Family Backgrounds

An odd thought struck a spark. As GMs we often complain about players’ tendencies to make characters without family. You’ve heard the joke about orphans and how often that’s only the first warning sign: “loner character here!” It’s amazing how exaggeratedly useful a warning sign this is… because, really, how often do Mom and Dad show in your games?

Save Me Sam!

It’s not that family and friends are never threatened in a game—but, in my gaming, it’s brothers and sisters who are on screen longest. Evil twins, a brother with a tragic addiction, or sparkly little sister Molly who has the channeling gene from both sides of the family, tend to be the characters who get extended play. Mom, Dad, and Aunt May make an occasional appearance, may even be held for ransom by evil villains, or even occasionally turn out to be malevolent in their own right… but it’s a much less recurring a role, unless that’s their core concept. (In a roleplaying context, that’s usually the result of the player building the antagonism into their background.) Or maybe my GMs and I are softies, and you’re all creating Cruella de Vil out of ordinary parents in your games.

Outdoing Mom and Dad

We might be missing a trick as GMs on this front. We’re all familiar with the wise mentor in martial arts and giant robot shows who imparts his wisdom… then, at a turning point we discover that the hero is a natural, who combines the training provided with innate ability and accomplishes what even their mentor is unable to.

The same dynamic occurs for parents and children. Unlike a mentor’s specific expertise, a parent is better at everything for years. Exceeding your parents, even if only in height, can really change a person’s self conception. Many roleplaying characters are the perfect age to start excelling in ways their parents can’t match; the character graduates from boot camp with skills their civilian parent never developed, or the character’s talent for magic sets her on a path apart—one muggle parents can never match or even really understand.

One Significant Exception

I find that parents and family relations become much more important in political games. Particularly when we’re talking about the ruling family (or at least nobility), knowing the favored child and the scapegrace sets factions and relations, and ripples out in a meaningful way.

In an ongoing Amber game, particularly a “you’re the elders” setup, your relations with each other as siblings is important—but sharing a common NPC, Dad, provides great opportunities for differentiating yourselves by having varied reactions to the same parental action. Bringing multiple PCs to bear on an NPC is a great way to develop all of the characters involved.

Everyday Mom and Dad

For a lot of people, their connection to their parents remains important throughout their lives. It’s not uncommon for women to speak with their mothers on a daily basis throughout their lives. Guilt about infrequent communication with parents isn’t uncommon for adults, both men and women. It’s a very high intensity connection to show in a roleplaying game; unless Mom is another PC, the other players probably aren’t hoping you’ll roleplay daily phone calls to Mom in detail. (Though, wouldn’t that be an interesting character tic to play?)

That sense of frequent contact is difficult to show—and reward—in play. Fortunately, in most settings communications will be slow and indirect; letters home, not video chats. A nice way to incorporate and reward ongoing contact with Mom and Dad might be some “good old fashioned common sense” to get the PCs back on track, or remind them of what [X] looks like to people not in the know. That might help them realize how their “storm the corrupt police precinct” will play out in the news if they go ahead with their crazy plan…

Moms and Pops in your games

So, am I crazy? Do you all make good use of Mom and Dad in your games? Share a recent experience where talking with Mom or Dad made a difference to your PC, or your players’ PCs.