I was chatting with one of my players the other day when I pointed out to her that her character has the ear of the high priest of the largest temple in the biggest city where her adventures had taken place so far. Not only is he the most powerful clerical spell caster within hundreds of miles, but he's also the de facto temporal leader of the city. Their relationship had grown out of the events of the game and the choices the player had made. It wasn't a given thing; she'd nearly become his enemy by joining forces with a band of pirates intent on robbing the temple. Her first visit to the place was actually to get information about a treasure shipment the brigands hoped to intercept. Her decision to side with priests over pirates has affected everything that's come since in the campaign. Her relationship with this priest has made magic, knowledge, and even the current dungeon she's exploring available to her. The high priest isn't her BFF or anything, and doesn't give this stuff away for free, but just having some of it available puts her ahead of other treasure hunters in the area.
The thing that intrigues me, especially in light of recent posts about character creation and styles of play, is how this rather pivotal aspect of the PC's life doesn't even appear on her character sheet. There isn't even a spot for BFF, assuming she had one. Listings for family make the character sheets for variations on D&D like Oriental Adventures unusual. And yet, these sorts of resources can be vital to success. They can be sources of coin, political influence, ransom, information, henchmen and hirelings or esoteric skills that simply can't be found any other way.
I know I'm talking crazy-talk here. Most D&D adventurers "spring out of holes in the ground", full-fledged like Athena with their allotted compliment of equipment, spells, and skills. They have no family, nor any other real reference or ties to the world beyond the dungeon they're currently plundering or the adventure path their working through, and the home base where they resupply and heal up between forays into danger. If any family exists, there's an unwritten agreement shared by everyone at the table that such people exist primarily to supply adventure hooks and be used by the DM as a handle for tormenting and manipulating the PCs. If the player didn't do the standard thing and have his entire family killed off, the hope is that the DM will forget they exist. There's certainly no benefit to drawing any attention towards these hapless, useless NPCs.
Over the past few years, spurred on primarily by the female gamers I've been playing with, I've been exploring other ways these sorts of relationships can be used. And yes, they're great for getting the PCs to jump when they'd rather be slow, or to supply that vital bit of information they need to put the pieces together. Beyond that, however, they are great for building verisimilitude and creating an emotional connection between the player and their character and the world their character inhabits. Aunt May doesn't just serve as someone to be rescued by Spider Man. She grounds Peter Park in the greater New York area. Beyond that, she provides a certain emotional touchstone for Peter that most of us can identify with. She makes Peter more real for us, makes us care about him more, and in this way makes Spidey's adventures more exciting for us. We care, not just that he'll save the city or the day, but that he'll do so in time to make it back for Aunt May's birthday party. And when he does, that victory thrills us more than seeing Doc Oc hauled off to jail, or the Green Goblin bound up in web, his bombs rendered useless.
UPDATE: JB weighs in with how his group did write this stuff on their character sheets.