Tuesday 25 August 2015

PC/NPC Romances: From Liability to Asset!

As I've mentioned before, one reason why a lot of D&D players are reluctant to get their characters involved in any kind of romantic relationship is that they've had bad experiences in the past: of GMs killing off the loved ones of PCs as a way of generating some cheap drama, or using them to manipulate reluctant characters into following the plot. As a teenager, I was guilty of this myself: character has a family? Have them kidnapped by the villain: they they have to go after him! Character has a love interest? Have them killed by the baddies to show they're serious! Unsurprisingly, after a few experiences of this kind most players start insisting that all their PCs are orphans with no living relatives, who are either totally asexual or are interested in only the most transitory of casual relationships. After all, if you have no loved ones then they can't be used against you.

I have no need for friendship! Friendship causes pain!
I touch no-one and no-one touches meeeeeee!
I am a rock! I am an iiiiiiisland!
In ATWC, I want to do the opposite: to ensure that, in all but exceptional circumstances, having someone out there who you really love and care about, and who really loves and cares about you, is a major asset, rather than a liability. Furthermore, in keeping with the overall themes of the game (and the romantic fantasy genre), I'd like to concentrate on all the ways in which this can be true beyond the rather tiresome 'they're just as good at fighting as you are!' option. PCs should follow their hearts, rather than worrying whether the person they're romancing has enough hit points to provide a meaningful advantage on the battlefield!

Fortunately, one of the things that romance fiction is very good at is identifying and celebrating those traditionally feminine 'soft skills' which are chronically undervalued by most other media, but which - as the romances themselves often point out - are, in reality, absolutely essential to all kinds of grand undertaking. Critics who attack romances for showing the heroine doing the cooking while the hero plans his Manly Heroics are often missing the point: these stories are very often celebrations of women's work, pointing out that unless someone does the cooking (and writes the correspondence, and does the social networking, and keeps on good terms with the family, and provides emotional support and encouragement, and all the other forms of unglamorous but essential labour which women have performed throughout history), then the Manly Heroics are never going to get off the ground. Now, in ATWC, the roles are just as likely to be gender-swapped; but the essential point that someone can be of substantial assistance to the kind of adventurous endeavours which D&D games are usually about even if they, personally, aren't much good at swinging a sword is a highly applicable one. So, with no further ado: six ways in which your romance with an NPC noncombatant can turn out to be an asset after all...

1: The NPC connects you to a family and a community

Marrying into a community is an extremely effective way of gaining very strong links to it, effectively turning a whole bunch of its members into family. A PC who marries into one of the families of the Cobweb, for example, has just gained a lasting foothold in the heart of the Wicked City; a PC who becomes engaged to one of the People of the Rubble gains a safe haven from the King's Men and the secret police, and so on. No community will ever treat outsiders in the same way that they treat their own; but a sufficiently serious romantic involvement with a member of that community can go a very long way towards bridging the gap. Furthermore, family networks are extremely important to most people in pre-modern settings, and it's a real advantage to be able to call upon two rather than one: you might not get on with all of your in-laws, but when it comes right down to it they're probably going to stand with you rather than against you. After all, what happens to you reflects on them, now, whether they like it or not...

2: The NPC has, or has access to, specialised knowledge and resources

Have you and your sexy snake-girl morphine dealer fallen very much in love? Well, not only might you be able to score opiates at discount prices, you now have someone you really trust who can give specialist advice on all medical, narcotic, and alchemical matters. Are you and your cyborg boyfriend planning on tying the knot? Say goodbye to having to repair your own clockwork gear! Even if your love interest doesn't possess specialist knowledge or resources themselves, they might very well be able to connect you to someone else who does: someone who might previously have wanted nothing to do with you, but who may look at you very differently now that you and their brother / niece / old university buddy / whatever are practically engaged...

3: The NPC can look out for your interests while you're off adventuring

Let's say you've shacked up with someone 'ordinary', like a farmer or shopkeeper: he's a nice guy, you get on well with his family, but he's not going to be slaying monsters any time soon. Does that mean that he (and they) aren't useful to you? Not at all! While you're off questing in the wilderness, they can look after your business interests, keep their eyes and ears open for information, put the word out that you're looking for someone or something important, stand up for you and your reputation while you're not around to do it yourself, and generally do the kind of social legwork that you only really appreciate when you discover just how difficult life can be without it. When you finally get back, you can look forward to finding a hot meal, a hero's welcome, and a wealth of support and information waiting for you, rather than just having to slope off to a hired room and hope that the guys you paid to look after your stuff didn't decide to run off with it while you were away.

4: The NPC cares whether you live or die

Captured by pig-men? As you languish in your filthy cell, you can at least be sure that there's someone out there who will be doing everything within their power to find out what's become of you, and to bring you safely home again. Even if they're in no position to be riding off to rescue you themselves, they can and will throw all the resources they have at gathering information, organising rescue missions, guilt-tripping your old friends and colleagues into looking for you, and generally ensuring that you're not simply permitted to drop quietly off the face of the earth. If someone with no connections vanishes, then virtually no-one is going to notice; but you have someone who will not shut up about you, and whom you can rely upon to continually bring your case to the attention of anyone who might be able to help until you're either saved or dead. And if you do die, they'll just shift to trying to get someone to avenge you. Isn't that a comforting thought to take with you into the dungeons?

5: The NPC probably knows you better than you know yourself

Genuine emotional intimacy dissolves people's boundaries and barriers like nobody's business, and after just a comparatively short time spent living with your new love interest, you'll probably realise that they've acquired a shocking level of insight into how your mind really works. That means they know when you need supporting and encouraging, and when you need dissuading; they can sense when you're really onto something, and spot when you're about to make a huge mistake. In game terms, assume that any major project your character undertakes - starting a business venture, planning an expedition, researching some obscure fact - is going to be substantially more efficient and effective for as long as their significant other is around to help. Again, this doesn't require the SO to have any relevant specialist skills: they're helpful not because of how well they know the thing you're working on, but because of how well they know you. They might not know the first thing about building a giant robot battlesuit, but they will know exactly when they should bring you an extra pot of coffee, and when they should tell you to put down the gears and get some damn sleep already instead: and as a result, the project will go much more smoothly than it ever could have done without them.

Reclusive Artificer - Magic Origins Art
They also remember exactly where you're always leaving those things you keep thinking that you've lost. That alone probably improves your efficiency by at least 10%.

6: The NPC gives you something to live for

Whether it's the kind of grand romance where you would do absolutely anything for one another, or a slightly more down-to-earth affair where you just really enjoy being together and would really rather not die until you've had the chance to do a whole lot more of it, your relationship gives you something - someone - to care about and cling to in an often confusing and hostile world. This probably makes you reluctant to throw your life away in the name of some grand abstraction - there's a reason why unattached young men are always the ones who get used as cannon fodder - but it also gives you a hell of a motivation to make it back alive. GMs might want to consider granting bonuses to applicable FORT or WILL saves, or even allowing characters to survive unconscious for a couple more HP than would normally be the case, to represent the tenacity with which characters will cling to life when they have someone that they really can't bear to leave behind.

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One final note: if romance is going to be an important theme in a game, I think it's really important to be up-front about it. Straight-up tell the players that you're not just going to treat their love interests as exploitable weaknesses, and that, on the contrary, they're going to be important resources in the ongoing campaign. (This would also be a good time to talk to players who aren't interested in getting their PCs involved in in-character romances, and about what might fill a similar niche in the lives of their characters.) Let them know that if they randomly form a romantic relationship with an NPC along the road somewhere, that's actually going to matter, and that it will matter even if the NPC in question is just an 'ordinary' person with no super-powers or special skills. Then it's just a matter of scattering your scenarios with plenty of quirky, characterful NPCs of both genders, and letting events take their course...


  1. Cool post! It was a good and useful read, and a great help for streamlining ideas for including romance in my games. Even if I'm not looking for a mechanical impact, most of the stuff you find googling this in the internet is "How you SHOULDN'T do it" and their biggest piece of advice is "Don't include sex!! Ew, awkward" which I wasn't planning on either way. I might even translate it to Spanish and print it for my player. Thanks!

    1. No problem - glad you found it useful! And while I agree that explicit sex scenes in play are usually a terrible idea, there's nothing wrong with including sexual relationships and just 'fading to black' for the act itself...

    2. That is the approach I'll take, yes. :)