Just in Time for Valentine’s

Over at Exchange of Realities, Ravyn writes about the dangers of “Designated Love Interests”… that is, NPCs that are designed to become the love interest of one of the PCs.

    • People will do amazing things for the ones they love; as a result, such love can be a motivator for story characters and game characters alike. So it’s often tempting to create a character specifically for the purpose of creating a romantic attachment: a Designated Love Interest, or DLI.

      That’s when the trouble starts.

      Limyaael has a lot to say about the Designated Love Interest in novel format, mostly having to do with the fact that said DLI isn’t really human, strains internal consistency by how her romances begin, and is generally cliché and undercharacterized. And yet, despite these flaws, a story with a bad DLI can reach its predetermined end; it just requires the writer to completely overwrite the characters. (The fact that this is bad fictional practice is another matter entirely.)

The problem with a lot of advice along the lines of Limyaael’s is that people read fiction for a lot of different reasons, and I can point to a huge selection of literature that demonstrates that Limyaael’s preferences are not shared by readers looking for romance in their fiction in the first place.  Readers want what they want, and not what some PhD LitCrit candidate thinks they should want.  Contrariwise, PhD LitCrit candidates want what they want, and are under no obligation to enjoy pot-boiler romances just because the masses do.  But people looking for writing advice are well-advised to carefully consider which audience they’re writing for.  My sister Elizabeth is a published romance novelist, with a half-dozen novels to her credit, and one of the first things she had to learn was there really is a tight limit to how much tweaking the conventions readers will put up with before they’re dissatisfied by the fact that whatever its other merits, the book is no longer what they want when they pick up a romance.

What’s more, RPGs aren’t simply a form of fiction, and there are a lot of players who play so that they can revel in the cliches.   They want their good to be good, their bad to be bad, and their fated lovers to be damn well singled out by fate in no uncertain terms. You’re not doing those kind of players a favor by creating a subtle, nuanced portrayal of a realistic sort of person that their character plausibly might or might not  fall in love with if this were a work of fiction where the author controlled both sides of the interest as well as everything that happens to them.

The point is that you have to know your audience.  There isn’t a good way and a bad way to do romantic interests in a game; there are a bunch of ways, and different players may want different ones, or the same player may want different ones at different times depending on the genre or how they see their character.  The real danger in a Love Interest is not that the character won’t bite and that will spoil your plot, it’s that you’ll choose a way that isn’t what the player wants, and even if the plot moves along its rails the game time will be wasted if not spoiled.

Generally speaking, I think the best way to avoid that is to solicit player input.  You want a character that the player’s PC will fall in love with?  Have the player help design the character and the general outline of how they’ll interact.  One huge advantage to this is that if the player isn’t interested in having that sort of thing happen in game, for whatever reason, you find out then and there and can drop the whole matter.  You also get explicit guidance from the player on what the character will find attractive (which is by no means what the player personally would find attractive), as well as just how genre-iffic, and how detailed or abstract, the whole approach to romance should be.  I find that even players who care deeply about playing In-Character are really open to out-of-game discussions about how they as player would like the game to go and the psychology of their character.

The down-side to this approach is that you lose the spontaneity.  There is something particularly satisfying about relationships with NPCs, of any sort, that arise dynamically out of play and not because the GM or the GM and player together contrived it in advance.  After all it’s precisely the actual real-time play of the game that’s the reason we play out the game in the first place instead of sitting around the table collaborating on a novel or a play.  To the extent that important things are moved from game play and into game planning, we risk diminishing the game.

Still, with all the ways that in-game romances are fraught with peril–not just for your preferred plot, but for the cohesion of the game group as a whole–I think the wisest course is not by creating a really attractive character and crossing your fingers and hoping, but by knowing your audience, which includes knowing whether they want in-game romance at all.  And the best, quickest, and most reliable way to know your audience is to openly ask them.