In role-play games as in life, there's no escaping sex. From goofy to vile to thoughtful, attitudes about sex and love color -- and sometimes dominate -- the characters we play. So do not hesitate to add romantic elements to your game; RPGs are, after all, stories we tell ourselves, and the greatest stories of all are love stories.
Caveats: But before we leap headlong into the topic, take a look at the traps waiting to snap shut on the unwary. When sex in your game stops being fun, when it makes players uncomfortable, when it offends or insults, then step back and reconsider. People play Dungeons and Dragons (and other RPGs) for entertainment, usually not to be enlightened or to have their consciousness raised, and certainly not to be taunted, abused, or intimidated. Especially beware of coercion -- for more on this this serious topic I urge you to read these essays: Shataina's A consideration of rape in D&D and Beth Anne Kinderman's A Column I Hoped I Wouldn't Have To Write.
Romance and Adventure Hooks: At the heart of every adventure is a conflict. Steal a relic from a demon, hunt down a troll band, protect the heir to the throne, kick in the door and kill the monsters -- the game master works hard to come up with scenarios that challenge and engage the players. After a while, it can be hard to come up with ideas. Well, romance adds a new dimension to the kinds of adventures you can create.
A simple way for a game master to add a romatic plot is with non-player characters who are in love. This situation is easy to control and manipulate, since the game master controls the NPC lovers. And because player characters are not directly involved, this is a good way to introduce romance, especially to gamers who might need easing into the theme.
As this article suggests, both reciprocated romance and unrequited romance can make for good stories. Here are a few ideas on how to use each.
- Lovers separated -- the party reunites them (reciprocated)
- Matchmaker -- the party helps lovers realize they are in love (reciprocated)
- Romeo & Juliet -- the party comes to the aid of lovers caught between opposing loyalties (reciprocated)
- Elopement -- the party helps lovers run away to get married (reciprocated)
- Shotgun -- the party tracks down a reluctant lover obligated by custom or law to marry (unrequited or reciprocated)
- Foolish heart -- party deals with a good person in love with a villain (unrequited)
- Charming cad -- party deals with a villain seeking the heart of an innocent (unrequited)
And given the vast array of cultures and creatures in fantasy games, ideas like these gain richness and complexity when you mix in different races, magic, gods, and cultural values.
PCs in Love: Having introduced the topic, a game master should not be surprised if player characters echo non-player characters and fall in love. They might fall in love with an NPC or with a fellow character. The game master might have an NPC declare true love for a PC, which the player might decide is one-sided or mutual.
As mentioned in this online thread, a game master should not depend on a PC falling for an NPC as part of an adventure plot. Players are notoriously fickle and wayward creatures, and often balk when led. But if a PC does fall in love with an NPC, don't punish the player for it. Yes, as an Evil DM (TM), you feel obliged to put the characters' loved ones in danger, to kidnap them, threaten them, and the like, but believe me, it gets old fast. Sure, risk to loved ones is a valid adventure hook, but play that card rarely, in order to both avoid player resentment and to make the hook more effective when you do use it. Even more importantly, be as discreet and gentle with beloved NPCs as with PCs -- as a pretty solid rule, don't beat, rape, and torture characters, unless you want to see your players desert your game.
In fact, you might want to consider rewarding your players who pursue romance. As the 3.5E Dungeons and Dragons DM Guide suggests (scroll down to "Roleplaying Awards"), it is a great idea to grant bonus experience points to characters who do a good job role-playing falling in love with an NPC -- if it enhances the game, and especially if the character devotes resources and makes sacrifices for the loved one. But just as you should not award experience points for players killing each other, don't hand out xp for PC-PC romance. Experience comes from players responding to the challenges offered by the game master; in PC-PC romance, there is no such challenge.
Speaking of romance between player characters, there are special pitfalls to be alert for. It is possible that in-character emotions might carry over into real life, in one form or another. In this online discussion, Ben Lehman described the special situation of RPing romance with a non-significant-other when your SO is also in the game: "We aren't a society that shows sexual attraction well. Within a designated couple, we are allowed that, but anything outside of that is generally forbidden. What we are talking about here is transgressing those boundaries. How do we do that, and have people go home with the same person afterwards?"
Now, I'm not saying that romance between player characters is bad, just that it can be tricky. And that it becomes even trickier when players as involved with each other as well. So handle with care. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not, as in several stories in this online thread.
This is the first part of a seven part series on sex in role-play games:
Feedback (12 July 05) I got some good feedback from Ben Lehman. Thanks!