Tuesday, July 12, 2011

D&D and Romances - Part one. ”…Are you guys still playing?”

(This blog contains comments of sexual nature)
It is only fitting, compared to the weather and semi-naked people outside, that our next journey into the fantastical universe of dungeons and dragons will take us to a country so forbidden and twisted that it rivals the nation of Thay itself. I am of course talking about the ever hot potato of the gaming community; romances.
Why even wonder about D&D and romances, you sick bastard?
From the average point of view, putting D&D in the same sentence as anything remotely similar to romantic and sexual interaction is about as preposterous as a nun in a strip-club (a real nun, that is). After all, the gaming community still suffers (to some extent) from the age-old prejudice of asexuality and creepy loners hooking up in their parents’ basement. Whereas there will always be a certain grain of truth to any kind of satire, this concept is and should damn well be more and more outdated for every year. Originally this point of view is nothing more than a remnant from those times in which games (RPG’s in particular) were far less prominent as they are today. Back then, before wizards were awesome and getting off on elf-princesses was frankly understandable, it wasn’t uncommon for me to meet shocked reactions, when I expressed my gratitude about more women becoming interesting in Dungeons and Dragons. A particular beard even looked at me in fascinated horror, honestly telling me that he didn’t really think nerds even were interested in romance and eroticism.
This sparked a lot of discussion, and whereas there are still simplistic, reductionist morons in existence, who’d likely have a laugh for the night by the sole fact that I write a blog about this subject, we’ve come a long way since then.
Modern gaming-culture has not only gone to great lengths to include these (in my opinion, vital) aspects into their games, be it tabletop or on the computer, but they’ve also managed to treat the subject respectfully. Surely we saw all the pixilated titties we wanted back in Leisure Suit Larry 1, and as I’ve previously stated in my review, Duke Nukem 3D was almost game-breaking by the time, for reasons I am sure you can find out on your own. However, it hardly seems unfair to point out the immature, almost tediously basic, way this was handled. Not entirely unlike modern music videos and trailers for less intelligent action movies. After all, sex sells. Nothing new there.
Sex even sells in games. In that regard, you could argue that there was no need for this essay, since you pretty much encounter half-naked night elves and female pirates in every fantasy-setting with the least bit of self-respect these days. I admit it; I do it too. The villainess in my weekly PnP-group is a pale woman with a tight, black corset, high-heeled boots of leather, cuffs and a bosom that explains her incredible armor class. I’m not saying that I’m in any way above this tendency. Just that there certainly is more to it, and that we (as gamers) shouldn’t necessarily suffice with thin-worn clichés.
Why involve romance into gaming, when night elves are more than enough?
Deep inside, what characterizes a great story, be it on the computer or in a session, is the fact that we are presented with several obstacles and dilemmas we can relate to. That is not to say that a story can’t be good, unless it borders social realism, but to say that the element of identification is extremely important in the psychological sense. In the end, a reason why we cry and smile when we watch a movie, is because we can relate and mirror ourselves in the story presented to us. For some, this is crying when we watch a breakup with all too familiar resemblances to our own past. For others, seeing Rohan sound their horns and ride into battle, light shining in their back, is what fills us with hope and defiance, when we’re confronted with the darkest moments of our lives. This is why we remember these stories, and let them stay in our hearts.

Of course, this fact is not alien to a lot of developers, who’ve quickly learned to push some of the right buttons, as the story goes on. I’m, for example, referring to Dragon Age here, but also some of the better GM’s I have known. People who’ve not only put a great emphasis on the structural design of the adventure (treasure-building, encounters and so on) but equally so made sure to include the vital feelings and dilemmas that define us as humans.  You might’ve seen some interviews during the Lord of the Rings-days or Harry Potter-era, in which someone said “I like the movie because I know how they must feel…”, “I feel so sorry for Frodo, it’s such a horrible journey he’s on” and so on. And they’re right. It’s even on that premise that crap such as “Twilight” lives. I’ve known lots of Bellas in my time, who’ve told me what it was like to submerge into an all-absorbing romance, on the borderline to obsession, and the eternal (and in hindsight; naïve) belief about eternal love with the one and only.

In this line of thought, Twilight is just one example of how a vital aspect (albeit, exaggerated) has served to write an appealing story. I’m well aware that ‘Twilight’ might not be the best of references for my average audience, so I’ll leave the examples at that, and instead point out that love, whether happy or unhappy, and the inclusion of romance and erotic, is a powerful narrative element. An element that ought to have a place, even in D&D-games.
Do romances have a place in D&D?
They say that there is a place and time for everything, so the logical answer would be yes. Seen in an overall perspective, this isn’t exactly an innovative concept, since campaigns such as ‘Savage Tide’ and ‘Shackled City’ make sure to include some opportunities for potential romances with the NPC’s. In the computer-games department, romances were some of the big hits back in Baldur’s Gate 2. So big that later mods have expanded upon this option to include the NPC’s in the original game, and even a few of the commoners. Sadly reduced in magnitude in the Neverwinter-games, this aspect made a smashing comeback in Dragon Age – Origins and Mass Effect that presented several maturely handled options for your character to get together with a party member.  Even marry them or break their heart.
In D&D we tend to remember the times in which we’re faced with difficult decisions, the NPC’s that made an impression on us, and the gains and sacrifices we had as the story moved on. Elements that strongly mirror those of real life; those we think about not only while in the game, but also outside it. In this line of reason, including romances as a vital part of the game is just as natural as including friendships and decisions to which there are no inherently ‘good’ solution.
Are romances for everyone?
A lot of people never tried or don’t like romances in their game, and I’ll happily say I understand why, since several prerequisites have to be met, and some taboos have to be broken. To start with the latter, it has hardly gone unnoticed by now, that a lot of ‘humor’ has been made on our cost, especially regarding the gamers’ seemingly non-existent love-life. If you’re oblivious to my point, I suggest watching the abysmally horrible movie ‘Fanboys’ or listening to the significantly better D&D audio-clips from Deadalewives.

For many people, the inclusion of romantic elements in a campaign is (wrongly) nothing more than a cementation of one’s social status as a downright no-lifer. (As a side-note, it’s interesting to see how married gamers or those in relationships tend to bypass this easier). Personally, I think we first and foremost need to break with this fundamentally flawed idea, which basically tangents to another old false observation about gamers being violent in games, only because they’re not allowed to take out their sinister brutality in real life. The implicit statement is, of course, that all gamers are sad loners with homicidal tendencies, which couldn’t be further from the truth, judging from the hordes of them I’ve met in my type. (Granted, some of them have concerned me, but that’s beyond this scope).
When all gets down to it, letting a player become romantically involved with an NPC and roleplaying it isn’t any more different than a woman renting a love-flick and crying over how perfect the world of men could be. This doesn’t mean that said woman is starved of love, or incapable of expressing her romantic desires. Neither is an actor lacking a social life when he’s on stage, pretending to fall in love with the lovely damsel. This is a sad legacy of ignorant, bleak minds which we need to forsake as soon as possible. I tend to address it at the start of every campaign, as I also explain that romances is something I am comfortable playing.
And there, I said it; ‘comfortable’. That’s the second issue. Even then, some people don’t like romances or don’t like to get into it. All said and done, romances are about intimacy, and their relation to the sexual nature of the human being also makes them a touchy subject. For many people of modern age, sexuality and intimacy is something that is simply left unmentioned, and bringing it to the gaming-table, when you’d rather eat crisps and drink beers is overwhelming.
I’m not here to argue for a sexual revolution, so I’m sworn to respect people’s wishes in that regard. But remember that works both ways, which you should obviously discuss with your players. If two players at the table loathe romantic interaction, but the remaining two would love it, the former two should show respect and be quiet if they have nothing to contribute with during romantic talks. In all too many cases, potential romances have been broken by immature comments or patronizing remarks.
Maturity is of course something of a foundation for romantic encounters. Pretty much every young boy or man can relate to a half-naked night elf-chick, no problem. But romance, bonding, intimacy and even marriage will test your level of maturity, in most cases. You might find groups whose (mental) age is so low that you might as well straight out skip this element or leave it at flirting. Just make out the rules in advance.
Rules are just as important, if not even more, once you’ve decided to venture into the romance-country. I’ve come up with a few Do and Don’ts to address rules.

DO ask your players about their limits and goals in regard to romances. It becomes tedious if your player just wants a tavern-girl he’ll eventually marry, but you keep on throwing princesses and castles at him.

DO your research. Falling in love isn’t complicated, really. Watch a movie, read a book, it’s been clichéd over and over, and if you know in advance who and what your player is looking for, it’s quite easy to set up a scene in which he’ll know his love to be will be on stage. BEING in love, on the other hand, is complicated. Therefore:

DO ask yourself and the player what they expect to happen in the romance. If they expect anything besides what your GM-mind will come up with, of course.  Do they expect a happy end? A sad end? A sacrifice for a loved one? Do they prefer tough ethical dilemmas that will challenge their love (such as choosing between her and saving a village from certain death)? As always, letting your players do some work for their free entertainment is good.

DO be prepared to call it off, if it doesn’t work out one way or the other. Some times the best ideas turn out bad. Don’t blame yourself, but remember that you might have better luck next time and that D&D is about much more than just this minor aspect.

When in doubt, usually DON’T. If you think it could be fun to let the loved one become pregnant but doubt the reaction from the player, don’t do it. This also applies to the real-life age of the people involved, especially if you're playing with younger people. In this case, it's often better to entirely skip this aspect. Don’t force anything, but let your players set the pace. Neither should you force a romance, if your player looses interest. Of course, abandoning your loved one could lead to repercussions from angered family and relatives.

DON’T go deep into the sex. This hardly ever works, and usually becomes extremely uncomfortable, if you insist that your player describes how he throws her down on the bed and in which order he will undress her. It’s also really easy to exceed another player’s limits.
Just turn it into a fade-to-black and make a straight statement that ‘You both share a wonderful night in her bed’.
DON’T push your voice. If you, like me, prefer to play your NPCs in first-person instead of third, you will likely have to interact with a player, romantically, one on one. With mature people this is likely no issue, but I’ve come to notice that men tend to go into a high-pitched voice, whenever they are to resemble a female voice. Also known as ‘The Monty Python-effect’ this quickly gets really silly (and a tad hilarious) and often you’re better served by just talking lightly and softly. Of course, if you’re a woman things become a bit different…
Male vs. Female-GM’s and romances
Putting equal rights aside, for a moment acknowledging the differences between the sexes, it goes without saying that romances (often) have better odds for working well, when executed between a player and a GM of the opposite sexes. This is not to say that it would be impossible otherwise or that romances originating in different sexual orientations are out of the picture (they’re, of course, just as plausible as any other kind). However, in the perspective of habituation, the majority of people are used to romantic entanglement with the opposite sex. And since the majority of the gaming-community is still dominated by males, it only stands to reason that a woman-man interaction can potentially make a romance smoother than one played by male-male .

Some people are put straightly down by this, unable to cope with the fact they’re playing out a romance with another man. No matter how good the imagination behind it. Respect this. In the same line of argument, some female GM’s don’t like to play romances with every male character in her group, which is also perfectly understandable. Once again, it’s all about finding out what works and leaving out that which doesn’t. Certain situations might even surprise you, such as playing a female romancing with a male character, played by a female. I can say from experience that it worked surprisingly well.
Thus we conclude the first part of “Romances and D&D”. Stay tuned for the second part, in which I intend to look at romances from a narrative point. This includes ideas and advice as to how you can structure a romance, and keep it flowing throughout the campaign.

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