Romance in RPGs

Ahh, Obligation Day. A day for thinking about mawwiage. Twu wuv. And, if you’re me, for wondering who the hell schedules a roleplaying event for Obligation Day. (Answer: bitter singletons who are trying to kid themselves they don’t care.) Still, the convergence of roleplaying and romance has set me to thinking about how the one manifests in the other (kinky) and how the other manifests in the one.

Obligatory “but why, Von, why?” out of the way first. Romance in your RPGs offers something a bit different, a pleasant and crunchy side salad to the Murderfuck Buffet normally served up at gaming tables, something which at the very least enriches the quality of funny-voices banter going on between characters if you’re into that sort of thing. Something I’ve always wanted to do in that line is play half of a ‘battle couple’ who’ve been together for ages and ages, done all their longing glances and big damn kisses and are now settled, competent and playing off one another like actual people rather than elements of a plot arc. Just really practical people who happen to be banging and whose actions might or might not be affected should one of them die.

via – and I cry, EVERY TIME.

Hell, if you’re part of a real long term gamer couple you might even have the survivor going on to make a new friend, start a new romance… just as something that ticks along beside the busy lives of full time murder hobos. After all, romance can figure into those lifestyles without snogging princesses and brooding over dead wives…

Romance, after all, is the A+ source for character motivation: “I seek my fortune to win fair maiden’s heart!” and “Beastmen killed my wife. I will kill all of theirs” are hackneyed as fuck but they have a certain resonance for all that. More to my point, there’s an implied relationship between beings of opposite genders implied in the backstory of any character born by conventional means. It’s something you could ask of any character, but it’s brought into sharp relief by the the semidemihuman options in D&D. There are of course the boring stock options – twu ewven wuv and orc rape – but here’s a couple of others from my back catalogue, just to indicate the potential for thespian wankery here.

Example #1: The half-drow who was born to one of those “he was a renegade drow turning his back on the cruel matriarchal spider-worshippers below, she was the human he saved and served with all his cringing pedestal-humping heart” couples, the white knight and his lady love, who turned his back on that sickening guff and really got in touch with his inner drow – or maybe she’s the daughter of a female slave and a male drow, who can never amount to jack shit in drow society and hit the surface world because up THERE she’s an exotic grey-skinned beauty who can be treated like the goddess she expects to be.

Example #2: The half-orc whose parents were a tribal union come good; they didn’t love each other, but they tolerated each other, ’cause it was the simplest way to bring their tribes together, stop them fighting, make them all kith and clan and engage in the far more profitable pursuit of duffing up everyone else in the world. Naturally their second son went off into the world to seek his fortune and came across as a surprisingly savvy barbarian who understood the direct approach to diplomacy.

On that note: if you’re playing a political game, chances are there’ll be some equivalent to the arranged marriage, a union which acts to signify a contract duly made. The romantic arc here is the obstacle, the conflict, the thing-which-makes-interest. One or both of the parties are in love with someone else and the players now have a complex situation to manage, one with a double handful of potential outcomes. Force the union through? Help one or both of the betrothed NPCs to elope with the people they actually like? Supplant one party to the union with themselves and get in on the deal? Get themselves OUT of the arranged marriage by deflecting their hubby-to-be onto someone more eligible?

Hell, maybe the romance is just the reason they’re on the adventure in the first place, something a bit different from “uh, because it’s there” or “you’re all in a bar and this wizard walks in and hires you”. You all work for a stony-broke noblewoman who needs a dowry and knows of a treasure beyond the Black Caves of Nelpha Dong… maybe one of you is the noblewoman, maybe one of you’s the intended and doesn’t know it, maybe one of you wants in on that. At it’s core it’s a simple “someone’s paying you to go here and get stuff” adventure hook, with a sliding scale of thespian wankery to suit any palate.

We haven’t even touched on the potential of charm spells, blood bonds and other apparatus of dubious consent, all of which can – if deployed with care and taste – have players gnawing the table in frustration or concern. I wouldn’t roll these out for a convention game, but for my long-term Vampire group (in which everyone involved has known each other for going on ten years now, we know where the boundaries are and we’re not so nervous that we’re constantly worried about squicking each other out)? Sure, why not. The blood bond isn’t something I forced into play but it came up naturally as a course of one player sticking his character’s fangs where they shouldn’t be and another deciding to romance a scheming Setite, and since it’s there… it’ll be used.

That last example demonstrates a core point that I’d like to be uppermost in your minds as you leave this post behind. None of this stuff is going to be right for every group. None of this stuff is something you should force on every group you play in or – dear Eris on a waffle iron – run for. Shockingly enough, romance isn’t far off graphic violence in terms of how you test the water to see if it’s acceptable. If you’re all feeling terribly boring and mature you discuss it in advance, set boundaries, work things out – if you’re a bit more devil-may-care or if it just springs up unexpectedly in play then you need to Pay Attention. Learn to read the expressions on people’s faces, to look for the complaints they’re not making because you’ve made the whole situation awkward. Goodness knows it’s not easy – “I can’t read your expression, what are you trying to tell me?” is a sentence I utter at least three times a day – but, at the risk of sounding like your dad, you’ll never get anywhere in life if you can’t at least pretend to take notice of how your actions affect other people.

If nothing else, it might mean you get to give a toss about the next Obligation Day.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

3 thoughts on “Romance in RPGs”

  1. “I press her down gently in the sand…”

    I can see the potential for romance-as-character-motivation as opposed to the habitual modus operandi of devil-may-care-in-it-for-the-blood-and-the-gold that can seem unsatisfying to those of a more thespian wankery/complex character motivation sort of bent, but my problem has always been with the implementation.

    Role-playing for me personally, by which I mean the actual role-playing part of role-playing, not the investigation/exploration/murder most foul part, is always about exploring character(i.e what would Bob the Barbarian do in situation X), or about letting players explore their character, find new ways/dimensions to it, watch how they behave in extreme situations etc. One would think, at first glance, that romance and its darker cousins, jealousy, betrayal and spite(hell hath no fury and all that) would make excellent candidates for generating the necessary drama.

    While romance as a background motivation/NPC motivation is all fine and dandy since reproduction and the assorted trappings are such a large part of who we are as a species, I think my problem arises when an all male group(i.e my group) participates in cross-gender impersonation and it just comes off as akward. Perhaps that is the result of our deficiencies as elf-game players, perhaps the thick pungent musk of testosterone mixed with doritos drowns out every notion of exploring the gentle caress of the inner tigh, but for whatever reason, role-playing a romantic liaison with my drinking buddies has never seemed appealing. Blimey, I think I roleplayed a ranger with a dead unrequited love once. That worked.

    As for a political campaign, yes, absolutely, arranged marriages, betrothals, seduction and forbidden romances are the bread and butter of courtly intrigue(along with assassination, poison, inheritance, fratricide, betrayal, alliances, false flag operations, trumped-up-charges and duels/trial-by-combat). That sounds fucking cool. Makes me want to run a grim-dark Camelot-esque campaign.

    An adventuring couple seems like the only option for long-term relationships for the prospective Don Guans but I don’t know what kind of person would allow his loved one to risk life and limb time and time again, with the possibility of eventual tragic death seeming ever more likely. A sort of elfgame Bonnie and Clyde perhaps. I usually picture career adventurers as lonely buggers, jaded and paranoid, savouring the weeks between their expeditions by wenching and drinking like there is no tomorrow until they run out of cash or the boredom strikes and they kill a town constable in a tavern brawl. “Last bonnie lass I was with turned into a grey-skinned monster halfway through and ate Fredrick.”
    Treating new members like soldiers in WW2, refusing to learn even their names until they survive long enough. Telling fire-side tales of that one adventurer that became a lord and married a princess whilst neglecting the hundreds that rot away in old tombs at the bottom of pit traps etc.

  2. As a female person that enjoys the serious romantic twist, I have found it difficult to procure a partner that isn’t scared off by my real life husband or by the fact that I’m old enough to be their mum. Obligation day or not, I am perfectly capable of being serious and sensitive should the case call for it, and I usually find some traumatically broken way to place romance into the game.

    1. Significant others do seem to introduce a certain wobbliness into proceedings. There are boundaries there which are uncomfortable to cross – I don’t just mean flirting with someone else’s woman, but the idea that a couple can engage with the romance element to an extent that other players perhaps can’t? This one time Hark kissed me mid-session, to make a character point, and I felt that was crossing a line, simply because none of the other players at the table would have the licence to do the same thing and that seemed somehow unfair.

You may now commence belching

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