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.