Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Hopeless Romantics

Laying the Groundwork for an in game romance

Getting your heroes to engage in a little romance can greatly increase the emotional commitment to the game and hence make the dangers along the road far more tense and exciting. It’s all very well for Sir Balfour of Longhornne to be rescuing Princess Charlotte from the Bone Dragon of Tol Da’Kar, it’s a noble goal to be sure, but if the goodly Knight and the Fair Princess have unresolved emotional entanglements that need resolving then a whole new dimension is added to the game.

Often I’ve played a character whose spouse, brother, princess or whatever has been captured or killed and my hero has dutifully gone along with the ensuing rescue/vengeance plot arc without really knowing or caring for the NPC whose fate triggered the story. Contrary to that, there are times when a particular NPC whom is much loved by the players (and hence, the heroes) gets in trouble and suddenly the fate of the world can go hang; the rescue becomes the most important goal, regardless of other on going issues.

Getting the heroes to be loyal to powerful and charismatic characters that have obvious usefulness to the plot is often quite easy; often subconscious meta-gaming will take care of that for you. But what of real love interests? How can you get your heroes to care for NPCs for who they are, rather than how useful they are?

Honestly? You can’t. No matter how hard you try you can never force your heroes to like someone. Just like in real life, trying too hard will almost always doom you to failure. However, there are a lot of things you can do to improve your chances of getting your players emotionally involved.

Exactly what kind of thing gets your players interested is very much dependent on the players themselves. I have found a few methods that work very well for my players and it’s always good to explore few ideas so let’s walk one through and see how it goes…

Getting your target attached
So let’s say we have a beautiful young courtesan named Chloé¹ who, at the behest of King John, the heroes must take to the Princedom of Tir Avagadu. The heroes know nothing about this charming and winsome young woman, but they know must look after her on the long road to the far away Princedom so she can perform some service for the King. She’s been attached to the party by the plot’s starting premise. This is a fine way to get an NPC involved in the first place. There are other ways too. Sometimes it can just happen naturally, the heroes may take a shine to a particular NPC and invite them along on an adventure or perhaps the NPC is a person of note in a city that the heroes frequent and becomes a regular contact. All that’s important is that the NPC has a reason to be around.

Play the field
It’s a good idea to get a handful of useful leads on the go at once. Don’t limit yourself to one hook at a time. Because there’s no guarantee that any of your players will like Chloé you could also add in her pretty maid, Sarah, who comes along to look after her mistress. This not only means that you’ve got a second possibility of getting someone the heroes take a shine to, but it also gives options for exposition as maybe the maid will talk about the Lady to interested heroes.

Give your NPCs some history
A few little nuggets of history can be enough to give real depth to a character². Each event in your NPC’s past will affect the way they behave, but it should not be clear to the players (or the heroes) what this cause and effect is. For a potential love interest this should ideally mirror something that has happened in the history of your hero. This gives some common ground to build on later, something that the hero can sympathise with.

Let’s take a look at our hero. Taliesin the Mighty is a warrior of much renown but few know how he became an adventurer. The truth is that his whole family were slaughtered by Orcs when Taliesin was a young boy. His whole village was burned to the ground and he bears the scars on his legs where the flaming timbers of his hovel fell on him as he made his escape. He hates all Orcs. He also has a romanticised view of how his life would have been better if his parents had lived and a blasé bravado when it comes to handling fire due to overcompensating for a childhood fear of the flames³.

Let’s take that information and apply it to Chloé and Sarah. We’ll give Sarah a hatred of Orcs, but for a different reason. She’s terrified of them. There’s something about them, other than their warty skin and gnashy teeth, which makes her feel sick. She hates them because she fears them; she’d be happy if they were all thrown in a pit and set to flame so that the smoke from their burning bodies blocked out the sun for days. Cholé on the other hand, cares not a lot about Orcs one way or the other. However, she too is an orphan of sorts. She never knew her parents because they sold her into slavery when she was still a baby. The slavers in turn, sold her to a den of slimy assassins who brought her up with the sole purpose of using her to perform a single assassination. As a child in the Assassin’s guild she had no friends and so used to talk to the fire for company, imagining that the flicker of the flames and the crackle of the wood meant something. In the end it was time for her assignment. It was supposed to be a suicide mission, but Chloé survived and fled turning her talents to an adventurer’s life.

You can apply this principle to a number of traits from a few different heroes such that no matter who ends up talking to either Chloé or Sarah, they have something in common. Alternatively you can load an NPC up to aim at a particular hero.

Give your NPC(s) an interesting back story
The key to good back story for a potential romantic involvement is conflict. There should be a good reason that the hero’s outlook on the situation will conflict with the NPC’s. Why? Because it creates emotional tensions that will help bring life to the characters. It’s a pattern that you will find in any number of books and films. The two lovers will almost invariably begin the story disliking each other and only learn of their similarities later.

Therefore, Chloé has been hired by King John to poison a dignitary at the court of Prince Arasolle in the Crown Capital of Tir Avagadu. However, this is not the end of the story. Terrence the Unwieldy, one of the Lords at King John’s Court, is mightily displeased with how friendly the heroes have become to the King. Terrence has decided that Taliesin has too much influence for a common born thug and so has decided to step in. He has promised Chloé a metric shitload of gold if she can see to it that Taliesin meets an unfortunate accident on the journey. Just to be sure he also has Chloé blackmailed, if she doesn’t do as he asks he will inform the slimy assassins who will come to take her back to the guild (or maybe just kill her). This is good because Chloé has two good reasons to see that harm comes to Taliesin but it’s not something she has chosen for herself. She knows, as we do, that Terrence is a nasty piece of work and she would rather something nasty happened to him. Given an option, Chloé would have no qualms switching sides and helping Taliesin take on Terrence, but it’ll take courage to do it.

For her part, Sarah knows that Chloé is an assassin but she is not aware that Terrence has been tampering with the plan. King John has decided that to have the assassination linked back to him would be disastrous and therefore Sarah is present as his observer. On the King’s orders she is to ensure that Chloé doesn’t get a chance to talk about the assassination once it’s done. To this end she as a letter from the King instructing the heroes to slay Chloé once her mission is complete.

Don’t give away the goods too soon
Now we’ve loaded up the table it’s time to let the day-to-day adventuring take the lead. Your NPCs must have emotional depth as well as pretty biographies and complicated back-stories. They should not offer up their private information without reason. There’s a tendency for a GM that has spent hours creating a deep and interesting emotional history of an NPC to want to share her genius with her players. Don’t. Keep it to yourself. Seriously. You might know someone for years without them ever telling you about the tragedy of their sister’s death. People don’t bring this kind of thing up in conversation, particularly with people they don’t know well. However, it does affect their reactions to everything, all the time.

Chloé and Sarah are escorted on the road. The heroes face goblin ambushes, rioting villagers, hungry trolls, pedantic highwaymen and corpulent priests. Each encounter and event gives opportunity to play both NPCs with sympathy and depth. How do they react to the riots? How to the heroes keep them safe?

Both Chloé and Sarah have ulterior motives therefore it makes sense for them to try to keep their emotional distance from the heroes and even each other. They may cover up their caution by being overly defensive about personal space or being condescending and snide about the heroes. Again, this initial distance is traditional in romantic tales.

Internal Conflict
Even if they never say them out loud, everyone has doubts. For the NPC to come across as deep, sincere and interesting they must have doubts of their own. You will need to get inside the NPC’s head and work with them on this. The conflict of their back-story must be brought into focus.

Chloé has seen the heroic way that Taliesin has handled the frankly exorbitant plethora of crises that have beset the travellers on the road. Each time he has proved himself honest and noble and she’s beginning to have doubts about her sinister secondary mission. Can she really kill this man? This is the man who jumped from the gable of the Lonely Woodsman Inn to protect her from the rioting villagers; the man who saved Sarah from the Troll by setting fire to his own armour. But then, what of Lord Terrence and his threat? If it were just the gold maybe she could abandon her mission, but with the threat of the Assassins Guild how can she? At first maybe she hopes that something will happen to Taliesin without her needing to intervene but even that makes her feel wretched inside and as the quest’s goal gets closer she begins to worry how long she can really wait.

Initial Contact in the Quiet Moments
Whether it be round the camp fire while keeping watch or in the safe house hiding out from the Mafia there are moments of quiet where a single NPC and a single hero are left alone. Use these opportunities let your NPCs open up to the hero if it is appropriate. Often it’s enough to let the hero notice that the NPC is looking troubled. The hero will take the lead and start a conversation. If this isn’t working there’s usually something about the current events that the NPC can use to open a discussion and because they have their twisted little back story and internal conflict they have every reason to want to talk. However, they won’t come out and just say it, they’re testing the water. They must find out what the hero’s view without giving away their own position.

The party is staying at a small coaching inn on the banks of the Fernlicht River. With the local unrest still haunting the land along the border the group have elected to post a watch in case of trouble. Taliesin is walking the boards in the middle of the night when he spots Cholé sitting alone by the embers of the common room fire, head in her hands just staring at the coals. Even though the snooty lady has been rude to him during the journey, curiosity and sympathy are enough to go over and say hello.

“Couldn’t sleep, huh?”

“I…” Chloé looks up at him and pauses a long time.”I’m worried I suppose”

“There’s nothing to worry about, truly.” Taliesin smiles confidently “If those louts attack us again we’ll see them off easily.”

But Chloé is not reassured, because that’s not what she’s worried about. Instead, she looks at Taliesin a long time – weighing up her position – how to bring up the subject without admitting anything?

“What do know of Lord Terrence the Unwieldy?” she says at last.

What is happening here?

The NPC is opening up to the hero. She’s nervous and vulnerable, unsure what to do. This is a contrast to her usually arrogant behaviour and so the hero thinks something serious is up. If Taliesin is kindly and honest he may be able to win Cholé’s trust and she will tell him the mission Terrence has given her. Of course, she may not divulge her credentials or the offer of payment, but that depends on how much she trusts Taliesin. Now Taliesin has a decision to make. Chloé has shown her trust in him, can he betray that trust?

Trust and Intimacy
It is important to be committed to the NPC who is revealing the secrets. You must play them from inside and only give out information you feel that they would be comfortable in sharing depending on the reaction of the hero. If Cholé gets the impression that Taliesin hates assassins she might not tell him about her past at all. Note that this is Chloé’s impression of Taliesin, not the truth about Taliesin. The man may not care one way or another, but the words he chooses when talking with her are vitally important. Being true to the NPC’s motivations is the key to a believable character. If you bend the rules and allow actions out of character in an attempt to win the hero’s favour you risk breaking the illusion that the NPC is a real person. Once that happens, all bets are off. It is better to let Chloé die at Taliesin’s hand while being true to herself than to turn her into a tool that exists for function alone. That’s not to say that she cannot beg for mercy or try to seduce if it suits her character but if she is to win over the hero she should be honest with herself at least.

Sympathy by coincidence
In order to get round to a romantic entanglement it helps to build sympathy for the love interest. There are many ways to do this. You can have evidence come up against them which is then proved to be false. You can reveal that they are in danger they don’t know about. You can let someone else tell tragic events from their past. Hopefully, with the back-story set up and the sympathetic histories there will be enough material to bring the hero’s sympathies to favour your NPC. If you can fit in acts heroism on the part of the NPC in aid of the hero that helps to, but as always, don’t force it. Softy softly is the way to go.

Chloé has admitted to Taliesin that she has been blackmailed into trying to kill him and begged him to help her confront Lord Terrence. Taliesin has agreed to help her but is understandably suspicious of Chloé’s motives. He decides to talk to Sarah about it. The maid reveals that Chloé is a trained assassin and that an assassination in Tir Avagadu is the reason for the whole journey. Taliesin is concerned about that, because Chloé didn’t mention it. He’s not sure if he believes Sarah’s story and so Sarah shows him the letter ordering Chloé’s execution. Taliesin is now in a terrible state, he now carries a secret much like Chloé did. Chloé confessed her role to him and asked his help, which he has offered. What should he do now?

Of course, the resolution to this is, for the most part, in the hands of the hero, which is as it should be. Taliesin may choose to confront Chloé regarding her assassin job in Tir Avagadu – maybe she will agree to abandon her mission entirely if he can help her take on Lord Terrence? Alternatively Taliesin may choose to let the assassination go ahead with the plan to kill Chloé or just send her away when the time comes. Again, we must play to sympathy. Chloé’s position is a tragic one; the only way she can survive this is with Taliesin’s help. The trick is to give the hero a choice. If it can mirror the internal struggle that the NPC had to face then all the better, but this isn’t essential. Decisions based on principal in difficult moral situations are a true test of a character, more so than any number of desperate fights against hungry trolls. Here the hero has the chance, based on his choices now, to win the love of the girl.

String it out
Romantic entanglements only hold interest while there is tension. In the early stages of the romance this tension can be provided by simply delaying the moment at which the boy and the girl agree that they indeed love each other. Of course, later there can be all manner of external threats that force the lovers to keep on their toes and not get complacent. However, be careful not to victimize players that have opened up and managed to get emotionally involved. If your players think that it’s all a ruse to hook them and then get them into worse trouble, they’ll think tactically and decide not to get involved with your NPCs again.

Taliesin goes to Chloé and asks her if she is an assassin. They’re eyes meet and she decides she can’t lie to him, so she nods yes. He asks why she didn’t tell him. She starts to apologize but he cuts her off by showing her Sarah’s letter. She looks at him. He looks at her. Chloé bites her lip and looks lowers her eyes.

“Please, Taliesin. Help me” she says. She looks at his face, her eyes rimmed with tears.
“We can’t very well go back to Old John, can we?” says Taliesin thoughtfully. “I guess we’d better pay that creep Terrence a visit though”

Chloé’s smile is like sunlight catching the dew. Impulsively she takes puts a hand on his cheek and, on tiptoes, kisses him, leaving a teardrop on his lip. Then she looks suddenly embarrassed and quickly walks into the common room where the rest of the party are eating their evening meal.

What now? Well… it’s almost time to plan how to get Lord Terrence without getting in trouble with the King… but before that… how exactly will Taliesin explain the change of plan to the rest of the party? I’m guessing that’s Taliesin’s job, not ours… don’t you?

¹ It helps a lot if you make it clear the person is beautiful/handsome and dynamic and interesting early on. First impressions are important. Don’t go on about it though, or the players will think you’re up to something. Which you are, but it’s better if they don’t know.

² There are a lot of ways to add history and depth to any NPC, some of which I’ll talk about in other posts – but the key here is that to get a romance going you’re going too need an NPC that’s got enough depth to hold the player’s interest throughout. Stereotypical tavern wenches can grab the hero’s attention for the length of a scene but if the stereotype is all there is to the character, what basis is there for any longer term story?

³ Your players will probably come up with far better (or at least, far more complicated and detailed) character histories for their adventuresome troublemakers – but don’t try to fit everything in, just take a few poignant details to work with.

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