Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Parental Abandonment

“Single Parent Rule:” RPG characters with two living parents are almost unheard of. As a general rule, male characters will only have a mother, and female characters will only have a father. The missing parent either vanished mysteriously and traumatically several years ago or is never referred to at all. Frequently the main character’s surviving parent will also meet an awkward end just after the story begins, thus freeing him of inconvenient filial obligations.

The last three words are the kicker - parents, and family in general, are plainly something that we'd like to ditch where it comes to our imaginations.  Good thing, too, since Mom probably wouldn't approve of gouging out that goblin's skull and using it and your favorite dagger to play snag-the-eye-socket when things get dull.  When I write novels I tend to whack off both my protagonists parents before the story starts, mostly because I don't like my own parents and I'm not interested in creating an ersatz functional family.  It helps my characters retain their rugged lone wolf natures, people going it alone with a fuck-you attitude towards others.  Much like any group of D&D players.

I pretty much hate family stories, in film or literature, since they tend to be very preachy.  RPGs are proof-positive that players believe happiness can be obtained without needing family ... either the one that spawns us, or one we might spawn.  I offer this piece of advice, as something the gentle reader should never do as a DM: if you want to curse a female character in a party, make her pregnant.  The player will not be amused.  And that, dear friends, is a social commentary on many, many levels.

(I did have a player who did get married, and did have children, and the campaign running long enough for that player's children to grow into young adults.  But this is extraordinarily rare in my experience).

In recognition that we in western society clearly hate our parents and will happily identify with orphans and abandoned children in film after film, have a look at the truly impressive list of children's stories, from Disney, Pixar and Don Bluth, where parents are non-existent or clearly an afterthought.  This goes on and on, in live action children's films as well as animations ... we are programmed from the age of four to fantasize about discarding our parents.  Why, look at the three great children's stories of English literature: Peter Pan, the Wizard of Oz and Alice of Wonderland.

Adventure begins when the parents are gone.

That's really all I have to say on the subject.  I can hardly encourage players to think more about their imaginary mothers and fathers, now can I?  Who would, anyway?  I mean, unless your father is the King of the Land ...

But then a thought does occur to me.  What would anyone say to a starting adventure for a party being the intentional murder of the character's rich, wealthy parents, in order to usurp the family business, or merely to obtain for themselves a nice compensation.  Yes, that's right Marvolo ... your father is rich, very rich, and he has been a bastard to you all your life - your mother too!  Don't you remember, your mother killed your dog Rex ... and fed his to the corpse to the pigs?  For ten years, you've hated them, despised them, thought of all you could do with their money.  And now today, this very morning, your master has declared there's nothing else he can teach you.  Today you are a first level thief!



trollsmyth said...



Ok, yeah, it's a trope, but it's hardly universal. Yes, the adventure begins when Mom and Dad aren't around, but you don't need to kill them. Sometimes the adventure is to save them (as in Miyazaki's Spirited Away).

The real problem with parents isn't that people hate them, it's that they wield power and influence that could make the adventure vanish. Wonderland can only make sense in a world where the rules are not fully understood and Dorothy's family would never let her undertake such a dangerous mission alone.

(You've nailed Pan, of course; part of his dark charm is the promise of a world without parents and their rules. But he's not the only model.)

The real problem with parents is that they are resources; fonts of coin, information, local influence, supplies, and skills that the PCs wouldn't have access to otherwise. And they imply a wider community of siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins who might also supply these things. This sort of support can erode the call to adventure (Luke couldn't run off until his ties to Tatooine were killed), can ruin some adventure hooks or defuse situations ("Oh, wait, my uncle should be able to get us in to see the Duke.") and might create obligations that deflect interests and alliances in unintended ways.

Most of those are not a serious issue to the way I run games, so I love it when my players create that sort of background. But I'm pretty sure I'm in a minority that way.

Dan said...

Building on the "murder your parents" hook - take it further and make them the big bad, at least for a while. What if Luke had been raised by Vader, slowly growing to hate him and what he stands for (perhaps under secret tutelage), before arriving at the point of running away and/or doing battle with him?

Could make for a very nice "on the run" type adventure to follow, since such a scion would be famous throughout the kingdom.

Alexis said...


Yes, seriously.

What, did were you offended?

Listen, I did not create the cliche, I did not even add it to the RPG Console List. However you personally might see it, this thing is constant, pervasive and unbelievably brutal - from the casual execution of parents at the beginning of family films to the time honored plethora of orphans (often orphans) showing up everywhere. Why? Because subconsciously every reader younger than 25 knows instinctively that there can never be freedom with the suffocating, strangling grip of a parent on one's psyche (see Pink Floyd). The rule is ever established: one parent is easier to dodge than two, and no parents easiest of all.

Alan said...

... that there can never be freedom with the suffocating, strangling grip of a parent on one's psyche

Well, that's certainly one way to look at it, Alexis. Another way to look at it is that if a child is cared for in a loving home, where their needs are provided and they are healthy and happy, then there is no need for adventure (or the potential for it is minimized). Thus, these types of stories / movies / games are self-selecting.

Having a dysfunctional (or nonexistent family) provides the impetus for adventure, forcing the PC to seek hazardous duty because either it is actually safer than their present condition, or they have no one else to turn to, and are thrust into the real world prematurely.

For most RPG players, I believe it to be a shortcut. If my PC has family, maybe they'll be used against me? I've always thought that RPGs which integrate family (such as Pendragon) are refreshing, and an interesting goal besides just acquiring the most loot/levels.

Badmike said...

Interesting topic. Of the three movies/stories you mentioned, I've always been creeped out by Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, to the point where they are borderline HORROR tales to me. Peter Pan especially, where the idea of being "forever young" seems to be to be a curse and not a blessing (let's not even get into the weird habit of having a non-sexualized adult WOMAN play Peter Pan in stage and live action movies in lieu of a boy; that fact alone always bothered me as a kid). Also, don't forget that all three great stories you mention end with the protagonists rejecting or leaving the life without parents to return to the "real world" (IMO, much to the detriment of Wizard of Oz, where it would seem much happier for Dorothy to have stayed in the beautiful colorful land of Oz instead of the drab, colorless Kansas!)

Parents are discarded (in any number of ways) because the world (to an average child) is a frightening place without adults taking care of him/her. Yes, adventure begins when the parents are gone...but so does fear of the unknown. Depending on the functionality of the family, "real" children prefer their parents tucking them into bed at night versus the imaginary plucky orphan youth who rides the boxcars, steals food and money, finds adventures, and becomes a rags to riches story...somehow without the sexual predation that would inevitably occur if the story was "real" and not a total made up fantasy.

I would even counter than a more powerful fantasy for children is not the parents dying, but the parents being taken away and the kids having to rescue them....allowing them power fantasies (see: Spy Kids for example). Even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade plays upon this trope; Indy and his father don't get along their entire lives until Indy is able to adventure WITH and SAVE his father (at that point his father sees him as an equal). Either rescuing your parents from harm, or becoming an equal in their eyes, is IMO just as powerful a fantasy for any child as wanting them "gone".

Anyway, a very thought provoking post.

Mike(aka kaeosdad) said...

My family is pretty big so I tend to encourage such in my campaigns. I think the "orphaned" cliche has roots in that basic desire to be free of all responsibilities and attachments so that you can do whatever the fuck you want without having anything to worry about except for yourself. It's a common fantasy, but solely based on my view of the world one that if acted upon just brings endless misery.

When I run games I try to bring my players to that zone where they start thinking about that fictional world and putting themselves in their character's shoes. From there hopefully they can relate and maybe figure something out about life. Freedom is an ironic concept. Freedom to me is to be alone.

Can you have adventures without being free from all attachment would be an interesting question. Yes I have been drinking tonight. It's wednesday hahaha!

Anonymous said...

Pixar doesn't like family protaganists? That's news to me. I don't know about you, but I enjoyed "The Incredibles." That was a great adventure story where the family got together as a family to fight the bad guys...

Alexis said...


Yes, that's true. But if you had followed the link on the post, you would have found:

No father for Andy's family in the Toy Story films

No male parental figure in A Bugs Life even though the other ant "families" are implied to be nuclear; Boo's parents are asleep and thus unavalable in Monsters Inc;

Finding Nemo — Mom Coral is seen briefly before she gets eaten by a barracuda along with the rest of Nemo's siblings

Remy's mother was written out of the script in Ratatouille, and Linguini's mother is recently deceased (his Disappeared Dad is actually the famous Chef)

Eric Wilde said...

And then there's the Pendragon game. With Pendragon family is an integral part of the game system. Plots are often deeply woven with finding a mate, procreation and family feuds.