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.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.



18 Responses to Mom? Dad? Is that you?

  1. I thought about this years ago; on how to tie families connections in the character. But face it, in a typical D&D session, they will mostly get in the way. In a Call of Cthulhu session, they will get killed.

    I would say that games that are built around building tension within the group are the games that handles families well. (The French) Psychodrame, (the indie game) Bad Family, (the Swedish vampire game) Svart av kval, are all suited for this kind of thing. In the first two, you even play a family.

    Other games that comes into mind is While the World Ends, Fiasco, and Apocalypse World (or some of it’s hacks). Even Zombie Cinema could work well. Why? Because of what I said in the second paragraph: they build tension between the characters. So when the game is about the relations between people, families connections tend to come naturally.

    • I think you’re right in all particulars. It’d still be tempting to bring Dad back in for D&D and CoC in an advisory role–or just to demonstrate how crazy the PCs have gotten. [Say, with the gold earnings of PCs vs. merchant or peasant incomes in D&D through 3.5.)

      For a human interest scale game, all of the family relations are fair game. Though, I’d expect even there for most people to be the same generation–mostly out of “everyone starts even” inertia, and PC compatibility. After all, young rovers probably don’t kill dragons alongside their middle aged parents… unless they’re some kind of freaky elf!

  2. I think Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard make (or can make) excellent use of parental units. Mouse Guard gives characters skills based on their parents professions, and for the GM, and instant NPC ally (or antagonist if hostile to the Guard)!

    Burning Wheel takes the cake here. The players can use resources gained from their characters’ lifepaths to purchase relationships with parents (which are discounted). This allows for an easy way to bring in parents beyond the “hostage bait” archetype. Want a helpful aid? Friendly relationship. Antagonist? Hostile relationship. Want them to be featured more heavily in the situation? Spend more RPs and make the parent a big deal.

  3. I’m currently running a “level 1 teenagers” fantasy campaign, and the parents (and other family members) are an amazing resource–from the good but weary blacksmith father and disappointed mother of the boy-disguised-as-a-girl character, to the shepherd parents who don’t understand their secretly druidic son, to the dead but still very narratively present parents of the “mad sorceror” character, the parents are really useful in driving the story forward. Add to that the fact that in another session or two they wouldn’t be able to best their children in a straight-up fight, and there are some interesting things I’m looking forward to exploring.

  4. I am about the start a Legend of the Five Rings campaign where the characters are the children (or other relatives) of the characters played in the last campaign arc. So, we will see how family ends up playing into all of that.

  5. I prefer modern-day, mostly-normal-people RPGs, and noticed that you forgot an important version of this: the PCs are parents with NPC children. And not just kidnap-fodder – having a teenaged child can cause all kinds of interesting situations. Imagine playing a military officer who’s child just got recruited – or even better, playing a character who is secretly a notorious thief and who’s child is a policeman! A monster hunter who’s child wants to tag along – either with or without mom & dad’s knowledge. This opens up even more interesting possibilities than having parental NPCs does.

    • I forgot another favorite – your PC knows something about your kid’s new boyfriend/girlfriend – or maybe finds out something about their spouse! Things get much more interesting if instead of being the cliche noble woman, the evil sorceress is instead your daughter-in-law…

    • I don’t know that I’ve ever played a PC with adult (or even competent aged teen) children. Hmm… that could be very interesting to try. Your examples of “hey, your kid is evil” would be particularly interesting to roleplay.

  6. I actually wrote a similar article a while back, http://violentmediarpg.blogspot.com/2013/06/dads-dungeons-dragons.html .

    tl;dr Even if your uber-bad-ass character doesn’t have a mom or dad, somebody probably served as a fill-in. Knowing who raised your character gives you a deeper understanding of your character. Go, go gadget immersion.

    As far as systems that support these things, Part Time Gods has built in relationship mechanics which would work well for modeling parent-child relationships. (These mechanics are a part of the bigger drama of your new-found godhood vs your humanity.)In fact, IIRC one of the example character’s strained relationship with her father is one the only things keeping her human. (At work so I don’t have the manual at hand.) It’s an interesting system and an amazing setting (super-natural godling soap opera awesomesauce!).

    • Nice post. My Grandpa was similar; where I go wrong, it’s because I deviated from his good example.

      The role of fill-ins is interesting, and might be a good way to push loners. “Oh, everyone else has a boring mom and dad. Who really influenced you?” Making it clear that that’s a more demanding path (or less lazy), might lead to more reflection from everyone.

  7. Family is a very important aspect in gaming. PCs are people. People have family. Family can create good and bad drama in people’s lives. This is a useful dynamic to bring forth in a fictional game setting. It adds depth to a character’s persona. It adds plot possibilites to a campaign. It helps a game have a richer and more satisfying sense of realism.

    The retired Senator stepfather being drawn back into galactic politics out of a sense of duty and a desire to fight the rot of corruption. A mother who wants that stepfather to stay retired. Which parent will the PC support?

    A headstrong Force Sensitive sister who falls into the wrong crowd and comes under the influence of a Sith Apprentice. Will she fall to the Dark Side or be saved?

    A missing sister thought killed during the devastation of Taris, captured by slavers and forced to work for a slimeball criminal on Tatooine. Will the PC find her and be able to save her?

    These are just a few examples that were used in a Star Wars campaign. By having the PCs detail something about their families, it added depth to the PCs and extra plot possibilites to the campaign.

    • It really did add an emotional tug; working with family adds a depth and engagement that’s hard to match. Jaris’ parents was a particularly good struggle, since everyone sympathized with his mom, but lined up behind his dad doing his duty.

  8. I’m working on one example in my Pathfinder game– one player gave me a background with a missing mother. So far, we’ve discussed that mom was an adventurer in the past (when she met father). She went back to adventuring while PC was very young, and never came home. What I haven’t revealed yet is that mom was then questing for one of the magic items that will play a part in the endgame.

    Father is a powerful nobleman, and has contributed big funds toward getting the PC’s barony off the ground. He should be putting in an appearance within a few sessions, to conduct some business.

    What I haven’t 100% decided is where mom is now– still missing, dead, killed by one of the villains, sucked into Faerie, gave up on the job and went to find something else to do, etc.

    • In a way, not deciding on mom’s current role is perfect… she’s Schrodinger’s Mom, ready to be whatever would be most interesting to character development and the plot until you introduce her into the story.

      Dad sounds like an interesting encounter… especially if the PC being bankrolled is conflicted about him in some way. Or wants to prove their independence, but can’t with Dad paying for the barony…

  9. In an old Shadowrun game I ran I switched this up a bit and made my wife’s PC the Mother.

    She had two kids both of which were magically active and who ended up in the Renraku Arcololgy during the shutdown plot-line.

    Lots of good motivation out of that one.

  10. I’ve used family NPCs for a while, mostly having started in the Victorian sci-fi games — it was often important for aristocratic characters to interact with their folks, who were the source of their money, status, and who could also have a direct effect on the PCs.

    Lately, family and friends were instrumental to making the players believe the world, and to feel impact of losing these regular NPCs, when the Cylons eventually attacked in our Battlestar Galactica campaign. We had a “season” of pre-attack adventures with a lot of familial and other interaction with places that were familiar — cafes, restaurants, etc. so when it’s all whisked away, the players and characters had similar feelings of loss.

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