Essay Nine: Where Has All the History Gone?
On Heirlooms, Legacies, and Inheritances, Part One
Synopsis: Heirlooms, legacies, and inheritances form a vital part of human history and culture. Yet they are often overlooked or ignored either intentionally or unintentionally in game, milieu, and character development to the detriment of the overall game design. Heirlooms, legacies, and inheritances should take their natural place in-game as important and fundamental aspects of game and character development in role-play games.
This essay is part of the series’ Essays on Game Design. It is, however, like the short essay, Where Has All the Magic Gone, too broad in scope to be presented within the boundaries of that other thread. So I have instead posted it here as a separate thread.
Interactive Essay – This thread is also an Interactive Essay. See link for an explanation of what this means.
Part One: There are three aspects of human life that are common to many cultures (but most especially to most of the Western cultures and countries that were the basis of the basic idea behind the D&D fantasy game settings and milieus) throughout the world that I think are conspicuously missing in many fantasy role play games. These three aspects of human life (and it seems to me that at least one of these absent aspects would likely also be common to Western based non-human fantasy races, such as Elves and Dwarves) missing from the game are those very things so often mentioned in both real world history, and in folk and fairy tales, legend, and myth. Those three things are what we today call heirlooms, legacies, and inheritances.
Now not all three seem to be missing from every fantasy based role playing game (though most all are missing to some degree from most such games), and indeed heirlooms, legacies, and inheritances could be equally applied as important factors in Pulp games, Western games, Sci-Fi games, Mystery and Horror games, and even to some extent Detective and Military and/or Espionage based games. But in the field of fantasy, at the very least, things like heirlooms, legacies, and inheritances should be stressed as a far more important general aspect of role play gaming, not to mention general character development than is currently the case. Because in real life people often passed between different generations, not to mention among various same generation family members and friends and associates, heirloom objects, matters of personal and family legacy, and inheritances (due to premature death by war, exploration, accident, misadventure, or disease) as a common matter of course and cultural practice. (At this point I won’t even mention things like family and personal blessings and birthrights, but they too weigh as a form of inheritance or legacy. And such things as these were often of extreme importance to our ancestors. More so often than physical inheritances.)
However, in fantasy gaming these important aspects of human life and relationship are often entirely missing from personal matters of (character) interaction, or perhaps more importantly from the developmental background of how characters become created, established and are evolved. Think to your own family for just a moment, especially if you live in most Western cultures (thought that is definitely not a necessary precondition), and ask yourself, have you or another family member not directly received, benefited from, or befitted yourself from the legacy, inheritances, or heirloom objects of your family and ancestors?
It is as if, in most fantasy games, a character is considered pre-developed with no history but his individual self, as if he or she sprang like Athena from the forehead of Zeus without any prior progeneration or ancestral ties, responsibilities, or inheritance of any kind. Without a real background, or relationship to their own historical legacy. Yet even Athena inherited the Aegis. Even she drew wisdom, insight, and wealth from her father’s legacy. But for most fantasy based gaming characters it is as if the common and assumed practice of character creation is of a person completely devoid of family history, inheritance, legacy, and background. In all practical effect orphaned by and within the world they inhabit. And with nothing of real value to effectively describe and define their past.
Yes, I am aware that character creation often considers or expresses a sort of loosely sketched and generalized “background story.” At least in theory or in part. Meaning that I, the character, came from this or that town, had this or that general background, my parents may have been named so and so, and I may have an older brother or sister. But that is usually the extent of character background development (at least initially so, and in many games), aside from the usual gaming demands of establishing the attributes of Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, or whatever (other) abilities are practiced and measured in-game. But little, if any, attention is ever given to matters such as “what was passed on to me by my family or friends,” “what did I inherit of importance,” or “what was the legacy left me by my family, for good or ill, or for both?” Indeed I could find no mention at all of the terms heirloom, legacy, or inheritance in any of the First Edition, Third Edition, or Fourth Edition D&D books (I cannot speak about Second Edition having never played it, but the other editions are, I think it would be agreed the basic framework of what are usually considered the most important or at least most popular fantasy RPGs), a seemingly strange omission if one stops to think but a moment on the matter. And in only a couple of cases were concerns involving heirlooms, legacies, or inheritances even vaguely, briefly, or indirectly mentioned or implied in relationship to character, setting, or game creation and development.
(I fully understand that many individual games and settings, such as private homebrew efforts, do consider play aspects such as heirlooms, legacies, and inheritances. And that is well and good. However such factors are rarely considered systematically even in individual settings or milieus, and in this case I am not really talking about individual settings or private homebrew efforts. I am encouraging game developers and writers to include these important aspects of human, and likely demi-human, cultures and societies within the formal structure of their work. That is, as a matter of real and inherent game structure. For indeed as both Medieval and Modern societies often show considerable considerations regarding heirlooms, legacies, and inheritances of great family, clan, personal, legal, societal, and cultural importance it seems a strange oversight (or is that not truly more of an undersight) to omit them from the body and structure of role play games. So game writers and developers should pay far more attention to matters involving heirlooms, legacies, and inheritances than is often the case. This is true when developing games whose genres include horror, pulp, modern, historical, and especially fantasy elements or settings. However even gaming genres involving historical war gaming and science fiction could probably benefit either directly or indirectly by the inclusion of elements regarding heirlooms, legacies, and inheritances.)
How many oral accounts and written records in human culture, how many folk tales, fictional stories, legends, and myths are built specifically around matters dealing with these important expressions of human life? Frodo inherits the heirloom of the One Ring, Arthur inherits the heirloom of Excalibur (not to mention his family legacy, which is then passed on to others), Harry Potter inherits his family’s dark past and future hope, the Sagas and Eddas are likewise filled with tales of inherited and rich objects, and so forth and so on. I could go on practically ad infinitum and ad nauseum. Need I even mention the numerous accounts of Greek and Roman (the Iliad and Odyssey, Jason and the Argonauts, the Aeneid), Scandinavian, Germanic, Celtic, Japanese, African, Indian (indeed, sources from around the world) myths and legends in which heirlooms, legacies, and inheritances play an important if not the most vital role in the development of an heroic character, clan, or culture? I could also mention numerous real world historical examples such as Attila and the Sword of War (Mars) and the White Stag, the legacy Augustus took up from Caesar, the generals who inherited the legacy of Alexander’s conquests, The Byzantine continuation of the legacies of Rome and the Orthodox church, the Muslim expansion of the legacy of ancient Greek and Roman science and engineering, the Judeo-Christian legacy and inheritance in Europe and the West, how modern societies have benefited from the inherited scientific and technological legacies and heirlooms of the past, and on and on and on I could go citing example after example. As other illustrations of my meaning in a more direct and material sense just look to the Relics and Icons of religion, the heirloom Crown Jewels of government, the civil, court, and legitimacy claims of princes and kings, and to various other physical and cultural signs of authority and asserted rights and responsibilities. Heirlooms, legacies, and inheritances abound throughout history as obvious indication of both grand and powerful physical objects, and of unresolved issues and concerns that continue to haunt men and the tribes, clans, families, societies, and cultures from which they have been generated and evolved. So, within the storied tales of myth, legend, fairy and folk tales, fiction both ancient and modern, and even within the hallowed halls of history records are replete with events in which heirlooms, legacies, and inheritances of one kind or another shape and mold the course and sweep of both the character of individual men and women, and the movement and scope of history itself.
Yet within the game it seems as if most characters spring from the air, free of, and for the most part, completely divorced from and ignorant of the responsibilities, obligations, histories, legacies, inheritances, and heirlooms that make up the treasure horde of their family, community, and/or cultural background. Character background development is usually little more than a Spartan and anemic exercise in “naming and attribute rolling.” Some in-game characters, of course, will be orphans and urchins, doomed by fate or circumstance to have become separated from their natural background and antecedents, but most will be, as in real life, the product of where, and whence, and through whom they arose. Therefore, most will carry upon their person, seen or unseen, the marks, marques, and effects of their history. They will to a large extent be who they are because of whom and what has come before them.
(I have a personal theory as to why most games approach character background development as they do, as if it is an activity quite divorced from what would actually be entirely natural among most peoples, not to mention what is divorced from historical precedent, and natural to myth, legend, and fiction. And others can discuss this somewhat separate issue among themselves in this thread if they choose to do so. However, at this point let me merely say that whatever the reason or reasons, and I suspect more than one, the important point in this thread is that with game and character creation it is not so vital a matter as to why so many RPGs tend to so often lack real substance regarding background, as it simply is that they do.)
Therefore to correct this dearth of developmental potential, this lack of character legacy and substantiality, I suggest including three (you may suggest more, I am suggesting three) new facets of character and game background and development. These three facets of background being the Heirloom, the Legacy, and the Inheritance.