Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for Romantic Entanglements

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

R is for Romantic Entanglements.

A bit of a follow-up to the earlier post on offspring, the question might arise, how does one actually acquire children in the D&D game? Assuming one addresses the question at all (perhaps a BECMI player on the path of the Dynast immortal), “looking for love” can be a head scratcher for the average DM.

After all, the closest PCs will generally come to love in the D&D game is a random prostitute rolled up on the DMG’s “urban encounter tables” (more on THAT in a later post). Or I suppose one could be forced into a cheesy/loveless relationship via a heavy handed romance plot in an adventure module (Mines of Bloodstone, I’m looking at YOU).

Both of these are rather terrible ideas…the first because…well, because it’s not really chivalric love anyway (let alone the impersonality of rolling up random “romantic” encounters), and the second because…well, because it’s heavy handed and dumb besides.

And yet, while player characters can always become romantically entangled with each other, I wouldn’t recommend it…it can lead to all sorts of bad juju (I’m speaking from personal experience here).

Here’s the thing (isn’t there always a “thing” in these posts?)…here’s the thing: role-playing games are DIFFERENT from other artistic mediums that engage in telling stories (for example, books and film) in that they are COLLECTIVE. That is, there are multiple individuals not only participating in the activity of creating “what’s happening,” there are also multiple “starring roles” or “protagonists.”

And love stories generally only have two stars.

By the way, this holds true regardless of the love story being told…love triangles may involve three people, but two are always principle and one the “odd duck out.” Same with “less traditional love stories” (here I’m thinking of films like It’s Complicated and Brokeback Mountain where the principle lovers were already legally bound to others…despite being part of “the romantic story,” only the two main lovers were PRINCIPLE to the plot).

And yet, with a D&D group you have multiple players, each engaged in the game as their own “main character.” If one PC is in a romantic entanglement story with an NPC or (god forbid!) with another PC, it can often leave the other players feeling left out.

Why? Because love stories are powerful stories to tell…even in role-playing games.

This is one nice thing about computer RPGs that offer romantic subplots (think Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, etc.)…as there is only one player involved, such virtual romances are fine and dandy: there are no “other players at the table” that will get hurt by or feel left out of the imaginary romance. Same holds true for solo games (between one player, one GM)…for the gamers involved, one-on-one gaming allows maximum expression of one’s ego as the GM creates a world solely for the player’s amusement (and for the GM in the game it allows even greater control over what kind of stories are told…this is a two-way ego-stroking street).

But most tabletop games involve more than “one player, one GM (or console);” my current game seems to fluctuate between 6 and 12 players, with 7 and 8 being the usual number to show up. If I were to focus on one character’s “grand romance,” I’d probably be lynched…they get mad enough when characters with “wired reflexes” receive more actions/attacks in a round than the “mundane” PCs. I’m guessing that this, as much as anything else is a major reason DMs drop the subject of romance from their games altogether.

Still…isn’t that kind of lazy?

I’m not talking about character exploration here, I’m talking about adventure exploration and role-playing. And if you don’t think romance can be an adventure (even withOUT soul-searching character exploration), then at least maybe you’ll consider it to be an adventure GENERATOR.

  • “Proving oneself” to a figure of romantic attraction has long been a part of the fantasy genre…what better reason to send a dashing hero (or heroine) after the local dragon/ogre/bog witch.
  • “Rescuing the damsel/dumbass in distress” has also long been a subject of the fantasy adventure. But being kidnapped by the mustachioed villain (or orc raiding party) is kind of a burned out idea. I prefer this as a means of INTRODUCING player characters to potential NPC romances (and no, the NPCs don’t always have to be “beautiful incompetents;” how many times have the PCs gotten beaten up in a dungeon crawl? Perhaps the NPC is a hardy adventurer that was simply “the last man/woman standing” and surrendered to the bad guys rather than being hacked to pieces).
  • “Quests”…to break enchantments, or to rescue the NPC’s kingdom/village/family are also great adventure starters (definitely different from answering the tavern classifieds)…plus saving the township from plague or drought or monsters will usually land you in the good graces of potential in-laws.
  • “Elopement” is a whole different type of rescue option…who’s to say the object of one’s affection isn’t already engaged (perhaps through an arranged marriage) to someone else. Eluding the in-laws and authorities can be its own adventure (especially if you don’t want to blow up your lovers parents with fireballs and such).
  • “Getting rich” is a specific type of “proving oneself” often found in fairy tales…call it the Aladdin Game. Sometimes proving yourself worthy of matrimony means building that castle/palace FIRST (especially if the spouse-to-be is royalty). Achieving Name level to earn that barony or noble title may be 100% necessary depending on the laws/customs of your campaign world and the heights to which one aspires.
  • “Compatibility Issues” – how to put this delicately. It may be that one’s love is for someone physically unsuitable for the character. Usually this isn’t a story of twisted/aberrant romance; it’s a matter of falling for someone who’s been cursed/polymorphed into a human/humanoid form (or vice versa). While the characters might love each other, the polymorphed individual probably wants to return to his/her own form. How this happens (and what the two will do then) is the stuff of adventure tales.

However, even with these ideas, you still have the two sticky wickets: introducing the characters and involving the other players.

Ah, for the days of ElfQuest where one simply rolled for random “recognition” (“soul attraction”) whenever encountering a new elf tribe. Here’s a very simple mechanic one might employ (or tweak and adapt to their own game) that borrows from the old EQ:

  1. Unless a PC is a determined bachelor (as decided by the player), there should be a certain random chance for attraction diced by the DM whenever encountering/interacting with a significant population with the appropriate desirables (for example, a human magic-user is probably not going to find a potential mate when visiting the local dwarf kingdom, unless the player makes it clear his character has “unusual tastes.”
  2. Upon entering said population (or encountering individuals of the correct orientation/gender on the road/underground). The DM should roll percentage dice equal to the character’s level. THIS PERCENTAGE CHANCE IS NEVER GREATER THAN 10. If the PC is actively searching for someone to woo (“I need an heir for my dominion!”) double the percentage chance. No rolls are made for characters UNDER 4th LEVEL unless the PC is “actively searching;” inexperienced adventurers are too busy with the early part of their career to worry about love.
  3. The percentage roll is made for each PC; however, a successful roll ONLY indicates that a potential match is available in the town. Unless the PC actually interacts with the population, the match will not be encountered/discovered. The DM can feel free to keep the result of the roll a secret.
  4. The character tends to find love in the place he or she frequents. If she stops off at the temple to make a tithing, perhaps the attraction is with a worshipper or clergy member. If the character pays his respects at the king’s court, perhaps it is a member of the royal family or suitable court person. If the PC spends all his time in a tavern down by the docks, well…you get the picture.
  5. The indication that there is a match indicates a mutual attraction, but NOT that the NPC is necessarily open to advances. A modified Reaction roll should still be made (and can be adjusted for things like kind words, flowers, a slain dragon’s head, or ample dowry offered), using Charisma adjustments as normal:
2 or less…Severe detriments to relationship*
3-5…NPC spurns advance*
6-8…NPC open to being wooed
9-11…NPC open to marriage, professes love
12+…NPC open to anything, including elopement, affairs, and impropriety!

Failure indicates the attraction is still there, but the PC is going to have to try harder…there are some “fixes” that the NPC just can’t seem to do without…a bath, better table manners, a fatter bankroll, perhaps even the need for more demure attire (female adventurers). SEVERE DETRIMENTS indicate there are forces outside of the NPC’s control at work (he or she is already engaged/married, is of a significantly higher station, is promised as a sacrifice to the local dragon, etc.) that need to be overcome for the relationship to occur.

As for the other PCs, the important thing is to A) give them the same chance of having romance occur (it is lack of CONSISTENCY that really hurts), and B) when it’s not their turn, make sure they have ways to become involved in the relationship. Certainly they can accompany their fellow adventurer on quests and rescues (and even aid/protect illicit lovers in their elopement!)…but also consider they can act as go betweens with parents (to arrange plans of matrimony) or act as witnesses, bodyguards, preachers for the wedding (clerics!), or provide testimony to the sound character of the PC (if the PC looks a little scurrilous and shady). Hell, dwarves can forge rings and magic-users/elves can enchant them (or provide other types of entertainment for the reception). As a single session (or two) “off” from the usual dungeon delving adventure, such an event can be a fun affair.

Oh, yeah…one more thing: I would suggest that any player who actually ties the knot and gets married receives an AUTOMATIC LEVEL UP.

What? Why? Because the act of making a marriage commitment is a big step in a person’s life and lends a certain degree of gravitas, maturity, and self-confidence to an individual…all of which I feel is enough to add a couple extra hit points and push one to the next plateau of strength of arms (combat ability) and heightened awareness (saving throws) if at the appropriate level break-point.

A character that gets divorced or loses his/her spouse doesn’t lose the bonus level…but a PC may only receive the bonus level ONCE no matter how many times he or she gets married. “Been there, done that.”
: )


  1. My second Shadowrun character, and the character I played for years, had a romance as his main "plot"; while he went out on these mercenary missions and made money from shady dealings, it was all so he could woo a waitress he'd met and befriended back in his younger days.

    The best thing about it was that she didn't really like him that much!

  2. I don't think I'd ever use the table or anything - but this:

    "...all of which I feel is enough to add a couple extra hit points and push one to the next plateau of strength of arms (combat ability) and heightened awareness (saving throws) if at the appropriate level break-point."

    ... is an instant classic.

  3. In the game Ling Arthur Pendragon by Chaosium, the characters often portray nobles who are expected to marry. I seem to remember GM instructions to include spouses in adventure plots.

  4. Pendragon includes an entire Romantic Adventure Solo. From meeting, wooing, and marrying to having children, it covers the whole issue in regard to player Knights.

  5. That said, though, this is a really good romantic subplot generator you've got here. I think I'm going to print it out for my use later on.