Duet Campaigns: Romantic Encounters

Written by Kirk Johnson-Weider and Michelle Johnson-Weider

   “I would like more personal interactions in the campaign,” said Vicky.
“What? But there are a lot of personal interactions in the campaign,” said Thad.
“Yes, but they are all tied to the war or politics.  I would like some romance in the campaign; everyone I have started dating has died or disappeared.”
“Well…ah, I hadn’t noticed.”
“I would really like a more balanced campaign. I mean, I an enjoying it, but it just is…well…sometimes too tactical.”
“I don’t want to sidetrack the campaign too much…”
“Really?  We ran a whole dungeon adventure last week that had nothing to do with the campaign.”
“Well, you have to mix it up to have a good campaign.”
“Great, then mix it up with some romance.”
“Okay, but I’m a little awkward about gaming romance.”
“You can do it, you’ve done it before…and it would make the campaign a lot more enjoyable for me.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll go online and get some ideas, but give me a little time…”
“Sure, but no more vaporizing my boyfriends after the first date!”

Duet campaigns are roleplaying campaigns with only one narrator and one player.  These campaigns are designed for roleplaying and immersion.  They are also ideal for introducing romance as you don’t have to deal with the many problems romance poses for group campaigns.  It really isn’t hard to run romances, but there are a few tricks that can help a narrator avoid potential pitfalls.  This article focuses on three issues: determining the appropriate comfort level, designing the romantic interest, and running the courtship. The article is written from the perspective of a male narrator, a female player, and a male love interest. However, all of the advice works equally well for any other gender combinations.

Comfort Level

    “Lord Aeron wants to know how you want to split the bill. He owes 11.25 credits for his qualit roast, you owe 12.50 for the space lobster salad, you split the wine, which was 35.75 credits, but really he drank most of it, and you had the black nebula cake for desert at 4.00 credits, plus the aether coffee which was 3.75.  Gratuities on the world of Balesca are typically 17%,” explained Thad as he read through his notes.
“Thad dear, I don’t think we need to go into this much detail,” suggested Vicky.

First things first, the narrator has to determine what his and his player’s comfort levels are for romances.  Comfort level means many things, but can be boiled down to the level of detail.  This includes how much you go into the roleplaying between the two characters, how much of the campaign is to be focused on the courtship, and how explicitly you describe things.  When the narrator and player are significant others in real life, there is more intimacy, hopefully stronger communication, and a higher degree of trust that will help them to find their mutual comfort level fairly easily.  In other situations, it is best to do things conservatively and to take small steps to see if the player is even interested in having a romance as part of the campaign, though from our experience almost all players really enjoy romances.

Now less is more and a good narrator leaves things to the player’s imagination.  I am not just talking about intimate encounters, but also other things like descriptions of individuals and locations. Lengthy, detailed descriptions are a mark of an inexperienced GM.  All you need to do is to provide a framework and then leave the details to the player’s imagination. You cannot be as effective in describing something or someone as the player’s imagination will be at conjuring her ideal vision of that thing or person, and if you try with an overly detailed account all you will do is disrupt the player’s imagination.

Sex is NOT Romance: I might as well address this right up front.  Anyone who has been in a serious relationship that has lasted longer than a few years knows this is true, but for the rest of you just accept this wisdom.  What makes a romance successful is the banter between the characters and how they deal with the difficulties of their relationship, not the physical attraction, though that is a component.

The Romantic Interest

    “Captain Docris Moblin was a man’s man.  He was a hunter, a former space fighter pilot, and has made conquests across the Concordance, both militarily and romantic.  He sweeps into the room with his broad shoulders and manly physique and makes eye contact with you,” explained Thad.
“You have got to be kidding – can I shoot him with my laser pistol?” asked Vicky.

So you have decided to introduce a romantic interest, well now comes the hard part: designing the romantic interest.  Do not rush this; take your time and do it right.  What follows are some questions you should ask yourself during the process:

1)    Is this the real relationship or a prelude? Sometimes you will want to use a few romantic foils in a campaign, in other words, a few losers that the PC dates before you spring the true romantic interest.  Personally, I run these for their comic value.  You can have someone who talks endlessly about himself, the slacker, the egotistical snob, and even the nice guy with whom the player just has no chemistry (this is easier to roleplay than it might seem).  The big advantage to these prelude relationships is that they help you to prepare and set up the real relationship.  Pay attention to the PC’s reactions to these prelude romantic interests as this will help you when you design the real one.

2)    Why would the PC be interested in this character? This takes a little insight.  Now if you are GMing your significant other just figure out why she is with you and extrapolate from there; otherwise just follow your instincts. There are four things that are universally admired in romantic interests: honor, humor, loyalty, and competence.  Honor means many things, but really at its heart it signifies a character who believes in both himself and something greater than himself.  Humor is always a winner, but the best humor is self-effacing humor. If a character can laugh at himself, it makes the character more likable and even more noble.  Loyalty is also important.  If a character displays loyalty to other people or to a cause then the PC will know that the character could also be loyal to her. Competence means that the character is good at something; people like individuals who have some expertise.  It may not be a heroic skill, just something that the character is good at and most likely enjoys doing.

3)    What are the flaws of this character? People have flaws and this is why we love them.  No one wants to be in love with a perfect person.  Give the romantic interest humanizing flaws.  For example, a soldier who detests his country for its war crimes but continues to serve because it is his country.  Another example is a noble who is very demanding of, or even harsh to, his servants and friends, but who holds himself to an even higher standard.  A merchant who is always poor because he is too generous.  Flaws also provide character growth. If the relationship helps to remove a character’s flaws, it strengthens the relationship and the personality of the character.

4)    Is there a campaign division between the PC and the character? Romantic interests are usually very competent and skilled; they have to be equals to the PC to make them suitable for a relationship.  This means that they can steal the spotlight, so you need precautions to avoid this from being disruptive to the campaign or the relationship (unless that is your plan). One method is to give the NPC abilities that complement the PC; for example, if the PC is a skilled warrior, make the romantic interest a gifted wizard.  Another method is to give both separate arenas: one involved in business, the other involved in politics.  A final method is to just give them space; for example, they are both military officers, but are in different units.  These simple methods allow both characters to shine and to have their own areas.

5)    What are the difficulties for this relationship? Every relationship has difficulties.  These can include societal, cultural, racial, familial, professional, political, and religious obstacles that make things a little complicated.  The GM should give careful thought as to how difficult these obstacles will be to overcome. If the obstacles are too great, they will ruin the relationship, but if they are insignificant there is less challenge (and fun) in overcoming them.  One difficulty to consider in a broad sense is whether this relationship has a future.  Sometimes the romance is easy but it is not meant to last due to the difficulties of the relationship, this can be tragic and the GM should think it through at the beginning of the relationship and plan accordingly (including dropping hints that this may be the case).

A classic trick from fiction and movies (after you read this you will notice it being used all the time): give the romantic interest an upstanding friend.  If someone has good people for friends then we think higher of that person. The reverse is also true; if someone has bad people as friends we will think less of them. Now this trick can be used by taking NPCs from the campaign who the PC has already decided are respectable and have them reveal that they are friends with the romantic interest.  These friendships will instantly shore up the PC’s opinion of the romantic interest.

The Courtship

    “Lord Aeron surveys the battle field. ‘I think I am done with war. What I want is a new adventure, one founded on love, not war’, he says as he reaches out and grabs your hand,” says Thad with a tear in his eye.
“I grab his hand back and stand silent. Thad, that was awesome!” says Vicky with a sad smile.

The courtship is really a campaign within the campaign.  Obviously, you can steal from romantic movies and use some of the staples like rival love interests, falsely interpreted signals, separations due to some crisis, and so forth.  The most important thing is to honestly roleplay the romantic interest.  Sometimes he will be mad, sometimes he will be jealous, and sometimes he will act irrationally. This is how you make the relationship feel real.  You must trust your instincts and make leaps sometimes; this is challenging roleplaying.  There are some generic stages to the courtship, which are as follows (this is a little too formulaic, but it is accurate):

1)    Meeting – This is how the two characters meet. If you look at fiction and movies, this is a critical scene.  I find that putting the character in an awkward situation is the best bet.  For example, a military general is at a formal ball and is being pursued by many young girls for his recent victory.  He is miserable and then meets the PC.

2)    Flirtation – This is the witty banter stage of the relationship. Clever flirtation will do a lot to make a love interest endearing. Continuing the flirtation aspect throughout other stages of the relationship can help the characters to weather the inevitable difficulties that will arise.

3)    Complexity – This is when some complexity comes into the relationship. It might be difficulties due to some obstacle, a period of long distance separation, the appearance of a rival love interest, or so on.

4)    Early Relationship – After the complexity and with the couple beginning their relationship, there should be the typical difficulties of early relationships like misunderstandings, conflicted priorities, meeting friends, and families and so forth.  For example, imagine if the player’s new boyfriend takes her back to see his family, but a spirit of an ancient ancestor arises to take exception to the player. There you have an instant adventure, maybe even a dungeon crawl and a possible big fight, all inspired by the courtship story arc.

5)    Complexity – This is probably a more serious obstacle and is really the final hurdle to the relationship.  It could be a more serious aspect of a complexity that first arose during the early relationship, or it could be something new, like the love interest is crippled from battle, or is kidnapped by enemies of the player, or has died and the PC needs to bring him back from the land of the dead.

6)    True Love – At this point the relationship is secure and the courtship is over. This does not mean that the romance has ended; it just moves into a different stage.

One more tip: patience.  Don’t rush a romance.  Stretch it out, toss in obstacles, and make things as protracted as possible without turning off the player.  Be alert to pacing signals from the player to help determine the speed at which you progress the relationship. Additionally, don’t forget to keep the main campaign going strong, so that you can use the romance as a sub-plot.  The patient GM is the masterful GM.

There you go, all you need to know, more or less, about running romance in duet campaigns.  A lot of this material will work with the right group campaigns, but duets are where you can really embrace romance as a fundamental part of a campaign.

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