This is RPG-ology #48: Embraces, for November 2021.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited: Embraces, and has been reproduced here with minor editing [bracketed].
I see this all the time. It’s a staple of the action/adventure genre. It’s in all the movies and television shows (well, most of them, anyway). There aren’t many books that miss it.
Yet I rarely see it in games.
It was brought to my mind watching an old episode of Seaquest. The Omni-Pacific Railroad was making its maiden run, and Commander Jonathan Ford took advantage of his good fortune in getting two tickets by inviting Lieutenant Loni Henderson on a date. Of course, it wasn’t a date story. A competing business interest sabotaged the train. And as the crisis was realized, there was that moment when our two heroes were wrapped in each others arms, with apologies from him to her.
“It’s not how I imagined our first date,” she responds, “but it’s what we got.”
Well, I won’t swear to those exact words—but the feeling is there. And it caused me to wonder, why don’t we have those moments in more games?
And lest you think these aren’t important, let’s take a look around other media. What would Star Wars have been without the sexual tension between Han Solo and Princess Leia? Every James Bond film is filled with the casual liaisons, but isn’t there always that one girl who matters? Dragonslayer and Legend are as much or more about the love between the protagonists as about the fantastic struggle portrayed. When is the last time you saw Romancing the Stone? There’s a great adventure story there, but always it is driven by the starts and stops of the relationship between Joan and Jack.
Yes, you can find wonderful stories that have no such tensions. If there’s any love interest in The Lord of the Rings, it’s a brief moment near the end with Samwise or a hint about the expected wedding of Aragorn. The Hunt for Red October doesn’t have a girl in sight. And the Star Trek films managed to get by without these sorts of entanglements most of the time. But for every example of a great film or book that plays through straight, there are two that have a love interest involved. Jack Ryan may have been single in The Hunt for Red October, but by the time he saved the Royal in Patriot Games, he had a wife to defend.
There are indeed obstacles to including these things in our games. Perhaps if we understand them, they’ll help us find ways to work around them.
Many of you began gaming in your early teens. (I did not—I entered my early teens before the earliest games were published, and didn’t discover them until my early twenties.) Most of us (and I guess [this] does include me) were regarded “geeks” or “nerds.” For us, these romantic moments were already awkward, unfamiliar. It was easier to create adventures in which they were downplayed. Maybe we rescued the girl (and it was exciting to do so), but it was the pouch of gold from her father and not her kiss that was our real reward. So we established the patterns of our games at an age when romantic moments would have been awkward, more the source of giggling than tension. And a decade or more later, although many of us have found our way through this maze and are now married, we still focus our games on the same story values.
There’s also a complication created by the relationships between the players, and the relationships between each player and his character. It won’t surprise many of you to hear that there are more guys than girls in our games. That doesn’t stop us from having girls in our stories—referees provide non-player character girls, and often players with no problems with their own gender identity play cross-gender characters. I’ve played many females over the years, and of course from behind the screen I often run the ladies. No one has a problem with this. But when suddenly I’m running a female character who makes a pass at one of the male characters in the game, there comes a bit of gender confusion. If your character falls into the arms of my character, and we are both guys, are we both comfortable with that? Can you express yourself in whispered sweet nothings from the mouth of your character to the ear of mine, without feeling like you’re doing something, er, inappropriate? And even when there isn’t that gender mismatch, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely comfortable. If my wife and your boyfriend are both at the table while my character is pursuing a relationship with yours, at what point do we cross the line and both get in trouble? One visitor to our Multiverser forum reported being banished to the couch after a session in which his character took an interest in the character of another player. It’s more comfortable for us to ignore those potential romances and get on with the adventure.
Besides, what’s the reward for these moments? Do you get experience points for it? Have you improved your skills through it? Is there treasure in your coffers after that? No, in reality the rewards for such moments are subjective, intangible; and in the game world, they are even less real.
And human attraction and interaction is based so much on the physical world—what we see, what we smell, what we touch. In a medium that relies so much on words, having a character fall in love with another character requires much more than imagination. It requires a level of immersion, a grasp of the other reality, a sense of being there, that is a leap beyond normal play. [Miss Scarlet does not have a secret rendezvous with Professor Plum in the library with the rope…]
Yet for all that, I’ve had some good luck with romance in my games.
I had an advantage, I think. By the time I was playing games, I was already married, and my wife was very much involved in those early years. The first time I saw romance really work in a game, she was behind the screen and I running through solo adventures. My alien character, a near seven foot tall flying squirrel sort, was learning to be a spaceship pilot; and a young female of my species was in the spaceship engineering program at the same academy. My wife played the female, coy, demure, sweet—she played me like a fiddle. I can remember the affection I vicariously felt for this hairy lanky mammal. My character began acting in the erratic and foolish manner so common of lovestruck teenagers, trying to be around her, trying to protect her from other males, trying to come to her aid when she needed it. And it proved that romance really was possible in these games.
But then, it was the ideal petri dish. It was one-on-one gaming, and there was already a romantic relationship (at least, I’d like to think so) between the referee and the player, and the gender relationship was right at both the player and the character level. If it had not worked, I’d be worried about my marriage.
The good news is that that wasn’t the only game that had romantic or sexually-charged moments in it. Two of my Multiverser player characters ultimately married non-player females I set up in their games, and another has been thinking about it. So how do I get past these problems?
Very few of my gamers are in their early teens anymore; some are in their late thirties. For these players, it’s time for their games to grow up with them, and adult relationships (in the best sense of that concept) are appropriate to those mature worlds. I introduce female characters—fair maidens in distress, female adventuring sidekicks, and others—to my younger players, too, but they usually duck the issue and go for the gold. So as far as the maturity of the gamer is concerned, I provide the opportunities and let the players make the choices.
The cross-gender problem hasn’t been significant. I think that’s because I am so divorced from my non-player characters. In the one case, I was running three princesses (from The Dancing Princess, in Multiverser: The First Book of Worlds), all of them grateful to the player character for having saved them from demons; and the king had promised that the hero could marry the girl of his choice. So he had three girls interested in marrying him, but all of them played by me. Not once did I have to say or do something suggestive or beguiling. I just had to play the characters as I had drawn them. The eldest, confident and proper, polite and pleasant and just a bit aloof, was a mature and responsible woman ready to be a queen. The middle girl was shy, demure, withdrawn, perhaps coy, who would appeal to the protector in any man. The youngest had that tomboy streak, fun-loving and playful, outdoorsy and competitive. I didn’t have them pursue him; I had them talk to him, share time with him, have meals together, and just let the interaction flow in whatever direction it would go. The player rose to the occasion; he hemmed and hawed, he made excuses—at one point he told the king that he was actually a priest, so he couldn’t marry (but a quick check with the Cardinal straightened out that claim). He arranged a prince for the eldest, and a very caring nobleman for the second girl. And then, in a flourish that caught me off guard, on the eve of his scheduled departure to see the rest of the world he proposed to the youngest before her family and friends.
She wasn’t me; there was no confusion there. She was a character I’d written in a story, and he was another character in that same story. The distance was clear, and there was no problem with that. And if you can build that distance without losing the character to player connection, a lot of the problems should evaporate.
And perhaps as you can see from that story, his character fell in love with the youngest princess because I painted a picture of her that came alive in his mind. He could see her even as I can see her—although I doubt his image of her is quite the same as mine (she doesn’t look like the picture in the book, at all). She was exciting, vibrant, alive, and he could feel that right off the page, as it were. He fell in love with the image in his mind—and isn’t that what most of us fall in love with anyway?
As to the reward, there is an in-game reward for these relationships. In fact, there are many. Well run, a love interest can bring about character development. Once he married her, he found that she saw through him more than anyone else; his pretenses at infallibility only made her laugh at him and love him more. In the right situations, it can drive plot, as the separated lovers try to find their way back to each other. Whether the love interest already has valuable skills or has to learn them along the way, the player now has a non-player character associate who is very loyal, very dependable. The player now has a team member, and can work on teamwork in the situations ahead.
Or maybe he just has someone waiting for his return, a reason to survive the current fight and return to the safe haven that is home. It still colors and changes the game, the characters, the adventures, opening new possibilities and directions. Relationships are always good story drivers; but they are also the natural result of character interactions. Referees don’t have to create relationships to make them work; we just have to make them possible.
And then we let them grow and twist and turn in whatever direction feels right for the characters and the world, and let the romance happen.