Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for Kinfolk

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

K is for Kinfolk…as in one's relatives and relations.

It’s strange how, even with a DM’s detailed history of a new campaign setting, so often relations and kin get left out of the mix. After all, what gives us a greater sense of our place in a history or society but our relationship to it through the lens of family?

For instance: when I talk to others about myself, I often explain my background as having been born and raised in Seattle, but half my family is from Montana and the other half is from the (Olympic) Peninsula. For folks native to this part of the country, that helps describe who I am as a person…a city kid whose immediate relations are from the Wild West or Fisherman Central. If I say I’m also the first person from either side of my family to get a college degree as a “traditional student” I am also explaining something about myself…and describing myself in relationship to my relatives. The same holds true if I say I was raised Roman Catholic from a long line of such individuals…if I add my “Austrian, English, and Scotch-Irish heritage” I am further coloring my background all in terms of who my family is.

I think most people do this kind of thing to one degree or another…discussing where they’re from not just in terms of PLACE but in terms of relationship to family and ancestry. When you do this, you’re not just explaining who YOU are, but who your RELATIONS are, too.

In D&D, most player characters have no sense of kin.

Certainly, there’s no requirement to describe one’s relatives when creating a new character. “I’m a fighter with an 18 strength! What more do you need to know?” Well, that’s great buddy…but what makes you any different from any other fighter. “Um…I wear a funny helmet?” Okay, fine. But in real life our sense of ourselves come as much from who we are (in terms of family and upbringing) as from our own individual accomplishments.

At least at first…as we get older and do more (cementing our own place in the world), we identify ourselves more by what we’ve done than by where we’ve come from. But certainly when we START OUT in life as young people (1st level characters!), our familial background is much more important than our “deeds of renown.”

And in older cultures (into which, presumably, your pseudo-mythic-medieval campaign world settles) FAMILY and KINFOLK were MORE IMPORTANT than they are today. It shows up in much of the fantasy literature that serves as the basis for the game. Perhaps, not Howard, whose characters were all stand-ins for himself, but in many of the others…including Marion Zimmer Bradley and Tolkien…you find the question of kinfolk to be an important one.

And a practical one…kin relations provide important help (and problematic conflict) in Tolkien’s books (including the War of Five Armies in The Hobbit and the wars of the First and Second Age in The Silmarillion). Oftentimes, kin relations provide the whole reason why certain characters travel together in the first place, creating instant connections and party motivation.

Just like gangs of the Old West (“outlaws have brothers…”).

Now, I will say that I am NOT interested in seeing ANY player (or DM) write up extensive genealogies or family histories for their characters. In a game where you could very easily get turned to stone, shot through with an arrow, or fall on your own sword there is absolutely NO NEED to do a lot of work on an extensive character backstory. I mean, do it if you want to (of course) but if you’re going to go through the trouble why not just write a novel or something?

BUT what I AM suggesting is that you have an idea of where your character comes from and to whom he or she might be related…even in your own adventuring party. This is part of the reason I did the 100 Reasons Table back in the day…it was nice to explain some reason why these characters were riding together. It helps invest more interest in the characters if you know that you’re related…siblings, cousins, half-brothers, whatever.

On a practical note, knowing your character has a younger sibling or cousin nearby also gives you an instant “inheritor of your stuff” should your character bite it…something that, as said, is fairly frequent in the D&D world. Just a little phrase on the character sheet: “Next of Kin: Harold the Bald,” for example, is enough. You don’t even have to note “Harold’s” class…just roll him up if your first character dies; you won’t even have to think of a name.

Another practical advantage of giving PCs kinfolks is the opportunity for contacts in places. Kinfolk should never provide a mechanical advantage to a PC, but I’d say it’s (generally) fine to choose whomever you want as a relation. For example, you’re running your players through T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil. Having finished sacking the gate house, the players are tasked with going to Nulb to further investigate the doings of the cultists. One player says:

“Hey, I’ve got an Uncle that lives in Nulb!”

Why not run with it? Pick a likely candidate (any of the NPCs…heck, you could ask the player to describe his uncle’s trade and temperament to figure out a likely candidate), and let it be. It gives the party a starting point to the adventure, rather than making them “canvass the tavern for clues” (again). The NPC doesn’t need to help them or provide any equipment or information that he wouldn’t normally provide the PCs (just because he’s an uncle doesn’t mean he’s had any recent contact/relationship with the nephew/niece).

If you get tired of your players using the tactic with every town they come to limit them to D8 or D12 “random exploitable relations.” So long as the PCs are spending time in a particular part of the game world, why wouldn’t they have relatives in all the nearby towns? I have relatives scattered all around the Pacific Northwest!

So what if one of your players says,

“Hey, the King is my Dad!” What then, huh?

Again, I’d say why not run with it? Just remember, the character doesn’t receive any mechanical advantages:

  • The character still starts with the same starting equipment/money as any standard character. Why isn’t he rich? Maybe he’s an illegitimate child, or an exiled one, or in disguise. Maybe he’s simply the youngest child and his older siblings received all the “perks.” Maybe he HAD perks, but he’s been robbed by highwaymen recently and now needs to adventure to gain gear fit for his royal status.
  • The character gets no special treatment with regard to the law and taxes; in fact, he’s probably got to be doubly law-abiding as A) he’s been raised to respect the King’s Law, and B) he has a responsibility to embody the King’s Law. Sure, he might not face impalement like a peasant (unless he’s a magic-user in a land where witchery has been outlawed)…but then neither should most PCs (re-read that part about de-protagonizing).
  • What if the character is next in line to the throne? Well, he doesn’t inherit said throne until he’s achieved the proper Name (9th) level of course…and even then, he’ll probably have to prove his worth by first establishing his own domain (Barony). Assuming, of course, he’s even a character class that would be interested in ruling (clerics and magic-users would probably abdicate to a younger sibling). Anyway, he wouldn’t achieve the mantle of King (or Queen) until his parent was ready to step down anyway…probably in about 20-50 years (roll D4+1 x10 to see the current ruler’s longevity)…by which time, the PC will have probably retired from adventuring anyway. And if/when he DOES inherit the throne, he’ll probably need to pay upkeep to get the castle “back in shape” after being run practically into the ground by a doddering old ruler.
  • What about favors, special treatment in court, etc.? No more should be given to the child than to any other character of the PC’s stature. Remember, as PCs rise in level, they will be receiving audiences (and quests) from the local ruler anyway…and certainly they will receive fawning attention (and resentful plotting machination) from the normal courtiers. At 1st level, the King has more important heroes to speak and treat with than his beloved (or spoiled) child. The character can still gain audience, but the secrets of State will not be shared with the PC until he or she has “proven their worth” (i.e. gone up sufficiently in level).

The same holds true for any powerful NPC relation a player character chooses to have. “My grandpa is the Archmage of the Wizard College.” “My auntie is the High Priestess of Llolth.” That’s fine…but important NPCs are busy with their important responsibilities, and will have less time to devote to their kinfolk…unless their kin can be of use to THEM.

In the end, such individuals provide MOTIVATION, possibly INFORMATION and ADVENTURE IDEAS/HOOKs, and (most importantly) CONNECTION to the game world. That’s the important part of kinfolk and what they can do for your campaign. Not only do they help players to discover something more about their characters (namely, to whom they’re related) it helps weave themselves into the tapestry of the campaign world.
: )


  1. It has been my experience dealing with many OSR folks, that the line you are treading is fine and razored.

    On the one hand, folks seem to love quick tables to roll on for their Henchmen, etc., but on the other hand, they pride themselves on organic details arising from gameplay.

    Your suggestions/admonitions in this piece are all wonderful in my mind, and I have incorporated those things in UWoM, but I've experienced another bifurcation/fork:

    One set of Players look at the Character Control Record and say, "What does this stuff do for my character that if I don't have it I will be disadvantaged by that?", and the second group says, "Does this stuff do anything at all?"

    When I ran for Jeff Berry and fourteen of his closest friends, I did find a happy medium in the demographics, where the simple terms like, 'Heroic' family status seemed to *empower* the Player to feel like their character either ought to play to type, or was more interested in playing against the type because of the irony and dynamic tension (now, check this part) that existed only in the play of the character relative to their fellows in the Party.

    So, even apart from hooks or anything mechanical, the one or two word Tags helped define the Player's relationship to the Character.

    With many OS-types, the badge of honour, "My suckass thief with 1 HP died in the first combat. It was a blast!", don't want RPGs to be anything more than a more violent game of Mousetrap or Sorry! Yet, it is those who seem to actually be interested in constructing something than merely destructing things (anything) that keeps a candle flame of hope for the paper-and-pencil RPG scene.

    Have you encountered what I am blathering about to be the case in your Face to Face gaming, too, or is it mostly confined to the Demonwebs?

  2. Another pimp as hell post. My players love the 100reasons thing and this is alot more food for thought along those lines.

  3. In the olden days of AD&D 2nd Ed. I had kin of the PCs popping up all the time; we rolled (I think) on some table of other to determine what siblings and parents were alive, and over time I wove them into the game. One PC had a sister who was a spy for a Kingdom, and got the party involved in a war.

    Don't see a lot of that now, although I do try.

  4. Just wanted to drop a quick note to say that I'm loving your A-Z posts. There are really great ideas in here that can be implemented in any edition of the game. Great stuff - keep it up!

  5. Another excellent post. I'm running behind on my K post for today...after Mass tonight, I promise!

    But, yes, I like your idea. It gives the players a bit more control. CLD currently plays Hackmaster 4E, so we have family (immediate anyway)} but we sometimes forget about exploring that.

  6. @ TS: I only wish I could keep my players confined to the Demonwebs! (note to self...)
    ; )

    I grok your blathering but I really haven't encountered too much resistance. You're IS a fine line. When I was a kid, we'd write up all sorts of backgrounds and histories for our characters because, well because we wanted that. However, of THOSE folks, most have moved onto other things (like writing novels).

    The temptation is to throw out tons and tons of random charts and lists...a la R.Talsorian or White Wolf. Unfortunately, that has a tendency to bog down chargen and (worse!) game play itself! I try to keep the "random background" stuff VERY short and VERY pointed..."what kind of hat do you wear?" "What is your relationship with the dude sitting to your left?" Everything else will get developed IN PLAY...and only IF the characters survive!

    @ Simon: the old Unearthed Arcana had some random tabled for determining social class, birth order, and legitimacy. In my youth we ALWAYS used these. Now...well, I'm just waiting for some PCs to make it out of the dungeon in one piece! I may visit that in the future, though.

    @ Pierce and Martin: thanks for the words of encouragement!
    : )

    @ Anthony: That's why I'm suggesting leaving this kind of thing to players...a lot less work on the poor DM, and if they players don't give a rip, they don't get the connections.