Maybe you watch or have watched soap operas and maybe you never have. Maybe you think you don’t watch soap operas, but I think you do. Like what? Well, duh, like Game of Thrones. But also like Law & Order (some of the time), or Gotham, or professional wrestling, or Spiderman. What’s the common theme here - Lots of stories about lots of characters and they all intertwine in a way that isn’t exactly realistic. Ignoring GoT for a second, what isn’t realistic about them? Well, typically that this many stories happen to this few people and they are all still intertwined. How is GoT different? Well, there really might be enough characters there to make it sort of make sense.
Don’t tune out just yet, here’s the point: The same way that tons of stuff keeps happening to the same family, two families, group of friends or colleagues, or whatever is exactly how it can work for your fantasy city! Look, none of us have enough time to come up with as many characters as GRRM. If we did, we’d be six years late with the latest portion of the campaign too. So you need to appear to have a vast cast of characters, but keep things reasonably well contained. This helps you as the GM and it helps your players, since they typically only interact with these characters once a week. They don’t remember every one, and they can’t flip back through the pages to look up who that guy is/was.
But how do you do it? You start small. You introduce someone who is seemingly important but not really important. Say the son of a Duke who just needs some little help. Someone stole his prize race horse and he needs adventurers to get it back for him before the big race. That’s a good mission to send adventurers on. But wait - It turns out that the Duke’s second cousin (who is also putting a horse in that race) is behind the plot. They don’t get to kill the Duke’s cousin! (Maybe don’t let them meet him if you think your players are too stupid to know not to kill noblemen.)
So now they know the Duke, and that he has a rival. A couple more adventures and maybe they are able to publicly discredit the rival, removing him from the picture. Then there’s a war, and the Duke wants the party as men at arms with him. But the Duke’s cousin the King gets himself killed in the conflict, so he’s now the new King. And the party rises to the top. Meanwhile, they’ve met the Duke’s family, his extended family, the rivals, the King (now dead) and a ton of other nobles while they were all off at war together. Once their guy is king, they start meeting the ladies of the court and other hangers on.
What’s the soap opera part? Well, the family has internal conflicts and external conflicts. The adventurers take care of some of these, but others cannot be handled with a sword or a spell, so they either get good at the court manipulations or they let other people handle those. The cast of characters has grown to at least two dozen members of the royal family, many are allies; many are enemies. There can be bastards who want revenge, scorned lovers, people who think they are scorned lovers, forgotten twins, mad men who want to take over the world with freezing rays ((OK, don’t use that soap opera plot line, it’s too weird even for fantasy). You started small with the Duke and his rival cousin. You probably expanded when they met the Duke’s father and some of the others in his immediate family. There was the rival family line, and there had to be more than one of them. I never watched Dallas, but I’m getting a Ewing feel here, where the Duke is Bobby and the cousin is JR. and that is the point!
Need more? Well the Duke is married to or engaged to another rival’s ex-girlfriend. Let’s make it better: The Duke was betrothed to a noble woman, but she died in a horse riding accident. So another noble family broke an engagement between their daughter and some Count (being less than a Duke), and she married the Duke. So now the Count is a rival as well, as is the brother of the dead girl. But now there’s a girl walking around town with amnesia and she might be the dead noble girl or she might be some insidious plot to trick the Duke. Once he’s King, all manner of former family lines are going to come out of the woodwork swearing that they have a better claim to the throne than the ex-Duke does. Maybe there is even a civil war in the making. But if you can avoid letting the rivals simply be killed (because royal families don’t go around killing off other royals), you have a festering pot of drama where the same characters keep stirring the drama around the pot. OK, I’ll stop with that crazy analogy!!
Click here for a second try at explaining what I was going after.
So we used an example of royalty in this posting. Want a quick royal family? Check out Royalty!