What About Romance?

Posted by on Jun 29, 2010 in Fantasy, Question, RPGs, Sci Fi | 25 Comments

This question came in via my Tumblr account not long before I left for the Origins Game Fair last week. I offered it up to some of my favorite gaming minds there at the convention, during a bout of late-night game talk in a hotel lobby bar, and we came up with a bout of answers borne of our personal experience as GMs and players over the years.

What About Romance?

What About Romance?

Truth be told, I don’t think we made any great new realizations on this topic that night. Player comfort levels have more to do with the presence (or absence) of romance at the game table than game mechanics do, though there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation there, to be sure. But I don’t want to debate my thoughts on this (yet), I want to hear yours!

So I put the question to you and see what you come up with:

Why is romance overlooked in so many table-top RPGs, should we try to change that, and if so, how?

25 Comments

  1. Guy
    June 29, 2010

    I definitely think player comfort levels have a lot to do with it, a lot.

    Comfort levels also seem to play quite a lot with playing cross-gender, or cross-orientation. In Hebrew, where even the “I [action]” is different for males and females, it was not automatic to speak as a female character, which another (male) player and I were required to do at a con game some years past.

    And suppose we have people of both genders, then it’s still awkward. Especially if some players are involved. I dunno, I’m not sure what’s more awkward, starting an in-character relationship with my girlfriend’s character, or with someone else when my girlfriend also sits in on the game?

    I think that unsurprisingly, most romances do not come to be as the game progresses, but are decided upon pre-game, you have “couples” from the char-gen. I think a part of it is intentionality. Many of us flirt without even noticing out-of-character. It seems in-character, the intention to start a romance is more important, and players do not consider it, or considering it makes them self-conscious.
    So they just leave it out.

    A part of it is part of a larger issue; we don’t really know what characters are thinking. We can see them engaging in a romantic story, but all we see are the results.

    Reply
  2. Tommi Brander
    June 29, 2010

    I think that comfort levels are indeed a major reason here. Romance means certain amount of vulnerability on part of the character, and one not arranged before play easily makes the player emotionally vulnerable, and that is dangerous territory often avoided.

    I think it would be beneficial to roleplayers and to society at large to be able to show emotional vulnerability, but I have no idea about accomplishing it. Via roleplaying games? Maybe.

    Reply
  3. Rob Donoghue
    June 29, 2010

    So I had a bad case of morning-afterness when I realized that generic systems are the white rice of gaming. This may make sense to Will.

    On the romance thing, I’ll stick by the idea that we make too big a deal of it. That is to say, whenever the topic comes up, people jump all the way to flowers and sex scenes and lots of “girly” stuff as the image of what romance would look like in a game. This is pretty silly, and it’s an absolute caricature of the actual romance genre.

    Now, I think the “cooties” element is important too, and I would categorize it as one of the big reasons we have such crazy perceptions. It’s scary and strange so we jump right to caricature, and in doing so, we undercut the ability to incorporate it into play at the level that it belongs, on par with stealth, intrigue, kingdom management and other things which can be part of a game, but don’t need to be part of every game.

    -Rob D.

    Reply
  4. David A Hill Jr
    June 29, 2010

    Rob: Spot on. White Rice. That’s basically what I was getting at. Just, not as well.

    Reply
  5. Betsy
    June 29, 2010

    In my experience, romance *isn’t* overlooked. I’ve played lots of games where characters get into (or have preexisting) relationships, and games where romance doesn’t come into it, but either way it’s a pretty fluid part of game-play. Maybe it’s because I tend to play in games with lots of other women — but I’d hate to think it’s that simple. Some of the best romantic-intrigue games I’ve played in have been GMed by men.

    Regardless, I think you’re right that since romance is one element of gaming that really does not require (or cry out for) a specific rule set, it becomes optional, like other elements without rule sets. Take, for example, eating (using D&D as an example rule set). Some games have eating in them, some don’t. There are no specific rules for eating, although depending on the scenario, it may become relevant. (If you’re out in the wildnerness, finding food may be a challenge; foods may be poisonous; liquor might require CON checks and chopsticks might require DEX checks — but if a session would otherwise go by without anyone eating, the game won’t force the point). I think romance is similar. One could use the existing rules for it (and I’ve been in games where that has worked well) using CHA, diplomacy, charm person, etc. — but unless you’re in a particularly politically-based game, the rule set won’t make an absence of romance conspicuous.

    As for whether that’s something to change, I think it depends on the game. I’ve certainly played in games where flirting and romance have been great elements; I’ve played in games where there wasn’t romance and I didn’t notice. I haven’t been in many where I thought the romance level was all wrong.

    Reply
  6. Trilly Chatterjee
    June 29, 2010

    I’d also suggest that our notions of romance are a very personal things – perhaps the reasons why comfort becomes an issue. The intimacy (in the sense of privacy shared) that characterises real romances can be difficult to mimic in live groups, simply because the whole issue who is ‘alone’ has to be swept under the carpet.

    In TV, novels and films, characters can disregard the audience’s presence, because the audience never passes through the window to interrupt them. Characters can be genuinely alone, even whilst they’re being watched.

    Now, when I played WoD online for a while (I really don’t know what opinions exist regarding chatroom RPing – but my group was overall a really positive example) – *that* was when romance had the level of in character intimacy that it needed (IMO) to truly flourish.

    I felt I could play out romances effectively in that setting, whereas I couldn’t in table top or live action settings. The ability to have characters in relationships (monogomous or otherwise) temporarily separate themselves from the group, play out a scene, then rejoin the group and watch the ripple effect as the other players gradually learned (or didn’t learn) the repercussions of it – *that* IMO, really made the drama of those scenarios work – the privacy generated intimacy, and that intimacy gave those imagined romances a measure authenticity.

    In char romantic situations that can be pretty difficult to fake around a gaming table, can be facilitated simply by knowing (or just feeling) like you really are alone, together.

    Reply
  7. Charlie X
    June 30, 2010

    It’s such an intrinsic part of so many stories that I do use it. I try to draw a veil over a scene if it’s going to get uncomfortable, especially when it involves sex. When the veil is drawn depends on the player as we’ve got both new and old players.

    In the Buffy RPG we actually had a love triangle between two players and an NPC which caused brilliant levels of drama, of tension within the group. In the season finale we came to a conclusion and I had to break one player character’s heart. I went with the right option but wow, that hurt to do. It was great fun and the moment the session was over we were all cool, no weirdness, no fighting. It was all in game and it was entertaining.

    Another example started with my brother being antagonistic. A player was being an anime girl monk in D&D 3E, my brother realised the monk’s Wisdom wasn’t up to snuff (up to what his monk had, back in the day) and that he had a large Charisma. Thinking he’d only be there for a bit he decided to seduce the other player’s character. It went a little awry when after their characters slept together, he found out the monk’s god was one of rightful vengeance. That forced the couple together, then they found a dragon egg to look after and became a couple in the group. At first weird, then genuinely (at least, in character, the two players were guys who couldn’t stand each other away from the table).

    Reply
  8. Marty
    June 30, 2010

    Other than player comfort–which is probably the #1 factor–I would guess that style of play also impact romance stories in table top. Groups that care more about the “crunchier” aspects of RPGs may not be interested in romance plot lines.

    Reply
  9. Guy
    June 30, 2010

    Marty, that’s easily solved! Just make more mechanics that deal with romance…

    Reply
  10. Patrick Ley
    June 30, 2010

    It’s absolutely a part of my games. In fact it never occured to me that you wouldn’t do it until I ran into people on the internet who it was a problem for. It’s the same as people playing characters with different sexes, genders, or orientations that the characters, this “huge problem” that I had long been blissfully unaware of. I never forced people to be involved in “romance” plots but they were always on the table, as it were.

    It wasn’t handled particularly well in my middle school or high school gaming days, but really, nothing was, you know?

    Reply
  11. David Chart
    June 30, 2010

    I don’t think it’s just one thing.

    First, there’s the social factor that RPGs are still largely drawing, directly or indirectly, from the pool of people who have played D&D. An interest in D&D is not an indicator of an interest in playing romantic plots, so it becomes less common.

    Second, I think the lack of mechanical support matters. Few people have problems trying to kill people in RPGs, and part of it, I think, is that the mechanics provide a filter. On the other hand, there’s no filter for romance, so you have to play it out. Playing it out isn’t that different from doing it for real, of course, since a great deal of romance involves talking to the other person. Thus, it can easily feel like you are actually romancing the player, which gets awkward.

    I think it might be interesting to write a game where the mechanics support romance and sex, and see if it makes things easier. (There is an indie game covering early dates, right?) However, that’s not my current project. (See my blog for my current project.)

    There are probably other factors as well, including things like the lack of privacy.

    Reply
  12. Guy
    June 30, 2010

    David, you’re thinking of Breaking the Ice, which covers the first free dates. Emily also wrote Shooting the Moon, which iirc is about love triangles.

    Reply
  13. David Chart
    June 30, 2010

    Guy: Yes, that’s the one I was thinking of. Thanks.

    Reply
  14. Ryan Macklin
    June 30, 2010

    Leaving aside the notion of player comfort levels, which other comments have covered, I’ll suggest: most games we think of don’t cover what’s needed to reinforce romance in a game.

    Something Paul Tevis told me some time ago applies here. To paraphrase and repurpose, there are two parts to an RPG: role-playing and game. The game part is not insignificant! So while we can role play a romance, if the game part of the RPG doesn’t help us then we’re left on our own to keep pouring energy into this idea.

    That’s where a lot of the games from the story games scene come in. A lot of games handle things like seduction as a momentary conflict, and that’s all cool, but that’s not a romance. Sleeping with the barmaid because of a high roll isn’t a romance. A romance is a relationship — a series of moments of tension and calm. Momentary contests aren’t enough to support romance, but a lot of indie games push character relationships — romantic and otherwise — in both the RP part and the G part of an RPG.

    If the game gives me a carrot for reincorporating our romance (as it could in Fate if the relationship is an aspect), or if it forces us to deal with it (as it does in Fiasco as characters are defined by their relationships), then the game is helping us out. A bit of that energy we need to pour into this relationship construct is managed by the game, making it more efficient for us to play out whatever happens.

    I’m not saying it’s impossible to have a romance in other games. Certainly not! But I am suggesting that such games do not help players manage the energy required to maintain that in a story, and provide little to no guidance for making it *interesting*.

    At least, that’s how it’s been for me. I’ve been a hardcore story gamer for the past couple years or so, and I’ve seen more actual romance between characters in games than I have in the ten years prior. And I believe that’s because the games I play emphasize relationships, causing me to spend less energy reincorporating them either as a player or GM.

    – Ryan

    Reply
  15. Will Hindmarch
    June 30, 2010

    (Ryan, you’ve reminded me that I was advocating an understanding of RPGs as “1 part RP and 1 part G” back when GNS was first burgeoning, but I hadn’t yet really heard of it — this was when I was first starting out — and I distinctly remember getting made fun of on the Blue Planet message boards about it. Memories.)

    Reply
  16. Will Hindmarch
    June 30, 2010

    Ryan, you’ve also come closest to the part of my answer I didn’t get into at Origins, but that I think is important: Romance isn’t a contest. Seduction can be, but that’s only sometimes a part of romance. Games are fundamentally about conflicts, and romances are about weathering or overcoming conflicts with the romance intact. There’s potential gameplay there, to be sure, but a good romance could be a series of dramatic choices, not necessarily unexpected outcomes. “Roll to stay together” is sort of alien and unsatisfying to our notions of how romances work.

    (Not that you couldn’t have Relationship Points that take hits and heals over the course of a romance, but I don’t think that’s exactly a richer way of modeling the material. Might be good for YA material, though.)

    There’s also the question of whether romance is missing from our RP or our G, as you say. I’ve had romances pop up in numerous games — games ostensibly about everything from medieval landlords to space marines — but the rules for romance have never been there. Rather, romance goes to character motivations and dramatic stakes, more often than not. The romance is not a different kind of fight but, rather, why we fight.

    It’s a rich subject, though, that I hope I’m not done with.

    Reply
  17. The Purpose of Mechanics | David Chart's Blog
    June 30, 2010

    [...] wrote this post over the last week or so, and then a discussion of romance in role-playing games over at Gameplaywright moved on to this topic. Rather than repeat myself, I decided to put this [...]

    Reply
  18. JDCorley
    June 30, 2010

    How about the ridiculously overgigantic mounds of misogyny and homophobia in the hobby? That seems like it might have something to do with it.

    Reply
  19. Ryan Macklin
    July 1, 2010

    Will,

    That gets me on another tear about how we as a tribe go too quickly to resolving conflict. While RPGs (and most stories) are about conflict, RPGs fall down because we have too many tools for dealing with the end of a conflict and too few for building up to a meaningful one.

    Which is to say, a strong romance RPG would not solely be about conflict resolution, but also conflict establishment.

    – Ryan

    (By the way, get me drunk at a con and my talk about going to conflict too quickly is apparently a fun rant to hear, by the accounts of others.)

    Reply
  20. Will Hindmarch
    July 1, 2010

    I asked the conversation group at Origins this question: “How many of you have had romantic or sexual elements appear in your game’s storylines and lived to tell the tale?” Every hand went up.

    Was that group atypical because it was made up of designers? Why aren’t designers including rules that address romance in play, then? Should they be?

    Reply
  21. Jason Pitre
    July 1, 2010

    RPG’s tend to be a group activity while romances have fewer actors. The most significant barrier I have found is that only a _few_ of the participants of a group can actively participate in the same romance. A half dozen PC’s can beat upon a dragon or infiltrate a megacorp complex, but usually romances will only involve one or two PC’s. When it is an NPC romance in particular, this tends to divide the GM’s attention and makes a less cohesive story in my opinion.

    Romance certainly does have it’s own place, but it tends to be very personal in nature. Not only do some people prefer their romance to be private in nature, but it can also get very uncomfortable between certain participants. Not to mention that no one wishes to expose themselves to criticism for their attempt at romance.

    Reply
  22. Rob Donoghue
    July 1, 2010

    I think Romance is not necessarily uncommon in play, it’s simply uncommon in _rules_. As a result, I think it’s no coincidence that I’ve seen it most often in games with few rules or games which emphasize relationships in a general fashion (with romance proving a specific expression of relationship stuff).

    -Rob D.

    Reply
  23. Trilly Chatterjee
    July 3, 2010

    A question I think its fair to ask at this stage, given the current of support for the notion here:

    What rules/mechanics could you create that would adequately support/promote romance in RPGs?

    People’s ideas about what could work and why might potentially be more illustrative of the underlying issues than talking around them.

    Here’s a potential (and hastily thought up) basis for romance mechanics. I haven’t been too specific, because I don’t want to get into the hypothetical nitty-gritty of it, but if someone wants to flesh out the details, please, be my guest:

    Relationships are by nature consensual – if one party is out, its over. Consensus between lovers (on *any* issue) may be easy to achieve when both parties want/believe the same thing, but when they have different or opposite views, then they have to either find a compromise that both can accept, be split by the issue, or ignore it and hope it doesn’t come up again.

    If lovers with strongly opposed views somehow manage to find a compromise (a difficult feat), their relationship will likely be stronger for it – I’m suggesting the ‘value’ of compromise to the relationship as proportional to the ‘gap’ between views held. However, in reaching a compromise their views will likely gravitate toward each other (call this ‘empathy’), reducing the value of future compromises, whilst giving the relationship a degree of stability. Also, in attempting to hash out a compromise, the lovers run the risk of losing each other.

    If they ignore the issue, however, it will build steadily in the background, with the potential to blow up unexpectedly, with catastrophic results for the couple.

    Any takers?

    Reply
  24. Will Hindmarch
    July 6, 2010

    I imagine we’re all turning romance mechanics over in our own heads, afraid to reveal them to the group just yet. Still, I offer this little bump in the hopes that someone will take Trilly up on the challenge.

    Reply
  25. Steve
    July 7, 2010

    I think the “player comfort level” is key.

    In particular, that the different players’ different comfort-levels not be *TOO* different.

    I offer a few anecdotes:

    1. Some years back, at a DunDraCon, I was seated at a table where one of the players (maybe 14ish, male) was playing a James-Bond-esque smooth womanizer type. Next to him was a rather-more-attractive-than-not blonde, probably 10ish years older, playing a PC that the 1st player’s PC would naturally try to seduce. OK, so the 14-y.o. kid “mans up” to the responsiblity of playing his PC… but he was HUGELY uncomfortable with the situation (I’m sure his situation wasn’t helped by happening to sit next to her, “intimately” close when he addressed her directly). It was both painful and amusing to watch him RP the flirtation & seduction; the woman, to give her credit, also RP’ed more-or-less faithfully to the situation. She was also (if less-obviously) uncomfortable. Overall, however, I think it decreased the pleasure of MOST of the people at the table; in other words, it wasn’t a good direction for the game-session to go.

    2. Also some time ago (in a HERO system high-fantasy game, not that the system matters) a female GM’s male NPC struck up a flirtation with a male player’s female PC. Both of them played reasonably in-character (in RL they were a GF/BF couple). It was reasonably amusing for all of us to see the role-reversal as the guy played “coy, even a bit shy, but obviously attracted” (sterotypically a female role) and the gal played “aggressive, obviously expecting to ‘get some’ but hoping for more” (sterotypically a male role) . The only downside, for me, was that their interactions tended to be MUCH longer than any other 1:1 “character-development” scenes (the group was VERY action-centric, advance-the-plot-centric, and had very little patience with all that “role-playing crap.” (I left the group because they had so little room for RP (at least, any OTHER role-play…))) . Despite my criticisms, I think the “romance” here WAS a good direction for the play to go.

    3. Just recently, my wife’s PC had a one-night-stand (less than a night, actually — an hour in the downstairs laundry of the hotel); it was making our (19-year-old) daughter a *bit* uncomfortable, our (14-year-old) son a bit MORE uncomfortable — but both were also amused! — and we all quickly realized that because of our youngest (8 years old) we needed to take the RP descriptions to a rather abstracted level before the events went much further. If not for the 8-year-old, it would have been mostly-good.

    Reply

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