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Thursday, 5 September 2013

Arrows of Indra: The Importance of Family in Old-School Play

Arrows of Indra: The Importance of Family in Old-school Play

In a lot of old-school D&D games, player characters are defined as lone operatives; many games don't bother to consider much, if any, of the PC's family background.  You kind of get the feeling at times that the entire party is composed of either orphans or disinherited family black-sheep.  There are of course many exceptions to this in actual campaigns, but there are relatively few old-school rule-sets (or new-school rulesets, for that matter) that bother to worry a great deal about the PC's family.  That's what Pendragon is for after all, right? Or, if you want a darker and more dysfunctional take, Amber.

The thing is, in Arrows of Indra at least, the setting places enormous significance on family.  Its a huge part of the Indian setting's culture, and its a huge part of the background emulation of the Mahabharata story, which is ultimately a story about family.

In the Bharata Kingdoms, family is extremely important, the last of a scale of social networking that goes Caste-Clan-Family. Each is as important as the last; and a man without family, like a man without clan, or a man without caste, is a man without any proper place in Bharata society and deprived of an instant network of contacts and support that can be vital to managing everyday life in the world.

Now, as a GM, you might choose to ignore all that, and of course that's fine.  You can certainly run AoI the same way you might run a Greyhawk game, and just ignore all those details about family or clan (or even caste, if you care to).  Maybe your players are suspicious of including it, because they fear it will just give them a big load of hassles they're not really interested in.  Maybe you (the GM) are suspicious of including it, because you worry that you'll end up getting burned by a bunch of background-detail stuff from overeager players.
In any case, I would still suggest you consider it; it is possible to include family in your campaign in ways that makes it useful and interesting to players and GM alike, enriching your party's connection to the setting and the world.

This is why the Arrows of Indra rules has mechanics right at character creation for determining the makeup of a (human) PC's family.  And just what he gets in the rolls can make a big difference to how he starts out. A PC might end up with a dead father and as the oldest man in the family, in which case, in Bharata society, he is the head of his immediate family.  This means that on the one hand, he owns all the family property and has authority to make all the decisions for the family.  On the other, it means he is responsible for the maintenance of everyone in his family.  But its feasible in this system for a 1st level PC to start out the game with a farm or manor. 

On the other hand, the PC might be a minor son with a living father or elder brother; this leaves the PC free and clear of any of the hassles of supporting anyone, but it puts them under the authority of their father (or brother). The head of their family is expected to morally and financially support the PC, but he can also decide whether (and even who!) the PC should marry, to give one example.  Its unlikely a paterfamilias would stop a younger son from going out adventuring; in the heroic age this brings prestige and potential fortune to the entire family, its one less mouth to feed, and it gets the PC out of everyone's hair; but should junior end up hitting it big as a major hero, dad or big-brother will want to use his kid (or kid brother) as tool to gain influence in the clan or the kingdom, and improve the whole family's lot through marriage and alliances.

In Appendix I we get rules for income from lands or profit from businesses; and the expectation is that if your PC gets land or businesses (either through adventuring or by virtue of being the paterfamilias) it will be his family that will help him to run it. A PCs brothers might end up becoming adventurers in their own right, and a clever GM might even allow these siblings to act as backup PCs for the player character should his current character die or retire, creating some continuity in the campaign.  A PCs sisters will potentially be married to other NPCs of interest that could also form part of the PC's network; if the PC himself inherits the family seat while his younger sisters are still of marriageable age, he might even want to use them to form alliances by marriage to important NPCs (of course, within caste, and with the approval of his clan; but the clan will generally approve of any choice that helps bring the clan prestige).  A PC party might even cement their alliance by intermarriage of sisters or daughters, turning the party into one big extended family business.  Appendix I also has rules governing marriage and offspring.

A GM can (and should) tailor just how important the role of family is in his campaign; they can be largely in the background, or they can play a central part.  You might want to introduce the elements of PC family-connections gradually, allowing the interconnections to develop organically. 

My best advice on this whole subject is that a good GM should avoid the "girlfriend in the refrigerator" type of syndrome, where he makes the players feel that their families are nothing but a liability: NPCs who are only there to get captured, killed, threatened, or to end up screwing up constantly and costing the PC time, money or prestige.  There are more clever ways to use family.   Show the players how the PC having a family, and paying attention in the game to family, will end up benefiting from this, and gaining advantages that those PCs who neglect their family will not.  Dad or Uncle Rajesh might be able to set the PCs up with the local clan chief, or might know someone in the city watch, or might be able to tell the PCs about which Siddhis are trustworthy. A family that is close to the PC will shelter them and try to support them when the PCs are going through a bad spell.

This isn't to say the family can't also be a source of drama; just be careful that it isn't too much of a "21st century drama"; younger siblings should not be rebellious in the TV-teen-drama sense, they know what's good for them too, after all.  Only a particularly abominable person would really reject the family rules, so the NPC siblings of the player's character shouldn't be constantly doing so.  Create outside threats to a PC's family too if you like, but make it a part of the organic sandbox flow of the setting: a PCs family might live in an area being over-run by the Maghadan empire, for example, or if the PCs join Krishna's band, then King Kansa might send out Rakshasa mercenaries to exact retribution on family members living close enough to the city-state of Mathura.  But what threats there are, the PC's family shouldn't just be hapless victims in need of rescue, but rather make the threats something that the family deals with together.  Resist, in other words, the impulse to make the PC the only competent or clever member of his family.

And really, all of what I said above can apply just as easily to any other old-school setting as much as it applies to Arrows of Indra.  Family was just as important a part of the fabric of Medieval European society as it was to Epic Indian society.  So even if you're not running AoI, consider what's been written above.

Of course, if you haven't picked up Arrows of Indra yet, this might be a good time to give it a look. Bedrock's distributor is doing a big sale and for a limited time only, the Arrows of Indra PDF is just $1.


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