Roleplaying Romance in Tabletop RPGs
You’ll often hear people talk about in-character romances in games as something that “Kills the game”, or “Ruins the fun for everyone else.” However that does not have to be the case. At the point of writing this blog I have been a player involved in two inter-PC romances, and 1 PC/NPC romance. I have also been the GM for 1 inter PC romance, and more PC/NPC romances than I can remember. Playing out a romance in-game can be very fun and dramatic so long as it’s done well. Unfortunately, a lot of people have had bad experiences with players roleplaying out romances in-game, and I can understand why they might feel sorely towards the subject matter. But there are ways in which a romance story between characters can be very rewarding and not leave a sour taste for the rest of the players.
So why do people want to play romances out in-game? Well let’s face it, romance stories are one of the most popular forms of narrative no matter what media they are portrayed in. From Jane Austin novels to modern day Rom-Coms these stories have a vast audience, so it’s only natural that some people would want to incorporate those elements into their games. It’s also a very relatable genre. As humans we have a desire to love and be loved. Almost all of us can relate to those feelings in one way or another and it’s only natural to want to play those feelings out in-game.
What people do wrong?
So where does this notion that Romance “Kills the game” come from? Well, there are a lot of reasons why certain people would be so against having romance in their games.
First of all, whilst romance is a subject that a lot of people enjoy and would be happy to play out, it’s also a deeply personal topic, and one that many people are not comfortable talking about or engaging with. In these cases, by having romantic arcs for your characters, you alienate these players at the table and make them feel uncomfortable.
Another major issue which I have seen happen with character romances is that the players will sometimes get so involved in that part of the story that it ends up over shadowing the rest of the game. When this aspect of the game becomes so prominent that the story never seems to move away from the romance, it then denies any player who isn’t involved in that romance the chance to be a part of that game. Now this is as much a note for GMs as it is for players, as the GM should push to wrap up any scene that is going on too long.
One of the biggest reasons I have heard from people on why they don’t like romance in games seems to come almost exclusively, and understandably so, from female players. Sadly, there have been many cases of men, whom I would like to assume have never roleplayed with women before, using in-character romances to hit on a new female player. Whilst I would like to provide a solution to many of the issues people have with roleplaying romances, in this particular case I can only say that under no circumstances should you ever do this; and if I find out someone is doing this in one of my games, then that is a quick way to get yourself kicked out of the game. Romances in game and in real life must be consensual!
How to make a character romance work?
Despite the issues that many people have with character romances, there are also those that love those kinds of stories, myself included. So how do you introduce a romance story arch for your character without it upsetting the balance of the game?
Like many things in tabletop roleplaying, the key is communication. Make sure to discuss with the group, and in the cases of inter-PC romance definitely make sure to check in with the other player, before pursuing any kind of in-character romance. This is especially true if you are playing with a group that you haven’t been with that long. Groups that have been together for a long time will already have a feel for what each other likes and doesn’t like in a game. In groups that are very comfortable with each other you might even feel confident enough to start a romance without consulting the rest of the group; however this kind of group dynamic is rare and you should still check-in to make sure everyone is comfortable with what is going on.
Don’t force it. I mean this should go without saying, but if a romance is going to happen between two characters then let it happen naturally. Don’t make choices out of nowhere to try and push the issue as this will both make the other players at the table feel uncomfortable, and frankly just won’t feel right. Everyone I know has at least one movie that they complain had a romance story line “shoehorned” in by Hollywood Executives… Don’t be a Hollywood Executive!
Make sure the romance doesn’t take up too much game time. Most games are centred around adventure and action. If we spend an entire session with two characters flirting with each other and no one else gets to do anything, then no one else has a good time. There are definitely different levels of this, and I have certainly had groups who all got invested in a romance story between two characters even if they weren’t a part of it, but you shouldn’t rely on this happening. Let the campaign happen as it should and, during moments of downtime or after intense dramatic moments, you can try to steal the occasional moment with your character’s partner to have those private, romantic scenes. These stories can be a nice reprieve during intense moments in the game, but the main focus should always be the group story as opposed to the individual story.
Quite often a romance between a PC and an NPC can be safer than trying to pursue a romance between two PCs. When a PC tries to have a romance with another PC, if things go badly, the characters (and the players) are stuck with each other for the rest of the campaign. This may or may not be an issue, depending on the players. Some players have no issue with roleplaying negative relationships with other PCs, but others don’t do well with that kind of confrontation and conflict even if it is fictional. On the other hand, if a PC and an NPC have a romance that goes poorly, then it is easy for the NPC to leave the picture before things get uncomfortable.
Love is beautiful!
I truly believe that playing out a romance story line in a game can really be a great and rewarding experience. It creates a strong connection between the characters involved, heightens the drama, and is genuinely both fun and just plain nice to play out. If you find yourself in game moving in a direction that may lead to romance between characters, just make sure to be open and communicate with your party and make sure that they know that they can be open with you about it as well. Remember, it’s only fun if everyone is having fun.