Treating In-Game Relationships with Respect

I was reading through my RSS feed today when I came across this post over at More Than Dice. Go ahead, give it a read.

Done? Great. Let’s talk about why I found it interesting.

If you’ve been keeping up with my posts about the campaign I’m running with my home group (The Winds of Change), then you’ll know that one of the characters in my game had the potential for a relationship to start during the third session of the game. What made this event more interesting than most are the following facts:

1. The player in question just went with it. The entire thing happened out of the blue (as you might imagine things like this would in a gaming session), and that is made more interesting because of fact 2…

2. The character is male and is played be a female. This might not seem interesting at first glance. The twist that makes this worth taking note of is that the NPC who instigated the relationship is also male.

As noted in the article I linked to, real, well as real as in-game relationships can get, are not that common in tabletop RPGs. The common trope is the one found in the Dead Alewives D&D Video. The barmaid at the tavern becomes just one more notch on the bedpost. As well, I cannot think of a single instance that I have ever heard of of same-sex relationships being explored and role-played out during a gaming session. Well, let me rephrase. I have not heard of any same-sex relationship that have been explored and role-played in a game sessions that have been handled in a mature manner. Relationships like that are, more often than not, the subject of jokes between players or comments hidden half-behind hands.

In fact, when the possibility of the relationship came up, the rest of my group, including at least on person who is an advocate for the rights of same-sex couples, cracked jokes about the homosexual nature of the character. I wasn’t terribly surprised; I’ve made similar jokes myself. It’s a common-enough thing in many circles. What set this apart from the moments where inappropriate jokes are cracked was the possibility I saw that this could be something worth exploring. The PC and the NPC in question set a time for their first date and, in preparation for that, I firmly asked my players to leave their jokes at the door.

All of that happened in the third session. Due to schedule conflicts, both in-game and out-of-game, the date did not happen until the eighth session, which happened this past Sunday. I’m going to give a full recap of the session soon, but I wanted to give this section of it the attention it deserved.

One of the things that might make group pause at the idea of exploring in-game relationships is that amount of time that it can take. Think about it. How much time does a real-world relationship take? You date and write to each other, you talk on the phone, you meet respective families… it all takes time. And the thought of taking even a small amount of game time (which can be hard enough to come by) to explore the intricacies of relationships can be very off-putting. The good news is, I found what I think was a good way of handling that time.

Dates are, in most cases, a series of one-on-one events where two people can spend time getting to know one another while enjoying each other’s company. This means that, if a date is played out explicitly, it’s going to be one player and the GM, talking to one another. To get around that, I brought in the rest of the party. The other thing a date has is interactions between the couple and the people at whatever location they take the date. To that end, I asked my other played to take the roles of the NPCs that the couple would interact with.

Fortunately, my group are almost all actors, and they took to the idea like fish to water. The scene was a gala at the Sea Lord’s palace and as I introduced NPCs, I indicated to my players that they should improvise the parts of these NPCs. This kept everyone involved and kept the scene from becoming solely about the player whose character was on a date. As an added bonus, the players got to voice one of the villains that they were hunting, which was awesome.

Now, that takes care of the logistical side of things in terms of running that game. But why would we even want to explore depth that can happen in a relationship? For me, the answer was simple: to let my PCs have an opportunity to grow and change. That kind of change happened due to the date scene, and I could not have been happier with how it went. I was worried as to how to bring the date to  a meaningful ending. The player handed the ending to me on a silver platter when it was decided that the couple would walk home from the party.

During the entire date scene, I didn’t want to force any romantic interaction. This was partially because it would have seemed just that: forced. As well, the player in question is my sister and even though we both have enough acting experience for it to not be awkward, I didn’t want to push things. So, how to make that interaction seem natural?

I decided that they would get jumped by a mugger on the way home. It worked out perfectly. The PC got to be the hero and, overcome with emotion, his date looked him in the eyes and kissed him. From there, the NPC invited the PC back to his place. Then, we closed the scene. As the rest of the session went on, the PC that had been on the date was different. There was real character development that had taken place. Until the NPC had been saved from the mugger, the PC had been inwardly-focused. Following that, the PC acted with care towards the people around himself. It’s hard to describe in text, so just listen to the audio when I link to it.

Now, after all of the exposition about what happened, what can we take away from this tale?

1. Set up your expectations in advance

If one of your players wants to explore an in-game relationship, then make sure that all the players and the GM are up for it. One ill-timed joke can ruin what could be an awesome experience. If you determine that it’s not for your group, then abide by that decision. If you have a player that is really insistent about the in-game relationship but the group wants nothing to do with it, role-play it on the side.

2. Don’t force it.

Just like in a real relationship, you can’t make things be the way you want them to be all the time. Part of GMing is knowing when to time things. Use that timing to decide when to move things along and when to hold back. If you’re having trouble with it, break into metagame discussion and talk with your players about how things should go.

3. Do your best to include everyone

I don’t mean polygamy. You’ve got a whole group of people sitting around the table, so if you decide to explore an in-game relationship, don’t forget the rest of the players. Asking them to voice NPCs might not work for your group the way it did for mine, but you definitely need to make an effort to keep everyone involved.

My final point is this: the acronym we use for our hobby is RPG. Role-playing game. If you have a character that has a relationship as part of their role, then I encourage you to take the time and explore it. It can add a lot of depth to your PCs and to your game sessions in general.

Plus, us GMs need someone to kidnap for our plots.

[tags]rpg, rpgs, role playing games, GMing, advice, relationships[/tags]

3 thoughts on “Treating In-Game Relationships with Respect

Add yours

  1. Great post, and a topic that doesn’t get much attention. Especially given how important romantic subplots are in fiction, and how often campaign RPGs either touch on them weakly or studiously avoid them.

    Point 3 is a good one, but it can be broadened. Every player likes a bit of spotlight, and a romantic subplot is one form of spotlight. You might not be able to draw all the players meaningfully (or appropriately) into a romantic subplot, but you can balance that by giving other players their own spotlight moments–which might have nothing to do with romance.

    I’ll add one more point: Be fearless. Don’t mumble and avert your eyes. (“Yes, Lord!”) RPing through romantic scenes can be awkward, and you don’t want to push people too far outside their comfort zone. And sometime less is more. But just a touch of intensity adds a lot of “reality” to the experience, making it much more of a motivating factor for the player. It’s one thing for a player to SAY “I’m seeking revenge for my murdered lover,” and quite another for the player to FEEL it.


  2. Charles, those are really good additions. You definitely don’t want to be too tentative when RP’ing those situations. Just make sure that you don’t make anyone at your table uncomfortable. =)


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