How to set up love interests for player characters

How to set up love interests for player characters

A few of my players (2 out of 4 in the current group) would like having a love interest in our campaign. I feel like it's something that we can achieve, as the campaign is not too dark and into "classical" heroism.
My main problem is that I have no idea on how to include that element in the campaign.
My first thought was to create a roster of suitors, but I had trouble seeing how to add them into the story and how to make adequate NPCs for that particular purpose (i.e., not just based on looks).
Another point I had problems with is how to set up a system for developing love. It's not just a charisma roll — there are a lot factors involved winning the heart of the princess.
So how do I include love interests for player characters?  Specifically:

How do I provide time for romance in a campaign based on fights and quests?
How can a player character strive to win the love of the object of their affection?
How can I entertain players that are not interested in such matters?

Solutions/Answers:

Answer 1:

Do not cheapen relationships

Do not have a “romantic interest” NPCs, instead have real characters who may develop strong feelings for a PC.

Significant others are not quest items or things to be won through cheap tricks — or for that matter expensive devices. To do so is to cheapen the life of the significant other. One cannot win the love of someone unless one lives in a romantic novel or uses chemicals whether potions or roofies. The latter kinda shifts the definition of “love”.

You should aim to have NPCs that are fully fledged humans, with flaws and qualities, different physics and personalities. Let the role play between said characters bring them close to the PC. Make characters that the PCs want to spend time with, let feelings grow out of that.

If you wish to delve into homosexuality, you could have a same-sex NPC fall for one of the PCs and try to make their feeling known. This could be an interesting way to explore a different love story. Although, clearly an unconventional one. Ringil does spring to mind here.

Love as a “thing”.

You can use love as a thing, this is not a bad thing in and off itself. For example:

Romeo and Juliet

Here love is taken as a plot point between two teenagers (the first one madly in love with someone else at the start of the play) who end up tearing their respective families out of their mutual hatred. Love here is but a McGuffin for the fulfilment of the story.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are fine examples of what can be achieved in the art of seduction. If your characters are interested in that kind of romantic questing, then all the above is clearly less relevant. Targets are notches on the bed, nothing more than disposable pawns in the great game of seduction. In such a game, skill such as lying, subterfuge, and acting are paramount.

Tristan and Iseult

Here you have yet a different take on love. The whole quest is about the consequences of a falling in love: some tragic, some happy. This is the faery tale end of the spectrum: If your game is a faery tale where love is instantaneous and conquers all, then that’s fine even if it is still a trope and thus needs to be done well.

Answer 2:

Unless you want to make matters of romance a central part of the plot, which it sounds like you do not want to do, then you shouldn’t try and treat them like quest objectives.

What I have done in the past is treat courting a love interest as a side project for the players interested, while giving the other characters side projects. These side projects should be defined by the players, not the GM. In the case of the romance, this avoids some really awkward moments – for example assuming the wrong sexual orientation of the character. In the case of the characters not interested in romance, side projects give the other characters something to do for depth.

Usually I find down times to get characters working on side projects, including romance. For a clear and loot type game, this down time would usually be at the inn between quests. It could be as simple as asking them what they are doing that day with their love interest, and role playing out applicable parts.

Answer 3:

How do I setup a time for romance in a campaign based on fights and quests?

Romance typically doesn’t happen in the middle of an epic battle. It happens around the campfire later that night, or in the local tavern. The best way to include such subplots is to actually role-play the interactions between interested parties when the group makes camp for the night.

If both halves of a romantic pairing are active party members, maybe they can make passing comments or quips while the group is fighting/exploring/whatever, but these interactions should be kept quick and limited in number, since there are, in fact, more important things at hand. In the real world, a romantic couple is not constantly remarking on their partner’s “sweet tush” or making double-entendres about what might happen later that night, especially not when they’re in the middle of something more important.

You can (and should) also cut away from the lovebirds to ask what the other party members are doing during this time. This gives them an opportunity to remain engaged in the game and, not incidentally, an opportunity to develop their own non-romantic subplots. This will enrich the game as a whole and hopefully keep everyone entertained.

How can my players win the love of their target ? (Oh my god it sounds creepy)

I would do this entirely through role-play. No dice. Using game mechanics to describe romance (and worse, sex) invariably objectifies the entire process. It reduces the interaction to numbers and obliterates the magic that is Love. If players want to pursue romantic subplots, they do it by role-playing their interactions with their love interests.

Also, try to keep things as mature as possible. Don’t let it degenerate into a series of crude (out of character) jokes from the peanut gallery.

Maybe use the occasional Charisma check for important turning points (ie: the player used a REALLY cheesy pick up line… Did she laugh, or did she brush him off?) But do this SPARINGLY. The majority of such things should unfold naturally through role-play.

How can I entertain players that are not interested in such matters.

By keeping these romantic subplots short and to the point. A real relationship doesn’t develop all at once. It happens over time, after several meetings and time spent talking with one another. Play these one scene at a time. Ideally one scene per game session, two tops. Stop at a good, heart-warming moment. Move on to other, non-romance related things. And try to make sure the majority of the game revolves around traditional adventure – which all players will presumably enjoy.

ABOVE ALL, DO NOT INCLUDE SEX “ON SCREEN.” I mean don’t include it at all. When characters start kissing, you fade to black or change the scene to something else. This isn’t about being a prude – playing out a scene where two characters are having intercourse takes the game into an entirely different arena. It’s going to awkward for everyone, and will almost certainly devolve the entire subplot into dick jokes and misogyny. There’s probably going to be some of that no matter what you do, but you want to avoid it as much as possible, as it will only cheapen the whole experience.

Female characters should not become pregnant unless all players (ALL players) are willing to use it as a plot hook. Dealing with a pregnancy (let alone a baby) is going to have a significant impact on the entire game – not just the characters who are the prospective parents, but everyone around them as well. Yes, unexpected pregnancies can happen in real life, but in an RPG campaign it’s a HUGE wrinkle that’s likely to derail everything else. This will only end in tears.

Answer 4:

My answer to this question is very much alike to my answer to How should a GM deal with sexuality in an RPG?

Most of the games I run and play in have some romantic component. I’ve had players have one night stands, romances, get married, have kids, and all variations on that theme. Right now I’m in two games – I’m running one where one PC is married and working on having a kid with a serpentfolk woman (he’s a serpent shaman, so…), one is romantically involved with a voodoo loa of the ocean, and one is chaste from his clerical vows but has still managed to become the vertex of a love triangle. I’m playing in the Paizo Mummy’s Mask AP (but using the Dungeon World rules) and my PC just became romantically involved with a snooty noblewoman who is apparently supposed to be an initial villain but the heart wants what the heart wants…

  • You don’t need “designated romance targets.” You just need a realistic world populated with a variety of people that the PCs have time to interact with. You don’t know what’s going to pique your PCs’ interest any more than you know what piques your friends’ interest (some of them may have a “type” but there’s usually a fair amount of unpredictability). Obviously you want to make sure you’re not falling into the classic “Tolkien trap” (hey have any of you ever seen a woman? No? Odd.).

  • Separating play into two phases of “now we’re adventuring” vs “now this is downtime in town” has always seemed dysfunctional to me; we’ve had many NPC romantic interests on adventures with us and we’ve found plenty of adventure in towns. Last game session I had hooked up with my romantic interest for the first time and while I was still in the saddle, so to speak, the bad guys’ minions came busting down all our inn room doors for a knock down drag out fight. All you need to worry about is fair share of spotlight time. Romance is like anything else, if one PC goes and enters in a bunch of pit fights while in town that can run the risk of “not entertaining players who don’t have an interest in such matters” unless you manage the clock time. Just switch off. “What do you do, PC A?” “I swing my spiked gauntlet at my pit fight opponent! I hit for 12 points of damage!” “He swoons. PC B, what do you do?” “I sing a love ballad to my beloved! I roll a 20 on Perform: Music!” “She swoons. PC C?”

  • As for rules support – there are pros and cons to leveraging rules as part of a relationship. On the one hand, there aren’t many good ones – long ago I asked Relationship Mechanics for D&D/Pathfinder? and came up empty, and since then I’ve seen mechanics for it in e.g. the Paizo Jade Regent AP that are just bad. Other games have random Bonds or Drives or Virtues or Spankings but those are either to enforce acting on them (and if your players are interested in romance you don’t have to enforce it) or just give bonuses/penalties in situations related to your romance (boooooring). On the other hand, doing it all by GM fiat without any dice becomes predictable and boring. Yes you, random thespian GM who thinks you are perfect – it either becomes cheap (here’s a girl/boyfriend for you! Enjoy!) or otherwise predictable (ah, here’s the femme fatale who’s going to betray us… again…). I like to at least use secret Charisma rolls from time to time to see what people think of each other (not just for romance). Plus, sometimes a NPC may want to initiate romance (shocker!). Unless you are playing a real formalized courtly love sim, in general you want to balance you fiatting realistic development of the relationship with some randomized ups and downs. In the perfect world when your PC asks that person to marry them, they should have the same “I’m sure they’ll say yes but oh crap will it be?” sensation from IRL.

Answer 5:

To expand on @Sardathrion ‘s great answer regarding not having separate Romantic NPC’s and Regular NPC’s, you can allow romance to be one way that players can bring NPC’s on their side and/or gain useful information or items. For example, maybe if a player successfully seduces your tavern wench, her father will give a dowry of a useful magical item and oh, the tavern wench has some magical skills so now you have an NPC spellcaster on the team that the players are likely to be a bit protective of. The magical item could be one that could be obtained some other way, like by buying it from the father or by stealing it, but by adding the romantic avenue you are increasing your players’ ability to choose a course of action.

In addition, maybe one of the romanceable characters actually has ulterior motives themselves. That cute single spice merchant is actually a spy from an opposing faction looking to seduce your players’ Warrior Princess and gather information about what the PC’s are doing. If you need ideas on how this might look, watch or read any James Bond story.

Also, consider asking your players what kinds of people their characters might like to romance. Certainly, not everyone can find that Perfect Someone, but asking could help you avoid annoying your players by throwing uninteresting NPC’s at them. If all you are throwing at your players are your stereotypical buxom tavern wenches but their characters are more into the wistful Disney Princess type, you are going to have a bad time.

Answer 6:

De Arte Honeste Amandi, (Capellanus, c.1180) is a description or codification of the concept of Courtly Love, which was enormously important to mediaeval knights, as anyone who has read about Lancelot and Guinevere knows. The concept has several advantages from an RPG point of view; it requires deeds of valour to prove worthiness (defeating foreigners and winning tournaments in your lady’s name were the historical favourites; rescuing her from death or a worse fate was also approved, but difficult to arrange). There are strict rules; Capellanus has thirty, such as “When made public love rarely endures”, and the strategems and plans that were allowable to bring two lovers together despite obstacles were carefully defined (bribing the chaperone is allowable, but arranging for her to be kidnapped is not, as it might compromise your lady’s honour). And Romance, in this sense, is clearly separated from both marriage and unchastity: the princess (who is, of course, entirely unspotted) will marry whoever her father decides, but may still have a love who wears her favour in the joust and who has an undying passion for her.

It may be that your mediaeval Latin is a bit rusty and you see difficulties in writing rules for this. If so you will be relieved though not surprised to hear that Courtly Love is extensively covered in Chivalry and Sorcery. The various rule- and sourcebooks had several explanations of the concept, culminating in a six-page essay in the 3rd Edition “Knights’ Companion” that not only puts the rules in an RPG-compatible form but outlines a system for deciding whether a suitor wins a Lady’s favour (depending largely on their respective Romance Factors).

Answer 7:

The Diplomacy Skill

Check out the diplomacy rule variant. Its got a table for keeping track of the attitudes NPCs hold towards the PCs. Very good not just for romance, but generally just adding depth to your NPCs.

Obviously an NPC with a lower score on the table towards a character will treat them more poorly than one with a high opinion. Its based on Charisma, but interacting and rolling high with NPCs repeatedly will build up a rapport if you keep at it.

May I suggest the Strings feature from MonsterHearts?

It essentially works like FATE points, which give minor bonuses to rolls and allow for re-rolling. Except the Strings in MonsterHearts represent some sort of strong emotion for a character, romantic in nature.

Getting Strings can be the result of a high diplomacy roll – Strings swing both ways, NPCs can have them to influence PCs and vice versa. NPCs and PCs can barter strings among each-other. This can offer some mechanical incentive to care about the relationships and have them be relevant to the rest of the game.

References

How do I help create story around the table without writing it?

How do I help create story around the table without writing it?

I love RPGs. I think they can create some of the most fun and enjoyable stories, both from an out-of-game and in-game standpoint.
I also realize that "story" is the result of the game played by the players and the GM, not what is actually played.
And yet, as an eager GM, my main downfall is that I write stories for the players to follow instead of giving them the freedom of choice. I need a way to focus my creative abilities to set my game up for success without writing the story.
What elements do I need to prepare for sessions without writing the story? How can I use these elements to run fun and engaging games that foster story?
I guess I really don't know how to write plot instead of story. I am shooting for a long-term game.

Solutions/Answers:

Answer 1:

Write the story as if the characters were not there. Make sure that all your NPCs have motivations, goals and personalities. This is what would happen if the world was run like clock work. This is your story.

Now, add the characters into the mix.

Let the story be modified by what the characters do. The NPCs will react, and depending on their personalities, goals and motivations (see, it all fits) they will respond. Thus your story will grow organically and be built between you and the other players. Nothing must be set in stone from there on: even the characters killing your big bad end of game boss in the first session! Run with it. See what and where your story takes you. Good NPCs are a key to this: you must know how they think to allow them to react in a true manner.

A side note on set pieces: One of the drawbacks of this approach is that set pieces do not work at all — unless they are designed close to the session. You cannot assume that the characters will go to X, find Y and do Z which will set up the background for NPC Monkey to fight them atop a waterfall. That is railroading.

A lot of work must go into the NPCs’ motivations, characterisation, and their ability to gain information. No NPC will ever be aware of everything the PCs do so the GM needs to know how much each NPC gets to find out what the PCs have done at a specific point in time. Note done not necessary with their motivations. The plot should be written anyway. After each session, the plot is tweaked depending on what the NPCs have learned of the PCs’s actions using all the ramifications of the events — something the GM should be doing anyway.

Finally, this is who I write all my games for several decades. It never failed me.

Answer 2:

Stop writing. 🙂

Think of villains and places. Feel free to write those down, but purely in terms of their past and present. You don’t know their futures any more than the players know their characters’ futures, so why write about that?

This sounds like valadil’s response, but I’m taking it a step further: don’t even worry about your NPCs “doing stuff.”

Just make them, then on game night, put them in front of your players.

For what it’s worth, this will feel awkward at first. That’s okay. Most good things do. 😉

Best of luck!

Answer 3:

The only thing I would add to Sardathrion’s excellent response is that you can manipulate the direction of the campaign by manipulating the characters.

There are several ways of doing this. The first is use the character background to increase the chance that the player will pursue certain goals. For example if the character desire is to recover a lost family sword and you want that character to goto a particular orc infested forest, then you plant rumors to that effect. If the player is truly a roleplayer and the party agrees then campaign will get there.

Mission handed out by a powerful NPC patron is another technique

Not everybody makes or wants to make character backgrounds. For these players after a couple of sessions they will have assets to protect and goals peruse and you can use these to manipulate them in a particular direction.

Be subtle with your manipulations and do not force it. It make take a couple of sessions unless the players are playing crazy insane characters. Even then you can generally fall back into manipulating their greed or lust for power.

Answer 4:

Write things. Don’t write how the PCs will react to those things.

To elaborate, come up with NPCs. Make them do stuff. Treat them as your own PCs (well, in terms of planning, not in terms of statting them up and showing off their combat prowess). Then put them in front of the PCs and see what the PCs do.

If you force the PCs to react a specific way, you’re dictating their choices and telling the story for them. What I mean by that is if you put a quest giver, combat ally, and nemesis into play, what the players do with them is already determined and there’s no story left to tell. Instead, put three distinct personalities into game. Give them connections to each other. Show this to the PCs and see who they try and work with. If you’ve created interesting enough NPCs you’ll be able to run with them in whatever direction the PCs push.

Now, if you’re able to get backstory from the PCs, all the better. Character backgrounds will give you clues about what the PCs will react to.

Answer 5:

Have a start and a goal, and maybe some events that you want to happen in between and leave the rest up to the players.

Example:

Start – you put the players in a cave, tied up, having been abducted by some hobgoblins who revere a beholder as their god-king. They plan to feed the players to it.

Goal – The players survive.

The rest is up to the players. They can magically control a hobgoblin (assuming they have the ability) to release them, or start attacking the other hobgoblins as a distraction while they untie themselves and escape, they can wait until they are to be fed, then kill the beholder, now having their own clan of loyal (and scared) hobgoblins…

What I am trying to say is, don’t first think of a whole adventure that you want to run, with all the details in it, and then find details to remove to make it interactive – make it interactive from the very beginning.

While writing the adventure, always keep your players in mind – One of them might not actively take part in the RP, but is an excellent tactician and shines in battle. In that case, have some battles with tactical elements (cover, height difference, changing battlefield – like a bridge that collapses, or magical platforms that fly around the scene that the players, but also enemies, can stand on). One other might prefer to flesh out his character, and thrives in conversation – have a pivotal point of the adventure involve conversation and diplomacy.

Whatever you do, if you know your group and keep them in mind when developing an adventure, the players will (in my experience) find ways to do it their way. I find, you might create an encounter, or a story, and expect the players to do certain things within that story, but they will always think of something you haven’t planned for.

Listen to your players.

Have an open mind. If the players suggest something you haven’t planned for, improvise it. Give them what they want. You can’t plan for every possible action they might take – so judge them while you play, and see what ideas they come up with – then make it work within the story you have prepared.

Create your story as if it were a tree. You start at the trunk where certain things happen, then start creating branches according to different things that might happen.

Don’t try to cover every possibility, but rather, during the creation process, make branches that you can adapt to what the players might do. When you are writing the “branches of the tree” think of results, what that branch does and what it means for the players, not how they will get to it; they will find a way on their own.

I know I possibly overcomplicate the answer, but I hope I’ve helped 🙂

Answer 6:

Write down the major NPCs who will be influencing the situation the characters are involved in. This might be kings and dragons and such, or it might be stuff like the local sheriff and the mayor of the town and the head of the Northside gangs… scale it appropriately.

Give them personalities, goals and problems they’re dealing with – have these intersect with the players’ goals and problems in ways that mostly create problems and sometimes create spaces for alliances.

Start your campaign with at least one NPC or faction making a big move. Let the players react how they will. Let your NPCs react how THEY will, except focusing the camera and favoring what will be the most interesting for the PCs.

You’re now playing the NPCs like players play the PCs- improvise and have fun. Every so often, check in and see if the NPC needs to be rewritten because their outlook has changed.

Answer 7:

This is something that does not fit into every system, setting or play style, but it is something I wanted to share because it has worked wonders for me.

Player created plots

Before you begin playing, gather all your players and have them write a short summary for a plot they have in mind. This plot can be something minor or local, or it can be a great saga brewing in the background. Write one yourself as well. Have a short discussion about the plots, and then add a few bullet points to detail every plot. (I used aspects in a FATE game for this). You don’t need precision here, just inspiration. Preferably those bullet points should answer a couple of key questions you determined beforehand (e.g. “What’s the opportunity in this plot?”)

The plots do not have to involve the characters. If the characters want to get involved, they can do that in the game.

After the plots have a summary and details, you may optionally want to stat them up to determine how they compare. Assign numbers to determine their scale(minor-major), prevalence(occasional-everywhere), influence(negligible-world changing) etc. You can use these numbers to determine when and how a plot generates encounters or events. Use numbers and dice mechanics that fit your system.

Also assign each plot a number of “progress points”. This indicates the amount of player involvement before the plot resolves. Just like hit points, reduce this number every time the players do something about it. When a plot reaches zero progress points, run a final confrontation, and then generate a new plot to replace that. The new plot may be totally different, or may be the sequel to the old plot, but with its own summary (“After the iron knights defeated the lich king…”) and details.

When play begins, be sure to keep all the plots running in the background, but start by nudging(or pushing) your players towards one of them. And then improvise, using the plot details as inspiration. If the players want to shift their focus elsewhere, let them.

Use the additional plots to color and enrich the world and to generate random encounters and side quests.


This needs some prior work in that you need to invent some new game mechanics within your system to allow players to create plots. It also requires that the players are mature enough not to abuse their plot knowledge (of course, you as the GM can twist a plot any way you like). But once you can get this going, it becomes very rewarding for everyone at the table, since everyone has their part in making a great story.

Let me stress again, this is not for everyone. Some people just love to solve the intricate mysteries their GM throws at them. Some others don’t care about plots but just enjoy the tactical aspects of a game.

But then, there are people who enjoy the story that emerges from a game session. This is probably for those people. Hope it helps if you are one of them.

Answer 8:

I would suggest a 5-by-5 method. Essentially, you create 5 major goals for the party, and for each goal, 5 requirements. This allows you to have a loose story, with set milestones for the players to strive for, but still gives them the ability improvise. Here is an example:

  1. Stop Dragon Invasion:

    1. Recover Tome of the Dragons
    2. Decipher Tome
    3. Find Chromatic Dragons
    4. Empower Chromatic Dragons
    5. Ride Chromatic Dragons to defeat Evil Dragons
  2. Prevent Civil War in Kingdom

    1. Infiltrate Rebels
    2. Gather info
    3. List item
    4. List item
    5. List item

3–5+

In addition, these quests can intertwine; i.e., usurpers can be holding the tome, so during interrogation, you learn of the tome. Or the destruction caused by the dragons is causing uneasiness, and that is the cause for the tension.

The more points you add, the more freedom your players have, and yet the more you’re story can make sense. For this to actually cover a good chunk of your campaign though, you will need at least 5 major plot points. And the more vague your minor points are, the more freedom both you and your players have to improvise.

Now that you have all the goals, you add your setting (in this case a medieval magical adventure), so you know how NPC will react to the players, and you are ready to run the campaign. Have a few loose towns ready, and of course prepare your maps, where the tome will be, how do the rebels meet (magically or in a tavern), and let the players explore.

Most importantly, always be prepared to say yes to questions; i.e., if you are in a town, and the players ask, “Do any townsfolk haves special marks?”, make them roll, and with a good roll, give your rebels marks. Nine times out of 10, the players will do most of the work for the story themselves — just give them goals and a decent setting.

Answer 9:

These are all excellent suggestions. I would add though, even when running a directed story, the illusion of choice and self determination is still critical. “All roads lead to Rome” is a technique where, for example, you have prepared a site based adventure, where you anticipate the players say fetch a crown from a tomb, only, they end up following another inadvertently introduced thread like some cagey guy at the tavern. You instead have the cagey guy head to the tomb to fetch the crown, perhaps after finding the bait you formerly intended for the players, or move the tomb entirely so the players end up there essentially no matter what direction they take. Being flexible will allow you to use your prepared materials even when the players don’t take the bait (as you anticipated) or get distracted by otherwise mundane (or unprepared) elements you can work back into the adventure you had prepared, all the while allowing your players to act as they choose. Having a few event based encounters can also help you to further a directed story all the while allowing the players to create an emergent story.

References