While adventuring parties are typically made up of a ragtag bunch of societal misfits, there is great roleplaying potential in tying together their origin stories. Many stories focus on the complex relationships within families and family-like structures. In fact, by the end of a great campaign, PCs often view their party as a sort of adopted, dysfunctional family.
Here are some ideas on how to rope players into creating shared backstories that add a level of complexity. While players often use group backstory to offer a quick explanation for shared events or why individuals might be accompanying each other in the first place, players and GMs often overlook introducing the complex social and emotional dynamics within a family. While players might suggest they want to play unique or distinct characters, family members are frequently as different from one another as complete strangers. They have opposing viewpoints, different tastes, contradicting values, and hold an array of religious, social, and political ideals.
For those feeling bold, we suggest GMs introduce the concept of family dynamics as part of character creation during a session zero. Of course, this assumes each individual has a role within the family and certain relationships and feelings toward other individuals. As players, assuming these roles and relationships can be a real challenge, but it creates some very intense, immersive, and unique roleplay— the antithesis of a beer-and-pretzels game.
A PC’s reputation should be established with respect to the other PCs in their family. While a GM can use a PC’s reputation to represent how other family members view them, in terms of roleplay, their reputation also represents how a PC sees themselves within the family dynamic. As a result, a PC tends to assume the role dictated by their reputation and adopt familial expectations and responsibilities (or lack thereof). An individual’s reputation might be well-deserved, partially deserved, or even happenstance. The reputation doesn’t determine how others perceive the PC but serves as a basis for their perceptions. For example, a sibling might revere the PC for being a black sheep or their father might be jealous of their respectability.
Black Sheep. Through beliefs, words, or actions, your contradictions or rejection of family tradition paint you as a disgrace.
Caretaker. You do your best to assure everyone is well cared for and always place your family’s needs before your own.
Giver. You show your affection to others within the family by giving them gifts. These do not necessarily need to denote wealth and may be oddities, wisdom, or secrets.
Prodigal. When you were younger, you turned your back upon the family and extracted yourself from their ways and values in search of your own path. Years later, your path has ironically led you back to your family.
Respectable. By your eloquence, wit, education, nobility, heroism, or good business practices, you have managed to jockey the family name into a position of respect.
Responsible. You always hold up your end of the bargain or consistently look after the needs of others in your family.
Screwup. Perhaps you are a drunk, a cowardly soldier, a gambler, or managed to fail out of a prestigious academy. Regardless, your actions cast you as a screwup.
Showoff. Some incessant insecurity drives you to prove your worth to your family. As a result, you tend to seek the most challenging or impressive means of performing even mundane tasks in their presence.
Traditional. You express a profound understanding of the longstanding values of your family. You know its history and its secrets. You take great pride in upholding your family traditions.
Family issues represent the general feelings a PC holds for each of their other family members. Perhaps the PC gets along with everyone, but more than likely, they don’t. There are issues, some of which may stem from childhood.
A fun way to determine familial relationships is to write each issue on an index card. Then turn the index cards upside down and have the players pick a hand of potential issues. Then they establish which of the other players they share that issue with, either by giving an issue card to another player or by having them choose random cards from their hand.
Competitive. Your rivalry spans years, and unconsciously, the two of you always compete for minor things, such as the tallest mount, the seat at the head of the table, or besting the most formidable opponent in a fight. You keep tabs on each other’s accomplishments and recall them one of you outshines the other.
Jealousy. One of you always seems to win the family’s favoritism. That person may have performed an important task or won a noble honor, they may be ridiculously attractive, or they may stand to inherit a significant portion of the family fortune. Despite caring for the family member, the relationship is strained by jealousy, especially if the target of the jealousy isn’t entirely aware of the situation.
Partnership. You are partners in a relationship. You may be the founders of the family, or perhaps one of you married into the family. Alternatively, you could be related to others by a relationship with a deceased family member. Your expectations of the partnership may be well met or strained. The partnership might be something you uphold through honor or obligation, something you cherish and work on, something you seek to escape from, or something that only leaves you bored.
Protective. In this relationship, one individual feels responsible for the safety of the other. The protective individual may act rashly or become overly bold when faced with a challenge that threatens their family. The protected may feel stifled or smothered and work to prove they do not need help, making them excessively bold or reckless. Conversely, the protected may possess some sort of weakness, and the protector may be tired of always assuming the role of protector.
Rancorous. You are so comfortable expressing yourselves with each other that when you argue you never hold back. Your arguments are full of vitriol and venom, and sometimes, you come to blows. These episodes can make others extremely uncomfortable, but should anyone attempt to intervene, you immediately come to each other’s defense. Only the two of you can argue like that. No one else has that right.
Resentment. In this relationship, one individual carries resentment for the actions of another. The resentment could be for some past actions that the resented individual engaged in or their support of some ideal, belief, or a political structure from which they benefited and to which the other individual disagreed.
Secret Language. At one point, the two of you spent so much time together you developed a secret language, which you can use to express simple concepts and directions. You can use it to communicate privately, and others still have no idea what you are talking about.