-known to the players. If Eddie's next campaign is set 200 years later, then maybe Ally's next character is of Mikko's line, taking an ancestor feat that reflects Mikko's legendary skill at skulking and sneaking.

In sum, bloodlines are another way to tie characters into the web of the campaign world. They go beyond the characters' immediate situation or even immediate family and connect them to history and culture and the unique people that have made an impact on the campaign world. They may be an unnecessary distraction for your players, or they may provide a fun way to give one more dimension of depth to the characters they play.

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife Judy, daughter Meshia, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is a full-time homemaker, part-time Ph.D. candidate in education policy and philosophy, and is an active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in another.

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