Friday, June 17, 2005

Rules for Relationships

O.K. You've managed to capture the heart of the fiery strong-willed princess. You showed her that you were a stand-up guy and filled with the kind of flash,dash, and panache that a future king of her realm ought to have. You had tender moments, you had rough times that brought you together, and now the two of you are officially a couple....

So. Now, what?

In so many games that I've seen played, having a relationship with another character or an NPC is looked at in much the same way as climbing a mountain. Plenty of effort, until one reaches the pinnacle, and then it's achieved and the work stops. Anybody who has ever been in a real relationship can tell you that isn't the way it works.

Say what you will about me...I know you will anyway. I don't pretend to be some sort of Ann Landers to the Game geek set. But I have witnessed some of the most spectacular breakups and been involved in some of the most tortuous relationships imaginable. While this might color my perspective a bit, it does give me a reason to speak out against the "shiny happy people" syndrome I see in in-game love affairs.

Relationships are a rich field for Gamemasters. Many don't realize that an N.P.C. lover can be so much more than a convenient hostage for the antagonists to exploit. If that's all they are ever going to be in one of your games, smart players will start avoiding romantic entanglements the same way Call of Cthulhu characters avoid books and magic items.

1) Uncomplicated relationships are also dull

Face it. Relationships where nothing bad ever happens are just sickeningly dull. You know how it is. Some friend of yours fall in love, gets together with his willing partner, and then all they can seem to talk about is how much they love each other. Bleah!

However, a relationship where your friend comes over and says. "Well. The date was going pretty well and then I discovered that she was a demon from HELL!" Now, that's something you want to hear about.

2) The Buffy rule: Nobody gets to be with who they want to be with.

O.K. for those of you who've never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer it goes like this:

a) Buffy loves Angel but they have trouble with being together because Angel is a vampire and cursed besides.

b) Xander has a crush on Buffy,which Buffy does not return.

c) Willow and Xander have this off-again-on-again relationship that only seems to heat up when they are involved with other people.

d) For a long time Xander went out with Cordelia and she made him acutely miserable

e) Willow and Oz have a fairly steady relationship but it has its bumps and hitches and he turns into a werewolf to boot. Occasionally, Willow starts longing for Xander and is occasionally jealous of all the attention he lavishes on an uncaring Buffy.

f) and so on, and so on, ad infinitum....

Are you confused yet? God knows you should be. If you've got a love triangle going on your game count yourself lucky because it could always be a love polygon of some other shape. Don't feel like whapping together some big huge monster for the players to fight. Have the Character's get into to some big wicked fight with their S.O. about who REALLY loves who and by god, they will wish the monster had shown up to kill them.

3) Some things are acutely uncomfortable

O.K. It's important that you ,as GM, try not to be some kind of a prick. You might want to talk to your gamers about those things that they find uncomfortable and find ways not to do them. Some gamers will find the idea of having a romance with another character to be hard to talk about in front of the other gamers,This same person might think nothing about talking about his character having sex. Other players might not have a problem with having a romance with another character or NPC but might be very conservative when talking about sex. Some of these problems can be alleviated by blue-booking,Email or Instant messaging in the off-hours. It's odd, but some players will be able to do things in a chat room with all the players present that they'd never be able to pull off in an actual game session.

4) Relationships require maintenance

This would seem to be self-evident but it never fails to amaze me that PC's might get involved in a relationship and then disappear for 6 months and then come back and want to pick up where they left off.

5) Breakups are bad,weddings are worse,pregnancies are the end.

In this respect, Soap Operas are very instructive. Major milestones in any kind of relationship are usually a time of tension and they aren't usually helped by outside factors. In fact, if your GM is planning a wedding between two characters and the groom hasn't had a price placed on his head by the mob boss he's double-crossed, and the bride hasn't been replaced by an alien clone, and the priest performing the ceremony isn't some kind of horrific demon worshipper who means to marry the couple and then execute them as the finish of a monstrous spell to summon his dark god from the cold reaches of space......

If your GM isn't planning something like that he's just GODDAMN LAZY! Every milestone in a relationship can be fraught with story possibility. Here's a handy List:

First date
First time intimate together
First time out with friends together
Living together
Meeting the parents
Getting Engaged
Breaking the Engagement ( and the drinking binge/Ice cream binge that follows.)
Engagement back on (if you're lucky...)
Bachelor party/ Wedding Shower
Wedding day
First Christmas together
First anniversary
High school and college reunions attended together
First trip together
pregnancy and childbirth
and so on and so forth...

7) Love, Lust, and Like are completely different animals:

Always remember that it is entirely possible to be totally turned on by people who you'd rather spit on. You can also love somebody deeply but not be attracted to them in a physical way at all. You can also be in love with somebody who you don't necessarily like. Physical attraction and emotional attraction can operate entirely independently of one another. This makes things like the bizarre love polygon above possible.

8) The Hoodoo Sign:

In every person's life, there is at least one person that has an inordinate amount of emotional control over you. Not only can they push all of your buttons, they can install new ones. It's bad enough when this person is one of your parents, (Which bespeaks psychological issues of a deeply unhealthy nature) but when this person is a lover...That person can literally break your life in two.

In a Romantic Relationship,It can be extremely horrible to be involved with someone who has such control over your emotions. They can make you do things you would never do. They can put you through the emotional wringer without even batting an eye...Heck, they can put you through the wringer without *noticing*. They can turn you into a person you don't want to be...They can be the foulest,evilest,emotionally poisonous person in the world,and you could KNOW it's true...And still, do everything in the world for them. What are you gonna do, if your lover goes over to the side of the bad guys? What are you gonna you when she TELLS you to join them as well? What are you gonna do when you realize that you have no choice?

9) The "F" word:

This is the only piece of advice that actually verges on real word experience and is actually valid in the real world as well. You screw up your courage to the sticking point and you go and ask out the person who has been haunting your dreams of late...That person looks right at you and says the harshest fucking words in the English language. " Well... I think of you as more of a friend..."

At which point, you want to slash your wrists...Especially if it's happened more than once. One-sided relationships NEVER work. It is never going to get easier and you are never going to "win their heart" or "Prove you're worthy". The absolute best thing to do in that situation is to perform radical psychic surgery. Cut that person from your life as soon as possible. And the longer you wait the worse the cancer grows. No matter how much the person seems committed to making the "friendship" work, do not have any truck with them. Whether they realize it or not, they have the Hoodoo Sign over you, and they will break your heart...Whether they mean to or not. Don't kid yourself into believing otherwise.

That said, this type of relationship can be an extremely rich vein for storytelling. An N.P.C. might fall in unrequited love with a player character and then proceed to make his or her life miserable. Possibilities include:

Awkward and expensive gifts.
Sabotaging dates with others.
Slavishly following the object of affection around (Read:Stalking)
Performing unasked for tasks for the loved one.(like coming home to find the house has been painted.)
Embarrassing public displays of affection.
Constant meddling and interfering in the loved one's life.
Suicide attempts to attract attention
Constant abruptness at slights (real or imagined)
Persistent deliberate failure to understand
Patient waiting for a moment of weakness in which to help...And god help you, if you succumb.

These things tend to go in stages. First, there's the stage of slavish adoration where the lovesick fool follows you around like a demented basset hound, basking in your mere proximity, willing to do any task for you, hanging on your every word,Etc...

The next stage comes after the inevitable realization that the relationship isn't going that well. This usually includes passive-aggressive games that come in all sorts of flavors. Much of this activity is doomed to failure if the object of affection really doesn't care. But if that person has any real feelings for you at all this stage will be incredibly tortuous to both parties.

The last stage is usually resolution of some sort. In healthy people, it usually means finally coming to grips with the situation and moving on. You might have heartbreak for a long time but you'll eventually get over it. I promise. This too shall pass. In unhealthy people, unalloyed pure unrequited love turns into unalloyed pure hatred. This tends to lead to attempted rape,attempted murder or attempted suicide.

Now if you can't see how this could be the origin of a love/hate relationship between a player and an N.P.C. antagonist, then you need a nap.

The field of relationships in a game is incredibly diverse. I can't even cover it all in one article, but the whole point of this is to get you folks thinking in that direction. If you can see that starting a relationship in a game is the easiest part, then you will find a great deal of fodder for interaction.

Sono Finito.


At 5:50 PM, Anonymous Acid Reign said...

.....My wife and I had an interesting idea a while back. We decided that our characters in a long-running 1st edition AD&D game should begin a love relationship.

.....Normally married gamers play characters who have nothing to do with one another, or worse, use the characters to reflect real-world marital spats! This was to be different: we would try to mirror our own relationship.

.....This was the sort of hack 'n' slash game where twinkism was not only encouraged, but actually necessary for survival! Strutting poppin-jays, bragging and one-upmanship were the norm. My wife and I had both become pretty successful high-level survivors, myself a fighter/magic user, and her a fighter/cleric. These characters started back in the early 1980s as essentially "how can I get the best dice" and "what's the most potent combination of classes?" cardboard entities.

.....As a team, we became devastating! We constructed spell-prep lists to protect one another, and shared magic items on a "who can use it best" basis. Then, we befriended the newer gamers by handing out free spells and "trash magic." In several years, all of the hyper-competitive hothead gamers had been run off, in the process, both of our characters developed. They developed likes, dislikes, reputations, weaknesses, soft spots, etc.

.....Further, with the players who stayed and prospered under this new mentality, the game became far more interesting, as the DM had to begin designing more political/problem-solving aspects to his game to challenge us. The den with a bigger/badder monster was no longer good enough. We scouted and prepared together, and we had no problem deciding to cut and run if it looked too dangerous.

.....Now, we game in a political world, where the scariest event of late has been the introduction of a demi-goddess (One of the Medusa sisters) who's apparently infatuated with my character!

.....In short, a pair of players' introduction of a little romance transformed a game, and taught us all quite a bit about how powerful cooperation can be!


At 11:48 PM, Blogger kinesys said...

This proves to me that you can go from being a twinky munchkin to being a serious role player if you see that it can be fun too.

Of course, I was big twinky in my first days too. way back when dinosaurs ruled the earth.


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