Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Love and Marriage

The first roleplaying game I ever encountered that included not just discussions of but actual rules for marriage and family life is Bushido. Everything from arranging the marriage to pregnancy to divorce and scandal was covered, each one of which had consequences for the (presumably male) player characters. Though I dabbled in Bushido back in the day, it was never one of my "go-to" RPGs, so I never had the chance to make much use of these rules.

Pendragon, a game I habitually call a "masterpiece" and "perfect," is one of my favorite roleplaying games, despite the fact that I've not had the chance to play or referee it in a couple of decades (though that's about to change, I am very happy to report). I played a great deal of its original 1985 edition – still my preferred one, even after all these years – and one of its signature features is multi-generational play. If one plays through the campaign timeline, one's character will eventually be the son, grandson, or even great-grandson of the character at the start of the campaign and, in order to achieve that, marriage and family are topics of great interest in the game's rules. 

Unlike Bushido's equivalent rules, I have much more experience with the rules in Pendragon and found them incredibly useful in framing the decades-long campaign game for which Pendragon is so well known and rightly praised. The rules themselves are nothing remarkable from a mechanics perspective, but their very existence demonstrates, I think, their importance. I've long felt that you can tell a lot about a game if you examine those activities for which it provides rules. By including rules for courtship, romance, marriage, and the begetting of children, Pendragon tells you precisely what it's about and it's one of the many reasons why I consider it a unique and praiseworthy design.

By placing marriage and family life at the heart of its play, Pendragon also reveals the importance of the larger society in which the characters act. Their adventures resonate in the wider world and have repercussions, both good and bad, for their loved ones and relations. This is in stark contrast to Dungeons & Dragons, where any notion of a larger society is left entirely to the referee's creation. Indeed, there's a story I've heard from multiple sources about M.A.R. Barker's first encounter with D&D, in which he stated, after playing the game for a while, "This is great – but where's the society?" or words to that effect. Professor Barker's question is a valid one, in my opinion, and is reflected in his later thoughts on the nature of RPG campaigns.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, marriage and family are important parts of my ongoing House of Worms campaign. The campaign frame, from which it derives its moniker, is that all the (initial) characters are members of the House of Worms clan, related to one another by blood, though in some cases distantly. Over the course of the years we've been playing, other characters have been added, some of them from different clans. One, Nebússa hiTéshku, is a member of the aristocratic Golden Bough clan and a cousin of the first wife of one of the original player characters, Keléno hiNokór, for example. Keléno has subsequently married two other wives – Tsolyánu is a polygamous culture – each of whom belongs to another clan, creating yet more familial bonds. Consequently, the campaign involves societal/cultural interactions as often as it involves delving into ancient ruins and is all the better for it. Indeed, I'd go so far as to suggest that these interactions are key to the campaign's longevity.

Certainly, there's no necessity that every RPG campaign need go this route and, in fact, I'd argue that they'd be a distraction in many contexts. But, if one is serious about a long campaign,  I can think of few better ways to ensure player investment in it. Anchoring a character into the setting through the bonds of family has proven a very worthwhile approach in my own experience, across multiple games. I'd certainly recommend it as an option to consider when attempting to make a campaign last longer than a handful of sessions.


  1. I think that is behind my attraction to Empire of the Petal Throne, Runequest and Chivalry & Sorcery. The games come embedded in a social fabric. D& D's adventurers in a vacuum feel incomplete, which may support episodic play and raises the cost of developing immersive campaigns.

  2. Running or playing a generational campaign is one of the things on my RPG bucket list, so I too am very much looking forward to playing Pendragon. It was one of the things that also appealed to me about Houses of the Blooded (a beautiful mess of a game), but sadly I only got to run a couple of sessions.

    Family/clan building is important in Wolves of God, and there's a greater-than-zero chance that I'll get to run that this year. I am going to push my players HARD on building families.

  3. I recall an AD&D campaign from a few decades ago wherein my character got married. The DM used this fact as an in-game "distraction" for my character who desperately wanted to just "adventure" with his mates. As a player, I recall experiencing feelings of guilt, responsibility and affection associated with my PC's fictional spouse and family. Today I would call this fodder for good roleplaying.