There sure are a lot of orphans in roleplaying games.
From the brooding warrior with no ties to hold her back to the super skilled agent with a family lost to tragedy, it’s very common to find a table full of characters that have no family ties. Sometimes you’re lucky if any of them have any connection at all to anyone outside of the scope of the game. It’s a trope that many players fall into and if you’re not careful, your game’s PCs could represent a vast wasteland of loneliness and isolation.
When I started thinking about writing this article, I considered the six PCs in my Eberron (Pathfinder) game. They each have a pretty rich history, but four of them are still orphans. The Gunslinger was an abandoned infant taken in by a Lyrandar family in Stormhome. The Oracle’s family was slaughtered in the Demon Wastes by cultists that sought to enslave his powers. The Fighter’s merchant parents were casualties of the Last War leaving her to grow up on the streets of Sharn. The Wizard does have a brother, but their parents were also killed during the Last War. The only two characters with any significant family still around are the Witch and the Cavalier. All of these backgrounds make sense for the characters and the world they’re playing in, but it’s still a significant number of orphans.
It really is an easy trope for players to latch onto when creating their characters, and I am certainly not innocent of doing this for my characters. My Jedi in our FFG Star Wars game was a young Padawan on her way to Coruscant when she barely escaped Order 66, forcing her to live as a street urchin. The loss of family or loved ones can be a good catalyst to explain why a character started adventuring or fighting whatever evil lies at the heart of the game being played. At the very least, it can help explain why a character would be willing to give up the creature comforts of home and go on an adventure. If you’ve got nothing you care about at home, or even no home, there’s nothing left to lose.
It’s a reasonable choice, but it skips the rich opportunities having a family can present for your character. While it can provide some simple motivations behind a character, there is a lot to be said for having someone or something to fight for. Rather than doing it because you’ve got nothing left to lose, you could be doing it to ensure the safety of a parent, a sibling, a lover, a child. Family doesn’t have to be limited to blood relations either. Many of us can name friends that might as well be family, people that we would do anything for. Consider creating the same for your character. Family is complicated and messy and can make the game world so much more real and interesting for your character.
- When you start going down the well tread orphan route, take a moment and reconsider. It’s too easy a choice. Consider giving your character a big family with plenty of ties all over the place. Or maybe a small, intimate group of friends that they had to leave behind. How about a lover where things got a little complicated and you haven’t had a chance to say you’re sorry yet. Dig a little deeper for some connections and it will help ground your character in the reality of the game.
- Don’t feel you need to map out a full family tree at character creation. Family stuff probably won’t come up in the first session, but don’t shy away from those connections if the opportunity presents itself later. If the characters are heading into a town where your character has history, consider who they know there and mention it to the GM. Recently in the Eberron game, we learned the Gunslinger had a fling with the Witch’s kid sister before they knew each other. That made for some fun scenes all predicated on their ties to the world around them.
- Sure, it can suck to have loved ones in danger, but that’s what drives so many great characters. Katniss Everdeen sacrifices so much to try and protect her little sister. Peter Parker keeps his identity a secret to keep Aunt May safe. John McClane may be going through a rough patch with his wife, but he’ll still take on a bunch of terrorists to save her. Would any of these stories be quite so engaging if it weren’t for the relationships driving these characters? Probably not.
Don’t let your players’ characters exist in a vacuum. Ask questions about their friends and family. They came from somewhere and didn’t raise themselves, so they have people in their lives somewhere. Find out who they care about, who they never want to see again, who they miss. Everyone they ever loved being dead is a pretty extreme place to be and shouldn’t be allowed lightly.
- USE the connections the players give you. Asking questions helps build the world, but if the ties they create never show up in the game, what’s the point? When it makes sense, weave the family and friends of your players’ characters into the game as NPCs. Bringing pieces of their background into play helps reward them for helping add to the world around the characters and they’re great ways to get the players invested in what’s happening in the game.
- Finally and very importantly, don’t be a dick. Never fridge their loved ones just for the sake of messing with the players. Absolutely make the lives of the characters and those around them dangerous and challenging, but doing horrible things just for the sake of getting a rise out of your players is a cheap move and takes away their agency. This is also one of the reasons why some old school players will shy away from creating ties for their character. I’ve heard players state, “I don’t want to give the GM that kind of leverage.” Well, that’s either a player who doesn’t quite get it yet or someone who had a bad experience with an awful GM.
How have your players handled creating family ties in your games? Or, if you’re a player, when have you had family used well? I’d love to hear your stories on how your games made use of extended relationships like these.