Friday, May 22, 2009

We Are Family

I finished Herodotus’ The Histories recently, thereby filling another gaping hole in my incomplete education. I had ventured down that path once before but the translation of the version I attempted to read was stilted and too archaic for me to grasp easily. Luckily, I discovered The Landmark Herodotus, edited by Robert B. Strassler, which I recommend to anyone who had grappled with Herodotus in the past only to be pinned to the mat by that ancient Greek. The Landmark Herodotus is heavily annotated and features a bevy of maps that come in very handy when one forgets where exactly Abydos lay or which Mediterranean island Kalymna was again.

After finishing The Histories, I can say that my answer to the “desert island role-playing game” question (what rpg would you take if you were stranded in a deserted island?) would definitely be B/X, provided that I was allowed a copy of The Histories to use as my campaign sourcebook. (Sorry, Boatbuilding: The Construction.) As one who enjoys blatantly ripping off strange real world historical anecdotes to pepper my campaign world, The Histories is a priceless trove of treasures.

Despite all the highly-purloin-able material found in The Histories, it was one of the appendices that lit the brightest fire. Appendix L of The Landmark Herodotus is “Aristocratic Families in Herodotus,” by Carolyn Higbie, Professor of Classics, SUNY Buffalo. Ms. Higbie briefly covers in six pages the political landscape of Greek world, where much of the temporal power was concentrated within certain families: not a completely alien concept even today. It is the origins of these families, however, which reminds the modern reader that we’re dealing with a much older time period, one where the lines between reality and myth where not so clearly defined. Higbie writes:
Particularly prominent families were those who could trace their origins back to a legendary founder, someone who had participated in any of the mythological adventures, such as the Trojan War, the adventures of Herakles, the Argonautica, or the stories of Thebes and Corinth…From the founder’s name would be formed a clan or family name, originally a patronymic, which then acquired a broader meaning and referred to all of the founder’s descendants…So important was family that even certain professions, such as seers, heralds, and epic poets, created themselves fictitious clan names and descent from a mythological figure, who came to be regarded essentially as the founder of a guild. The adoption of this sort of family name signaled one’s line of work or skills…A sixth- or fifth-century Greek could not typically trace all of the generations which came between himself and the legendary founder of his house; the important thing was to know the hero who established the family. He would be able to identify his father, his grandfather, and perhaps his great-grandfather, but then he would skip back in time to the founder.
While the idea of clans, houses, and bloodlines are nothing new to the role-playing canvas, there is something about this idea of the Greek family structure that inspires my creative mind. Families are always a tricky subject in role-playing games, usually being treated as something very important a character (such as the case of Oriental Adventures honor system) or becoming a roughshod method of generating replacement characters when one’s current adventurer dies horribly in the dungeon (“Exactly how many brothers did Grujack the Unbearable have, Bill?”) Even the traditional notion of clans, to me anyway, was always a little too, well “clannish,” when put into actual practice in game.

I may be misreading Higbie’s treatise on the Greek family but it seems to imply that there was a certain lack of rigidity to these family structures and that they had become much more watered down through the ages than the traditional clan or house structure. This expansive nature of the Greek family seems to indicate that a particular family could easily consist of both powerful nobles and simple farmers, each of whom claimed ancestral ties to the same great figure from the past. I can picture there being some members of the same family who would die (and kill) to preserve the family’s name and power, while there are others of the same line whose identification with the family name comes into play only when needed to identify them on tax rolls or when mustered for militia detail. There's a lot of leeway for creativity here.

I’m thinking of introducing this concept into my own campaign world. Perhaps each human character in the game is a member of one of the ten (or twelve or twenty) great families of the empire, as is every human resident. For each family, I’d write up a founder, three famous ancestors, one infamous relative, and maybe one detail to help bring each bloodline to life, such as the family is renowned for producing oracles or that the family is believed to be cursed in some manner. Then I could plug the families into a random table and let each player roll to see which family he or she is descended from. The player could do what he or she wished with this bit of quickie background since the family structure is loose enough to cover both proud relatives and descendants with a more cavalier attitude towards the family tree.

I like this concept because it’s loose enough to add something to the overall game world without forcing players to incorporate something into their character they may have little interest in dealing with. Of course, this doesn’t mean it can’t affect their characters in some manner. Perhaps the reason that the most skilled armorer in town doesn’t want to sell you that new suit of chain mail isn’t because you and your crappy Charisma blew a reaction roll but because some distant relative of your family once insulted some distant relative of his family. Or how much more interesting would that dismal ruin up in the mountains become when it was built by your great uncle many times removed? Now imagine that the laws of the land stipulate that, if said ruin was cleared, ownership of it could be claimed by any member of that family line no matter how distant? For those players who relish portraying valiant warriors with dreams of knighthood, bringing an end to the ancient curse which has dogged their family for centuries might become a personal quest – no railroad tracks required. Of course, things might get interesting if the ancient curse is lycanthropy and members of that family are looked upon with suspicion of being blood-thirsty monsters by the other families…

I think there’s a lot to work with here but I need to decide whether the aspect of such a family structure, no matter how loose, is something that will add too much extraneous information to the streamline simplicity I’ve grown to love about the older editions of the game. I think the deciding point will be what sort of interesting families I can write thumbnail sketches for.


Timeshadows said...

Keep us informed, please. :)

Jeff Rients said...

I like where you are going with this. I've been groping around for something like this for my Ruins & Ronin campaign project. I like some of the clan stuff in Oriental Adventures, but I don't want it to be a pain in the ass for players who don't want to deal with it all the time. On the other hand, I want to plug the PCs into the social mileue. A clan affiliation random chart combined with leaving it to the players to decide how important the clan is to them seems like a smart way to go.

Mr. Scratch said...

I could see this adding some flavor to playing other races as well. Dwarves, always described as "clannish" if I remember, would as point of pride would be able to recite their lineages back hundreds of years and grudges and alliances would be older than human nations. Halflings are much like human's with stories more entertainingly told and with a much greater accent on hospitality given and owed. Perhaps gnomes base their "heritage" on interest or professions since I always felt that was what set them apart from dwarfs. Elves have little or no concept of family, your sister could be hundreds of years older than you and long since traveled to the other side of the world.

Chris said...

I'm startled that you're surprised by this in connection with the Greeks Mike. The importance of family lineage and famous ancestors in pre-modern cultures is a cliché in itself.

It's nice to be able to drop in fully formed and baggageless characters into pick-up games, but I do like a bit of the old "Pendragon" family tree antics in the right circumstances.

There's just something about having a wastrel cousin ("He's a waster! Make something of him, will ya. It'll make his pappy grateful...") foisted on the character as a reluctant henchman that makes me grin.

Amityville Mike said...

Keep us informed, please. :)

Will do.

Amityville Mike said...

A clan affiliation random chart combined with leaving it to the players to decide how important the clan is to them seems like a smart way to go.

My thought is that it's always best to give the players enough rope to hang themselves with, provided the go to the gallows willingly. This random method combined with wiggle room for the players to choose whether they want to embrace this aspect of their characters seems like a nice compromise.

Amityville Mike said...

I could see this adding some flavor to playing other races as well.

I originally thought about doing something for the demihuman races along this line but I decided that I wanted this weird family structure to be a human phenomenon. The demihuman races seem to be a little too closely-knit to allow for this loosey-goosey random family method.

Amityville Mike said...

I'm startled that you're surprised by this in connection with the Greeks Mike. The importance of family lineage and famous ancestors in pre-modern cultures is a cliché in itself.

I wasn't so much as surprised by the idea of family lineage as I was surprised by the way it was explained in Ms. Higbie's essay. As I stated, I might be misunderstanding some of her points but the family structure she lays out seems to have more room for improvisation than the traditional family lineage cliches I've encountered before.

Ragnorakk said...

Very much an interesting mine. A tangential thought that always interested me in such a setup is the subset of people not identified with a family - priests that must renounce their earthly lineage, children born out of culturally sanctioned relationships, criminals or outcasts, etc.
I'm running a game right now with one culture of men who keep their histories and lineages as a matter of principle. So far, none of the players have picked up that particular gauntlet...we'll see...