Love makes the world go 'round, or so the song goes. It therefore stands to reason that characters in a D&D game ought to be as susceptible to Cupid's arrow (or Sune's, or Freya's, or whomever might be appropriate in the campaign pantheon) as people in real life. The adventurer's life is a hard one, fraught with many dangers -- you can view that fact as a negative for romance, or as a strong motivation for developing some non-hack-related interests and relationships. To assume that characters are emotionless robots makes them less human, less real, and less fun. It also violates the standard tropes of fantasy fiction, upon which many of the principles and ideas of the game are based. Whether tragic, sentimental, fierce, simple, or transcendent, love is a staple of fantasy fiction, and to the extent that players draw from that common culture of fantasy in imagining their PCs, the love relationships of favorite characters are very important in defining those characters and their motivations for becoming the heroes that they are. For these reasons, we should take a look at the way love and relationships can be used to enrich a game.
WORDS TO THE WISE:
1. What does love look like? Decide what the common cultural norms are for public and private expressions of love and affection in the game world. How much (if at all) do they differ among various races, religions, or cultures? What is the standard domestic situation? Is monogamous marriage the norm or the exception?
2. What about homosexuality? Does it exist in the game world? Is it a conscious choice that can be changed or a natural inclination that cannot? Is it always either/or, or might a person be attracted to both genders? If it exists, how is it perceived in the general society? Do views on such relationships vary by culture?
3. Make a clear differentiation between the players and the characters. This almost goes without saying, but it can be an especially tricky proposition when dealing with romance. People could get the wrong impression or simply be uncomfortable with roleplaying flirtation, courtship, and other elements of romance, and they shouldn't be pressed to deal with it if they don't want to.
4. Realize the in-game ramifications of love and romance. If the loved one is also an adventurer, should he or she be integrated into the adventuring party? How -- cohort, ongoing NPC, new player character? If the loved one is content to stay at home, how does that impact the adventuring character?
5. Don't punish a character for falling in love. Players willing to engage in the roleplaying challenges of a character's romantic issues should not be penalized with a neverending string of betrayals and hostage situations. That's not to say they can't ever happen, but they should definitely be rare.
In considering love and relationships in a campaign world, start by imagining that world's cultural basis. Different societies express and describe love in different ways, and explicating the love ideas held by a culture can help a player get inside the mind of his or her character. The best source for thinking about imaginary people is our own world's real people and real cultures, with their amazing richness and variety in relationships and expressions of love. Gender, too, plays a role: Males and females often have different norms on what kinds of displays of emotion or affection are appropriate. Even within an individual culture, consider not just romantic relationships but other types of love. For example, think of the different types of love within a family: the devoted love of a spouse, the dutiful love of a child, the warm and enfolding love of a parent, the doting love of a grandparent, the affectionate rivalry between siblings. Each has its own characteristics and means of display, which probably vary between public and private settings.
The possibilities for constructing these kinds of relationships within your game world are endless, but they are not usually too difficult to extrapolate for some cultures, especially the demihuman races. The particulars can, of course, vary from campaign to campaign, but the "typical" dwarf is likely to be gruff and not apt to display a lot of public tenderness. Dwarven affection may be abrasively good-natured -- cutting remarks and sarcasm may be their tools of choice. The more they browbeat you, the more they like you. Elves, on the other hand, might be more comfortable with lingering gazes deep into the eyes of a loved one, sharing their mutual reverie to the exclusion of others nearby. The degree of reserve versus openness demonstrated within a culture, or within any subcultures (e.g., social class, rural vs. urban dwellers), is one way that you can establish realism and context. Ask "What would my character think about this?" to help prevent all characters from just being ciphers for our 21st-century mindset. Establishing norms for the culture characters come from does not dictate PC behavior, but it explains what is considered "normal" or "typical" in that milieu.
Speaking of "normal," one point to consider is how (or whether) to represent heterosexuality versus homosexuality in your game world. If reproduction occurs biologically in a manner modeled on our own world, then most creatures probably will be heterosexual. To keep things simple, you might elect to ignore the issue entirely -- assume everyone is "straight" unless a player has a different character concept for an individual PC. Or, you might decide that homosexuality does exist in the game world. If so, determine what is known about it and how the general population feels about the idea. Are homosexual relationships common dalliances that no one thinks twice about, or rare liaisons that inspire gossip? Is homosexuality a conscious choice or biologically determined? Is bisexuality possible? How are homosexuals perceived within the culture -- are they a persecuted minority, a scorned but tolerated fringe group, mysterious folks that most people don't even know about, or just one of many subcultures about which the mainstream is ambivalent? It may seem silly to argue whether homosexuality exists or is considered "normal" in a fantasy world, but the connection with the concerns of the everyday helps make any character or world more real.
The most thoughtful background preparation, however, may not eliminate complications that can occur at the game table when it comes to actually roleplaying romantic relationships. There can be uncomfortable aspects that blur the distinction between players and their characters. One PC, for example, might make advances on another, and it's hard to convey that by roleplaying unless you add in the sort of flourishes that in other situations would be considered direct flirtation. Sure, you know that it's just part of the game, but it can nevertheless mess with your head. Players who are dating or married to each other may have particular issues with roleplaying their characters' relationships, in some cases allowing their PCs to fall very easily into romance (perhaps too easily if their characters are not as compatible as the players are in real life), or having very mixed feelings (at best) should one member of the couple have their character get involved with someone else's character.
Roleplaying romance can become even more complicated when a PC's gender differs from that of the player. Suppose a male player has a female character, and you are a male DM who has set up a situation where a male NPC makes romantic overtures to the character -- writing love letters, reciting a romantic poem, or whatever. While it makes sense within the game, the way it plays out might make the player uncomfortable. Perhaps someone uncomfortable with imaginary males coming on to his feminine alter-ego in the game shouldn't be playing a female character (and vice-versa for a female player with a male character), but while that is a fair point it may explain why most games don't deal much with issues of love and romance. For some, the payoff in terms of character development isn't worth the real-world uneasiness required to roleplay the fantasy romance.
One safe way of handling love and romance is to displace it onto the NPCs in the party's circle of friends. Rather than creating a love interest directed at one of the PCs, direct it at a cohort, hireling, or ally. This keeps the idea of romance "on stage" in the game without requiring the PCs themselves to be directly involved. Such a solution can be more complicated than it sounds, however, as these sorts of love relationships can seem contrived. In addition, if a PC's cohort gets involved in a romance it can be seen (with good reason) as dividing that character's loyalty and affections. Say the cohort woos and marries his sweetheart -- will the marriage affect his adventuring career? This could be a particularly sensitive issue for religious characters, especially those who follows faiths based in community, family, childbirth, and the like.
This perhaps gets to the real meat of why love and romance in D&D games is a difficult issue. As noted above, the interpersonal nature of the game can get a little weird when playing out a fantasy romance without crossing lines of appropriate social behavior, but that is only part of it. No matter how comfortable the players may be in talking through the fantasy romance, it creates complications in the campaign. Where does the relationship lead, if anywhere? Is it enough for characters to just date ad infinitum, or to make like Conan and have a new guy/girl in every town? Lawful characters or those whose religions emphasize family and community are not likely to favor that kind of dalliance, so they are left with a choice between chaste celibacy or the potential of giving up their career in exchange for a home and family.
It stands to reason that characters with the spirit and inclination to go adventuring are most likely to be attracted to others with the same interests; if they should decide to start a family, however, then presumably at least one of them is going to have to retire to attend to hearth and home. On the other hand, it might be eminently reasonable for two adventurers in love to continue their careers and eschew procreation. Whether dating or married, they live out their relationship through their adventuring. This can work out fine if both characters are PCs, but if a PC hooks up with an adventuring NPC, how should you handle it? A simple solution is to have the NPC travel and adventure with the party, but this has the downside of giving the DM an NPC that is always there and must be handled. If the NPC is delegated to a character (the obvious choice would be the character with whom the NPC has a relationship), then in effect the NPC becomes little different from a cohort -- an NPC whose primary loyalty (and obedience, to an extent) is to one character, not to the whole party -- but without requiring the character to actually take the Leadership feat. From the standpoint of game mechanics, the DM could forbid the NPC from adventuring with the character until he or she acquired Leadership, but this doesn't seem to make much sense. Can love happen only every three levels when a feat slot comes open?
Even if a character finds a non-adventuring partner who is interested in being a stay-at-home spouse, this puts a considerable emotional burden on that person. The domestic spouse of an adventurer will likely spend a lot of time alone, like the spouse of a sailor or soldier, and even when home the adventurer is essentially always "on call" in case of an emergency situation. The adventuring spouse also faces the possibility of death or dismemberment as a daily hazard of the profession. The adventurer may have to keep secrets from his or her spouse as well, especially if the flavor of the campaign runs to uncovering plots and conspiracies. The spouse of a successful adventurer, especially one who has won a noble title or similar royal grant of authority, does stand to enjoy considerable material prosperity, but the latest sack of gold and jewels may be cold comfort to a someone left alone for weeks or months at a time. It is also a recipe for potential disaster in terms of marital fidelity. Even if love is steadfast and true, loved ones and home may be in constant danger from enemies a hero makes in his or her career, from common crooks to extraplanar entities seeking to strike the adventurer where he or she is most vulnerable. (In fairness to players, DMs should not overdo this plot device.)
This is the tradeoff that an adventurer must make: deciding what price to put on love, romance, and relationships. It makes intellectual sense that characters should have impulses, a desire to find love, affection, acceptance, constancy, comfort, and all the rest. A player faced with such a situation must decide whether he or she is personally comfortable with playing out the in-game romance with another player or with the DM, and this may stop a lot of in-game romances in their tracks. Even if everyone is comfortable with the idea of it, a player has legitimate metagame concerns about how the relationship will impact his or her character if carried to its logical conclusions. Characters may decide that, while love and marriage are appealing, adventuring is the life they have chosen and adventuring it shall be. The life of a hero is tenuous and often short, and a potential partner might not want to risk trading too soon a wedding dress for widow's weeds. In its own way, the idea of love lost, delayed, or denied out of duty or necessity is a fantasy tradition in itself. Ultimately each player and DM must decide how much to deal with the issue, and that may be but a silent, stoic tear as love is left behind for the open road.
About the Author
Jason Nelson lives in Seattle and is a full-time homemaker (taking care of his 7-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son, and new dog), a part-time graduate student (working on a Ph.D. in education policy), and an active and committed born-again Christian. He runs a weekly D&D game, having just completed a seven-year-long AD&D (heavily modified) campaign set in the Forgotten Realms. He began playing D&D in 1981, and he also plays in a biweekly campaign with a D&D version of his very first character (Tjaden Ludendorff, a psionic paladin) from 21 years ago!