I love relationships in games. I’ve always been of the opinion that having relationships in your games adds depth, motivation, and to me, fun. I love playing family, friends, parents, children — and definitely romantic and ex-romantic partners. Adding romantic relationships to games gives them the same dimensionality, and also gives us a whole slew of tropes to play with. They’re an easy way to get investment and commitment from your players, and they can work as a great counterpoint to your main plot. In honor of Valentine’s Day tomorrow, I want to talk about my favorite ones, why they are entertaining to play, and tips for incorporating them in to your game!
My other note is that because these relationships have the potential to be very emotional, I believe that safety tools are important for any game that contains them. Use whichever tool you like, but please make sure you have a way to revoke consent or call a pause at any point in your game. Here is a list of some of the most commonly used tools, and I can also recommend the OK Check in as adjusted for Turning Point.
Hate kissing is the age old “we hate each other we hate each other we hate each other and we can’t keep our hands off each other” trope. It can work well for games where characters hold different belief sets — they’re always fighting, until that moment when passion takes over and suddenly they’re kissing instead. Don’t see how this works? It actually happened to me in college. A guy that found me very annoying at first (his own words) fell head over heels for me later. Strong feelings are strong feelings and the lines are closer than we like to think. Examples that work in play: characters who are at cross-purposes, like a notorious space pirate queen and bounty hunter etc. Characters on the same team with very different cultural values, like a paladin and the rogue. Cue emotional turmoil as your romantic leads (and the people around them) are faced with the conundrum of their budding relationship.
The object of your affections does not return your interest. You may pine, moon, make sad eyes at them, or pass them love poems at the table. Please note that stalking is really not cool unless that’s specifically the direction you both discuss — clear lines and boundaries about what is or is not acceptable are important with this one.
Will They Or Won’t They
The age old classic — they’re in love, probably! But so much dramatic tension! As the writers of this story, we know they’re probably going to get together, but this is the story of how they resisted it for as long as possible. To play this effectively at the table, you’ll need a strong reason they can’t get together, whether that’s some kind of personality trait, a strong belief, or outside circumstances. The key with this trope is that once they get together, there’s not tension left, really, so it should happen right near the end of the game in best dramatic conclusion, or at least in full Romeo and Juliet fashion where they can die in each other’s arms (also a very satisfying conclusion).
They had a thing, long ago, and for some reason it didn’t work out. Duty called them apart or they lost each other in a storm at sea. Whatever it was, it wasn’t their choice, but they both moved on. Now, in this new phase of their lives, with new responsibilities and possibly other relationships, they’ve re-discovered each other, and the chemistry is still here. The question is, what will they do about it? Will they make space in their lives for this relationship again, or will it remain a sad and distant ghost?
My last favorite relationship trope is exes. This is when we have tension in a different way — these two characters used to be in a relationship, but now they’re not. It might have been contentious. It might have been one-sided. There were probably hurt feelings. Now they have to work together again, and they’re probably not happy about it. They may have happy memories recalled with a twinge of sadness as well as fights that they fall into comfortably from long history.
I also have to call out some of my favorite games that create romantic relationships, many of these varieties, as the purpose of play. Star Crossed is a beautiful game of forbidden love from Alex Roberts. The Sky Is Gray and You Are Depressed is a story about a committed couple working through a difficult discussion and a secret from Josh Jordan. Yes is a forthcoming game from Wendelyn Reischl in which a nontraditional relationship succeeds. Shooting the Moon is a game of warring suitors and a beloved from Emily Care Boss in the Romance Trilogy. It Was A Mutual Decision is a game about the end of a relationship (and possibly were-rats) from Ron Edwards.
What is your favorite type of romantic relationship to play at the table? What are your best tips for playing characters in love? Have you had a famous love story at your table? What’s your favorite romantic game?