Monday, 22 June 2015

On romance in fantasy RPGs

Young Mongolian couple in traditional dress. Photo by Khoshutsuld.

Romance fiction, as a genre, comes in for a lot of criticism, especially from people who haven't actually read any of it. I feel that most of that criticism is inaccurate, based on vague assumptions about what 'everyone knows' the genre is like rather than any serious engagement with it or with the women who read and write it, but I'm not going to get into all that just now. What I want to call attention to is this: for almost eight hundred years, English used the same word for 'a fantastical tale of true love' and for 'a fantastical tale of magic and adventure', and that word was romance. The idea that stories about boys punching people belong over here, and that stories about girls kissing people belong over there, and that the two are polar opposites in every way, is a very recent historical development.

I understand that lots of groups, and lots of players, are uncomfortable role-playing out romantic scenes in play. That's OK! I completely understand how awkward it can be when, in the fiction, your swashbuckling hero(ine) is trying to put the moves on some comely lad or lass, but at the table this consists of a (male) player offering a series of lame chat-up lines to his (male) GM, desperately hoping that he'll relent and just let him make a Charisma roll already. But I think it's a shame to leave it out altogether, because it's a fantastic source of drama, and a rather important element of history, fiction, and, well, human life. People are drawn to one another, especially in the kind of high-stress situations which comprise most tabletop adventures. You don't need to roleplay out the flirtatious banter, let alone the sex scenes. But failing to include love, sex, and romance at all, with the possible exception of throw-away 'I spend my money on ale and whores!' remarks, seems rather a pity.

My assumption with ATWC is very much that, unless a player makes clear that they really want nothing to do with the whole subject, the PCs will rapidly become involved in various kinds of romantic entanglements. Why wouldn't they? PCs are the kinds of people who go to amazing places, do amazing things, perform feats of bravery and daring-do, and come home laden with cool stories and awesome loot. That's pretty damn sexy, no matter which way you happen to swing.

In running such relationships, I always try hard to make them assets. Another reasons why many gamers are so reluctant to involve their characters in romantic relationships is because they see them as liabilities: just so many things for the GM to exploit. Girlfriend? Kidnapped. Husband? Framed for murder. Kids? Murdered to generate extra pathos! No wonder so many PCs stick to casual liaisons with nameless and interchangeable prostitutes. I try not to do that. I also try to emphasise how useful it is to have someone out there who really cares about you: someone you can trust with your secrets, who can hide you when you need hiding, who can connect you to a larger community, who can potentially access information and resources that you could never get yourself. Your partner may not be your equal on the battlefield (although, then again, maybe they are), but they can still help you in all sorts of ways.

This all ties in with larger themes about how the Wicked City itself is an engine that runs on violence, and is thus unlikely to be defeated through violence; a capacity for empathy, the key value of most romance fiction, is going to be much more important in the long run, which is one reason why I'd describe ATWC as 'romantic fantasy' despite the proliferation of awful things in it. But that's a subject for another post.

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