There’s a great schtick in an awful (but funny) movie called Brainsmasher: A Love Story: the lead character’s mother seems to always be able to reach him by phone, wherever he is. Standing next to a pay phone? Mom calls. The villains are torturing him, and the lead bad’s cell phone rings… “It’s you mother!” “Gimme the phone. No, Ma, I don’t know when I’ll be home! Hang up on her.”

In a lot of RPGs, players often exit in a vacuum, much like character in movies — they are sprung fully-armed and armored from the Players’ Handbook, ready for action. No friends, no family, no real background. they develop in media res, and are a product of the numbers on a sheet and the adventures they work through. In a fantasy campaign, you can Conan the hell out of your background — the warrior/mage/rogue that has lost their family, or they simply don’t impact their lives — but in other sorts of games, building in family and friends for the characters at the start can really help flesh out a game.  

I’ve written a few times on how adding friends and family and playing a “season” before the Cylon attacks in our Battlestar Galactica campaign really helps the players experience their characters’ loss, but this isn’t the first time that family has been important in our campaigns. Often in espionage campaigns I’ve run the family is an important part of the character’s backstory. They’re the people you want to get back to (or escape the chaos of young child, as a former special forces guy I know admitted.) They don’t like when you’re out adventuring; they want you home. The issues of family and spies have been well done in True Lies  and more recently, TV’s Chuck

Family make decent motivators for adventuring, as well — family make great McGuffins: The terrorists have your daughter! The alien menace is advancing on the hiding spot in which you left your family! Your best friend discovered a hidden city in the Amazon! You son just knocked up his girlfriend and you’re way too young to be a grandfather! All of these can be seeds for an adventure.

But the best use of family is as, what they call in television, the “B plot.” Something is going on in your private life that needs your attention, and which distracts from the “A plot” (the adventure). Perhaps there’s an issue with your kid or wife that needs your attention — the wife was in a car accident and is injured and at the hospital — this murder investigation is just going to have to wait for a bit. Or you keep missing that parent-teacher meeting because you’ve been fighting creeping tentacled evil that is trying to break into this world…not exactly something you can tell them, but if you don’t get your ass over to the school right now, they’re going to think you are a negligent parent.

Beyond all that, even if you’ve just got the characters getting the occasional phone call or letter from their parents, having connections to the world around them outside of the plotlines gives a sense of reality to the world, no matter how fantastical it might be.