In my current Pathfinder campaign, two of my player characters have become involved romantically with NPCs. Scretch, our Gnoll swordsman has found the love of his life in a Kitsune with a katana named Aki and Ransome, our necromancer, has fallen for the roguish charm of a knave by the name of Francis. This got me thinking about how rare it is to see something like this. Player characters usually shy away from romance, or any form of deeper connection than “friendly NPC” or “Villain.”
So today I’m going to touch on the subject of relationships in RPGs and the pitfalls and perils that both Game Masters and players face when introducing either a close friend or, more significantly, a romantic interest NPC to a game.
This is what most people know will get in the way of any romantic subplots in a campaign. In a stereotypical roleplaying group you’ve got a bunch of guys at the table, and that makes it difficult to role play any romance because it can just feel weird. This usually results in a lot of jokes being made to break the tension that arises from everyone feeling just a little on the gay side. To be clear here, that’s not a bash on members of the LBGT+ community but rather a comment on how pretending to romance friends of a gender that you’re not attracted to is just super awkward. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily any better if you have a mixed gender group. After all, what if that in-character flirtation somehow makes things awkward outside of the gaming table? The reality is, every instance of romance at the gaming table has the potential to turn into this: http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=951
1a. Dealing with the Awkwardness
The most common way of dealing with the awkwardness is simply not putting any romantic subplots into the game. This is fine, but romance is a natural part of a person’s life and as such having a romantic interest can add depth to a character as well as giving them some extra motivation. The easiest way to avoid the awkwardness and still allow this additional element of the game is to simply allow as much to be assumed, rather than described, as the players and yourself feel is necessary. There’s no reason to actually role play any of the specifics of the romance, from flirting to fornicating, that the players are uncomfortable with. An in-character romance can be as vague as answering with a yes when a player asks if an NPC responds to his or her advances.
RPG characters live risky lives. Not only are they constantly in danger, but they are also likely to make powerful enemies. This means that not only are they in jeopardy, but potentially so are any people that they have a bond to. This is why superheroes have secret identities.
The thing is, whether it’s accurate or not there exists the fear in players, at least the ones that I’ve interacted with, that if you give your character a tangible and existing connection they will inevitably be used for cheap drama. Whether this is because of the vast number of superhero and fantasy stories we’ve seen that include a distressed love one being used as a macguffin, or the number of JRPGs we played as youth that open with the protagonist’s home town being destroyed, or maybe in some cases it comes from experience with actual hateful GMs who know that the deepest and most beautiful backstory can be wrecked with the words “You find them dead.” That’s why a player may have a fling with a wench, but they will almost never have a family.
2a. Not Being a Dick.
GMs, the ball here is almost entirely in your court. Trust between a GM and a player is huge and one of the important things a player needs to be able to count on is that if their character is going to suffer any form of significant loss, be it character death or the loss of a magic item, they will have had some opportunity to affect its outcome. This means that it’s bad business to have a character be murdered in his sleep without giving them rolls to wake up, or set a guard, or sense motive on the existing guard’s treachery, etc.
It also means that if their family is going to die, or their loved ones are going to be put into danger, they will have some opportunity to not only rescue them but also to prevent them from being captured altogether.
This doesn’t mean you can’t make the PCs’ families relevant to the plot, or even let them be in danger, but don’t use them for cheap drama and don’t have their fates be something the player feels they have no control over.
Having an unplanned but significant NPC can complicate the game and put stress on both the player and the GM. Suddenly the GM has to have some mechanical representation in case the character ever is subjected to damage or saving throws, or to be more specific to my experience, if the player asks for a character’s stat line. This is another reason why players don’t put significant NPCs in their character’s lives, I believe. Sometimes neither player nor GM wants to do the extra work.
3a. That’s Not a Bad Thing
I realize that over the course of this blog I’ve sort of been pushing the idea that RPG characters should have these deep connections or romance or a normal family life and the truth is sometimes that’s just not what the player wants. Sometimes it gets left out because who cares about my character’s dad? He’s got demons to kill. Who has time to get married? This dragon’s not going to slay itself! Sometimes the player doesn’t want to worry too much about what happens between his adventures and that’s not bad.