Tuesday, May 31, 2016

It's All About Backstory Part II: It's All About Family, Parents Part II

If you want to find the first It's all about family article it is here.

First I want to apologize for the rather long delay on getting on with this subject. I am occasionally afflicted with urges to open my mouth about any variety of issues so I wrote a girls in gaming article on the day I meant to write this one. Along with writing a different article a three day weekend came along and I didn't have a lot of time to sit in front of my trusty computer and peck at the keyboard. I do hope you all will forgive me. Anyway enough prattling on with the article. In my previous post I only covered number 1: Parents Married and both alive. Now I will cover number 2 Parents Married but father Deceased.

When you stop and consider life in the middle ages, a parent dying would have had an even greater impact on a child's development. Not only were gender roles far more rigid, but the way men and women were taught to raise children were worlds apart as well. Does this mean that all parents who become a single parent through the death of a spouse were horrible parents? No, but it didn't make life easier.

Table 3: Parents Married but Father Deceased

Having parents that were married at the time of a persons birth in the middle ages was an important thing. While it might not be as important in a fantasy setting, there is no denying that the death of a parent will still have some pretty big ramifications. When it is the father who died, things were not as easy for a widow as they would have been for a widower. Even in our far more equitable modern world, a woman left without a husband often finds it difficult to maintain the same socioeconomic level as she had before the husbands death. This is even more true when you consider life in a middle ages society.

While it sucks to think about and sucks even more to acknowledge, the fact was a women's choices in the middle ages were very limited when it came to finding productive work. This often meant taking on jobs most men wouldn't do or even worse things. To top all this off women were paid considerably less than men, had to put up with physical, emotional, and sometimes sexual abuse at the work place while being forced to work longer hours. The following chart reflects this reality but if it does not fit into your campaign setting feel free to change it as necessary.

Keep in mind that the following tables are not all inclusive and meant to be used as a means for inspiration.

Roll or choose from the following options:

1 - Father died in a work place accident now the mother has turned to prostitution in order to provide for her children.

It is a very sad and disturbing fact that many women feel that sex work is the only thing that can give them the money they need. In a middle ages society this was even more true than it is today. A child growing up with a mother who is a prostitute is going to have difficulties in social situations. Through no fault of their own they will be socially stigmatized, bullied, and treated with a lot of disrespect. How does this affect the characters view on women? Society? Other people? Is the character angry or have they come to see the world in a bigger picture kind of way?

2 - Father died in a worked place accident now the mother works as a bar wench, scullery maid, or a similar menial job.

While this path of employment was a better option for a woman than prostitution, this does not mean it didn't come with some drawbacks. Bar wenches would often be the victims of sexual harassment from both the patrons and male employees of the establishment. This may not have been as big of a problem with other menial jobs but those were more likely to involve some kind of physical abuse and long punishing hours. The benefit to this kind of work would have been the mother being allowed to have her children near and this would have allowed her to be more involved with them.

When thinking about a character coming from this background there are a lot of interesting questions. What did living underfoot in an inn or tavern do for the characters world view? How did seeing their mother work so hard to be so broke affect the way they thought about those in power and those with money? Did one of the men involved with the work location take the character on as a figurative son, or were they often yelled and and cursed at for being in the way?

3 - Father died in war, mother now lives off a small stipend given by the lord the father served.
When men died in war it was not unheard of for the lord of those men to pay the widow a small stipend. After all through the will of the lord, a husband and father lost their life, so the lord took on the responsibility of providing for that family. This was not always the case, but it did happen. As far as a character coming from this background this creates some interesting questions. How does the character view their father? Is he viewed as a hero in the home or is he viewed as being a fool for going to war? How does the character feel about the lord who sent their father off to war? Does the character feel a sense of entitlement because they receive a stipend or is the stipend to small to make ends meet and the mother still has to work?

4 - Father was a noble who died in battle, but a younger brother inherited the estate and the family lives off the younger brothers charity.

In this situation the character is of noble birth but may not have been old enough (or the wrong gender) to inherit the father's title and land. This has created a situation in which the characters family is forced to live off the charity of their uncle. Is the uncle a good man who is generous to his brothers family, or is he an evil man who barely gives the character's family enough money to live on? Has the uncle stepped in as a father figure raising the character to understand the life and responsibilities of a noble or is he a cruel man who often beats and verbally abuses the character?

While these four options are not near as complete as the list could be, it should provide enough inspiration for a person to get a lot of ideas going about the family background of their character. A lot of times simply by asking a few questions a player can get a very good idea of where their character comes from and why they are the way they are now. That is the point of creating  background in the first place right?


  1. We so often create characters with absolutely NO THOUGHT as to their family situation at all. This post is a good corrective, and I especially like that you laid out a list of options to get players asking the appropriate questions. Good stuff!

    1. thank you for such a nice compliment. I don't know why but I always enjoyed thinking about the things that make a character who they are before I assign anything like stats. Makes the game more real for me I guess.