Guidance – Storytelling 101: Guide to Romance

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.

Fostering Romance

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.

Author Anecdote

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.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

1 Comment

  1. Darrell Vin Zant Reply to Darrell

    Hmm… Romance… None of the campaigns I’m currently involved with have touched on it much. My own Curse of the Crimson Throne has little romance in it because the players don’t seem to care that much. I’ve dropped hints here and there, but only one guy has taken up the offer any and he’s much more of a ‘keep it on the down low’ guy, so we let the romance develop in the background. Although, there was my friend who played a Dwarf that got drunk and married to a Shoanti…

    In the Legacy of Fire campaign I’ve been playing in, I tried to push a romance forward with an NPC, but my GM hasn’t been up to it much. My character did recently get informed that the NPC he was romancing her ‘future ex-husband’ so there is that.

    But, the best romance I’ve seen to date is the same campaign involving my Portia character from a few articles back. The GM in that campaign is heavy into roleplaying, so he’s one of the best GMs for such a thing to happen in.

    My Half-Orc ranger Portia became involved with Carlos, Man-of-Love, mostly because she was raised on an island in a tribe of orc/half-orcs who’ve been isolated from civilization with the exception of strangers who wash ashore. The island is magical in nature and people who become shipwrecked often was ashore, but they can’t leave, and you can only find the island if you already know where it is. So humans, elves, etc. that wash ashore live out their lives there and interbreed with the Orcs.

    Anyway, she doesn’t respect a man for his strength, which most men up to this point have tried. One does not just beat a 16th level Half-Orc ranger that easily. But Carlos? He went out of his way to serenade and seduce her. He proved himself the strongest in a different manner, and that’s what’s important to her.

    The group in that campaign consisted of 4 main character, myself as Portia, Wyn Rabanall (half-elf wizard), Aust of Luskan (human wizard with the lifespan of a half-elf), and Jack, formerly Nine-Fingers. Wyn and Aust have been in a romance with two students of Khelben ‘Blackstaff’ Arunsun (this campaign is set in the Forgotten Realms), and they’ve made attempts to see them and got on dates, and bring gifts after every excursion we’ve made since they’ve met.

    Jack’s is a little more turbulent. See, our group has had a history of issues with Clerics. The cleric has always been a DMPC in our group, and the first one turned on us and jumped ship to the other side. The second one turned out to be spying on us and working for the Harpers. The 3rd one was never trusted by Aust because Aust got possessed by an immensely Evil artifact. Aust, under the influence of the artifact, turned on the entire party and attempt to commit acts of unspeakable evil, and, well, the Cleric stopped him. So Aust insisted the Cleric couldn’t be trusted because the Cleric hit him over the head with his staff…. Yeah, figure that one out.

    The 4th, and current Cleric, is different. Rodney Neville is a Cleric of Tymora (goddess of luck and travel), and always wears full-plate. Rodney traveled with us for quite some time and spent much of that time tending to one Jack Nine-Fingers. During an excursion into the underdark to thwart the Drow, a Drow Priestess attempted to kill Jack after she killed my character Portia. Rodney, ripped off her helmet and screamed something along the lines, of “Bitch, don’t you touch my man!” and revealed to everyone that Rodney, was in fact a girl with parents who wanted a son. Yeah, it was at that point we all realized, none of us had never seen Rodney take off her armor in the 2 or 3 years we’d been together.

    Anyway, the player of Jack, isn’t the brightest guy in the world. In real life, I’d say he’s an Int 9 guy, and Jack, his character, had an Int of 22 (18 Int with +4 item). However, the way he played Jack is more of a ‘brilliant idiot’. After returning to the surface, Jack and Rodney became a couple… but Jack didn’t actually ‘know’ this. He knew Rodney had feelings for him, but was unwilling to commit to any form of relationship. As far as he was concerned, they were friends who saw to each other’s needs. Anyway, Jack, ended up going out with some hookers, and got into some trouble. See, the hookers were actually Weretigers who lured men away to feast on them. Only, Rodney had set up a nice romantic date for her and Jack, and Jack skipped out on it. So she saw fit to track him down. One does not skip out on a date with a 12th level Cleric to sleep with two hookers. Bad things happen.

    Suffice to say, Rodney became the dominant one in that relationship and kept Jack on a short leaf. At one point, we traveled to one of the planes of heaven, and the brilliance of the plane convinced Jack to take his relationship more seriously. Rodney ended up pregnant with Jacks child, but, unfortunately, Rodney lost the child while saving Jack from the machinations of evil outsiders.

    I have to say, if Romance can be done in a game, it does nothing but heighten the experience. I mean, seeing romances where none exist is so common in human society it’s ridiculous. Humans crave intimacy, and we will fabricate if we don’t get it. Look at all the video game characters, like Master Chief and Cortana, who people swear are romantically involved. Or the shipping done with shows like Avatar, The Last Airbender (that was a bloodbath I tell you). It’s one of the reasons why games like Mass Effect have done so well; the players form connections and bonds with their characters, and a big method of doing so is through the romances of the NPCs.

    For me, personally, I try and develop NPCs with specific characters in mind as possible romances. For example, one of my players was playing an Elven Arcane Archer. However, he was kind of racist and only considered other elves as his true friends. So, to give the character a romancible NPC, I built an Alchemist Archer that was capable of shooting explosive arrows (Conductive Longbow and the Explosive Missile discovery = big boom arrows). Unfortunately, he moved away and had to drop the campaign. I informed him about the NPC afterward and he was disappointed because that’s exactly the kind of NPC his character would have fallen for. He was all precision and introvert, while she was much more flashy and destructive and outgoing.

    One day though, I’ll get to run some good romances in my own campaigns. Just need to get my players to take some steps outside their comfort zones is all.

    Also, totally sorry for this essay long post. I did say I had a habit of making long posts didn’t I?

Leave a Reply