Family is a topic that I discuss in the Sons of Lady 87 Campaign book. Here I want to focus primarily on the starting point of family during character creation.
|The first page of a regional Personality Table
What makes a sandbox work in my experience isn't just that you have the player characters going from place to place doing what they want to do, it is that are they doing so while engaging the world and living inside a social landscape. One of the most important social elements is family. I always make a point of establishing who the PCs family are during character creation because this gives them roots in the setting.
I don't have one set method for adjudicating family for player characters, but I do always address and devise a procedure before each campaign to be used at character creation. This often is in response to what players I have at the table. Different players will respond to different approaches and different levels of depth and detail. These are my most common methods.A lot of times players will create family as part of character creation. This is totally fine in my opinion as long as it doesn't conflict with anything in the setting and it is not obviously intended to give a player an advantage (i.e. My mother is a rich cousin of the emperor who funds all my wanderings). But I do like to throw out the idea before players start making characters that they are free to connect their PC to existing NPCs in the setting.
If the players are receptive to this I will usually work with them to figure out who their parents might be (asking questions so I can find someone in the books or my notes who fits as their farther or mother for example). If it is unclear or we just want to keep things random we may resort to rolling on tables to find out. And sometimes a new NPC needs to be devised if no one seems to fit the bill.
Rolling randomly is also helpful for balance because it opens up the possibility of connecting PCs to powerful figures in the setting but takes that choice outside anyone's control. It is a roll of the dice who you get. There are a different ways to handle this.
Some sessions I simply have the players roll on my Regional Personalities Tables to see who their mother or father is and work from there. Typically selecting the one from the region closest to where the campaign is set or where the PC is from.
Other times I want to heavily randomize all these elements so draw on tables like the Occupational and Martial Arts tables above. The first one is useful for determining family occupation (in WHOG these are grouped into 4 major classes), the second is for the martial arts abilities of family members. This is a more gradient way of randomizing family power levels and I usually prefer it when I am making new NPCs whole cloth for the players. I will also make tables for personality and other traits.
Whatever method is used, I start with one or both of the parents. If they are NPCs in the books, that, I reacquaint myself with the entry and determine how it might be relevant to the PC. I also think if anything new needs to be added. If an NPC entry doesn't say clearly whether that character is married or has siblings or children, I treat it as an open question.
It is also important to manage siblings. This may already be addressed in an NPC entry if the players are related to someone in the book. But as a general rule I roll a d10 to see how many siblings a PC has and flip a coin for the gender of each one. For siblings I usually only stat out the martial heroes or those who major significance to the campaign if they are new characters.
|Artwork by Jackie Musto
Other relatives, uncles and aunts for example, sworn family, etc, all can be addressed at this phase as well. Again if possible connecting PCs to people in the books or notes. You don't need every relative to be an NPC in one of the books or your campaign notes, but it is helpful if someone has an uncle who is an important member of a sect, a brother who is a known swordsman, and so on. These types of relationships create openings for players to pursue.
Something I also often like to do with family is the Twenty Year backstory. I will talk about this in a future post but the basic idea is to include some important family background the player hasn't been told about. This doesn't have to be "I am your father" levels of drama, it primarily is intended to help illustrate that the parents of the PC had lives before the present and also have their secrets. It comes up in the genre a lot as well and when done right, it can make a campaign more interesting. The example can be as simple as a player characters mother having known a now very famous hero or villain in her youth and having surprising insight into his personality, abilities, weaknesses or motives.
The methods and procedures you use are not the most important thing though. The key is connecting player characters to the setting by making sure they know who their family members are. Especially in a sandbox this is helpful because if you drop characters into a setting and they don't know anything or anyone, it is genuinely helpful for them to have family members they can go to for further information.
Family isn't just something to establish at character creation. I find even in those most killer hobo of sandbox campaigns (and personally my feeling as a GM is if players are having fun being killer hobos, let them do so), eventually, as the death toll rises and as they get more powerful they start to develop an interest in their character having a more meaningful impact or legacy. Marriage, children, building a sect, making the perfect martial arts technique, these kinds of things start to naturally come up in play.
Marriage has come up a number of times in my campaigns. Sometimes players choose to start the game with a spouse and family, but more often it comes up during the campaign. If it arises during character creation I often use the same technique as above, seeing if the PC could be married to an existing character in the setting. If there isn't anyone who seems fitting, we come up with a new NPC. If it emerges during the campaign, then that can be played out naturally. There are sections in the WHOG rulebook on marriage for this reason. Eventually characters may have children and this can lead to a generational campaign.
In a recent campaigns one of my players had a daughter with Qixia the Candy Fruit Vendor name Li Liang, and because he and the mother had a horrible feud, he was working to build a better relationship with his daughter and guide her towards a style of martial arts that he thought was more worthy of her. And she was someone whose martial talents were of great use to him as well. I have also had campaigns where characters built a major sect alliance through marriage. And I have had many campaigns where characters use their parents homestead as a home base. Even non-martial family members will be able to support and help them in many ways. One group of players were the sons of an herbalist for example and he was often able to heal them after they had an adventure that went south.
Again, this is sandbox, not family saga, so it would be a mistake to think any of this means characters have plot immunity. But what it does mean is there are usually a lot more threads, and more 'ins' for players whose characters die and need to find a way to connect themselves back to the party. And while the aim isn't family saga, I have seen things like that emerge in campaigns.
Family aren't plot devices. They are something that connects the players to the world. They are also an important social resource. Players can obtain information and support from family. They may also have family obligations. They also tend to help me as the GM flesh out the setting more.