What’s Love Got To Do With It: Romance In Tabletop RPGs

For a hobby that focuses largely on beating the crap out of the bad guys and looting their stuff, most tabletop RPGs still oddly consider love and sex taboo. Killing orcs? Good stuff! Stealing a dragon’s horde? Well played! Taking the stable boy up to your room for the night? Whoa nelly, that’s taking things too far!

I’m reminded of what Kyle’s mom said in the South Park movie:

“Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don’t say any naughty words!”

Roleplaying is an escape from the real world, where we can forget about the things that make our normal lives less pleasant. But romance is one of the good things in our world! If you’re a regular reader here at GDG, even just of the Geek Life columns, odds are that you have a little romantic in you. Why wouldn’t you want your precious characters to find some love and happiness?

I want to make it clear that I am not advocating RPing sex at the table. While that can certainly spice up your after-game activities with a real-life partner, unless it’s restricted to a one-on-one game session or to a very small, very close-knit and comfortable group, it’s going to be awkward at best, squicky at worst. That said, I am a big advocate of PCs and NPCs alike flirting, hooking up, and even falling in love and having babies, regardless of setting or game system.

What About Love?

It’s never occurred to me not to have romance in my RPGs, and perhaps I’ve been lucky that it’s never been an issue with any GM or game group I’ve played with. For me, I like the realism involved. Boys and girls, boys and boys, and girls and girls are going to be attracted to each other. That’s simple human (or elf, or dwarf) nature, and something I’m not comfortable ignoring.

The door of opportunity for character development opens wide when a little romance is introduced. As an example, look at the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand. (Seriously, go look at it. Then wipe up the drool and come back to finish reading my column.) Would Spartacus be as deep a character without the undying love he feels for his wife, Sura? That passion is what drives him to fight as he does in the arena. Is your character an adventurer just for kicks, or is she trying to earn enough coin to free her beloved from the mining camp he’s been unjustly imprisoned in? Love is a powerful motivator, and romantic successes and failures alike can shape a character’s personality.

If you’re a fan of roleplaying as opposed to roll-playing, the laws of attraction present some fantastic RP opportunities. A little diplomatic flirting can help you get everything from information to a discount from the blacksmith. Having deeper romantic connections in high places can get you and your companions out of a tight spot (or into it, if the romance ended on a sour note). Love interests within a party can bond a wizard and a cleric into a spell-slinging battle machine who can predict the other’s actions and fight in perfect harmony. And of course, GMs enjoy being evil and having one lover wounded or captured to see how the other reacts. Romance can add serious depth to the game.

What’s The Problem?

The question of whether to have romance play a part in a tabletop game tends to get kicked around a lot among gamers, both on internet forums and in person. Those who are against it are usually pretty vocal, and there are a few common themes in their reasoning.

One is that romance in any form will be a distraction and take away from the game. That can certainly happen. It’s also a distraction if the ranger insists on playing his flute at any opportunity, or the barbarian makes a ridiculous battle cry every time the party is trying to sneak up on an enemy, or if the monk keeps disappearing to work an investigation from his own angle. Anything can be a distraction if played inappropriately. It’s the GM’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen, but the players also have a responsibility for their own actions. Don’t turn the romance into a side show and there won’t be an issue.

Another is gender issues. I have known of some gamers – usually guys, but occasionally girls too – who have hang-ups with, say, a male GM, voicing a female NPC, propositioning their male PC. I would urge gamers not to read something into the roleplaying that isn’t actually there. Remember that it’s called “role” playing. If your cleric, Bob, accepts an offer to share a room at the inn with Ed’s sorceress, Jillian, that implies nothing about your feelings for Ed, or Ed’s feelings for you. It’s about Bob and Jillian. Be confident in yourself, your friends, and the abilities of all involved to roleplay, and there’s nothing to worry about.

Sometimes, I hear the argument that there are no rules or precedent for sweet lovin’ in any of the game rules (the official ones, not the 3PP supplements). I would like to direct you to the “Life in Faerûn” section of the Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, released by the big boys themselves at WotC. Right there in the equipment list are nararoot and cassil powder, both of which are described as herbal methods of birth control. If that isn’t official acknowledgement that sex can and does happen between characters, I don’t know what is.

Maybe We Should Slow Things Down

There are obvious times when you should not add a romantic element to your game.

If even one person in the gaming group is uncomfortable with the topic. Gaming is a fun activity that’s supposed to relieve stress, not cause it. Gauge your players carefully, and if they appear uncomfortable, pull them aside and ask them about it. If the seducing of the bartender simply isn’t their favorite part of the game, but only because they’d rather be killing goblins, that’s OK. Not every player loves every minute of every game session. If the seducing of the bartender is seriously freaking them out, though, it needs to be cut out of the game if you value that player.

If there are kids playing at the table. This shouldn’t require any explanation. Teenagers are a different story, and need to be judged on a case-by-case basis.

If you have “that guy” (or girl) at the table. You know who I’m talking about. The one who giggles like a 12-year-old at any mention of “sex”, “breast”, “wood”, or “duty”. The one who makes inappropriate comments, both IC and OOC. The one who would just make a romance-themed moment in game awkward for everyone. If this person games with you, you’re better off leaving the love for sessions when they’re not present, or for another game group entirely. (Then again, why is this person at your table in the first place? That may be a subject for another post…)

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the only way to successfully bring a new theme – romantic or otherwise – into your game is to know your players. If you’re confident they can roll with it if an NPC flirts with them, go ahead and do it in the next session. If you think they can handle it, but aren’t completely sure, ask them. If it just seems like a disaster waiting to happen, don’t do it. If you’re a player who would like to see a little more love and a little less war in the game, talk to the GM. She might be willing to bring it in if she knows the players are interested.

But how to add romance in, and to what degree? I’ll talk about that more…in a later post. Bwahahahaha!

Is there romance in your RPG? Why or why not?

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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