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Matters of the Heart: Running Romances

Valentine’s Day is upon us, and in the spirit of romance we’re making a special brew from the suggestion pot! Sabrina writes:

[The players] all play teenage heroes who always seem to have to go save the world at the worst moment kind of thing. But two of the three are actively pursuing the interest of an NPC female at their high school… I decided to experiment a little bit and had one of the NPCs smile and wave at [a] PC. I could tell [the player] felt awkward and I decided that was enough romance. But they keep pursuing these characters, talking amongst themselves how they “like” the NPCs.

How can romance be handled in a tactful way …? [The players] seem to want it but not in the way I was going about it. I would love an article about how to give a PC an NPC love interest without the whole table becoming one big pool of awkward…

Let’s face it; flirting, dating, and romance can be awkward in real life and even more so when you’re sitting around a table pretending to put the moves on an NPC. While it may be hard to believe given my devastatingly good looks and long track record of broken hearts, I can recall quite a few times during game sessions where I was asked to play out a romantic scene when the sum total of my dating experience was several rejections to a school dance.

Things can get even more complicated when there are real-life relationships at the gaming table, setting up the weird situation where a GM and a player describe a torrid romance while the other player’s significant other is at the table. I’ve been in games where one player felt threatened in such a circumstance, and I’ve been in games where it didn’t bother the third party at all.

In some campaigns romantic entanglements are to be expected and encouraged. It would be very strange indeed to play teenage heroes going about their lives and never worry about dating and the complications that stem from them. In that type of campaign entire scenarios are built around such things.

Having said all this, how romance is handled at the gaming table really depends upon the chemistry of the players involved. Some groups handle it well; heck, for some groups it’s the bread and butter of their roleplaying. In other groups it can be quite awkward for any number of factors.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of the holiday, here are a few tips I use when handling romances.

1. Use the mind’s eye.

Roleplayers are used to using their minds to fill out the details. Most of the players I know generally prefer the GM to give short descriptions rather than drone on with a page of boxed text. Similarly, no one sitting around the table probably wants to hear several pages of a Harlequin romance. Unless it’s really important to the plot, don’t worry about details. ‘You take him out for a romantic evening’ is all that’s required.

2. Keep things PG

I know this sounds funny given that many gamers regularly dip into the graphic details of combat or horror, but I’ve found that the best way to handle romances is to keep things PG. You might be comfortable with more detail, but someone around your table may not, especially if you have younger players at the table. Again, unless it’s really important to the plot of the adventure, just don’t go there.

3. Let the PCs start the game with significant others

This one’s pretty obvious, but I’m always amazed by how many PCs are generated, regardless of age or genre, that don’t have preexisting relationships. In some cases this can act as a security blanket for players that don’t want to play out the awkwardness of dating, especially in campaigns where romance is a big factor.

Preexisting SOs are also great for plot hooks, but make sure the player is fine with your disrupting the status quo before you go there. This could be as simple as testing the waters (hinting that an SO may be cheating; having an SO captured); if the player seems uncomfortable you can then pull back (the ‘cheating’ is a misunderstanding; the SO is freed with no lasting harm).

4. Speak the language of game mechanics.

In Sabrina’s example, she had an NPC flirting with a PC. Why? Is there something on his sheet, such as an attractiveness advantage? Is it his skill ranks in fashion? Sometimes just giving the player a little more to work with is enough to ease some awkwardness. The player may be prompted to interact a bit if she knows that there’s a reason for the attraction and not just chain-yanking on the part of the GM (see below).

5. Use third person language.

This goes hand-in-hand with speaking the language of game. Using the third person more clearly defines the line between player and character and enables things to be handled on a meta-level. “My PC wants to ask him out; do I need to make a Charm roll?” is far less awkward than making the player “roleplay it,” especially if she has to rely on your judgement – and by extension the rest of the table’s snickering – rather than what’s on her sheet.

6. Hand wave and say ‘yes’ if it isn’t important.

So a PC wants to date the NPC television political commentator in your campaign? What’s wrong with just saying “Okay, he accepted your invitation to lunch and you two hit it off?” If you’d planned something nefarious to happen to that NPC, then the PC is now in a unique position to deal with it.

Another trick when hand waving is to simply ask the player what she hopes to accomplish by pursuing an NPC. Once you know the endgame, it’s a lot easier to integrate into the game without too much awkwardness. This also helps cut down on wasting game time on frivolous pursuits (it wasn’t fun when the decker blew half a session in the cyberpunk days, right?).

7. Are you just yanking the chain? Cut it out.

Believe it or not Sabrina may be guilty of this. By having an NPC flirt, she’s baiting a reaction from the player. Was there a purpose? Is this NPC connected to something in the adventure? If not, then Sabrina is just yanking the chain and she likely did the correct thing by backing off. She could also have elected to utilize the other tips and tell the player why the NPC was flirting; it may have eased the awkwardness.

These tips have served me well over the years, but I realize they are pertinent to my groups and not necessarily to others. How about you? How do you handle romances in your games? Do you have different rules for different campaigns, or do you generally follow the same guidelines regardless? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’ve banned romances entirely? Did you ever have a situation where an in-game romance went poorly for all the wrong reasons?

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Matters of the Heart: Running Romances"

#1 Comment By Philmagpie On February 12, 2014 @ 6:18 am

Hi Walt,

Some great ideas there on dealing with a difficult topic.

Another way to approach the issue might be to begin by establishing relationships for the PCs with other NPCs. By creating these relationships as abilities and resources for the PCs to access, a GM can lay the foundations for how relationships mechanically work in their game.

These can be links to friends, relatives, or patrons. Such a useful network of contacts can provide the PCs with information, resources and plot hooks.

Subsequently, when a romantic relationship is introduced into the game, it will be adding to an established framework of personal contacts. The romance will not be so unique within the game, the Players will have a better idea of what to expect, and the GM will have a broader range of NPCs to utilise.

Happy Gaming


#2 Comment By MuadMouse On February 12, 2014 @ 11:04 am

The greatest problem I’ve encountered with character romance has been spotlight hogging.

My character and two others hit it off wonderfully in a Cyberpunk 2020 campaign. All three of us are players who get immense enjoyment from character emotions and relationships, so that turned out to be the most rewarding bit of the campaign. We did notice, however, that everyone else were getting increasingly sidelined by our exploits. Since we didn’t want to abandon our exploration of these relationships, we decided to pursue them outside the main campaign. We started playing the relationship bits on our own, and as they developed we would simply summarize any developments relevant to the rest of the group. Everyone was happy!

The original Cyberpunk campaign ended a couple of years ago, but the three of us still play our own relationship-driven game today (for which we use the rules of ‘Shock: Social Science Fiction’, which I highly recommend).

#3 Comment By Blackjack On February 12, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

Great article, Walt.

Let me start by saying that in the long running game I GM my wife’s PC got married to a friend’s PC. A few times over the years it has created brief moments of tension at the gaming table, but we’re all adults and we end up sharing a laugh about it much more than anything else.

The advice I’d give to other GMs on handling romance in their games is similar to what I’d say for incorporating any other theme: Understand what the players are interested in, align the game with that, and be aware of when you’re pushing it outside their comfort zone. This is similar to your #6 but it deserves elaboration.

What do I mean? Well, first, figure out how much the players are interested in romance. If they’re content playing loner characters and don’t respond to or pursue romantic interests, get a clue and don’t spend a lot of time on romance. Sure, put in the occasional bits of flirtation or whatnot to add a sense of realism and to keep the players on their toes. But don’t clobber them with romances. Pushing the edges of players’ comfort zones is good; running roughshod all over them is not.

Second, when the players are interested in romantic elements, be sure you understand and reflect their style of it. In the case I mentioned with my wife and friend, their PCs’ romance was all role playing. It unfolded over the course of many months of tense plot and character growth. On the other hand, I’ve had players who like romance but only superficially. They like to engage in the chase and they definitely want to know if they “get lucky” but they’re not comfortable role playing vulnerable moments or heartfelt conversations.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On February 20, 2014 @ 10:45 am

I too think this was written well; being clear about goals and finding a level of engagement that everyone appreciates (or at least accepts) can be very tricky. I still blush when some misguided games from my teens come up…