Wednesday, 21 April 2010

As easy as falling in Love

Valantine by Kaine

Heroes in roleplay settings aspire to be, in many ways, real fully fledged alive and interesting people. Players like to be emotionally attached to their characters and even to the NPC with which their characters interact. They have personalities and often even wants and desires¹.

However, one area of usual human interaction is often missing from the game; the area of love. It’s a subject that permeates the media and popular fiction almost throughout and yet gets little more than a passing mention in many campaigns. I’m not talking about soppy romantic comedy and Mills and Boon storylines². I’m talking about basic motivations and emotions. Fiction is full of dynamic action heroes that also struggle to keep their love life under control. How about Han Solo or Indiana Jones? Or even someone not played by Harrison Ford? They all have their tender moments which help to accentuate their heroic daring do. Maybe when they survive their adventure they’ll even have a girl that’ll let them take her home.

Romance is hard enough in the real world and to have your character open up emotionally to an NPC is difficult³. Love and the associated desires are complex and often difficult, even between two perfectly normal people meeting in a coffee shop for a drink. Take that situation and transplant it into a roleplay game and you’re in a real mess. Not only are the two protagonists of the affair awkward and unsure, but the players and GM involved are also more than likely feeling a little bit out of their comfort zone.

I have seen the same kind of problem cropping up in Martial Arts sessions, particularly when it comes to ground fighting. If two people were fighting for real, they’d get on and do what they needed to win; they’d gouge, grab, kick and wriggle until they got the upper hand. Put those two people in a training situation and suddenly they’re all squeamish. There’s nothing quite like the thought of getting a sweaty armpit in your face or accidentally grabbing a stranger’s unmentionables to make you reconsider your options.

In Martial Arts you can’t afford to be prudish when it comes to physical contact; you have to get in there and get involved. This is particularly awkward when the opponent is of the opposite gender, I mean; you have to be careful where you put your hands, right?

The only way student ninjas overcome this tentative dancing about like ninnies and get involved in actually practicing the techniques at hand is by desensitising and defusing the tension. We practice grabs, grips, headlocks and concentrate on the technique. Obviously, everyone has to be sensitive about it, but they also have to get over the awkward feeling of getting up close and personal with a big hairy kick-boxer called Clive⁴.

Once the initial fear and uncertainty is overcome the students start to get on and learn the techniques. If someone accidentally grabs somewhere inappropriate, they just apologize, bow, and then get right back to fighting. Nobody minds.

Very nice – I’m sure – but what’s that got to do with Thorax the Mighty falling in love?

Only that it is the same squeamishness that is the killer of any roleplay romance. Picture the scene. A player is sitting at the dinner table playing a character called Franco del Cruze. Now Franco, on his part is trying to pluck up the courage to ask the Princess Emillia to dance. The suave haberdasher finishes his goblet of wine, tucks his stiletto into his boot and walks over to the beautiful princess.

But imagine again the player. He’s now facing down the bearded guy with the evil glittering eyes and trying to imagine talking to a princess. It’s far more difficult for the player than it is for Franco. All the other players are watching as well and suddenly, for no apparent reason, Franco bottles it. He does something entirely inappropriate like slapping Her Highness on the backside and running away. Why? Because the player lost his nerve. He felt like a plum trying to “chat up the GM” with everyone watching.

It’s the same reaction that novice ninjas have when they realize they’re going to have to straddle Clive on the floor to practice leg locks. There’s no way to feel comfortable about the idea of Clive wrapping his meaty thighs about your face and flinging you bodily across the room.

So how do you get over it? There’s only one real solution and that is to lead by example. It is your job as the GM to put the players at ease and encourage these character interactions. The first time you try this it might be a bit weird. You too will probably feel like a prize plum, but don’t worry about it. Try these simple tips:

  • Don’t make a meal out of it. It’s just character conversation – try not to bail out and do something juvenile to ease the tension
  • Get into character. Suspend your disbelief and just act in character (try and ignore the guy in the corner who is smirking)
  • Don’t force it. If the player who is the target of your attention is obviously not playing along, simply fall back to third person and describe the conversation in a more abstract way.
  • Don’t give up. If at first you don’t succeed, persevere. It may take a little while for your players to open up and trust themselves and each other to play romance to the full.

I have found that, just like ninjas, players can get over their nervousness and get involved. They can surprise you with the passion, detail and energy they can put into pursuing their romantic entanglements.

Or course – getting over the squeamishness doesn’t make you an instant love ninja. Next post I’ll get into some hints and tips for running a successful love interest.

¹ Usually the desire for XP is quite high on the list – but not always, Characters can, and have, broken their fixation with the addictive nature of XP and sought more esoteric rewards.

² Although there’s nothing to stop you playing those kinds of games if you really want to – as long as it’s between consenting adults and you keep the curtains closed.

³ I’ve never yet seen a romance between two player characters that didn’t stem from corny mimicry of the existing romance between the players involved. If anyone has you’ll have to let me know how that worked out…

⁴ I hear he wears a dress at weekends.


  1. On the subject of romance between player characters, I have rarely seen any kind of friendly relationship between player characters - romantic or otherwise - that didn't reflect the normal relationship between the players themselves. Most discussion between players seems to occur at a meta-game level, rather than being in-character. It's easy for players to play their characters as hostile to each other - all they have to do is bicker and argue about everything - but have you ever seen two player characters become close friends even when the players themselves were slightly more distant (i.e. were only friends through roleplay)? And I mean actually roleplayed as close friends, rather than just assuming "our characters are friends" and roleplaying as normal.

  2. This is true. Getting players to engage with their characters enough to form meaningful relationships requires them to be really comfortable with the other players present.

    I find that a lot of the subtly of in character conversation is based on what the players involved know about each other as much as what their characters know about each other. Since in many cases players tend to essentially play themselves with fancy powers (even when they don’t realize it) it’s not surprising that the relationships in the game mimic the relationships between the players themselves.

    NPC to PC romance is much easier because as GM you have many different NPC to use and you’ll already be good at providing each with a character of their own. Also you have much more control over the way the NPCs are portrayed and can cast them in a light suitable for whatever purpose you have. When players get suitably comfortable with the idea, they may then proceed to initiate relations with NPCs without the need for you as GM to specifically provoke it. As for romance between player characters - I guess that's mostly in the hand of the players and they'll go that way if/when they're ready.