Excerpt from The Sharn Inquisitive, 998 YK, 6 Olarune:
[sic] all because of those bloody orphans! Orphans! I can’t take a step outside without passing sixty orphans on the street, it seems. Do you know how dangerous it is to become a parent nowadays? Recent studies have found that 83% of adventurers report having lost their parents at a young age in some tragic way. Let me share some of the numbers:
- Murdered by a dark overlord, 42%
- Teleported away by magic ritual and never seen again, 21%
- Drownded, 4%
- Drowned, 2%
And the list continues… Some of these options are ridiculous! “Eaten by owlbears”?! 12%?According to the Breland Census of Births and Deaths only 0.5% of deaths were due to owlbear consumption this year! What is even going on?
I’m not going to even mention how much money orphans as a whole owe the state. Except I guess I am! Did you know that in Sharn, we repossess the houses of 54% of recently orphaned children? Why? Because they don’t pay utilities! What are they going to do, inherit an infinite fortune from Mommy and Daddy? Maybe they’ll build an airship and fly off the planet, become somebody else’s problem.
Hah! As if we would be so lucky. No wonder so many orphans become adventurers. Good riddance, I say!
I think it’s important to recognize that having adventurers and heroes as role models is a dangerous prospect precisely because of this problem. Do we really want our kids to grow up wanting to be like the people they idolize: orphans? Either they’ll grow up terrified that their parents will leave them at some undetermined point in the future, or they’ll grow up wanting to off their parents just so they can get on the road and die to an owlbear!
An owlbear, I say! If you’re thinking of having kids – beware!
The Opinionated Goblin
People like to say that the rise of orphanhood in literature really hit its stride in the 19th-century when classic characters such as Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, and Tom Sawyer were spawned. But the truth is that orphans have been used as mobile plot devices long before that. Orphans appear as protagonists in folktales of Algeria, Nigeria and Myanmar. In other words, this trope is old. And to be honest with you, the more widespread a trope is, the more likely it is to be older than dirt.
Is there a logical reason for this? It’s plausible that we could attribute this to the fact that mortality rates were much higher just a few centuries ago. People would die of disease and infection all the time – and maybe they would spread it to their spouses, and just maybe, these two unfortunate persons would have a child… Death wasn’t strictly necessary, either. A parent could just up and leave and that would be it.
But there is a much stronger, much more compelling reason for the fact that almost every character you can ever think of in fiction is an orphan. And that is because writers are big suckers for being dramatic as all hell.
Oh, What Tragedy it is to Lose Those Who One Loves!
There are quite a few reasons we use orphans as protagonists, but because this is a column about roleplaying tropes, we’ll look at this first from the standpoint of player choices and perspectives. And that means that the first reason players make orphans is because not having bonds is fun.
It’s important to have bonds, I hear you scream! Yes, I know, but I’m not discussing those kinds of bonds. Yet.
By design, adventurers are individuals who are tied down by almost nothing. Living in modern society imposes a stunning amount of commitments on a single person. They’ve got to hold down a job, pay bills, take care of their parents, etc…* In contrast, adventurers need to do exactly none of these things. That’s one of the grand, underlying fantasies of roleplaying games. Hell, depending on where you are in life right now, that may even be the grand, underlying fantasy.
*Just talking about it makes me feel dirty.
Adventurers need to be free to run around. They need to have the freedom to do whatever they want. The only constraints that adventurers should face are the contrivances of the plot. And maybe some common sense, but that’s stretching it.
By making an orphan, the player gives their character a reason to be adrift, to be doing odd-jobs and fighting monsters for a living and never settling down. The point is they don’t have anywhere to settle down — that’s why they’re able to be in this party at all. Losing their parents and having an unstable childhood means that the orphan is out of place. John Mullan writes:
“The orphan is therefore an essentially novelistic character, set loose from established conventions to face a world of endless possibilities (and dangers).”
The other thing that orphanhood grants a character is a strong foundation for independence later in life. It takes a special sort of self-confidence (or self-delusion) to be willing to venture out into the dangerous wilds and battle deadly enemies.* Because of their childhood abandonment, your character might have acquired skills they might not have learned otherwise. Think the traditional rogue skillset: picking locks and pockets, surviving on the streets; or they might have channeled their grief into picking up other skills, such as magic. This works especially well if your character is younger, where it might not otherwise make sense for them to be as talented as they are now (think the 18-year-old 5th-level wizard, perhaps).
*And most daunting of all, to work together with others!
If we talk about independence, we must also talk about bonds. Bonds are an important way for the character to be connected to the world, and played right, they make a character more realistic and grounded in the setting. But they also represent something else: what the player is interested in exploring, and challenging, in the course of roleplay.
Orphanhood makes it easy to shift the bonds of the character from their default parental figures to some other entity that could be more interesting to the player.
- Maybe it’s the evil cult, or caring village, that raised them.
- Maybe it’s the parental substitute that took them in, who also happens to be, say, a powerful sorcerer.
- Or maybe they become fiercely independent as a result of having to fend for themselves on the street.
In each of these examples, the parental bond is uprooted and replaced with a bond of a different flavour. The character is conflicted by their loyalty to the cult that raised them; she gains a plot-relevant interest in arcane power thanks to her childhood spent with her sorcerer father figure
Magic Daddy; he trusts nobody but himself, and takes a forceful, violent pride in having survived on their own wits thus far. Using these connections to replace the parental bond only makes them that much stronger, reinforcing them in the stark, perhaps painful absence of the character’s original parent figures.
Maybe We Should Just Blame Comics Writers
The biggest reason, however, is still drama. (Yes, I know, I took this long to get to it. Sorry.) Abandonment, or a difficult childhood, sets the stage for flavorful character development and conflicts later on.* Every character has to begin their story with a problem that is either extant or surfaces at the beginning; orphans come with their problems already baked in from the start. The built-in device of their missing parents allows us to introduce conflict and narrative tension, and then later resolution when the character manages to overcome their odds.
*Fancy words for angsty PCs, I know.
As Liz Moore puts it:
“For me, at least, writing about orphans is a way to write through the terror of being alone in the world. My characters offer a vision of a future beyond a catastrophic event. Whether these characters are better-off or worse-off at the end of my books, they have, at least, moved beyond their orphandom. It is no longer the central, controlling problem in their world. And generally they have become empowered in some way.”
In other words, the sheer contrast of the beginning of the orphan’s story with its end, when they find friends and a new family in them, is a powerful narrative storyline. And DMs are suckers for that sort of thing. They’ll eat that up like freshly-served scrambled eggs for breakfast.
The other thing that a successful protagonist needs is for the audience to sympathize with them. And it’s easy to sympathize with them. Losing one’s parents from childhood is a difficult, and for many people incredibly scary, thing to imagine. Frankly, it’s quite the adult fear as well: as you enter adulthood, you no longer rely on your parents in your life, you see them less and less, and one day they are simply gone.
Automatically, then, these characters become tragic. They are vulnerable. And we feel for them. We want them to succeed. We become invested in their story. And we come back session after session, hoping to see where they take us.
But My Players Keep Using the Same Angsty Backstories
And my party consists of four orphans and one warforged
Yeah, I know. I know.
I usually let newer players go with whatever they can come up with. It’s not the time to gripe at them about clichés – the clichés are helping them get into the game as quickly and smoothly as possible. And that’s a fine thing to aim for.
One of the strongest arguments I can make against killing off your character’s mentor or parent figures is this: they provide an additional channel, or opportunity, for you to define your character relative to the rest of the world. Sure, your parents could be nobody farmers, but what if they are famous paladins of Thor, with all the religious fervor that accompanies it? What if they are well-known merchants with businesses up and down Faerun? And even if they’re nobody farmers, what if they’re being oppressed by the monarchy and its steadily increasing taxation?
Each of these options presents something you can explore and play with, a concept that you can either have your character support, or pit them against, depending on their relationship with their parents. And while you can replace biological parents with alternative mentor figures, such as a wizarding master, the juxtaposition between them while both are alive can be very valuable.
Say your family has a strong military tradition, and is very set against you apprenticing under an artificer, for instance. They think you’re wasting your days away playing with toys. How does your character deal with that? Maybe they resent it, but at the same time, they know their strong organizational streak and ability to function under pressure are the keys to their success thus far, and they owe it all to their parents’ upbringing…
It’s true that they can still provide these influences to a player even after they pass away, but I’d argue also that there’s no longer an opportunity to have the parents develop and change their opinions. The player has no more chances to change their parents’ minds, and instead will always remember them as being opposed towards their kids’ choices. Compare that to a heartfelt conversation where the parent tells the child that they don’t really understand, but they’ll try to, and will support the player character no matter what. I know which one I prefer, every time.
What else? I guess not everything has to be a source of dramatic tension. I feel every now and then we should have our characters embrace their bonds and use them as a source of strength and support.
It’s not necessary that every character should be adventuring simply due to upheaval, or a lack of happiness, in their life. Maybe the parents cheerfully endorse the character’s goals, and form the bedrock of a healthy and happy support network for them! (Whether this state of affairs lasts through the campaign is not something I would ever bet money on, but you do you.) Maybe the parents are the inspiration for the character to do good, to try their best being a hero.
Amidst all the terrible things we put our characters through, all the obstacles we throw at them, sometimes it’s important to give them one, shining, golden anchor they can always hang on to for guidance and strength. We all have to have a rock. Sometimes a happy family can be yours. Sometimes.
Parental Guidance Is (Ill) Advised
It’s a little difficult to put a spin on the orphan tropes that hasn’t been seen before. The biggest one is usually to bring back one or more parents. This destabilises the main pillar of orphanhood, after all, and removes the main problem that the character had to deal with. Or does it? There are several ways to handle this:
Deus ex Machina.
Bring back those parents from the dead, an alternate dimension, or wherever they were imprisoned! Remember, you can do anything – the DM is God. The only obstacle to your divine power is the players’ eye-rolling at a ridiculous plot development.
What happens if you dangle this as a quest reward, or make it happen as a consequence of the plot? It’s going to be interesting for both DM and player to work through the new changes this brings to the status quo, and how the character reacts. Bonus points if it’s an alternate version or copy of the parent – not really them, but not not-them either. Should the character treat them like their own?
Hey, guess what! The parent’s been alive all this time! And living out their own, full life, too. Let me make that clear: without you. Whether it was done to protect the character, done without knowledge, or done because the parent didn’t care, the character is going to have strong emotions about this. Let them. If it worked for Luke Skywalker, it’ll work for me.
Special mention goes to the “Parent is an Evil Villain” reveal. If you make the BBEG a direct relative of the hero, this is the easiest way to connect them to the overarching campaign. Your hero may plunge into despair upon this discovery, questioning his essential goodness, but ultimately resolving to battle his evil parent. OR! If you time this right, by the time she discovers this, she will have built up a tight circle of friends and loved ones by this point, a support network that she can draw on for strength to keep going! She won’t even care that she’s related to the Big Bad.
You all read the seven books. The key point of this scenario is exploring how the character defines himself relative to the shadow of his parents’ fame. The essential path of the orphan is one of achieving independence – of separating themselves from their parents and coming into their own. Here, it’s extra difficult to do that because at every turn, at every moment, they are reminded of what they have lost. They’re constantly being compared to the two people they most want to move on from.
Don’t overuse this. It gets pretty depressing. Remember to balance it out with happy moments, too – moments that aren’t related to their parents. Their final victory must be their own.
God damn it.
It might be interesting to use one’s orphanhood and one’s experiences to connect with others. Maybe. Just maybe, in a touching moment of connection with one of the villains, your character can talk about their difficult childhood and how lonely it all was, and finally get through to the villain!
Just don’t do it badly. You can do anything as long as you don’t do it badly.
God damn it!
Please Denounce Plot Device Parental Death Passionately, Darlings
It’s easy to avert orphanhood in your characters – just don’t make them orphans. Simple as that.
I don’t think orphanhood is something we consciously, purposefully inflict on our characters. I think that in most cases, it’s simply done for reasons of convenience – to handwave the logistics of explaining why the character is ambling across the lands as they do, without anything tying them down. Or it’s an easy source of tragedy that we give our characters, one that gives them opportunities for development through overcoming it over time.
The argument for keeping parents alive has been made above, so I won’t repeat it, but I’m an advocate. Especially if your campaign is a more wholesome one, having your character maintain a good relationship with their parents and family can be a great thing. Bonus points for them drawing on the love and support of their close ones to overcome great odds, and then coming home for a hearty Thanksgiving dinner. Nobody died to owlbears this year! Yay!
Here are a couple other variants…
Have A Terrible Family:
Much more realistic! In this version, the character’s family is alive, they’re just terrible. One of the most shining examples is for protagonists to have their older siblings be the worst examples of humanity, trying to bully and dominate them at every turn. This will continue even into adulthood, and possibly extend into political battles for power.
You don’t have to make it so bad that the character wishes they were an orphan, but you can come pretty darn close. Usually this ends up in the family being some sort of recurring villain, at the very least.
What can I say? Family is complicated. You’re just being realistic!
Raised by Wolves/Monks/A Happy Polycule:
Sometimes, the character is an orphan, but had a happy childhood and really doesn’t care who his parents are. He isn’t affected by it at all. Maybe he was raised in a monastery, or a loving orphanage, and had a community, parental figures, and great friends.
This is fine if you just don’t want to deal with the character’s family at all. Maybe you’re interested in exploring other things, unrelated things. And that’s totally fair! The example I had in mind was Aang, from Avatar: The Last Airbender. The writers were not interested in exploring his parentage at all. Dude had the happiest childhood ever. In fact, that was a necessary part of his characterization, because he started off as a happy-go-lucky kid who just wanted to keep enjoying his childhood. He didn’t want to face his duties, his responsibilities, or his destiny at all. For that to happen, he had to have been having* a great time, and not a care in the world.
* English is hard, guys.
I don’t know if this is an aversion, but indifference to something means it doesn’t come into play, so there. None of the Air Nomads ever cared who their parents were! It didn’t matter. They were all healthy, well-adjusted people! And if you want to explore the opposite – Air Nomads who did wonder who their parents were – I will, in the future, provide a link here to my Avatar Yangchen fanfiction.
Ultimately, if you want to make an orphan, make an orphan. Don’t be put off by the fact that lots of people before you have done it before. Every single idea in fiction has been done to death before. (Otherwise I wouldn’t have anything to write about.) But hopefully, this article has given you a few ideas to put a bit of a spin on it, and make it fresh enough that other people happily pick up what you’re putting down.
Which, in this case, is the parents. You’re putting down the pare-
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