I always enjoy the Penny Arcade comic, but I often get something useful out of the column as well. Today’s in particular got me thinking. He was inspired by another post about the “daddening” of video games (the idea that in video games it is becoming more common that you play someoen who is a father than someone whose father is an important part of the story) and more generally observed that there are issues which are common and powerful but which are rarely touched upon in video games. Issues like relationships, marriage, family, kids and so on. A lot of it rings equally true for RPGs, and that got me thinking.
First off, I need to echo the sentiment that getting married and having a child were both genuine thresholds for me. before actually crossing them, their meaning were pretty nominal to me. I got their importance on paper, but it was very different for me to actually do it.
With that in mind, it’s interesting to apply that general lens to my games. I can think of many game I’ve played that were generational in nature, literally or symbolically, but they almost always revolve around the emergence of the new generation. Sure, there’s always the occasional jokey one-off, of playing an Amber game where you’re elders dealing with these wacky kids, but it’s not quite the same.
Now, some of this is kind of understandable. Players should be the focus of play, and kids take focus. It’s hard to make kids as important as they should be without that overshadowing your going out and shooting orcs or whatever, and more the introduction of kids introduces all kinds of questions like “how responsible is it, really, to go out and shoot orcs when you have a kid at home?”
At its worse, the introduction of family and kids seems like a threat to suck the fun out of a game in favor of the mundane details of life we may be playing to escape. It’s only natural to flinch in the face of this, but it might be worth overcoming that reaction. No, no one wants to be playing a glorified versionof house, but the same things that make a ‘family’ game challenging can make it awesome. Consider:
- Heroes with families have something to go home to. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll reiterate: having a reason to *not* adventure demands that the reasons for an adventure be good ones. This makes for more work for the GM, but it’s “eat your vegetables” kind of work – the reward is more than worth it.
- On the flipside, heroes with families tend to be more engaged once you get them on board. If this is tied to the health and happiness of their wife or kid? The heroes are all in.
- Players are used to lacking authority but having freedom. Parents have just enough authority to be frustrated by its lack, and trade that off with responsibility. This is frustrating, but also makes for some interesting play.
That said, I’m not suggesting this is something that suits every game. But look at the thresholds you and your group have crossed, and consider how that might alter your play. Before i was married, a plot centered around a wedding was just color to me, but having actually gone through one (with all the madness that entails) it would not be hard to hook me into caring a lot whether or not the wedding goes off well. Kidnapping someone’s spouse? Standard trope of villainy, but allow me a second to think of that in terms of my wife? It is ON.
There’s a lot more to this than just spouses and kids. As we get older and our understanding of our parents change from our own experience, it get harder to rage against surrogate father figures in a game. The richness of generational play starts becoming more evident as your own place shifts away from the edge of the generational spread.
1 – The only game I can think of that bridges this gap smoothly is Changeling: The Lost. It’s not truly a generational game, but it offers a premise whose meaning depends upon where you are in life. The game begins with the presumption that you have been taken away from everything important in your life by a powerful being and used as its plaything. Meanwhile, a duplicate is living your life in your stead.For one type of players, the driving motivations fury at this powerful figure who has been bossing you around. For another, the prospect of what you are losing in your life is genuinely horrifying. Players with strong ties (which usually means having gotten past the point in your life where you’re striking out on your own) can get entirely gut punched by that sense of loss. It’s a magnificent idea and a magnificent game.
2 – I watched “Big Fish” with my dad. it’s a beautiful movie, and if it does not move you then, in the words of Pete Thurston “you might want ot call a doctor because you’re probably dead inside”. It’s a generational story of stories, and my dad’s comment at the end was that he’s no longer sure if he was the dad or the son (in the film). At the time, I knew where I stood, but it’s been a few years, and I now have a son of my own who is going to make me ask the same question someday.
EDIT: I read this again and I fear it might sound like “You need kids and a marriage to get this deep stuff” and that’s not the point at all. What I’m saying is look at what has become important in your life. Maybe it’s a family and kids, maybe its something else, but whatever it is you can use the WAYS it’s important to you and your players to tell stories that resonate more with them.