Monday, February 27, 2012

Supporting Cast Part 2 - Love and Romance Hooks

I asked one of my players about a topic she'd like to see in my blog and she responded with: "do a post about romance".

Romance is a tricky topic to deal with in Role Playing Games for quite a few reasons. There are some great resources out there that already touch on the topic:

Spes Magna: Let A Little Love In Your Game (I highly recommend giving this one a read).

Also the excellent Jade Regent Adventure Path has some really interesting rules for Romances and Rivalries (there's a name for a spin-off RPG if I've ever heard one).

This post is something a little different from the above which primarily involve rules systems, that require tracking scores to determine how successful a romance is. The above are great systems and I even tried incorporating the Spes Magna rules above into my own Kingmaker game. The problem was that I tend to be a bit of a lazy GM particularly when it comes to note-taking (I make my players do that). So keeping track of a Romance Score became problematic especially when a romantic interest NPC left for a while and then came back.

Important note: I am talking about ROMANCE in RPGs, not Sex. That's a different topic and definitely deserves a blog-post all of its own.

This post is instead my advice and findings on how to handle romance in-game, and out of it.

First: Who wants this mushy stuff anyway?

Table-Top RPGs are such a strange hybrid of so many things, not quite board games, not quite improv exercise with a narrative element at its heart. It's hard to find a single movie, book or series that completely neglects some manner of romantic sub-plot, yet RPGs do it all the time. The same group can get together every week for years on end and have nothing more romantic than some flirtation with a bar wench to get a cheaper price on mead (because adventurers are spend-thrift bastards).

Yet few motivations and plots are more interesting than romance. There's even an entire sub-genre of fantasy dedicated to romantic fantasy (see also: Mercedes Lackey, and Green Ronin's Blue Rose RPG). A common complaint among GMs is that they find it hard to continue motivating their PCs beyond promises of wealth, title or the gods throwing lightning bolts if players don't take the plot bait. Romance, the quest for true love, the loss of love or maintaining an eternal bond make for excellent motivators to a group of players interested in it.

So if you let your players know that they can potentially gain some boons, quests and bonuses for taking an active interest in their PC's love life then maybe that might entice the more stubborn players.

Finding your Comfort Zone

The thing about romance is that it requires talking about all sorts of sensitive and weird topics like feelings and babies and sex (not necessarily in that order... what?). On top of which Role Playing usually involves pretending to be someone for a little while. So as always the major rule is to talk to your players openly and honestly and find out where the comfort zone is. Maybe the players at the table want to see the soap opera unfold, perhaps a player finds at weird when you as an NPC are flirting with their girlfriend or boyfriend's PC.

The thing about such a discussion is what people say and how people act can often be two different things. A player might be comfortable with the NPC flirtation right up until it happens, at which point they become uncomfortable.

Always be willing to dial it back.

The best level to be on is that of the least comfortable player, so everyone can be included.

Pro-Tip: If you start to feel uncomfortable stop speaking in "I" statements, use your character's name to indicate their actions, or as a GM ask for a social interaction skill roll to break the moment.

Example: Grand Diplomat Rosalina (PC) has just rescued Professor Hollow Graves Esq. (NPC) from the tomb of the Lich King.

Rosalina's Player: I walk up to Hollow and ask if he's okay.
GM: "I... I honestly don't know." He has a haunted look on his face.
Rosalina's Player: I hug Hollow saying "Everything's going to be all right."
GM: Hollow begins to weep on your shoulder, he has undergone some kind of trauma.
Rosalina's Player: I... er... that is to say Rosalina kisses Hollow to let him know she's not going anywhere.
GM: Uh, great, he seems comforted by your action. Uh, while those two are at that what are you other players doing.
Duke Thundershield: "LOOTING!" wooooo!

By removing yourself a little from your character's boots the description of the character's actions can be external to yourself and allow a little more leeway in how characters would act. As a player you can become observer or director rather than actor. As a GM keep an ear out for changes from "I" statements to "Character Name" statements, as that's your indicator that you've just hit the right note for the scene and unless you plan to complicate things you should move the spot-light elsewhere.

Establishing Romances

In my previous post I talked about how dangerous shoe-horning NPCs into a party could be. That goes double for shoe-horning in romantic leads. If a table-top RPG was a television series the PCs would be the awesome ensemble cast, and the NPCs would be the walk on guests. Great when the audience likes them, annoying when they become cousin Oliver. This means that it's up to the PLAYERS to decide whether or not they want to establish a romance with an NPC. Players can flag this in a number of ways, by flirting with an NPC, or taking an active interest but the best method is when they just flat-out tell the GM that they want to establish a romance with an NPC.

As a GM you might see an interesting interaction between an NPC and a PC, in which case you can make it tacitly obvious the NPC is interested in a Player Character (or just let the PC know out of game), at which point the player can either take the bait or refuse. Respect that player's wishes (unless of course it's a villain, in which case feel free to have the creepy NPC show up all the time and generate that precious hate that fuels a great Pathfinder session. There's going to be a future blog post for that I'm sure).

If the player chooses to establish a romance then like any other sub-plot be wary of taking up too much spot-light time from other players. Use the NPC to drive plot-hooks for the PC.

Early Romance Plot-Hooks

  • The NPC is a member of an elite class (nobility, religious, competing adventuring group), the PC will need to convince the NPC of their intentions. - This makes for great scene fillers or tension breakers. Diplomacy/Bluff/Performance Checks of increasing difficulty.
  • Before the NPC will take notice the PC must complete some difficult challenge to earn the NPC's respect. - Make this a difficult enough challenge that the PC will need the whole party to help complete it. You've just found an adventure hook for an entire night's gaming.
  • The NPC is a member of an elite class (nobility, religious, competing adventuring group), the PC will need to convince the NPC of their intentions. - This makes for great scene fillers or tension breakers. Diplomacy/Bluff/Performance Checks of increasing difficulty.
  • The NPC is seeking a specific McGuffin: Perhaps a rare flower, or a series of texts on ancient cultures, retrieving such a McGuffin would go a long way to putting a PC in that character's good graces. - This one is great if you don't want to steal time away from the main plot. Simply put the McGuffin somewhere PCs are going anyway, this provides an interesting opportunity to build a bonus encounter for a pre-made adventure.
  • There is a Rival for the NPC's affections, the PC must prove themselves. - This one works great if there are multiple players vying for an NPC's affections. Much like theelite class hook above, this an opportunity to dust off the opposed Diplomacy/Bluff/Sense Motive/Performance or Knowledge skills (although tests of athleticism are pretty traditional too).

Early Romance Reward: A PC who completes the Early Romance Quest gains an additional NPC card each session. If the NPC is following the party it may be used for any of the normal reasons listed, or can be used to re-roll a single d20 as long as the re-roll is inspired by love (be descriptive). If the NPC is not following the party then the player may spend the card to use a single item with a value equal to no greater than 10% of the Average Wealth By Level that their partner lovingly packed for them, or the re-roll.

Mid-Romance Plot Hooks

Once a Romance has been established, keeping it up (hur, hur, hur. Seriously, later blog post) can be a tricky proposition. While it's tempting to just say: "And they lived happily ever after" and write purple prose fiction about the happy couple on your Pathfinder group's Facebook page. The point of NPCs is to drive the story forward or use for adventure motivation. Much like a real relationship, the key is to keep things interesting. The interesting part of these hooks is that they are little mysteries that the PC must solve. Establishing the "Why" of these is more important than the "What". The following are only example complications.

  • Cold Feet. The NPC runs away or breaks up suddenly. Possible Reasons: The NPC is scared of all these intense emotions. The NPC has a dark secret and has left to cover it up. The NPC has gotten all they wanted out of the relationship and is looking for their next conquest.
  • Family Matters. The NPC or PC's family arrives in town and doesn't approve. Possible Reasons: The character is not part of the same species/social class/religion. The family already has a marriage arranged for the character. The family have been replaced by doppelgangers and need the character to complete "the set".
  • Betrayal! The NPC or PC cheats on/attempts to kill/steals from their partner. Possible Reasons: Something better came along. Mind-Controlling villain is trying to ruin everything. It's what they were after all along.
  • Your Princess is in another castle. The NPC has been kidnapped. Possible Reasons: An old villain wants to lure the PC into a series of fiendishly trapped castles manned by ravenous turtle monsters. The NPC is a victim of happenstance and happened to be taken along with a bunch of others.

Mid-Romance Reward: One Additional Card, furthermore the re-roll can be treated as a 10 if the character rolls below 10 on the re-roll.

End-Game Romance

The campaign is wrapping up, and so it's time to tie off those lose ends, or the player is interested in exploring another aspect of their character. It's time to wrap up this romance sub-plot once and for all. Many of the Mid-Romance Plots work just as well here, but they'll need an element of finality to them. Below are some sample Big Finishes, running the gamut from Bad Romance to Happily Ever After.

  • Noble Sacrifice. Circumstances come to light revealing that the PC or NPC must sacrifice themselves for the other. - This one is cliched with good reason. Players become incredibly invested in their characters over the course of a game, and asking a player to sacrifice their PC for the sake of an imaginary friend is a big deal. This one is best used near the end-game, or as an excuse to allow a player to re-roll a new character concept they've been thinking of.
  • Revenge of the Scorned. - If the PC has been through a betrayal arc, then this is a good finish for it. Have the NPC working for the enemy. The NPC would know the PC's weaknesses and might even call for a duel (have plenty of other baddies nearby to keep the other players busy). Perhaps one last empassioned Diplomacy check might turn their true love back to the side of angels?
  • Congratulations it's a squid! The PCs need to face the challenge of pregnancy and parenthood. - If the PC is female you must get permission to run this sub-plot first, since it's a very touchy topic. In a game that spans years of game time watching a PC's kid grow up can be really interesting. If not then protecting a pregnant lover can be a fun challenge in and of itself.
  • The Amicable Break-Up - The Campaign is going to take the PC from the region for a long time, and the NPC chooses to let their lover go and face challenges of the universe unfettered.
  • They Live Happily Ever After - The characters have made it through the campaign, through thick and thin to come out the other side happy and together looking forward to a bright future filled with fat children and an inn to retire to.

Mawwage Bwings Us Togevvah

I hope the above has helped you gain a better understanding of how to use romance in your table-top game as a spring-board for motivations and adventure ideas. I'm sure that there are heaps more that I haven't discussed here so please leave me your comments either below, on my Facebook Page or on This Thread at, I would love to hear your own Romance Hooks.

One Love,

Dudemeister Johnpocalypse

No comments:

Post a Comment