This Singles Awareness Day, while you’re steeping in the pink heart-shaped saccharin tsunami, let’s talk about an exceedingly awkward subject: handling romance in tabletop gaming.
If you’ve never had a romantic subplot in your games, you’re far from alone. While a lot of gamers enjoy a good romance (or a delightfully terrible one), nearly as many avoid them due to the sheer awkwardness of playing out a romantic subplot at the table.
Understand that “romance” in this context covers a pretty broad range: everything from brief flirty banter with an NPC to full-on in-character relationships that might last for a large portion of an ongoing campaign. It can be used for comedy to lighten up a scene, to put an otherwise stoic character (of which there are no shortage in RPGs) off balance in a way the player can enjoy, to showcase aspects of a character that would never have come out otherwise, and to give even your more teflon characters something that will stick them to the plot.
The awkwardness that comes with RPing out a romance is often enough of a deterrent to shy many GMs away, but there are also a lot of greater dangers to be aware of before you introduce PC/NPC romance to your game. Almost all of it comes down to an awareness of the out-of-character context involved:
1) Never forget that you are the GM and in a position of power (however slight it might seem) at the table. Never force the issue of a relationship with any NPC ever – let the player be the one to guide it and allow them to walk away from it, no questions asked. They may never tell you how uncomfortable it made them for fear of rocking the boat, so don’t wait on them to raise the issue.
2) If the player is someone you might be interested in out-of-character, either avoid giving them romantic NPC options or avoid roleplaying out that relationship. Reference it in narrative form to give them something to hook on, but keep yourself out of the mix. The temptation to blur lines between game and reality is not something to ever flirt with, pardon the pun.
3) Know your tropes, especially the toxic ones. Once a PC has an NPC to dote on, avoid fridging and damseling, especially with a female-presenting NPC. There are better ways to motivate the PC via their romantic interest without adding yet another point to the terrifying graph of these dangerous tropes already littered across the landscape.
4) Remember that there are other players at the table. This isn’t just about The 45-minute Rule (although that’s always an important consideration), but about the awkwardness they might feel as a collective third wheel. Keep public interactions light and humorous – flirtatious ribbing that may give the other PCs something to tease their party member about later. Leave the sweet notions for side RP or implied narrative elsewhere.
Okay, so we’ve covered the big land mines when it comes to PC/NPC romance. Now, how do you navigate them?
First, let’s talk about how to set up romantic options in the first place. You never want to create a single romantic-interest NPC for a given PC and throw them at them like so much rice at a wedding. It assumes you know both the player and the PC well enough to guess their preferences. Trust me, you don’t. On the miraculous chance you do, the assumption itself can still be offensive. So don’t do it.
Instead, litter the field with options and let the player be the one to decide who, if anyone, they want to romance. NPCs could (and should) flirt to clue the player in about interest, but don’t let the NPC drive the issue, or bemoan “lost love” if they’re passed over. If the player doesn’t ‘bite’ on any of these options, be sure to check in with them privately to make sure even the innocent flirting isn’t making them uncomfortable in and of itself. Not every player is going to be interested in an in-character romance, after all.
If you find yourself looking to use a romantic interest to hook a PC, but can’t think of a way to do it without fridging or damseling the NPC, consider treating the NPC like their own PC, with deeply personal motivations to complete the mission or take out the Big Bad. They might be a child of freedom fighters the Big Bad made an example of during the failed rebellion, or a former rival thief who got screwed trying to cash in the big score and is now out for revenge against the Big Bad.
Whatever it is, make the motivation personal and strong – all the same emotional bad tropes try to invoke, without the bad – and the PCs will often get caught in the wake and pulled into the plot out of a desire to help their partner, even if they have no deeper personal motivation. Even if the romantic interest does get endangered or captured, having them orchestrate their own rescue (and rendezvous with their “rescuers” on the way out of the enemy compound) is a great way to flip the trope on its head and avoid a lot of the problematic pieces.
Done with the proper dose of caution, romance can add a wonderful new dimension to your game and the PCs in it. It can feel like it completes the world in a way, can surprise players who are often never surprised in other game situations, and can reward players who genuinely enjoy romance arcs in a game otherwise about beating things up and taking their stuff.