The Art Of The IC Romance
No one could ever accuse RPG characters of having boring lives. They go on quests, slay dragons, save entire kingdoms, win treasure and other fabulous prizes, and (usually) live to regale their friends with the tale over a pint or three at the local inn. But if you look a little closer you'll find that the lives of most gaming characters lack something that is a major (and some would say essential) part of the average person's life: love.
No one could ever accuse RPG characters of having boring lives. They go on quests, slay dragons, save entire kingdoms, win treasure and other fabulous prizes, and (usually) live to regale their friends with the tale over a pint or three at the local inn. But if you look a little closer you'll find that the lives of most gaming characters lack something that is a major (and some would say essential) part of the average person's life: love. I'm not talking about the typical "You spend a pleasant night with a willing wench" interludes that many GMs throw in as their bored, horny PCs wander from town to town. I mean long-term relationships and marriages - the kind that require time, tears, and effort to make them work, but end up being one of the best things in life. So I'm here to introduce you to the wonderful world of in-character romance, and to list a few simple do's and don't's if you decide to explore this facet of gaming.
But before we discuss this any further, I'll need to answer a question that I'm sure some of you are asking yourselves right now: "Why bother with all this soap opera crap?" First of all, there's the realism factor to consider. At some point in their lives, most people will get married or at least be involved in a few serious relationships. If you really want your characters to be believable, it hardly makes sense for them to avoid something that a majority of the population spends their entire lives looking for. After all, even the most intrepid adventurers need to settle down eventually...
If you're a GM, you should also be aware that PCs' love interests make for ideal plot hooks and/or character motivators, because they cannot be dodged or otherwise avoided without the players going flagrantly out of character to do so. If some villain kidnaps the lovely young half-orc maiden who's waiting for Grok the Barbarian back in his home village, you can be damn sure that Grok is going to run right out and rescue her to prove his love - which, as you can imagine, gives you plenty of ways to set your master plans in motion. Plus, every milestone in a PC's relationship is practically fraught with story possibilities. If you're letting your PCs start dating, get intimate, get married, have children, or break up without the plot somehow intruding on their romance, you're obviously not trying hard enough.
But most importantly, IC romance should be included in games simply because it's fun and interesting - in fact, I'd say it's one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things that you, as a gamer, can do. I've been in plenty of campaigns since I first discovered gaming, and the ones I remember the most fondly are, without exception, the ones where my character and others had the most romantic entaglements. Why? For the same reasons that the best, most involving movies and books are always the ones where you come to care about the characters as something greater than the sum of a few descriptive details and some dialogue - in short, as real people. When you allow your character to honestly care about a fellow character, to the point where you as a player might even have a certain proprietary inclination toward that character, be they PC or NPC, you are saying, "I care about this campaign more than a PlayStation game or a few rounds of Monopoly." And in the end, isn't that what really allows roleplaying games to reach their full potential?
By now it should be abundantly clear that I love inserting IC romances into my games as a GM, and participating in them as a player. But I'll be the first to admit that they're not everyone's cup of tea. If you haven't tried them, I'd highly suggest doing so, but if you've decided they just don't work for you, that's a perfectly valid decision. Including romance in your game will require time, work, and lots of intensive roleplaying on the behalf of all involved, and some gamers may decide they just don't want to take their hobby that seriously. It also requires the presence of a certain level of maturity and mutual respect from those present, which some groups quite frankly do not have. (In other words, if your players giggle every time you say "sex," they're probably not ready for IC romances quite yet.) So proceed with caution...and please, don't ever impose an IC romance on a player who's made it clear that they are not interested in exploring this aspect of gaming.
And here's another big caveat before we continue: When involved in IC romances, it is essential that the people involved have well-defined boundaries between what goes on in and out of the game. In other words, just because a fellow player's character flirts with yours does not necessarily mean they would do so in real life. I've seen people make this assumption, and while it doesn't occur frequently, when it does the results are invariably ugly. Good IC romances usually end up feeling more real than just about anything else in gaming, so it can be hard to keep the appropriately detached perspective, but it is essential that you learn to do so. You wouldn't wreak real-life revenge on your best friend if his character bested yours in a duel, so try not to take IC romances any more seriously after the game ends.
IC romances fall into one of two categories: those that take place between a PC and an NPC, and those that take place between two PCs. The first kind are considerably less complicated, and are a good starting point if you've never done this stuff before. If you're a GM who wants to include romance in your games, this tactic makes it as simple as introducing a new NPC to make advances on the lucky player and waiting to see if he takes the bait. (In the event that the players don't seem to get the hint, inform them of your new plan and see if they're interested in allowing the game to take that direction. If not, don't pressure them.) If you're a player and think it would be fun to have an NPC significant other, take your GM aside between sessions and make your suggestion. More than likely she'll recognize the endless storytelling possibilities this opens up to her and consent. (Otherwise, show her the first few paragraphs of this article!)
Romances between two PCs are a little bit trickier. While GMs become accustomed early on to treating their players in utterly foreign ways (they couldn't play villains if they didn't), players often have less experience in this area. If you envision your character taking an interest in another PC, you need to have a conference with the GM and with the other player to discuss this new development. The deciding factor for beginning a PC-PC relationship is not so much the compatibility of the characters as whether or not the players involved are comfortable with it. (For example, if the players are of the same gender or in real-life relationships with other people, they may not feel right about cultivating even an imaginary romance, which is entirely understandable and should be respected.)
As in real relationships, the most important element for creating good IC romances in a group is trust - once again, not so much between the characters as between the people playing them. If the player of your character's love interest is an enemy or a near-stranger, of course your characters' relationship is never going to work. Your chances are even worse if that player is your real-life significant other (after all, what will it do to the game if you break up in real life?). Ideally, this player should be a close friend, one with whom you would feel comfortable roleplaying out romantic moments, but one who won't take things too seriously, either. Communication, also, will be of the utmost importance. Ideally, both players should take time before each session to discuss any new avenues they anticipate pursuing, so that there will be no unpleasant surprises later on ("You're telling everyone our characters slept together? I thought we only kissed!").
If you're a GM whose campaign contains a lot of IC romance, ultimately it is your responsibility to make sure that your PCs' relationships turn out to be the best gaming experience they can be. This means learning to strike a realistic balance between the tribulations and the rewards of love. So feel free to make your PCs' girlfriends into plot hooks from time to time, but don't forget the payoff, either. It's no fun if the heroes don't get at least a few moments where they live happily ever after. Also, be forewarned that if you introduce romance into your game, you must also be prepared to handle intimate conversations and/or sex in-game. For the former, understand that some players may not be comfortable RP'ing heart-to-hearts in front of an audience, since it often requires getting in-character above and beyond the call of duty, so allow them privacy if they want it. One-on-one sessions (as kinky as that sounds) are often ideal for this purpose. And for the latter, the best option is always a simple "fade to black."
For my part, the most rewarding IC relationship in which I was ever involved was with an NPC (my character's mentor, to be exact). From the beginning of the campaign they had a sexual-tension-filled, Mulder-and-Scully-esque relationship that was the source of much lewd speculation among the other characters. (The other players actually burst into spontaneous, protracted applause when we finally consummated their relationship several months into the game.) The campaign itself experienced numerous player changes and other massive upheavals, but quitting was never an option for me. I learned to cope with the group's instability because I had to find out what direction my imaginary romance would take. In fact, the only time I ever cried while gaming was during the session that this NPC died a suitably valiant death. (He was eventually resurrected in a truly bizarre way, but that's a long story...)
The GM who portrayed this NPC was a close but platonic male friend. We had enough detachment from one another to avoid taking our characters' rather passionate relationship too personally, but were close enough to roleplay an intimate yet imaginary relationship. That's not to say there weren't awkward moments along the way. After our characters exchanged their "I love you"s, the GM and I sat in silence for a good five minutes and had to play video games for an hour before we could even look one another in the eye. But with humor and honesty, we were able to overcome them and create a truly cool story together. There's no question that this particular IC romance was one of my most memorable and enjoyable gaming experiences.
So, let my positive experience with IC romance be a lesson to you. Ultimately, my character's romance was a relatively minor subplot in a sweeping, epic campaign, but the scenes where our characters interacted were what really kept me coming back to that game week after week. If all goes well when you introduce IC romance into your campaign, I'll bet dollars to donuts that you'll soon be saying the same. Sure, it's true that it may not make your character's life much more interesting. But I can almost guarantee that it will make everything much more fun.