Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Friends and Family

Geeky Family! See the resemblance?

As much as I like to joke that I have no friends and that I moved 3,000 miles away from the East Coast to get away from my family, the fact remains that I do in fact have both of these things. My spouse is one of the most misanthropic people I know but he still is an amazing son, brother, and spouse and stays in close contact with his best friends from High School (yes, they gamed together). It is very rare indeed to find someone who doesn’t have one friend or family member to speak of. Everyone short of the extremely unfortunate or the extremely self-sufficient has connections to someone.

Oh wait, I forgot to add adventurers to that list.

Many an adventurer embodies the traits and characteristics displayed on their sheets or stacked in their cards, maybe with a bit of back story to explain why the character is the way they are. These lone island characters form a kind of mobile archipelago, slaying and sorting and roving through the land, forming a camaraderie (or hating each other but having to go on for the mission) of sorts as they travel across the land and battle map.

But unless you emerged from some cosmic egg, you came from somewhere. Even if those who gave you your DNA left you on the doorsteps of the monastery or out in the woods, characters come out of whatever births things in their species (usually a female. Maybe an egg was involved…you can leave the gory details off the character sheet). Even the deities generally have siblings and in many cultures the main catalyst for moving out of the family home is marriage. None of this moving out after wizard training with the friend you took ‘Small Magical Animals 101’ with. Families are the first institution we are born into and many other institutions model themselves on the family. The hierarchy and relationships between parents and children are both natural and social constructs that play out in interesting, fulfilling, and frustrating ways.

Our families have a hand in creating us, both through nature and nurture. I’m not just referring to paternal hair color or a sixth toe every two generations. Some habits we pick up through contact; others are encoded into our being so that even if we’ve never seen or haven’t spent much time with various relatives, we can still display mannerisms or ticks. As a child, my mother often commented on things I did that reminded her of my father, which was strange given the amount of time I had spent with him at that juncture (not much).

Families also come in many forms. Any combination of parents and children are possible, not to mention the cultural dictates of who is in your immediate family. Beyond my spouse, spawn, and myself, I consider not only my parents but their spouses, siblings, half-siblings, aunts, uncles, and their children all as my immediate family, as well as my grandparents. Family isn’t always just the people you live with. It can be people who live very far away but who hold a special place in your life, who raised you.

Our friends can become the family we choose for ourselves, sharing common interests and similar worldviews; the people we can truly be ourselves in front of. We pick them up at school, at work, through acquaintances, or find them in our neighborhoods. Sometimes it’s someone related to us through law, a distant relative that we can sit on the couch with at family gatherings and make jokes with. Friendship tropes are common in all sorts of entertainment. Sam and Frodo; George, Mitchel, and Annie; Xena and Gabriel; Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee; all great fictional examples of friends. When we have to face great dangers we might want to protect our families but we might call on a friend we trust to have our back.

Of course, there are always negative aspects: Relatives we just can’t stand. Enemies. Mutual acquaintances we want to physically harm or at least avoid by any means necessary. And of course, even if you try to distance yourself from friends and family entirely, even if you move away, what lengths would you have to go to in order to be completely unrecognizable? To avoid having the stupid story told about you? To reinvent yourself? To avoid a family blight or the history of a bad acquaintance? And who is waiting in the sidelines, ready to point you out for who they think you really are?

Family and friends are also great additions to a game because if your character dies, hey! You have someone to avenge your death or carry out your final wishes!

For GMs

  • How are families regarded? Are there holidays akin to Father’s Day or Mothers Day? Festivals to honor this first institution?
  • What kind of duties are children expected to perform for their parents? Parents to their children?
  • What makes up an “immediate family?”
  • What are some family trades, both legal and illegal? A family of wayfarers and rangers could share their trailblazing marks, a family of fighters could have a similar style, a family of farmers a certain breed of crop, etc.
  • How important are friendships in society? Are there oaths that friends can take to cement alliances?
  • Are friends and/or family allowed to serve in the same military units?
  • How important are connections and family ties? Will they get you into guilds? Organizations? Audiences with important people? Exclusions from service?
  • How do people show their loyalty/connections to friends and family? Coat of arms? Jewelry? Handshakes?
  • How do families cement alliances? Through marriage? “Hosting” children? Are there friends that are close enough to the families that they would count in such legal alliances?
  • What happens to orphans? Are they taken in by family members or other organizations? Ostracized or welcomed?

Plot Hooks

  • When two crime families are warring for power in the city, the PCs (a group of somewhat related individuals) are assigned with the task of sabotaging the opposing family’s dealings. Who is in charge of the crime families? What is the history behind the fued? Do the PCs agree with the aggression? Or are they just going along with family business?
  • The PCs must escort two betrothed individuals to the capitol to have their marriage approved of by the High Priest. Their marriage will bring together two great houses. Various people are trying to sabotage the wedding to gain better holdings within their families. What are the relationships of the PCs to the individuals being married? To the families wanting to combine their houses? Are the threats largely from the two houses seeking to be joined or others?
  • When one PC’s best friend’s dying wish is to be taken to a specific location to die, they enlist the aid of the other PCs to get them there. How do the PCs feel about each other? About the mission? Why do they come?
  • A group of friends are enlisted to capture a dangerous enemy spy, another individual they were close with who has defected to the enemy. One of the PCs is designated as the leader of the group. Do the other PCs fall in line easily? How do they feel about the lead PC? Are they able to squash their history? How do they use their relationship to further the mission? Do all the PCs have their heart in the mission?
  • When a close friend is framed for a crime they didn’t commit, a PC teams up with a few acquaintances to clear them of the charges. Is the friend PC upfront with their investment in the case? Do the other PCs feel positively or negatively towards the accused?

For PCs

  • Who is in your immediate family?
  • Who is your favorite family member? Least favorite?
  • Best friend? How did you meet them? How long have you been friends?
  • Are you friends with anyone in your adventuring party? Related to anyone in the party?
  • Who do you live with when you’re not adventuring?
  • Are there any family traditions you always observe? Family sayings?
  • If your best friend was on the opposing side of whatever your party was trying to accomplish, what would be your reaction? What would you do? What if it was a sibling? A parent?
  • Do you have a partner? Children? Do you hope to have children someday? Do you hate children?
  • Do you have any family obligations? Do you care about family “honor?” Family name?
  • Do you share any traits with anyone in your family that is a dead giveaway as to your lineage?
  • Do you and your friend belong to any organizations your family does not know about?
  • Secrets you keep from your friend? Family?
  • What kind of news would your friend have to spring on you that would drag you away from the mission?


What say you? What kind of in-character relationships have you brought to the table?

3 thoughts on “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Friends and Family

Add yours

  1. Yes, family is important. It makes a character much more rounded and give interesting plot hooks. (Though the orphan is a classic archetype in our hobby.)

    A while back, a group of us did a bunch of characters who were all cousins, so we had reason to be adventuring together from the start.


    1. Orphan is definitely one of those tropes, defined by the lack of family, so it is still kind of tied to family in a strange way. Plus there is always the mystery of what happened to the family. I’ve played two characters that were orphaned in their childhoods but they still had adopted families. One wound up in Sigil and had their biological family hinted at.

      We played a 4e game where two of the characters were cousins. It’s an easy way to explain why people are hanging together 😀


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