Behind the Screen: Its all in the family time…

2008 January 2
by Dante

In roleplaying, as in life, there are many things that are inevitable. A few of the common ones are death and taxes, however the one I want to focus on right now is family.

I’ve been around fantasy and roleplaying long enough to know that unfortunately, families run into some general stereotypes and I’d like to look at a few of those and figure out how to spice them up.

The Hands Off Stereotypes and What To Do

Families often fall into many generic stereotypes, such as: dead/gone, estranged, enfeebled/captured, and well-to-do. You find that often players will place their immediate family in the dead/gone or estranged categories when they don’t know what lineage to provide or they don’t care to put forth the effort to actually consider what their upbringing was.

A few notable examples are when a player wants to provide a strong bond with a non-parent entity such as an orphanage, monastery, or government agency that would have brought them up. I would challenge players that wish to leverage this storytelling element to provide a few ties to their past… some items they were left with, a story that the elder monk knows about how the character came to be in their care, and so on. This provides you as DM a hook for further exploration, and may provide a foggy window to how the player views the characters past.

The Hands On Stereotypes and What To Do

If you are lucky enough to have a player that has placed their family in the estranged, enfeebled/captured, or well-to-do categories then you are in luck. Your player has put some thought into how their family structure has formed (or fallen) and you have a bounty of material from which to work.

The difficult part as a DM is to determine how much to shake things up. Personally, I don’t like cookie-cutter “let’s go rescue Mom, who got captured by the Black Knight” scenarios because they are often somewhat tired and overdone, but if that is what the player wants out of the encounter you have to balance your wants for the player’s desire.

I suggest slight tweaks to the expected outcome to gauge the player’s reaction. Maybe Mom gets creative and is able to escape and then its a race to find her before the Black Knight does. Maybe Mom isn’t so helpless after all, and has dispatched the Black Knight herself but now the Black Lord is after her and anyone associated with her.

Watching the player’s response to these developments will be key, as well as some offline investigation into the success of these changes. If the player is into it, maybe you can up the ante just a bit. If they are resistant to the change or express some confusion, maybe its time to bring the plot back a bit closer to the standard “damsel in distress” expectation.

In the end, its really a judgment call and you have to be somewhat delicate when you mess with a character’s backstory in this way.

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