Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for Offspring

[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?]

O is for Offspring, a subject near and dear to my heart these days since the birth of my son.

What place has children in D&D or any fantasy RPG? What place has it? What place HASN’T it? In the 21st century questions of children (when and with whom to have them, how to support them, ways to raise/teach them) are on the minds of most adults of a certain age…an age similar to that of the adventurers in your favorite RPG.

And, of course, in the “old days” (i.e. “ancient times” or wherever you’ve set your pseudo-historic-fantasy campaign) the having and rearing of children were questions of vital importance. Much moreso than the current exchange rate of the gold coin or how many chickens it would buy you.

But as with so many other things, this seems sadly neglected in the RPG game world. PCs often seem to exist in a family-less void…no kinfolk, no sense of belonging. A bunch of wandering, orphaned eunuchs that fight and die in hellish pits without personality other than the naming of a favorite weapon.


What is it PCs are adventuring for? Are they all adrenaline junkies? Doubtful…most would appear to be “in it for the money.” To what purpose? Buying a castle? And THEN what? Rotting in it till the orcs come a-roving and sack the place?

Or forever, I suppose, given a steady supply of longevity potions.

I’m going to blame part of this on the literary history of D&D…specifically Howard and Tolkien. Howard’s Conan stories are in many ways, a fantasy of his own life…the rugged independent, spitting on the weak and corrupt, bludgeoning his way through adventure and evil. Howard himself was a bachelor and died childless and unmarried at an early age. For one character (or one author’s particular style), that’s okay, but should it be the model for EVERY heroic character in a fantasy RPG? Even Moorcock’s albino sorcerer Elric was married once or twice!

Tolkien’s characters…at least the hobbits, and I think Aragorn as well…DO eventually get married and father children. But that’s outside the telling of the main story; in RPG terms it happens AFTER the character’s “retire” from the game. However, if we are putting it in “game terms,” the characters are retiring after a single (admittedly looong) adventure. And many D&D campaigns run for longer than that…often up until characters are deceased. Like many Americans these days, retirement just doesn’t appear to be an option.

And IF the characters aren’t retiring…if they’re refusing to put down the magic sword until it’s pried from their cold, dead fingers…then should they be putting off marriage and family? Again, we’re talking about a more primitive culture, one where your children were probably working the farm rather than going to school and where discipline is learned from a strong hand (or fist). What fighter wouldn’t want to father as many sons as possible? Which Amazon wouldn’t want to raise her daughters to do the same? Wouldn't you want an heir on the off-chance you "kick it" in some ancient dungeon?

Especially with the longer lived demihuman races, it is entirely possible that adult children could end up going on adventures with their parents (not unlike Elrond and his sons or Isildur and his father). In one of my old AD&D campaigns, one player had a character that was a bastard son of my half-elf character (a bard of the 1st edition with a rather lustful reputation). My character was somewhere in the 50-80 year old range, while his character was in his 20s and diluted enough in blood that he classified as “human” if I remember correctly. Having been raised without a father, he had quite a bit of ill will towards my character, which became even more profound when they started wooing the same woman.

But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

In my recent B/X game running White Plume Mountain, one character was killed and replaced by his own son…these were the thieves Sly and Sly Jr. Being able to do this provided the PLAYER with several bennies:

  • He had a better understanding of both characters (Sly Jr. was a young adult while Sly Sr. had been in his early 40s or late 30s). The better ability scores of Jr. indicated he was younger and more robust than his father had been.
  • It provided him with character motivation (“I’m here to avenge my father!”).
  • It gave him the rights to inherit his father’s gear (including the much coveted gauntlets of ogre power his father had worn).

Including children in your game, young or adult, can make your game feel much more like a “living campaign” as well as provide story/adventure ideas for the DM. You don’t have to make it a part of the game, and I doubt I’d create any kind of mechanical system (a la Pendragon) for this kind of thing…but I think it’s a good thing to consider. Adventurers don’t have to be floating presences with no connection to the past and no legacy for the future. And anyway, leaving them isolated in a genealogic void isn’t very “realistic.”
: )


  1. I like the idea of serialized / replacement characters being family members. I also like the notion of vague family ties for PCs. Family members as NPCs that can be abused by a capricious DM seems like something that only certain personalities would voluntarily sign up for though. To make it work I think you'd need to have clear boundaries in your group about who controls the family members and to what degree they are exposed to danger in the game world. If they're constantly being kidnapped, murdered, possessed, etc then players will go back to making orphan / bachelor adventurers.

  2. One of the things I always enjoyed about Dragonquest was its social status table and the subsequent birth charts for 1st born, bastard and legitimate children. It always provided potential adventure hooks and story development.

  3. I've seen players gloss over this aspect of their characters time and again. That's one reason I enjoy things like character background tables. Hackmaster and WFRP have some good ones. Having a player roll for things like number of siblings, birth order, etc. can add a lot of depth. A character doesn't choose to be the eldest, or an only child, or an orphan. Those events are beyond his control (unless he pursues the whole "kinslayer" option). Now, the character might have left home to seek his fortune and not seen his family for five years, but he still HAS that family. So if in-game events (i.e. Orcs are amassing to raze the town where a PC's sister lives.) lead to him having to make hard decisions because of that connection, that's called roleplaying.

    A brief aside: While REH didn't write the later Conan stories that include things like his children and home life, Howard did set the scene for the Cimmerian's wedding. In "Hour of the Dragon," Conan loses his throne to a sorcerous plot and is imprisoned by his enemies. A girl, Zenobia, aids him in his escape. After he manages to reclaim his throne, he declares he will make Zenobia his queen. :-)

  4. No offspring yet, but I do have a sister, who may have been captured by bandits, or some other thing prowling the roads between "in-kingdom" and Skalfier.

  5. This is one place where Pendragon shines, with its rules for generating family trees both for the characters ancestors and descendants. It's one of the unique aspects of the game, but there's nothing which couldn't be borrowed and bolted on to D&D.