Friday, 1 January 2016

Romance plots in RPGs

Amazons of the Caucasus, in 1895. (photo taken in Western Armenia):
19th century Armenian riflewomen. Real love means never needing to remind your girlfriend to bring an extra revolver. 

Look, romance plots are not very complicated: they're just anti-individualist, which is why the genre comes in for so much criticism from people wedded to the idea that a lone individual, male or female, should be able to solve all life's problems single-handed. But then, D&D is also anti-individualist in its own way, especially in its earliest incarnations: a single B/X PC, stranded alone in a dungeon, is likely to be a dead man walking. What allows survival is not the abilities of the individual but the collective capabilities of the party, traditionally embodied in the classic fighter-mage-cleric-thief quartet. Collectively, they become much more than the sum of their parts.

Romance is like that. Romance is about finding the mage to complement your fighter, the cleric to complement your thief. It's about two people who are in trouble because, alone, they simply cannot deal with what the world is throwing at them; they need to find each other, because each has a sphere of mastery which complements the weaknesses of the other, meaning that together they can handle pretty much anything that they're likely to encounter. In traditional romance fiction this division of competencies is split along strongly gendered lines: the hero possesses the strength and power necessary to exert mastery of the external world, but is unable to conquer his own grief and rage and pain, whereas the heroine possesses the empathy and wisdom necessary to exert mastery of the internal world, but is unable to protect herself against the external forces which threaten to destroy or dispossess her. The heroine heals the hero; the hero protects the heroine; they both live happily ever after.

If that sounds like a rather railroady plot, in RPG terms, that's because it is: the genre is big on One True Loves and relationships that were Simply Meant To Be. One of its most cherished values is the belief that if two people are really and truly right for one another then they will find each other, no matter what gets in the way: indeed, the fact that they are willing and able to fight their way through to one another, despite the physical and social obstacles that divide them, is part of the process through which they prove that they deserve one another at all. In a traditional RPG, however, the whole point is that the players are free to have their characters do whatever they choose, and that the story could thus end up unfolding in any number of ways, rather than simply plodding forwards towards some pre-scripted conclusion. Tell the average RPG group that two people are simply meant to be together - let alone that a given NPC is their PC's destined One True Love - and they'll immediately start plotting how best to break them up.

So don't do that. Instead, if you're interested in incorporating romance plotlines into your games - and given their potential to generate drama, I don't see why you wouldn't be - then just scatter a whole bunch of NPCs through your scenarios who are what I call romance ready. That means that they need to be:

  1. Single.
  2. Part of some well-defined social group whose members are expected to marry within that group. (In most pre-modern settings, this includes just about everyone.)
  3. Potentially attractive. (This doesn't mean that they need to be super-hot, and in fact it's traditional for them not to be; but they need to be people it's easy to see other people being overpoweringly attracted to, even if you, personally, don't find them especially attractive.)
  4. Really good at some important sub-section of human life: socially adept, physically powerful, learned and intelligent, empathic and emotionally intelligent, rich and well-connected, whatever.
  5. Really bad at some other, and equally important, sub-section of human life: socially clueless, physically frail, ignorant, lacking in self-control, poor and vulnerable, etc. 
  6. In a situation in which being bad at the thing that they're bad at is a real problem, and consequently miserable and/or in trouble.
Follow these guidelines and you'll end up with a whole bunch of people who need rescuing, and possess the means to potentially rescue someone else. But they're also in social situations which mean that the people who they are best-equipped to save, and who are best-equipped to save them, are not the kind of people they're expected to fall in love with and marry, meaning that social pressures will be brought to bear from both sides to keep them apart. You know what happens then? DRAMA ENSUES, that's what!

Charles Lebrun Guillaume - The Love Toke <3:
Charles Lebrun Guillaume, The Love Token. Countdown to DRAMA: 10... 9... 8...

The crucial difference between this and actually plotting out romance fiction is that you don't just have one Romeo set up for each Juliet: instead you have a whole bunch of people, who can potentially help and be helped by each other in many different ways. So if Guy A and Girl B never actually end up crossing paths, that's fine; if you've got enough of these characters scattered around, then just being part of the general chaos that makes up most RPG campaigns should, sooner or later, bring them into contact with someone else who could also work. So maybe Sophisticated Urban Girl never did meet Folksy Rural Guy; she could still find happiness with War-Weary Veteran Guy, or Intellectual Bookworm Girl, or Charming Low-Life Scoundrel Guy, or any number of others. Your job as GM is just to ensure that, when they do meet, the PCs see the initial sparks of mutual attraction and fascination fly between them... and then stop. 

That's right. You stop. You stop because this isn't actually the story of Sophisticated Urban Girl and War-Weary Veteran Guy: it's the story of your PCs. If your PCs don't take an interest in these NPCs and their relationship, then they just become minor characters. You can assume their romance narrative is unfolding in the background somewhere, and from time to time it might surface in the campaign - 'We need that veteran guy to help us with this! Don't tell me he's off chasing that socialite again!' - but mostly it's way, way off-stage. But if the PCs do take an interest - if they decide that these two NPCs are perfect for each other, or that they're all wrong for each other, or that one of them would rather romance this NPC instead - then you dive in. You let them get involved in the relationship, and then you start to throw other potentially suitable characters into the mix - and again, while in a romance novel it would be decided ahead of time which one is the Real Hero(ine) and which one is just the Other (Wo)Man, in an RPG everything is open. When Sophisticated Urban Girl starts falling for Charming Low-Life Scoundrel Guy while she and Veteran Guy are on the outs, it's up to the PCs to decide which relationship they want to try to encourage. Let them play matchmaker. Let them fight to maintain the affections of their preferred love interests against the advances of other suitors. Let them argue with each other about who should end up with who. ('He's not right for her! He doesn't deserve her! He smells!') And, above all, let them get dragged into the chaos that these developing relationships inevitably create in their wake, as people from two different worlds fall in love and fight to be together despite the increasingly frantic efforts of those around them to keep them apart. Finally, when the couple get together and solve one another's problems and save one another's souls and live happily ever after, let the PCs reap the benefits: because now, rather than just having two individual friends, they are friends with a couple who are capable of much more than either of them ever would be alone, and who owe it all to the PCs. After all, if the romance genre believes in anything, it's that real love is always worth supporting. 

To get you started, here's a handy list of romance-ready NPCs, suitable for almost any setting or genre. Some parings are more obvious than others, but almost any of them should work if the PCs are around to give them a bit of a push!

  1. Conformist: Reliable, hard-working, practical, socially respectable, fundamentally decent... a bit boring. Not good at taking risks or thinking outside the box. Harbours secret dreams and desires which they've never dared to act upon. Slowly dying inside.
  2. Embittered Ex-Lover: Passionate and devoted... perhaps too much so. A previous relationship went horribly wrong: their heart got broken, and they've sworn never to love again. Currently utterly miserable, but could be an outstanding partner for anyone capable of dragging them out of the past and persuading them to give love a second chance. 
  3. Empathic Healer: Sympathetic, intuitive, a great listener, the kind of friend everyone wants to have. Also sensitive and easily wounded. Currently surrounded by extremely hurtful and insensitive people - neglectful parents? abusive co-workers? - and consequently deeply unhappy.
  4. Folksy Rural Type: Strong-willed, practical, athletic. Lacks education or worldly sophistication, and is easily fooled or manipulated by those who possess either or both. Coming to the big city has left them dangerously out of their depth.
  5. Impoverished Worthy: Good, kind, brave, intelligent, loyal to their friends... but low-status and penniless. Being a genuinely good human being turns out not to count for very much when your poverty means that everyone assumes they can treat you like shit. 
  6. Ivory Tower Intellectual: Hugely intelligent and well-read. Very limited social and practical skills: approaches everything as though it was a theoretical exercise. Finding it very difficult to cope with life outside the ivory tower. 
  7. Jaded Aristocrat: Charismatic, witty, and fashionably sinful. They have the wealth to indulge in all manner of pleasures, but the appeal of empty self-indulgence has long since palled: they continue to act the part of the amoral hedonist, but secretly they're deeply depressed and spend an awful lot of time thinking about suicide.
  8. Low-Life Scoundrel: Charming, inventive, quick-witted, streetwise. Very bad at forging relationships not based on manipulation or deceit. Having too many enemies and no real friends has placed them in increasing danger.
  9. Manic Pixie: Bubbling over with life and fun and energy, but so quirky that they never really fit in and have real trouble conforming to expectations. Currently stuck in a situation where they are expected to conform to very strict expectations indeed: an army, perhaps, or an elite academy. Everyone there hates them and they are deeply miserable. 
  10. Righteous Rebel: Enormously determined, with a clear sense of right and wrong and a hatred of all forms of injustice. Doesn't really understand the meaning of compromise or the need to choose your battles, and is rapidly heading for burnout or martyrdom as a result.
  11. Rootless Wanderer: Has been everywhere and done everything, but lacks any real connections: has no home, no family, no close friends. Increasingly feeling that their life has no meaning or purpose. Likely to end up throwing their life away on a whim unless they can find something (or someone) to live for.
  12. Sensitive Artist: Passionate, emotional, creative. Brilliantly eloquent. Terrible at managing the everyday business of life, and utterly miserable if unable to practise their art. Currently stuck with people who are forcing them to become a lawyer or something. 
  13. Sophisticated Urbanite: Clever, witty, well-educated, socially capable. Lacks any real understanding of the practical realities of life. Their social lifeline (to money, family, whatever) has just been cut off, and they're heading for a hard landing in a situation which they won't be able to talk their way out of.
  14. Voice of Conscience: Has a strong moral sense, and the courage to do what's right regardless of how difficult it might be. Currently stuck in a situation of total disempowerment which makes them complicit in all kinds of petty acts of cruelty and exploitation. Hates it.
  15. War-Weary Veteran: Highly skilled and physically capable. Depressed and miserable because of the horrors (s)he has seen. Doing a very bad job of fitting into civilian life.
  16. Wild One: Athletic, alert, tough, and cunning due to a lifetime spent in the wilderness. Finds civilised life scary and confusing. Not coping well with life outside the wilds.


  1. I think the big obstacle to romance in RPGs isn't IC opportunity, it's OOC comfort thresholds - there's a reason several of my PCs have had hopeless crushes or enamorations, but none has ever been in a relationship during uptime. I think that if you want to make romance a part of your RPG, that's the main problem to think about dealing with.

  2. I _love_ a good romantic encounter table. Roll 1d16.