Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about using romance as a story element.
Hopefully no one clicked this link looking for dating tips, because I’ve got absolutely nothing for you. But if you’re looking for tips to use romance to foster PC roleplaying, then I totally have something for you! Let’s dive into your fictional romance!
What is Romance?
So, when we talk about using romance in a roleplaying game, it helps to know what we’re talking about. In Psychology, romance is the emotional attraction towards another person and the expression of that emotional attraction, so giving your players plenty of opportunities to seduce and bed people is not “fostering romance” in your campaign and that’s not what we’re going to be talking about. We’re going to be talking about emotional attachment here.
The Dangers of Romance
Romance in roleplaying games has a few unique hurdles to overcome compared to other types of roleplaying. First, everyone evolved needs to A) be okay with it and B) understand that said romance is roleplaying, not real. A true, well-developed romance is a very powerful roleplaying tool that can be excellent motivation for the PC involved, and even her allies when the other PCs are aware of how important the romance is to her. On the other hand, a true, well-developed romance is often felt by PC(s) involved and in some cases, those emotions can spill over onto the PC, the GM, or multiple PCs. For this reason, it is important to acknowledge that the romantic emotions are the same as if you were watching a very engrossing romance blossom in a movie or a video game: allowing those emotions to touch you is acceptable. Acting out of character on those emotions, however, is a recipe for disaster and can often destroy friendships and gaming groups.
So remember, folks. Keep it between the PCs and NPCs.
The Benefits of Romance
When done right, however, a romance has several benefits, both to the PC and to the GM. Here are a few.
- Living World: Having a well defined, well-supported romance makes the campaign very engrossing for whichever player is involved. It is difficult to successfully keep several romances active for multiple players at the same time, but any players that are invested in a romance find themselves engrossed into a newer, deeper level of your campaign world.
- Something Worth Fighting For: It’s often said that PCs should never have family or friends because those people are targets for the GMs. And that’s 100% true. But honestly, that’s not a bad thing. Emotions like romance are what drive real people forward in the real world, so they make excellent motivational factors for PCs as well. Granted, you need to be very, very careful with how you use NPCs that your PCs are attracted to and they need to be treated with a deeper degree of respect than other NPCs are. Unceremoniously killing them off is likely going to upset your PCs, and more likely then not that frustration is going to be placed on you, as the GM, rather than the person or thing that killed the romantic interest. This is especially true if you don’t give the PC any way to save his romantic interest; if you just unceremoniously attack or kill him off-screen.
- Loyal Support: An NPC who is romantically involved with a PC provides a great means to feed plot points and crucial information to the party through. If such information comes from untrusted sources, the PCs may choose to discard it. One of the greatest advantages of a romantic interest in a roleplaying game is that you as the GM gain a direct, trusted ear to the PCs when done correctly.
There are several important steps into getting a strong romance to work in your campaign. Here’s a short list.
- Agreement: Any attempts at fostering romance in a roleplaying game will fail if both sides aren’t on-board for the experience. This means both PCs in an inter-PC relationship or the PC and the GM in a PC / NPC relationship. If any member of the romance isn’t comfortable with the idea of playing out a romance, then don’t do it. Simple as that. Make sure everyone involved has an idea of where the relationship is going so it doesn’t throw off the player.
- Accept the Awkwardness: Roleplaying romances feels awkward for anyone without acting experience. That’s perfectly already. The awkwardness doesn’t mean that how you’re handling the situation is wrong, rather, you are dealing with very intimate emotions and by roleplaying them, you’re making them a piece of yourself. My buddy (who is also one of my GMs) always says that a bit of you is always within every RPG character you play, so having them go through such a powerful experience affects the player as well.
- Take it Slow: Romance only works if it is kept at believable rate. One skill check then done is not enough for a good romance. It needs to be hinted at and worked on over a wide number of campaign sessions before it finally comes to a believable boil. Remember, carnal relations and romantic relations are very, very different things. Spend time on the romance scenes because those are the ones that actually impact your character. Carnal scenes, in my experience, are better glossed over.
Keeping Romances Safe
When I say, “safe,” what I really mean is “predictable.” Now, the romance for the actual character in the game doesn’t need to be predictable. Love seldom is. But the GM is omnipotent and PCs can talk to one another. As I mentioned early, romance is a very personal thing, and the best way that for the GM and PCs to handle it is to discuss it as sailors discussing a course for their ship would. The GM and the PCs need to be on the same page about where everyone wants the relationship to go so that the players (not their characters, but the players themselves) leave the experience unscathed. As mentioned, well-designed romances are a very fickle thing because whether they want to or not the romance will grow on all PCs involved. Keep the romance in discussion and work on it together like movie writers creating a script. This will allow you and your players to tell interesting stories where the romance is put to the test, endangered, or even lost without the events harming any real-world friendships.
To wrap things up, I’m going to end with an anecdote about a romance that I was a PC for. Those of you who follow me on the Everyman Gaming, LLC Facebook page have probably seen the “kitsune kissing” piece that I commissioned for the Kitsune Compendium product that I wrote. That picture was inspired by the anecdote that I’m going to share with you. Do you have any stories about in-game romances? How have they worked out for you? Or do you typically avoid romance in your games. To those who have played in Jade Reagent, how did the relationship rules in that campaign roll for you? Leave your answers and comments below. I look forward to hearing them. But in the meantime….
Those of you who have been longtime readers of my articles probably remember my Nonlethal Ninja build. I mention in that build that the nonlethal ninja build was made for an NPC in a game I play in named Shai. Shai is a kitsune and he’s the first kitsune other than himself that my PC ever encountered. Shai was a fairly passive part of our campaign, though he did mention that there was a village of kitsune somewhere out on the open ocean. Our party’s settlement was finally well-established enough to go out and meet them when our team hit 7th level, so I designed a cohort called Shira that I planned on meeting on the island. But first we had to find the village.
Now, Shai was a 1st Level bard in a 7th level PC’s world, so we were terrified of him dying (he was too!) so he coated him up in some armor that we found, gave him a tower shield that he wasn’t proficient with, at let him cower behind us as we searched the jungle. When we finally located the village, our party was intercepted by Shira and Shai let out this faint little sigh about finding her. The GM had originally intended the sigh to be one of relief, but over the course of the campaign the idea of Shai having a romantic interest in my cohort dawned on me, so I talked to my GM about it. There were several small scenes involving Shai’s feelings, of which Shira never really picked up on. After a few side adventures built up Shai’s confidence, however, my GM and I finally decided to confront the subplot head-up.”
It was really, really funny. These two 1st level NPCs (Shai and Shira’s adoptive younger brother) got Shira to basically prepare herself for a masquerade without her realizing it because of a series of absolutely abysmal Sense Motive checks. (She seriously did not roll higher than a 5 for a good hour of play). Throughout some very clever scene changes, the GM revealed that a large number of our campaign’s main NPCs were in on this plot to help Shai woo Shira. And in the end, it totally worked. It was the most cornball scene that I have ever seen so I decided to randomly determine Shira’s reaction… and it totally worked. In all, the romance and the journey leading up to it is one of my favorite aspects of that campaign and it makes the illustration of the two of them that you can see in Kitsune Compendium an extremely personal illustration.
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune romancer.