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Romance in RPGs

Been a while since I wrote a gaming-themed thread, so here we go:

You know what almost every heroic story in scifi/fantasy has? A love interest. You know what kind of game aspires to create the same feeling as a heroic scifi/fantasy game? RPGs. You know what almost always sucks for everybody? Trying to create romance-themed storylines in an RPG.

How it should work in the GM's head.

How it should work in the GM’s head.

Of course it all sounds like a good idea, but when you actually get down to doing it, it never seems to work. Sure, it makes perfect sense that the player who makes the ‘ladies man’ character gets to have a love interest. Yeah, getting the prince to fall in love with your Valkyrie is pretty awesome from a plot standpoint and creates all kinds of fun conflict to explore. Having a married character is a fantastic plot hook for almost any game. Unfortunately, this stuff never seems to come across too well.

But Why?

Okay, I’m not even going to cite all the various problems that arise when you get a bunch of socially awkward geeks in a room imagining that they’re fantasy character is falling in love with another fantasy character that is portrayed by their best buddy the GM. Let’s skip that Freudian smorgasbord and establish a few assumptions. They are as follows:

  1. You are playing with emotionally stable and well-adjusted adults who can talk about kissing and girls without losing their minds.
  2. You are playing in a group with mixed gender players and/or folks confident enough in their sexuality that the idea of ‘pretending’ to love a character played by somebody otherwise unattractive to you does not create weirdness.
  3. Everybody agrees that a love story would be a cool addition to the plot.
How it works in practice.

How it works in practice.

Okay, let’s make all of those (grandiose) assumptions. These things still don’t work easily (if at all). Here are a few of the reasons.

We are not Actors

Pretending to be in love is a very, very challenging piece of performance. Hell, if you’ve never really been in love, it’s very hard to simulate it. Even if you have, you might not have a really firm idea of what happened to you or how you acted or even whether you should act that way again. Also, no matter how open-minded and confident you might be in the presence of your fellow players, acting out a love scene (and I’m not even talking sex – BY ALL MEANS DO NOT GO THERE! Seriously, guys – that gets all sorts of creepy really fast) is sort of a private thing, and it’s hard to commit to it or believe in it in the same way you can easily believe that a dragon is chasing you or that you really want to kill the villain who burned down your character’s village. Without commitment to the scene, it feels wooden and flat. It doesn’t ring true.

What is Love? (baby don’t hurt me…don’t hurt me…no more…)

So, say your character falls in love with (whoever). What does that mean in terms of the game? While some game systems work this in very well (7th Sea has the Romance background, the Fate system has Aspects tailor-made for this), others are very poorly suited to this kind of thing (D&D, for example). Exactly how to work romance into the plot can sometimes be unclear to both the GM and the player. The significant other becomes something you tag on to your character sheet, which is just plain odd. Sometimes they act as a henchman, which is practical, but it becomes very easy to relegate their role in the game to ‘the handsome guy who holds my spell components’ or ‘the cute blonde girl who shoots arrows’ and, in general, the whole interesting aspect of the romance is lost. This makes sense, since it’s easier to manage that way, but it also rings false and wastes story potential.

Stereotypes AHOY!

If you are playing with a single-gender group (and sorry about that – playing with both guys and gals is awesome and I highly recommend it if possible), introducing the opposite sex can quickly degenerate into a bunch of guys (or, I suppose, girls, though I have yet to encounter an all-female gaming group and suppose its existence really only in theory) complaining about what the other gender ‘does’ or is ‘like.’ This kind of pigeonholing can range from the insulting and misogynistic to the merely boring and archetypal. The object of romance ceases to be a real character and is treated as a flat stereotype of either the perceived positive traits of a gender or the negative ones. This is not only bad stereotyping but can also quickly bleed into bad behavior or crude talk on the part of the players. I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy this.

What To Do?

Okay, so how do you surmount these obstacles? Well, I don’t have all the answers, I must say. Across my decades of GMing, I can really only say I’ve been successful in introducing romance storylines in one campaign I played in and in one other I played in (both 7th Sea). When it has worked, the following tools seemed to be in evidence:

  • Let it be Player Initiated: You cannot and should not attempt to introduce a romance-related thread unless the player has made it clear they want that to happen. This can either be with the way the character is constructed (they have the ‘Star-Crossed’ flaw, for instance, or something equivalent) or how the player plays the character (he is constantly serenading pretty ladies, asks about the presence of attractive NPCs and so on). To foist a love storyline on a player that doesn’t really want one is a waste – everybody will feel weird and it won’t be any fun.
  • Skip the Courtship: Pre-established romances are easier to play than new ones. This, oddly enough, is often true for life as it is in RPGs. Once the fires of infatuation have faded, you can still be just as much in love with somebody but can also act normally around them and avoid certain levels of love-struck foolishness. Accordingly, players that begin play with pre-established lady-loves or doting husbands or what-not have a less taxing role-playing task ahead of them. This is not to say that courting can’t be fun in a game, but you really need the player to be on-board and need to be sure you have the right game atmosphere to make it work.
  • Love is Risk: Romances should be played as player vulnerabilities. This doesn’t mean you need to kill a player’s wife at every opportunity, but to love requires a degree of commitment and compromise. Romantic storylines should be mined for conflict, and not all of it need involve danger. I had one PC’s wife leave him (taking all his money) because he ignored her and went gallivanting about the world with his friends (i.e. the PCs) and left her alone. It was an entire adventure arc to win her back, and it was awesome. Likewise, romance storylines exist to make conflict and conflict makes plot interesting. There are lots of ways to do this (you don’t need to go far to find examples). At it’s heart, being in love (whether in reality or in a game) means you (or your character) are extremely vulnerable to the person they love, simple as. Nobody has the power to hurt you like the person you love, whether it be intentionally, accidentally, as a result of others’ actions, or whatever. As a good GM, you need to use this to make the story go. If players don’t want their characters’ loves to be central to the plot, they probably shouldn’t have them in the first place.

That’s what I’ve got for now. I’d love to hear what others have done (and if it worked). As a storyteller, I badly want to initiate these kinds of stories inside my campaigns, but I also know from a gaming perspective just how difficult it is to pull off. There is a difficult (and unique) balance to be struck and, while I do know it’s possible, I don’t think it is practical to expect it to work in every game.

Love and Magic

They call it 'fantasy' for a reason, folks.

They call it ‘fantasy’ for a reason, folks.

Most stories have a good love interest somewhere in there. The hero or heroine pines after this fella or that girl while in the midst of fighting the forces of evil or passing the bar or getting the band together for one last gig or whatever. We’re humans – we’re saps for a good romance. Fantasy fiction is no exception, either. I might even go so far as to say that the ‘love interest’ angle present in a lot of fantasy novels is, in some ways, more central to the plot than in many other genres. Maybe.

Well, if not more central, then certainly odder and potentially more problematic.

I’ve written previously about my difficulty with the female image in fantasy literature; this isn’t precisely about that. What I’m talking about is less the objectification of women and more about the romanticized idea of love. In fantasy novels, there is a certain male and a certain female character who are destined to fall in romantic love with one another and that is that. We all know who it is, too. Mad Martigan and Sorsha, Conan and Valeria, Rand Al’Thor and Elayne, Min, Aviendha and god-knows how many others in that series…

I could go on, but you know what I mean. Did any of us honestly think Luke was going to walk off with Leia? Nope. She was for Han the whole time. We could tell, you see, because they fought. Fighting means love, folks. If you don’t bicker, you don’t care. I know if I were locked in a rusty old space freighter for what was probably months with some woman I was always fighting with, we would almost certainly fall in love and make babies. Obviously. That’s how love works, right?

Fantasy and science fiction have a tendency to treat romance with idealized and ham-handed attention. They make it into something it’s not, they warp and define it to suit the story. Some of this can be blamed back on the old fairy tales of our youth – normalized gender relations rendered into gory and terrifying metaphors about witches and towers and wolves in the forest. Others can be blamed on the typical audience for fantasy and science fiction literature – young, single men. The idea of romance is tailored to suit their fantasies, as silly as that is. That these fantasies are wrong or even offensive to women (and men!) is only understood by those with a little age and experience behind them. In other words: when I was 14, much like all men, I had certain romanticized ideas of what falling in love would be like, and they were almost all entirely wrong. I blame the books I read for this, and the books I read were primarily of the fantasy and science fiction persuasion.

Some things I learned:

Terrifying Experiences Do Not Enhance Romance: Horror movies are one thing, but actual terrifying things do not make you want to cuddle. Or, if they do, it isn’t the kind of cuddling that involves making out and fondling each other in front of a roaring fire. It usually involves shivering while one or the other of you sobs and the other one tries to find some way to make the other feel better by cracking bad jokes. No sex is had. None at all.

Not All Women Admire Your Competitiveness: Remember that scene in the movie Red Sonja, where Arnold and Red Sonja fight each other all day until eventually discovering they loved one another? Well, that might be a thing if you’re going after Red Sonja, but in general being over-competitive jerk who wants to beat his girlfriend at Trivial Pursuit to the point where he’s grimacing at the game board and cursing at a die roll of ‘3’ is not sexy. They think you’re crazy. They are right.

Things never said: "I just killed twenty people with arrows. Want to make out?"

Things never said: “I just killed twenty people with arrows. Want to make out?”

Violence is Not a Turn On: No matter how much you think otherwise, gents, beating the crap out of somebody, no matter how much of a douche they are, is not likely to engender the affections of the opposite sex. Most girls will just be disgusted with the entire affair, since fighting (contrary to fantasy literature) is an unattractive thing to witness.

Sometimes You’re Just Friends: Look, guys, you are not the main character in your own epic saga of fantastic adventure. All the women will not be falling for you. Even if they’re nice and they seem to like you, that doesn’t mean you are just one date request away from deep and abiding love. Sometimes they just like you because they like you, not because they want to be with you. Sorry, them’s the brakes, kids.

The Opposite Thing From That Last: If a girl treats you badly and makes fun of you and abuses you physically and says she hates you, guess what? SHE HATES YOU. It is almost certainly not a game and, if it is, I’d suggest looking elsewhere since this girl seems to have severe self-esteem issues if she feels the need to abuse those she likes. In either event, the whole ‘love you until you stop saying no’ concept is both bonkers and borderline creepy. Cut it out. In the real world, people tell you who they are.

Now, the caveat here is that all people are different and all relationships operate differently, so I suppose it’s arrogant of me to say all of the things I said above – ‘your mileage may vary’, as they say. That said, I think it’s fair to assume that basing our expectations of our love lives based off of works where people ride dragons and throw fireballs from their hands is, speaking generously, completely ridiculous.

To give the genre credit, many of the most recent crop of fantasy novels (A Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and so on) do a pretty good job of interfering with the standard tropes, and romance has become a much more complicated affair in those worlds of late. Still and although, it is often the job of the fantasy reader, hard as it may sound, to separate the fantasies we choose to believe and the ones we don’t when taking our magical journeys into dreamland and beyond.

The Player, Part 2

            When the music changed, Artus noticed. He entertained the notion that the change was, in fact, the signal, but since no one was screaming and none of the guards were yelling ‘get him,’ he figured it wasn’t.

            Artus was something of a musician himself. In the fields as a boy he had taken up the daer whistle to pass the time. It was a simple instrument with a sweet, pure voice, and he still carried one with him when they were on the road, much to Tyvian’s chagrin. Tyvian had told him, in no uncertain terms, that the whistle was ‘a crude, mechanical instrument lacking the capacity to capture true human passion of feeling.’ Artus had never really known what he was talking about, considering the violins and cellos that Tyvian favored to be squawky, fancy, and womanish. When the music started, however, Artus thought he might have changed his mind.

            The sound produced by the quartet was immediately sensual and tragic at the same time. The two violins wept with a bleeding passion, rising and falling as the beating of a breaking heart, whilst the cello and bass set a deep, thrumming beat. As one violin sang to another, as two lovers bidding farewell, Artus could actually feel himself blush.

            The dance floor had emptied with an almost frenzied haste when the song began. It was not until it was completely empty that Tyvian, the Lady Velitiere held close in his arms, stepped out. Artus barely suppressed a yelp. “What the hell is he doing?

            Tyvian always said that ‘the dance is nine-tenths of courtship,’ and Artus would never have believed him had he never seen Tyvian dance before. He had, as it happened, and he knew Tyvian was good—very good—and no man would practice that much if he didn’t think it was useful. Even still, Artus had never seen, much less heard of the dance Tyvian was doing now—if he had, he would have demanded that Tyvian teach it to him a long time ago.

            Tyvian and Velitiere held one another cheek-to-cheek, hip-to-hip, and slid across the floor as one person. This was not a dance of formality, this was a dance of passion. As Tyvian manipulated the lovely noblewoman around his body, her hands sliding up his arms and through his hair, Artus began to get worried. Hann, she was enjoying it! A married woman nearly twice his age!

            Artus looked around and tried to gauge the audience’s reaction. There was nothing but staring.

            “Tell me, monsieur, who is that man?”

            Artus turned around. A pretty young Akrallian woman, no more than seventeen, was gazing at the couple with her dark eyes wide. Looking around again, he discovered that she must have been talking to him. “Uhhh…who, him?”

            Her tight blonde ringlets bobbed as she nodded. “Oui, monsieur. The one who is such a fine dancer.”

            Artus swallowed and then adopted his best Tyvian-esque swagger. “Well, madame, he is actually a good friend of mine.”


            “Artus Vedda of Jondas Crossing, madame, at your service.” He managed a bow and kissed her hand.

            She giggled. “Aren’t you the gentleman? You’re a northerner, aren’t you?”

            Artus blushed. How did they always bloody know? “Yes, ma’am…madame.”

            She clapped. “How exciting! Do tell me about it.”

            Artus began to.


* * * * * * * *

            Velitiere was a good dancer, but out of practice. It took several bars on the floor before Tyvian got her to loosen up, but when she did, it was all he could do to keep her under control.

            She tried to lead, she pulled him closer, she brushed her lips along his neck. As the Revien Nu’Kasaar reached its stride, Tyvian began to lose himself in the dance. It stopped mattering who she was, it only mattered that she was there. When he spun her, he spun her hard, and when she returned, she clung to him like an old lover. They moved together, beat by beat, phrase by lovely phrase.

            Her eyes passed before him, and he dove into them. Gods, they were Jaliette’s eyes. Refracting in them was the same spark that he remembered when they spent four days on that ship to Ihyn. They had rested in the captain’s cabin, and the shinh’ar wanderling on board taught her to catch fish off the side. Back when they were partners, back when Jaliette was free…back when Jaliette was his.

            The Revien Nu’Kasaar’s final movement was more energetic than the others, and it was here that the dance grew taxing. Velitiere was out of breath, but was not to be stopped. Tyvian dipped and swung her like a doll, sliding from move to move with practiced grace. Her hair had come undone, her chest heaved, and her elaborate dress had been shedding jewels like leaves in autumn. As the music reached its crescendo, Tyvian’s dexterous hand slipped up Velitiere’s back, plucked the Eye of H’siri from its fastening around her neck, and secreted it in his sleeve. In the heat of the moment, and as the Revien Nu’Kasaar died a fiery death in a deep, deep dip, the Lady Velitiere never noticed.

            The music stopped. Silence, a single clap, then another…and another. The whole of the ballroom erupted into applause. Tyvian, smiling to himself, pulled his partner to her feet. Everything was going according to plan. All he had to do now was walk out the door.

            Then she kissed him—a deep, Akrallian kiss, tongue and all. It was a good kiss. It was also about then that everything started to go wrong.

            “Mother!” Jaliette, handfuls of wedding gown bunched in her hands, rushed between Tyvian and his dancing partner.

            Tyvian couldn’t resist. “I’m sorry, Jaliette, but I’m too winded for another dance just now. Maybe you and Remieux could go on a march.”

            Jaliette slapped him. Remieux, in a brand new doublet, was barging through the crowd his way. The bubble of open space the dance had created was collapsing at an exponential rate.

            “Monsieur!” Orsienne’s voice was thick with wine. “I would wish that you make your intentions towards my wife clear!”

            Velitiere broke away from him, her chest still heaving, her eyes distant, lost. Tyvian wagered that he had approximately five seconds until she noticed the Eye was gone. He started a countdown.


            Jaliette was before him. “What are you trying to do, Tyvian?”


            Remieux was closer, but the gawkers, bless them, were in the way.


            Tyvian caught her hand. “Jaliette, do you really love him?”


            Jaliette’s mouth dropped open. “What…I…”



            Everyone stopped to look at Lady Velitiere. She was shaking, a hand pawing absently at the empty clasp at her throat. “I’ve lost it!”

            Lord Orsienne held up his arms. “A thousand marks to the one who finds the Eye!”

            Half the guests bent over. Jaliette was with the other half. “Tyvian, you didn’t…”

            “First answer my question.” Tyvian looked to see Remieux was less than three paces away. “Quickly, please.”

            She inhaled, held it, released. “Of course not.”

            Remieux pushed Tyvian in the chest. “Get away from my wife, Reldamar.”

            Behind them, he could hear Orsienne yell. “Did anyone see it fall off? Velitiere, perhaps it’s in your dress somewhere.”

            Tyvian looked at Jaliette, then at Remieux. A little voice inside him piped up. “Oh, what the hell.”

            He spit in Remieux’s eye.

            Remieux roared and pulled a blade-less hilt from his belt. “Veris’hassa’i LeMondaux!” At the sound of the incantation, a rapier of mageglass grew out of the hilt like some shimmering thornbush. “I call you to the field of honor, Monsieur. If you haven’t a weapon, one will be provided.”

            Tyvian slipped Chance from his boot. “Veris’hassa’i Chance!” The two blades were very similar, but Chance was clearly the higher quality. Its hand guard was far more ornate and as it moved, the air sang around it.

            “Remieux, don’t!” Jaliette stepped between them.

            Remieux’s black eyes narrowed. “Is he your lover, then? Would you take his side over mine?”

            Jaliette’s face fell as she began to speak. Tyvian could almost hear the tears coming. “Remieux, I didn’t want to tell you, but…”

            Tyvian cut her off. “What she means to say, Remieux, is that she fears for your life. She’s seen me fight, you know.”

            Lord Orsienne looked up from his search. “Great Gods, whatever is going on now?

            Between the dance, the kiss, the lost diamond, the duel, and the restrictive nature of the corset, some women at the ball passed out from the excitement. This, of course, led to more excitement, which in turn led to more women passing out. The end result was that of mass chaos. Men called for water from all over the ballroom. The women who managed to remain conscious tried very hard to find somewhere to sit down. Guards carried the unconscious to the guest rooms upstairs. Lord Orsienne tried to console his panicking wife. Jaliette tried to console a panicking Lord Orsienne, and, in the middle of it all, Remieux and Tyvian faced off across a strip of well-inlaid ballroom floor.

            “To the death, is it?” Tyvian assumed the en garde position.

            Remieux did the same. “I’ve no wish to kill you—first blood.”


            “To the death then!”

            “A little drastic for a spit in the eye, wouldn’t you say?” Tyvian grinned.

            “Silence!” Remieux flechéd, which is to say, he performed a running leap with his sword out. Tyvian parried effortlessly and turned him aside.

They squared off once more. Remieux moved like a hunter, each foot placed deliberately, every motion of his blade precise. Tyvian danced, his blade a consistent blur of motion. They clashed in a quick series of attacks and counter-attacks once, twice. Remieux was strong, and Tyvian could feel the force of his blows travel through Chance and up his arm. If the captain connected, Tyvian was spitted like a hog and he knew it.

“Why are you here, Saldorian?” Remieux’s sword twisted to a pronated position. “Trying to steal Jaliette from me?”

“Something like that.” Tyvian lunged, Remieux was ready. He retreated past Chance’s reach and counter-lunged. The point of his blade, LeMondaux, made a ribbon of blood across Tyvian’s cheek.

“You are no kind of man, Reldamar.” Remieux continued, changing his guard position again. Tyvian had been expecting to fight a man who was using Bon’chaire, the Akrallian school of fencing, but the military officer kept switching from style to style. Until Tyvian could nail down a pattern, he wouldn’t know what to expect. If he wasn’t careful, he could walk into another trap.

Remieux kept talking. “A man should get a woman and keep a woman. He should give her a home and a family. You? You are nothing but a toy they play with and throw away.”

Tyvian feinted, Remieux fell for it. He could have gone for the heart, but he simply cut a ribbon along the captain’s cheek. “Look, Remieux, we’re twins!”

Remieux attacked hard and fast. Tyvian parried blow after blow, retreating quickly. He fell backwards over a servant, still searching for the Eye. Remieux shot forward for a final blow. Tyvian threw himself to the right as the tip of LeMondaux buried itself in the wood floor. As Tyvian scrambled to his feet, the Eye opted to slip out of a hidden sleeve pocket and inconveniently skitter across the ballroom floor.

The Eye could not have been more conspicuous if it had been accompanied by war drums. It clattered against the floor in a staccato rhythm, breaking the crowd into an awkward silence. Everyone saw it, and everyone saw Tyvian run over to grab it.

Lord Orsienne yelled the first obligatory word. “Thief!” He then followed it up with the second. “Guards!”

Before ‘seize him’ managed to cross Orsienne’s mind, Remieux stepped in the way. “No! He’s mine.”

Tyvian entertained a few theories as to how Remieux could have become so ridiculously stupid. “Artus, now!”

Nothing happened.

Remieux attacked, Tyvian defended. “Artus, now!

Tyvian was driven back again. He’d figured out Remieux’s pattern now, he could take him at any time, but killing him wouldn’t solve anything. The longer they fought, the more time he had to figure out an escape. If the captain fell, the guards fell on him. Still, pattern or no, he couldn’t hold off Remieux forever. “ARTUS!”


* * * * * * * *

            Her name was Ysabette, and she was perfect. Perfect little turned up nose, perfect delicate hands, perfect gentle voice—everything was just perfect. Ysabette had invited Artus out to sit in the garden until the song was over, so they could talk some more.

            She was actually fascinated with his common past. She kept asking questions about the sheep, and about all his brothers and sisters, and about whether he had ever seen a real arahk or not. He told her story after story, and she just kept laughing! It was simply amazing. Artus didn’t think noble blood could produce such girls.

            “Artus, why did you run away from home?” Ysabette nestled her head against his shoulder.

            Artus looked through a space in the branches of the briarleaf tree above them and watched the half moon. “I didn’t want to go to war, like my brothers did.”

            “Why? You weren’t scared, were you? I can’t imagine you being scared.”

            “No, I wasn’t scared…well, not really. I didn’t want to put Ma through it. I was the last boy in the house—I had four brothers, and all of them went to fight the arahk. Marik was the only one come back. I figured, if I ran away, at least I’d be alive, and Ma’d know that, and she’d be happier than if I was dead in some marsh in Roon.”

            “Oh.” Ysabette took his hand and traced the tendons on the back with one finger. “I would love to have a sheep. My mother won’t let me have any pets except stupid birds, and they always die. It isn’t my fault, either—they just get a chill and then drop dead.”

            “Mmm-hmm.” Artus closed his eyes. He heard a lot of noise coming from the ball room. He wondered vaguely what Tyvian was up to.

            Ysabette perked up. “Did you hear your name just now?”

            “Don’t think so, why?”

            She shrugged, then shivered. “It is a cool night, Artus. I love it.”

            Artus stood and gave her his jacket. “Here. Where I’m from, this is a hot summer day.”

            Ysabette giggled and curled up under the coat. In the background, the roar of the ballroom faded into his subconscious like a crowd that cheered only for him.