Romance in Tabletop Roleplaying Games
Relationships are a huge factor in the interactions between individuals. That doesn’t need too much expanding on and it should come as no surprise that that it has featured heavily in media throughout the ages. Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe can be cited as the earliest example of a love story. It features suicide, forbidden love and is ultimately a tragedy. For story-focused roleplaying games, this is easy fodder. Love is often encountered in tabletop role playing games through the actions and experiences of NPCs. To take an example from an upcoming episode of Tropis: our brave band of Murder Hobos arrives in a village where they are expected to disentangle a love-triangle between a young nobleman, the woman who would love him and a spirit of the woods. In this case the adventure circles quite nicely around the romance, which is the key to progress the story. In other cases the romance might be more tangential. It might be nothing more than a random encounter, or as simple as a smidgen of boxed text describing two NPCs.
Relationships involving a player character are increasingly common in computer games, especially those produced by BioWare, however remain rare in tabletop roleplaying games. That roleplaying sessions are still dominated by heterosexual middle-class white males may play a significant role in this. Especially when considering that any relationship between a PC and an NPC will ultimately require roleplaying that romance with the games master. An idea not all players will be entirely comfortable with. Those romances that do exist are usually relegated to the background (“yeah, Frank the Barbarian has a wife back in his home village”) or quickly end up in that state (“Me and Sarah’s characters are married” – some time later – “We’re married? Oh yeah!”). This is a great shame and misses out on a lot of the drama that can come from a well roleplayed relationship. Let us now explore how to improve relationship role play, starting with relationships that involve an NPC and a PC. I consider there to be three types of this relationship: World, Plot and Follower.
World relationships are those where the NPC partner is a figure in the landscape of the adventures but doesn’t necessarily have any major impact on the adventures themselves. The example of Frank and his wife would be this type of romance. The key to pulling this romance off is to ensure that the relationship has an impact on the adventurer, without too much impact on the adventures. Finding out how the PC maintains contact with their significant other, allows you to insert relationship content into the game in an immersive manner. For example, if the characters communicate through post when arriving at a village after an adventure perhaps a letter is waiting talking about the harvest, how much the NPC misses the character and so forth. These communications serve no purpose other than to encourage the character to not just treat their partner as a footnote. This also creates opportunities to create content for the other players too.
Kidnapping is an all too easy way to do this, although I will warn against such an action as it turns NPC partners into a nuisance rather than a roleplaying opportunity. Instead, consider what would happen if the partner was able to help the party in some way? Maybe they know somebody who can provide shelter for the party during troubled times, or can provide a contact through which further adventure can be gained (“My brother, the Wizard, wants to fund an expedition to White Plume Mountain”). As with all things, restraint is very much key as overusing these ideas will suddenly cause the partner to move from background figure to the party’s manager.
This type of relationship is good to introduce with those groups who might not otherwise be comfortable with the other forms described in this article. Also, the only real danger to the game exists when too much focus is placed on off-screen relationships and the role play game starts to turn into Relationship Simulator 2000. Just show restraint, remembering that this kind of relationship only exists to further build the world in which the PCs inhabit and that the PCs must be the real stars of the show.
Plot relationships are those that directly serve to drive, or otherwise impact, the game’s story. For example, perhaps an evil Vampire seduces a party member to lure them to its castle. Maybe one of the party members finds themselves falling in love with a villager only to discover they are the Werewolf they have been hunting. Of course, another option exists where the lover must be sacrificed to defeat the big-bad. This sort of relationship can perfectly capture the tragic nature of so many classic romance stories. That said, there two real dangers when using this romance method. The first is the age-old problem of railroading. Just because you, the games master, have conjured in your mind the perfect coupling of NPC and PC does not mean you can then force the actions of the player. Respect their wishes and the control of their character. Sometimes our plans simply do not work. The unexpected is the unique and fulfilling nature of role playing games. Allow these types of romance to bloom naturally and the result will continue to be spoken about years after the campaign has ended.
The second problem I have seen emerging from this type of romance is that of cliché. Let us be honest, roleplaying games are not without their tropes and by extension inherit many of the tropes found in their inspirational material too. It is very difficult to write tragic romance without it feeling clichéd or ‘fake’. I would argue that romance is up alongside good mysteries adventures as being some of the most difficult games to write for. In fact, believable romance could well be harder.
My advice would be to simply focus less on making the romance believable and instead focus on making the events of the story itself intelligent. Take the example about where the lover is doomed to die to progress the story (the ‘sacrificial lamb’). First it is important to withhold this information until the story’s third act. This allows the party to draw close to the NPC, where otherwise the players would simply dismiss the NPC as fodder. It also works best when this relegation is a surprise. Try to avoid making more than the even tiniest of hints to ensure emotional impact. It is necessary to use the most basic of all skills learned by neophyte games masters here: misdirection. In fact, as a games master I would even go as far as suggesting it may be worth simply forgetting they are to die at all. Treat the NPC as you would any other in the campaign.
The main idea, with this romance, is to keep your focus on the story itself, allowing the relationship to develop naturally and in a non-forced manner. Once the NPC’s true face is revealed let the PCs dictate how to advance and react to their actions. Ensure that they have full ability to influence the direction of the campaign at this point without forcing their hand. Maybe they will try to restrain the Werewolf, forgive the villain or even try and find a way around the sacrifice. Be prepared for other options, but ultimately let the player’s choose their course of action. This is all basic game mastery, but good games mastery relies on remember such basic rules.
Follower relationships are among my favourite to games master. This type of relationship is the class most often seen in computer role playing games, but the truly interactive nature of table top roleplay allows the idea to evolve further. Follower relationships, as the name might suggest, are relationships that exist between PCs and one (or more) NPCs. This type shares many of the qualities and advice I have already given for Plot relationships. Unlike the previous two types of relationship, however, followers have a direct impact on play but without directly moving the story itself.
More than ever this relationship is one that can be cultured indirectly, but must be allowed to bloom naturally from the PC side. In this fashion it is entirely possible for a relationship to emerge and this is perfectly fine. So long as it is not overdone. It will very quickly get annoying for your players if every NPC they bring along for the ride suddenly develops an undying love to their characters. Beyond that there really isn’t a lot that can be said for this class of relationship that has not already been said for either Plot or World. Simply put, show restraint, distance and do not let the relationship dominate play.
One More Thing
The last thing to consider when planning a NPC-PC relationship option (because they are, of course, only optional) for your players, is to ensure that your player base is going to be comfortable with it. Not everybody is open to the idea of roleplaying a relationship. Ultimately you are the best judge of what your players will and won’t do, but it is essential to respect boundaries whenever they emerge. You may find yourself confronted with a player who while initially happy with the idea suddenly moves against it five sessions down the line. If this happens, it may be frustrating, it may mean throwing away pages of notes and schemes, but you must show your players the respect they deserve. This area of gaming just isn’t for everybody.
That said there are ways in which you can begin to introduce relationship roleplay in a way that is good to the waters. The order in which the three NPC relationship styles above have been written is from low to high impact. World relationships are a great place to start when you just want to see how your players will take to relationship roleplay. There is, naturally, nothing to stop one style of relationship turning into another. In fact, encourage this transition. Not only will it create naturally forming interactions between NPC and PC, but it helps your game feel more fluid; more responsive; more believable.
Not all relationships are restricted to the NPC-PC dynamic. It is perfectly reasonable for a relationship to develop between two player characters. When this happens it can be a really beautiful thing for all to witness – especially if your group is enraptured with story-roleplay as mine are. It can, of course, also turn into a sex-romp farce (see: The Gamers – Dorkness Rising). Personally, when dealing with PC-PC relationships my advice is to stay hands off. Let the players handle it and only interfere if it becomes an obstruction to the enjoyment your other players.
PC-PC relationships are also the type that has the most chance to go wrong and when this happens they tend to go dramatically wrong. The most common cause for issue occurs when the couple’s roleplay begins to obstruct the flow of the game. This can come in many different forms and is often best dealt directly. Privately, before a session, speak to the two players and see if an arrangement can be come to. A compromise to ensure they can still enjoy their roleplay without obstructing play. Ultimately roleplaying is a communal effort so all present should be trying to ensure equal fun for everybody.
Another issue can be when the players are using their characters as avatars to feed an out-of-game infatuation. This seems more common at LARP than tabletop, but for the most part, is generally harmless. The biggest issue comes when just one member of the in-game relationship begins to see more there than actually exists. In this case as above, if the players cannot sort it out themselves, talk to them both. Try and find a resolution. Personally, if you believe there to be a significant risk of this occurring, it may be worthwhile talking with the players when the relationship first blooms and ensuring that they are aware that it is just in-game and all that good stuff. A little interpersonal skill is required here – I, frankly, lack sufficient skill.
I know enough games masters who simply ban all PC-PC relationships from their tables. While I believe this is a real shame, as when they work such relationships really are beautiful. Ultimately, though, it is so easy for them to go wrong. They require mature players, with a firm grasp of the in-game/out-of-game division. It is certainly not for everybody, or every group.
Something else to consider is that not all relationships involve lovers, in the traditional sense. A relationship also exists between siblings and parent and child. These are great ways to explore relationships in a non-romantic fashion and may be more suitable for some roleplaying groups. These types are also a lot ‘safer’ for PC-PC relationships. Savvy games masters may suggest these relationships instead when their players wish romance. There isn’t a lot of difference in how to handle romantic or non-romantic relationships so I’ll instead move quickly on to my conclusion.
In conclusion relationships are a great way to bring a new dynamic to your gaming table. They help firmly plant players in the fantasy world your craft and even help make that world more believable and developed. There are risks of course and a games master should be confident they can portray these relationships properly before jumping in the deep end. Ultimately though, with practice and a disciplined hand, you too can be writing believable romance side-stories that will have your players loving it.