The Hongs, the Sungs, the Tangs, the McSweeneys and the Fangs are the five "noble" families of the Counterweight Continent, who have been fighting amongst each other for centuries. Each family has an estate in Bes Pelargic (BP), and players can choose to join one of them. Doing so allows access to various missions, and some perks such as the usage of facilities located on the estates, titles, advancement rooms, and plenty of RP opportunity.
Joining a family does not impose any restrictions or requirements on a player – you're still able to hunt in BP as normal and ignore the families altogether before and after joining. The worst impact this will have is that your family may end up not liking you, and you'll need to regain their favour again before they'll be willing to give you another mission.
There are numerous room help ("help here") files in the estates which outline different elements of the families and the things they offer. This page will give an overview of these things – please let me know if something you want to know is missing, or if you have further details you feel would be useful.
A help file (e.g. "help sung") is available for each family, giving you an overview of the family's theme and the location of their estate. Each estate is unique, and different facilities are provided at each – which can only be made use of by members of the family. All estates feature a mail room (to send and read mail) and a contract book for assassins. Each family has an NPC belonging to each guild, from which you can advance your primaries as you normally can in a guild. Families also have links to shops in BP, which will give a discount to those currently liked by their affiliated family. Family-affiliated shops tend to be close to the estate they are affiliated with.
This map of the estates may help you decide, and this map of BP shows where the estates are located. In the long run, chances are that your choice of family will be largely immaterial – so it is probably best to pick the one which appeals to you the most. If that fails, join whichever one will accept you!
Joining a family is like joining a guild – you can only join one, and you can't change families. Each family has requirements for joining. I don't know the details of some, so please fill me in if you do.
You must also be liked by the family you wish to join in order to be accepted – this is explained in the next section. Once you meet the requirements, joining is a simple matter of doing so in the room indicated in the map linked to above.
Regardless of if you've joined a family or which family you've joined, each family holds an opinion of you. This can be positive or negative, and it is not uncommon to have multiple families thinking very highly of you – even if you're a member of an opposing family. It's also possible to have your own family thinking very poorly of you.
What a family thinks of you influences how the NPCs in their estate will respond to you. You may be welcomed, frowned at, denied entry by guards, or even attacked on sight. Your own family will not give you missions if they dislike you enough. Being liked by a family will also give you a discount in shops affiliated with that family.
Family opinions of you are influenced by a number of things. Killing members of a family (both inside the estate and on the streets of BP) is a sure-fire way to get in their bad books, as is killing members of families they are currently amicable towards. Conversely, they will think better of you for killing members of families which they are currently at war with. You can also donate money to a family in their finance room, which obviously endears you to them.
If you are a member of a family, you can boost their opinion of you by giving the crests of enemy family members to your family's mission-giving NPC.
You can check what opinion each family holds of a player in the library of any estate or in the Hall of Records on the Street of the Smiling Dog in southern BP. The syntax is "check <player name>".
The families fight an ever-fluctuating war with each other. Two families may be exchanging hostilities one week, in a strategic alliance the next, and on neutral terms the next. Your family's current relationship to the other families determines who your missions will be carried out against, and which family crests will be accepted to endear you to them – they are happy to see the crests of fallen enemies, but don't want to know about the deaths of their [current] allies.
You cannot influence family to family relationships, and they are independent of your own personal relationship with the families. Hence, it is possible to be highly liked by a family with which your family is currently at war. This can be very handy when conducting a mission in their estate.
You can check the current family relationships in the library of any estate or in the Hall of Records, using "check <family name>".
First things first, the room help file in the library provides access to a detailed overview how missions work, and is well worth a read. This section will reiterate a lot of what it says there. It is worth noting that as the missions require verbal commands to receive and sometimes to complete, and that the chits are written on in Agatean, you will need to be proficient in the Agatean language to succeed. 60 levels of spoken and written is usually enough.
The NPC in each family's library will give you a mission if you say that word to them, assuming you have not done a mission too recently (a few hours, am not sure on the exact number) and your family does not hate you. Upon requesting a mission you are given a chit containing your objectives. Read the chit carefully, as the key words on it tend to be the commands you need to use to complete the mission. For example, a chit may ask you to "investigate" a room in an enemy estate, "compose" a message, or "kidnap" an enemy pet.
There are a variety of different missions, most of which have random elements (such as locations and items), and even a guild-specific mission for each guild. I won't describe every mission, but a few examples have been mentioned above. Some others involve escorting a family spy back to your estate, or intercepting and killing an enemy spy on the way to their estate.
Some missions will be complete as soon as you carry out the task abroad, while others will require you to return the chit to the mission-giving NPC, or deposit an item in the room. If you cannot complete your mission, you can tell the mission-giving NPC that it was a failure in order to end it. Some missions will be a failure if you do not complete the objectives within the required time.
Most missions require some skills, most of which are quite obvious. A 200 bonus is usually plenty to complete these missions, and while that isn't too high a number, some of the skills required are not widely used. Missions involving combat may require higher skills, and seem to scale with your skills.
Family guards can be quite deadly, making missions in enemy estates dangerous. It is quite possible to sneak past or kill them, but be warned that if you choose the violent path, they may summon numerous other guards to assist them. The guards spawned in this way don't give any experience.
Completing a mission raises your standing in the family, which can lead to progressing through a series of titles (a different series for each guild in each family). You are also awarded with experience and some money, which can be collected in the finance room.
The missions are a lot of fun and make a great change of pace from hunting. Some of the skills required in missions orient it more at mid-level players and above than newbies, but there are still plenty of little perks that anyone can make use of, regardless of skills. With no drawbacks to speak of, the families are well worth checking out.
Many thanks to Asha, Ayesha and Elanor for helping me fill in the blanks in this page, and to Unslidge and Pendrake for their very informative articles on this very subject in issue 80 of the AM Daily - please check them out for more information.