What’s Love Got To Do With It, Part IV: Your Taboo Is My Vanilla

We’ve already established that romantic elements in your game can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be, from as little as brief flirtation to fully detailed bedroom scenes. Likewise, the amount of detail you put into your campaign notes about the norms of love and sex in your game world can range from broad-brushed statements to outlines and flow charts. Even if romance gets no more than a passing mention in your game, it’s worthwhile to establish some standards.

Why? Because just like in our real world, odds are not everyone and everyplace in your game setting will have the exact same beliefs on what’s okay and what isn’t. Attitudes toward sex and love are an important part of social culture, and just as you want to know what the laws are when you travel to a new land, you want to know what’s normal to see on the street, and how the norms of the land may affect you and your companions.

Where Might Attitudes Vary?

For the sake of some broad generalizations, let’s look at four main divisions that may cause differences in beliefs: race, region, culture, and spirituality.

Racial Differences: Dwarves are different from halflings. In fact, they’re not much alike at all! No more alike than Tagorians and Nautolans are. What do you think the odds are that they have the same attitudes toward relationships? Slim to none, I’d say.

Regional Differences: So all members of the same race have the same ideas about sex and love, right? Wrong! Even if your game is in a strictly human world, humans living in different areas are going to have different opinions and beliefs. Don’t believe me? Have you ever listened to a Montana rancher and a California city slicker talking politics? Whoo boy…

Cultural Differences: “Culture” is a tricky thing to define, as it can encompass so many things. For the purpose of this article, I’m defining it as how people live and the commonalities that bind them together. People of different races living together in an agricultural community will hold the same things dear. Nomadic peoples have some similarities based on their way of life, regardless of what lands they travel.

Spiritual Differences: People who are connected by a common religion are likely to share similar beliefs when it comes to appropriate romantic behavior. Those who follow a god of pleasure are going to be decidedly more open-minded than those who worship the goddess of suffering and sacrifice.

Whoa…Is This Normal Around Here?

There are many issues related to love and sex where attitudes can vary widely. Here are just a few.

Age of Consent: In modern American culture, most people are shocked when anyone under the age of 18 marries, even if they’ve gotten permission from their parents. But it wasn’t that long ago that things were different. Just last century, my husband’s grandmother married at the age of 13. My own mother married at 16 (and she didn’t have to, if you get my drift). And it’s different in other countries even in our modern world.

The age of consent is likely to vary among races and cultures, and possibly regions. Long-lived races such as elves may wait longer in life to become sexually active and marry because they have the luxury of time. Races that only live 40 or 50 years naturally mature faster. People who live hard, dangerous lives – barbarians, farmers, warriors – or who live in harsh climates often have their lives cut short of what their race would normally let them reach. If you want to see the next generation reach adulthood, you have to start procreating young.

Marriage versus “Living in Sin”: Some might only recognize a relationship if formal vows have been made, whether in the name of a god or in the name of the law. For others, whether or not a couple is actually married is the least of anyone’s worries. This will vary among races, cultures, and religions, and sometimes in different regions. Cohabitation issues can rear their ugly heads in unexpected ways – such as a very conservative inn owner refusing to let unmarried men and women share rooms at his establishment.

Homosexuality: If you’re here reading at GDG, you already know that love is love, right? Good. Now let’s look at your game world. There may be some lands where homosexuality is as common as the day is long, or others where it’s outlawed. Can boys kiss each other openly on the street, or is that the sort of thing that happens only behind closed doors? Can members of the same gender marry? Views on this can vary in all the different groups.

Hedonism: I’ll give you a minute to get the image of Hedonism-Bot out of your head. Or to get it into your head, if that works for you.

Good now? OK.

Hedonism is a wide-encompassing term I use for how open-minded and public people are about sex. Are brothels so secret only the most deviant of souls know where they are, openly located but only in seedy locations, or proud members of the business district and managed by the local prostitutes’ guild? How little clothing can you wear and still be within the bounds of the law? Will dancing on the table at the tavern get you arrested? If you see a couple having sex in public, should you call the city guard or just leave them on their merry way?

Kink: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me.” Kink covers fetishes and other “naughty” things that may make some people blush, other people scared, and still others turned way on. I don’t know about you, but halflings and gnomes strike me as a riot in the bedroom, with toys, magic, and naughty games abounding. Other races are likely to be more stoic. Some cultures, regions, or religions may be pretty straight-laced, while others are more likely to be of the “whatever floats your boat” attitude.

Taboos: There are some things that are almost universal no-no’s. Incest. Bestiality. Necrophilia. Then you get into a fantasy setting and the line blurs. Sex with a vampire is technically necrophilia, but if you’ve ever played Vampire: The Masquerade – damn, the Toreador and the Lasombra are pretty hot. One of my Pathfinder characters, a half-drow, is married to a minotaur. Does that mean I’m one sick puppy, or does that even count as bestiality? You only have to look at real-world history to know that there were a lot of cousins getting married in noble families (and it’s legal in many American states), so is it surprising to see it among the nobles of a game world, or even among the common folk? What about between consenting siblings who take every precaution against pregnancy – is there any harm in that relationship if it doesn’t hurt anyone? (I hung out in the world of X-Men fanfic writers for a long time, and let me tell you, when Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver hooked up in the Ultimates series, that was nothing I hadn’t seen a dozen fic writers do before.) What is completely off-limits for one group may be no big deal among another race or in another country.

Deciding What Works

Clearly, there are a lot of things you can consider regarding love and sex in your game world, and it can be overwhelming if you let it. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The smaller your game world is, the easier it is to determine what attitudes are among only a few races, cultures, and locations. As your game world grows bigger, you can add these details as you go. If you play in a big world, but stick to a small portion of it, you can leave the unknown areas of the world largely unknown in this aspect, too – at least until the party travels there or encounters someone from that far-away locale. Do make some rough notes so you’re not caught completely off-guard (“The eastern lands are exceedingly liberal…about everything.”).

Make it clear to the players that just because their characters find themselves in a land where open marriage is common, or where boys and girls are allowed to marry as soon as they hit puberty, that it does not imply that either they or their characters have to like it, or even approve. That’s just the way it is there. I know if I ever went to England, it would freak me the hell out to have to get used to driving on the opposite side of the road, but that’s how things are there, so I would simply have to deal with it. Reactions to unfamiliar customs –even ones that go against a character’s personal beliefs – can make for interesting roleplay situations. As usual, if anyone’s truly uncomfortable, scale back the intensity.

Take a few minutes to sketch out the attitudes toward sex and love across the realms of your campaign setting. It’s an easy way to add another layer of depth to the world you and your players are creating.

Do you have the sexual norms of your game world established, or do you wing it as needed? Has there ever been a situation where the characters had to face a romantic custom that caught them completely off guard?

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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