2005-03-11 : Love, Friendship, Romance, Sex


I'd like to talk about how roleplaying games can handle love and friendship. While I've seen games that let characters do horrible things to each other with gusto without turning players against each other, I have only very rarely seen games that allowed characters to fall in love or develop deep friendships except as expressions of player-player relationships. Am I missing something, or is this an underdeveloped area?

BADLY underdeveloped.

Our own Emily is working hard on the problem right now, designing three (count 'em three) games about relationships. They're going to be very good and very challenging designs, I can't wait until they're finished.

Not only will they be interesting games, but I think they'll illuminate some of the social problems starkly. Few roleplaying groups will be equipped to play them, I predict; most will find them just plain too uncomfortable.

If we're wish-listing, I wish for a game where love and sex figure significantly in the design on the resource side, not as the stakes in conflicts - like trust and loyalty do in The Mountain Witch. I have some notes how I'd design this game, but, y'know, it's just practice.

1. On 2005-03-11, Eric said:

Hear, hear.

In this thread about a TRoS space-opera sister game, I pitched a device where an Arthurian-style courtly romance would exist between the pilot and his technician.  I've since pitched that game to the guys at Driftwood/Empire, and expanded a lot upon that concept.  Looking for something where the interpersonals between the two individuals play out as game effects on the starfighter dogfights.

I have some neat ideas on that, we'll see if George and Brian jump at it.  (I'd rather see it as a true TRoS sister-game if possible.)

As to Emily's games, I think that part of the point will be trying to make them comfortable to play.  Faith and doctrine isn't a topic most groups would be hugely comfortable dealing with either, except as an occasional Stakes... but Dogs is comfortable to play.  So three cheers to her - Breaking the Ice is fascinating - but here's hoping 'approachable' can be built in as well.


2. On 2005-03-11, Emily Care said:

Few roleplaying groups will be equipped to play them, I predict; most will find them just plain too uncomfortable.
Yeah, I'm getting myself psyched for them to remain gedenken-spiel (thought-games), since when I talk about the premises (falling in love, competing for a lover, exploring polyamory) most folks get all oogy. You got it, Eric. That'll have to be one of the goals.

There are other games out there, though: Bryant's Into the Sunset which was recently pointed out to me, and Shouju Story. Shouju Story isn't necessarily about romance, but the genre it emulates is way into the relationship field. Into the Sunset creates a great & simple structure to construct a quick family-romance story out of, and Shouju Story uses playing cards to guide the players into bringing the main character's "big day" into happening.

Soap and Wuthering Heights are two that explore relationships in a big, dramatic, over the top kind of way.  The sturm und drang variety of love story.

Whoa—unless I'm missing the reference to a referee in Wuthering heights, all of these games are completely collaborative. Wonder if that's due to the alt views of folks that would tackle making a game about relationships, or if there is something inherent about it that influences design?


3. On 2005-03-11, xenopulse said:

BADLY underdeveloped.

IMO, that's one reason that freeform chat-based gaming is:

a) higher in popularity with women than regular RPGs; and
b) often very much focused on relationships.

That's not to say that men aren't interested in playing relationship stories; otherwise, there wouldn't be many of those going on in freeform environments, and there are. But the typical hack&slash gaming (just like FPS shooters on the computer, for example) don't seem as popular with most women. (I hope I'm not causing some mistaken gender-equality backlash... I'm a true egalitarian, my wife and I both took a new last name together when we got married.)

My wife Lisa is a good example. She loves to RP romantic stuff, not the kind where things work out usually, but more the tortured, dramatic, star-crossed-lovers-are-kept-apart sort of story. Now that's by far not all she plays, but it's definitely something she gets no mechanical support for in any RPG I know (that's one reason she's a dedicated freeform player, aside from not wanting to be constrained in her creativity and input).

If any of you can find a way to make a game that mechanically not only enables but encourages and intensifies dramatic relationship stories, it'll have the potential for a major impact on the gaming world.

- Christian


4. On 2005-03-11, Chris said:

I have a vaguely developed game idea called, "Phantom Hearts", where you play as a human in love with a spirit or ghost ala Chinese Ghost Story, along with all the drama that entails with ghost-love stories :)  I need to take some time to more tightly focus the conflict to the relationships and figure out how to better design the relationship factor...


5. On 2005-03-11, Emily Care said:

It seems like friendships get even shorter shrift than love affairs. I've always wanted there to be a game that ties in do-or-die loyalty among friends like in a John Woo flick.  Ah, if only chalk outlines was workable.

Oh, and the obvious thing is that resolution in Dogs is great for handling all kinds of conflict, social etc. The conflicts in dogs are heavily relationship oriented, prolly because it is about the cracks in the structure of the society.


6. On 2005-03-11, Meguey said:

I so *very* much want to reply in depth to Christian's post above. Dratted smashed finger. Can we pick that up again when the swelling goes down? Also, I agree with Emily about to-the-death loyalty.


7. On 2005-03-11, xenopulse said:

Sorry to hear about your fingers, Meguey...

We can certainly pick it up another time. I just hope I haven't triggered anything with my implication that there may be some basic differences in interests among genders in our culture :)

And yes, Emily might be right.

And go John Woo!

- Christian


8. On 2005-03-11, Matt Wilson said:

My wife won't play unless the game heavily addresses relationships. Needless to say it influences my design goals. Also narrows the playing field to about 2 games.

So Emily, if you want a playtester without gamer baggage (and we all have it, damn us) I gots one for you.


9. On 2005-03-11, Eric said:

The thing I've been trying to get a handle on is how to manage the downsides of love and affection.

We all agree that we'd like to see a game mechanically handle love & friendships.  "Mechanically handle" can mean a lot of things; it can be a kind of stakes, a means of resolution, a factor in resolution/reward (a stat or score), lots of things.  The thing is, because we're looking at making it come up in our games, we tend to reward it.  And in doing so, we run into some pitfalls.

It may be that it is harder to model frustration, ennui, curiosity outside the pair, and so forth... than to model affection itself.  And without these, we get a one-sided situation which doesn't do anybody any good.

It happened to me.  In 1st ed. Pendragon, there's a roll on your Love score to get a significant bonus on acts associated with that passion.  It's like an early version of SAs.  Quite costly/difficult to increase.  My PC was a lovestruck fool, and I made those sacrifices and eventually by the time we wrapped up had, if I recall correctly, a score of nineteen - twenty-one when you included a magical gift from her.  Which was huge, insane, ridiculous for a roll-under on d20 system.  As a young knight I challenged Lancelot to a joust in the hopes of proving that Milady was fairer than Guenevere... that sort of thing.  I was devoted beyond belief.

And you know what?  It was stale.  Happily, it was part of the character's mores that one can and must love where the heart finds it, so I also had as many secondary Love scores on my sheet as the rest of the group put together, and about thirty bastards all over Britain.  And that - that was fun.  Conflicted, not always friendly, and a blast.

The problem was that I had, statistically, put so much into the primary relationship between Arylle and Katrina that the GM running Katrina (my wife) felt seriously constrained in terms of what she could do with her.  Kill Katrina and a PC drops to literally half the man his compatriots are.  Threaten her and he becomes halfway to invincible in her defense.  Quarrel with him and he moves heaven and earth to re-earn her favour - and invariably succeeds, cf. killing her.

Frankly, Katrina was a dull character.  She was cardboard, too constrained to be much fun to interact with.  The relationship itself was a good seed (get landed and lauded so her father will look at you twice, etc) but the character itself was deformed by expectations.

One lesson from this, for me, is that those rules included no way to prompt us for permission and expectation on the downsides of love.  There was no downside to loving with all one's force.  (Well, a failed passion roll had a lovely "run into the woods and be melancholy" consequence, but it was awkward to use and not hugely game-relevant even when invoked.)  There was a mechanism for love... but none for ennui, cabin fever, crossed wires.  Partly this is genre, of course - but there was no mechanism for the tension of sexual frustration in courtly love, either.

I'm finding the same sort of thing in working on the space opera game mentioned above.  What's the downside to a happily devoted amour-fou between pilot and engineer?  If having their relationship run smoothly gets him bonuses in his fight, then how to prevent Arylle and Katrina from cropping up over and over?

Having said that, of course, at least one solution is obvious.  Don't give bonuses for a smooth-running love.  Give it for snarks, fury, jealousy, and even cheating.  Give it for the burn, not the toasty warmth.  Balance that against the emergent benefits of things running smoothly between the one who flies the ship and the one who keeps it flying; neither solution "wins", both are rewarded.  Yum.  Because it's a heroic game, give the same bonus for valour when it's really called on, the beloved is in direct danger and so on... but make it somehow mechanically clear that "same old" gets you nothing.

Sorry for the length, here.  Hope that helps you guys, as well as me.

- Eric


10. On 2005-03-11, TonyLB said:

I don't think you can get anywhere purely by adding a "friendship" score to a character sheet.  If you want it at all (and I'd need to be convinced that you do) it should be to support a pattern of behavior through the rules.

Mountain Witch, for instance, doesn't stop at having an attribute called Trust.  It delivers the goods by mimicking strong patterns of behavior:  you only want to give those points to someone if you're pretty confident that they won't use them against you... you lose them very quickly but regain them slowly... and sometimes it makes the most sense just to give the points, even if you aren't sure they're merited.

Tim could have called the attribute Hatred or Endebtedness or Fish, and it would still have made the game be about trust.

So to make a game support and encourage friendship and love, you have to look at what those emotions make people do, and then make a structure that rewards those actions, rather than trying to simulate or stimulate the feeling itself.

If you ask me, the reason that RPG players have a hard time designing a game that will do love properly is because love means losing control of yourself.  You wake up one morning and suddenly realize that you aren't a happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care womanizser any more, and she is the reason.

I think one of the first questions that you have to deal with in a system with this goal is "Under what circumstances does Player A get to radically change the character played by Player B".


11. On 2005-03-11, xenopulse said:


Interesting thoughts.  It's tricky, really, because you know that these rewards push players into a certain direction, and you have to figure out how much you are dooming relationships when you reward cheating.  I guess, however, that this would make a character who stays faithful someone who truly makes a point, as they are rejecting tangible rewards.  Somehow that feels related to not escalating in Dogs.  Actually, I like it, now that I think on it.

Also, relationships are hard to put your finger on because they're based on emotions, and those have historically been under the complete control of the player.  My GM can tell me that an arrow shoots through my arm, but he can't tell me that I am jealous in a certain situation.  So it all needs to be based on rewards, not control, in that way.  I see a couple of ways to do this while avoiding the cardboard drudgery you experienced.

First, limit bonuses to relationships between player characters.  This avoids the issue of the loved NPC being simply a tapped-into die pool.  This works well in large-group freeform environments because there are always new attractions and temptations around, and the players and characters are not always playing with the same group.  In small groups, however, this will make it harder to get the adversity you desire, because the number of potentially involved characters is so much smaller (and you need a well-mixed group to play).

Second, I am currently using a mechanic in my draft of torn in which a relationship rating is used for each character directly connected to the PC on the R-map.  When the character wants to raise the rating, the player needs to write a couple of sentences on that related character's personality and background.  Furthermore, when these characters appear in scenes, they are often played by fellow players in accordance with that background and personality information.  This leads to the more important characters being automatically more fleshed out.  (These related characters are also always in danger when the PC taps into his/her dark powers.)  I see some potential in both the fleshing out and the player-control of NPCs in making them more meaningful and provide some more adversity.

Combine this with some reward system along the lines you are proposing, and I think we're getting somewhere.

I know.  We'll give people melodrama points for showing strong emotions :)  They can be handled like fan mail.

- Christian


12. On 2005-03-11, Charles said:

Within the freeform games that I play, love, sex and friendship tend to be well handled as resources, but not very well handled as stakes. Among our various characters, Barry and I are currently playing a married couple who figured significantly in the last game session and, while no sex occurred in play, their interactions with each other and with others were strongly influenced by that existing relationship (which is what I think of as the sign of resource use in freeform play).

Freeform also seems to support development of friendships within play, and supports friendship as stakes reasonably well (questions of "do our characters become friends", and "do our characters remain friends" are well handled by freeform systems). On the other hand, truly deep friendships developing in play are also very rare.

Within our group, freeform is not used to develop love or sex as stakes. Two characters who are not created as a romantic/sexual couple pretty much never become a romantic-sexual couple, unless there is bleed-over from a player-player relationship.

One interesting thing is that online written RPGs seem to handle development of romantic and sexual relationships with gusto. I suspect that this may be because a written game allows for a much clearer character-player divide than face to face games do. Face to face games rely much more on the actorly aspect of play, particularly to convey the more subtle aspects of interaction that are key to initiating romantic or sexual interaction. So if my character hits on Barry's character, for it to be satisfying in game, it will need to involve some degree of me acting out hitting on Barry. If we never step into IC, or if we stepped into IC but completely restrained the actorly component, then the scene (from my perspective at least) would be very likely to be unsatisfying. However, I think very few players who are not sexual partners are comfortable acting out hitting on a player. The potential for bleed-over from the acting out of character interactions to the players themselves seems like more of a problem for romantic or sexual aspects of play than for hostile aspects of play. Possibly this is because most players are more certain that they are friends with their fellow players than they are that their fellow players are not sexually interested in them? This would also explain why good hostile PC-PC interactions require a stronger friendship between the players than companionable PC-PC interactions?

On the formal mechanics side, I also totally agree with TonyLB that the most important feature of a good mechanic is that the structure of the mechanic needs to promote the sort of play that the mechanic handles. This is the appeal (to me) of both Otherkin dice and the DitV system as well as the MW Trust sytem (with which I am even less familiar).

The problem with the system in Pendragon that Eric describes doesn't seem so much like it was a problem of it being a broken resource system (although it sounds like it was that too), but instead that the system for having a character who was utterly in love with an NPC in no way supported the player doing things with the character that actually related to experiencing that love with the NPC, but only supported doing things with people other than the object of affection. So while his character was rewarded for public displays of the importance of the love object (challenging other knights, etc), actually interacting with the love object was completely unsupported, and the process of creating the love object doesn't sound like it was even designed to produce an interesting character.

If the love object is going to be an NPC, then the system for creating the love object needs to specifically support creating a love object who will interact interestingly with the PC.

In the case of Eric's love struck knight, it seems to me that the rules should have made very clear how she felt about his philandering, and her feelings towards him should have influenced the effects of his love-struck characteristic. This would have led to Eric choosing to spend have his character spend a significant amount of effort patching things up and making up to Katrina. Of course, the mechanics would also need to support this process being interesting, rather than a book keeping excercise, but at the very least, the mechanics need to point the player in the right direction.

I guess another way of describing that would be to say that a good rule system needs to use the players' desire for effective play to coax the players in the direction of interesting play, and perhaps even meaningful play.


13. On 2005-03-11, Charles said:


Looking through the list of existing games you gave towards the start of the thread, one thing that is noticable is that they are all highly stylized romance. I suspect that the stylization makes them more comfortable for most players because it heightens the player-character distinction in mode of romantic interaction, thus leading to a little less fear of bleed-over. Playing something closer to real-life romantic interaction might be more likely to confuse. Does that seem likely?


14. On 2005-03-14, Emily Care said:

Charles wrote:
I suspect that the stylization makes them more comfortable for most players because it heightens the player-character distinction in mode of romantic interaction, thus leading to a little less fear of bleed-over.
This seems quite likely.  More distance is needed because the situations involved relate more to the real relationships between the people playing.

It struck me as I was writing my first post that the games I describe didn't really do what you were looking for. These weren't games I could see characters having that space to develop deep friendships or lover bonds.  The times that has happened for me in rpg has been when there has been a lot of space for it to happen (ie lots of freeform hanging out in character time) or where the characters got involved on screen, but some interplayer dynamics are getting worked out to let the char relats develop.

Can't just jettison your sense of who you are playing with. But man, there've got to be good ways to let it happen. There's just too many juicy things waiting out there to be explored to say it's too hard to do except with lovers.

Let me dream on. : )


15. On 2005-03-14, TonyLB said:

It's not an untenable dream.  We've heard this sort of pattern before.

"It only happens in freeform" means that nobody has yet developed a working ruleset to encourage it, not that such rulesets are impossible.

This is not the first challenge I've seen hit this barrier.  Social interactions used to be unapproachable by the rules-technology of the time.  Then moral quandaries were unapproachable.

But the rules get better, we all get better at designing, and suddenly it's obvious that the structure of rules will influence how people address moral conflicts.  If we work at it, soon it will be obvious that the structure of rules will influence how people address romantic threads.


16. On 2005-03-14, anon. said:

Can't just jettison your sense of who you are playing with. But man, there've got to be good ways to let it happen.

I have to ask, why?  Isn't it better if you can use your RPG to have an experience of intimacy (not sexual but emotional) with other players, instead of trying to bury it beneath in-character play-acting?

It's a great thing that we have a sense of just who we are playing with.



17. On 2005-03-14, Emily Care said:

Tony: you wrote If we work at it, soon it will be obvious that the structure of rules will influence how people address romantic threads.
'xactly.  How does Lisa address them in free-form play, Christian? What's it like for your wife, Matt?

Ben: Mm-hm. Definitely. The Moose in the City session comes to mind. Mountain Witch, more than definitely.  However, the folks Charles games with have that level of intimacy & more with their fellow players.  But it's still problematic to explore relationships where the interplayer relationships don't align with the char's.

Actually, I think there are at least two problems going on here: 1) how do you encourage people to explore conflict and creation via the avenue of relationships? and 2) how do you help people feel comfortable and good about the way they do so. Expecations and permissions, respectively.

Tony, of course answered the first part already, "So to make a game support and encourage friendship and love, you have to look at what those emotions make people do, and then make a structure that rewards those actions, rather than trying to simulate or stimulate the feeling itself." Setting up the expectations for the game and the field of exploration.

The second part, I think, is what Charles is really asking about.  It's a wall my group has hit at times, and we have probably a bit higher than the average ability of a given game group to talk about tricky inter-personal issues as they come up. So what is needed? What is helpful to allow anyone be able to do what C&M's spouses do, it sounds like, successfully?


18. On 2005-03-14, Ben Lehman said:

It is very hard, especially in a largely monagamous society, to say to an SO "Honey, I'm going to go pretend to be in love with your best friend now.  Hope you don't mind."

All I'm saying is I think that the solution to having strong interpersonal relationships amongst the character is not to try to surpress all interpersonal relationships amongst the players.  Rather, it might be good to make a safe space in where we can examine and celebrate our own, usually supressed, attraction to ourselves and others.

We aren't a society that shows sexual attraction well.  Within a designated couple, we are allowed that, but anything outside of that is generally forbidden.  What we are talking about here is transgressing those boundaries.

How do we do that, and have people go home with the same person afterwards?



19. On 2005-03-14, xenopulse said:


Both Charles and Ben have a point (or more). The medium matters here. Lisa can play relationship issues successfully and in depth because:

a) As Charles said, the online interface makes it easier to write things than saying them face to face;
b) In her environment, she can often play one-on-one for a couple of hours whereas in tabletop that would bore the rest of the group to death; and
c) I as her husband am very easy-going and can separate IC and OOC quite successfully.

Typing enables a certain separation between the players, but that's also something that allows them to share things more, because the risk is lower. I can much more easily write about a character's emotions and romantic/sensual actions (and subtleties) than I could spell them out to a group. It just feels different.

I have found that a typed-out scene with just one other player that you can spend some time on can be very detailed. Think about it—relationships build over time, through small things. In most games, there's just no room for that. My tabletop game group meets once a month for 6 hours. That's just not enough time to roleplay those kinds of things. But when you have a couple of hours and you can describe the little things, the tension building up, small temptations, etc., it makes a big difference.

And yes, as I said, Ben has a point as well. Lisa and I certainly explored our attraction to one another through characters in the beginning; that's how we met, and how I ended up on this continent. And nowadays she's playing deeply romantic and sometimes sexual scenes with other people. Some people would have a really hard time with that. I don't.

Of course, that's all mostly about love and sex. There's also friendship and loyalty, which is overall a little easier to play, I think. Though maybe not, when it gets really deep.

So, given the constraints of a face-to-face game, I think Tony is on the right track when he talks about "support[ing] a pattern of behavior through the rules." We can't focus on the creation and details of the relationship; there's just little time and no good forum for that face-to-face. So the next best thing is to get to the expression of the relationships. I am still toying with the idea of players awarding each other for different types of in-character behavior. I think PTA's fanmail can show us a great way to implement this.

Think about it—instead of having hard rules on relationships in place, the players in the group can simply decide that a character's behavior adds drama to the game, or romantic intensity, or whatnot, and award accordingly. Sure, it'll be up to the individual group how exactly that pans out, but that doesn't mean it won't work.

- Christian


20. On 2005-03-15, Charles said:

Time is definitely one of the critical ingredients for building a deep romantic relationship IC. Possibly the most impressive roleplaying I've ever seen was a romantic friendship that developed between Emily's character Stellan and another of our group (Jenn)'s character Rig (in the Isrillion campaign roughly a decade ago). The thing that made it so impressive was not that they developed a romantic friendship, but that they did it basically realtime over the course of what was probably 20 or 40 hours of play stretched over at least 2 dozen games. Whenever their characters weren't involved in anything else, they were talking with each other about their lives, their day, whatever, and it gradually grew into a deep and powerful bond. Part of what supported that was a game style in which players who weren't directly involved in the scene could drop back and play their own scenes on the side (and having a large group of players helped make that reliably possible). Of course, the other thing that helped was two players with very little gamer baggage (years of D&D so doesn't prepare you for romantic roleplaying).

Other times that I've seen romances develop much faster between characters, they have often been supported by side sessions involving just the romantically engaged characters.

While those side sessions are potentially even more problematic in terms of blurring player - character boundaries, they are a very powerful tool for adding long conversations to a game that does not otherwise support them. Formalizing the existance of such conversations (which might easily be conducted via email or chat for those for whom face-to-face wouldn't work) within a game might help to re-affirm the boundaries. Perhaps using the longer out-of-session conversations to develop a more focused scene in play (either a sort of summary, or a culmination scene).

I think a similar method is often used in written online roleplaying games, where scenes are explored in chat, and then the chat sessions are used as the basis for a written version, that may or may not follow the chat exactly.

Thinking about what a romance mechanic should look like, in very broad strokes, it seems to me that it would differ from most mechanics in that it is based around building something, rather than fighting over something. It should involve the characters having to put something of value at risk, or make themselves vulnerable to harm, in order to make it possible for the other characters to follow up by putting something at risk or make themselves vulnerable. Once the characters start on it, backing out should always be very expensive, but not backing out will put them even more at risk. Also, backing out will always be less expensive than having the other person back out. There would have to be some mechanism for temporarily stabilizing the structure, but it would constantly need to be revisited. It should also be possible for either character to draw off of the created structure in someway, forcing the other character to either accept the borrowing, or bring the whole thing crashing down. This would allow the relationships to go wrong in interesting ways, where neither character wants to call it quits and accept the loss, but both characters are getting twisted around by playing games with the structure of the relationship.

I wonder if anyone has been actively using PTA for romantic gaming. I have just been watching Six Feet Under, which is one of the series PTA cites as a model, and which is very heavily based around the development and collapse of romantic relationships, so it seems likely that it is within the range that the author's intended the game to cover.


21. On 2005-03-15, Meguey said:

Still not feeling fully healed, so I'll be brief:

1)About "honey, I'm IC in love w/X":
The question is really about the seperation of real from fantasy, which is easier in some couples than others. Some partners feel threatend by erotica, others don't. Sometimes the reaction is valid (and indicative of other issues of trust asnd respect and boundaries), sometimes it's not. As far as transgressing societal norms of expression of affection/desire, personally I feel that it's just the last area to accept the 'pretend'. We go home with our partners after we've seen them ruthlessly butcher innocent beings, or concoct horribly abusive situations, or be relentlessly intent on murder; why not after they've successfully approached the object of their affection, or celebrated a commitment to a partner, or been filled with passion and joy and desire.

2)About on-line vs tabletop:
Yes, it's easier to go one-on-one for hours on-line. Partly, because the visual and voice cues are gone. I've also played extensive interpersonal relationship on-line, including 'tiny-sex', which I don't think could currently be played out table-top style. I've been in many romantic relationships table-top (currently 6 in our AM game), and *most* of the time, it's glossed over because watching two people go through the IC process of falling in love, dealing w/issues, or having sex is boring. When the relationship impacts *plot*, it's fine to focus there.

3)Falling in love IC:
I have two sub-points here.
One, it does take time, sometimes not 40 hours of IC play, but definatly time to develope romantic relationship same as any other one-on-one relationship. I wonder if The Mountain Witch model of relationship development might be a jumping-off point to a structure of rules that supports romantic play.
IC to RL bleed happens. There are bunches of people who fell in love because of an original attraction between characters. I know this can create long and lasting RL love relationships. Twice I've been in a game with a person just about my whole social cirlce had been attracted to at some point. I liked them, they were friends, but I'd never felt an 'attraction'. In the context of the game (once when the other PC became protective of and interested in mine, and once when we happened by chance to be playing the male and female versions of sex on wheels and the party decided we must be lovers), I understod the attraction. My PCs were respectivly flattered and begining to be interested back, and knew she totally deserved his desire and attention. In the first, if we had played longer it may have deveolped as per Stellan and Rig (side note: the other player was also part of that game); in the second, it was pretty glossed over, except when some one wondered where we were if we wern't on-screen, and invariably someone would say we were off somewhere together, 'cause didn't sex feed our supernatural powers after all?



22. On 2005-03-15, TonyLB said:

Okay, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that IC to RL bleed happens when the IC play is unsupported by rules.

When I play Dogs, or MLwM, or Capes, I am brutalizing characters, tempting them, coercing them, deceiving them, begging them, seducing them, and all that jazz, constantly.  And not the tiniest whiff of it shifts into RL, because we can all see the straightforward game-rules reasons for why and how it's being done.

When there are no such rules, the human animal is constantly wondering "Is this about the game, or about us?"  I have, for instance, constantly seen people take IC betrayals personally in Amber.  AMBER, for god's sakes!  The game where betrayal is normative.  But because there's no clear rules motivation, people assume that it was motivated by RL concerns.

So I'm totally unfazed by Emily's second concern.  I think that when a rules system is created that supports romantic love in an objective way it will make people comfortable with playing it.  Because, like a bunt in baseball, it will clearly be the rules of the game being used to best advantage.


23. On 2005-03-15, timfire said:

Tony: I don't think its mechanical support per se that makes those types of... err, negative behaviors acceptable in the games you mention. I think what's important is that those games support the expectation of those behaviors. Players go into the game expecting those types of behaviors on the part of the GM &/or other players. Those are subtley different things.

Mechanical support goes along way with building expectation, but it's not an end-all. Case in point, tMW explicitly & mechanically supports player/player betrayal. But I've seen players hesitate to betray because they weren't sure if that type of behavior was acceptable, and I've seen playing get upset that they were betrayed.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that a huge chunk of this stuff (love & sex included) is about Social Contract. Without an open Social Contract, no rules set will justify this type of behavior.



24. On 2005-03-15, xenopulse said:


Good points there.  Allow me to comment.

Some partners feel threatend by erotica, others don't.

That's a good comparison, actually an excellent one, because often playing freeform online feels a lot like collaborative writing.  That makes it easier to do certain things.  However, it also includes a certain effect on the player/writer at times, especially when sensuality/sexuality is involved, because you're basically reading another person's erotica that's tailored just for you.  And the resulting effect (you indicate it with "filled with passion and joy and desire") might be intended or not, but it certainly is something I would not want to share openly with my face-to-face group.  I have a hard time imagining a group I could be *that* comfortable with.  So it's not even my partner who's the problem, because we easily share these kinds of things—it's the comfort level with the other players who don't usually get to see that side of me.

When the relationship impacts *plot*, it's fine to focus there.

Again, I agree completely.  That's why I think we can try and focus on the influence of relationships on character actions, instead of on the detailed process of building up the relationships.

I wonder if The Mountain Witch model of relationship development might be a jumping-off point to a structure of rules that supports romantic play.

Certainly.  Risky investment based on trust in the hope that something great will come out of it when the trust is not abused.  What else would a relationship be?  I haven't played tMW yet, so I'd need to look at it more closely, but it seems to be definitely on the right track.

And as we can see from Tim's post above, that's all going in the right direction of expectations, mechanical support, and understanding among the players.

- Christian


25. On 2005-03-15, Vincent said:

This conversation makes me very, very happy.


26. On 2005-03-15, Meguey said:

I would go so far as to say that role-playing sexual situations in table-top as closely as they can be played in a one-on-one on-line would be not only uncomfortable to the players, but it would easily tip over into the verbal equivalent of EEXXXTRREEMEE CLOSE-UPS!!! in porn, where the image becomes meaningless. There's one level of play that involves (or could involve) flirtation and the equivalent of the 'boot scene', where we all know sex is about to or just has happened, that could be done comfortably, given the right game and group.

Twice that I can think of, something close to explicit sex has happened in my table-top gaming. Once (when we were 11!)it was a PC who mentioned explicity that he had a condom and that he put it on before 'going to bed' with the comely bar maid who we needed more info from. That worked fine because the above is about verbatim, and then fade to black. Once (much more recently) one NPC(?) was attempting to entice a PC and the pink of her nipples was included in the description of the scene. This didn't work, because another player added sexual description beyond that which crossed the line over into EEXXXTREMEE CLOSE_UP!!! and everyone was made uncomfortable by it.


27. On 2005-03-15, xenopulse said:

the verbal equivalent of EEXXXTRREEMEE CLOSE-UPS!!!

Ahhh... that totally cracked me up.  It's true, of course. And you know that many people online play vicariously through their characters specifically for such scenes, or even just for flirting, or romance, or whatnot, to satisfy some need.

It's definitely good to know that you and your peers were educated and smart enough at 11 years to involve condoms.

I tried bringing romantic or sexual interests into my all-male high school group, and yes, it was uncomfortable. Once, we were playing KULT, and there was a module where one of the PCs was supposed to be involved with the main NPC. The player was uncomfortable even with that much, but in that case, it felt a little like railroading, too. At the same time, because there was always fade-to-black at the slightest hint of intimacy, the whole thing felt contrived and fell flat.

- Christian


28. On 2005-03-15, TonyLB said:

Tim:  Total agreement.  Your take on it is better than mine.

I don't know quite where to draw the line on how much a game designer actually can worry about Social Contract, though.  Where does responsibility end?

Obviously the rules are there to facilitate a functional SC.  But at the same time, you can't force it.  I'm very loathe to step aside from a good, juicy topic like romance (or to handle it with kid-gloves, which would be worse) just because it could go wrong due to circumstances entirely beyond my control.  It's always going to have the potential to go wrong due to a crummy SC.

Am I making sense here?


29. On 2005-03-15, Charles said:


Is it really the EXXXTREME CLOSEUP effect, or is it more of a Too Much Information (or is that really the same thing?)? It doesn't sound like is is so much that the scene becomes meaningless, but that it becomes uncomfortable or gross. In some ways, it seems closer to being stuck watching two friends make out. Long before you get to the point where you're having to watch anything outrageous, every detail is a reminder that you really don't want to be watching or listening to this. I think the fact that it reaches the unpleasant point only slightly after the mention of the color of someone's nipples suggests that we are still in the TMI problem, and not yet to the "Is that a piston engine, or they having sex?" boredom of EXXXTREME CLOSEUPS.


I think that the issue of SC gets foregrounded here because, unlike roleplaying in general which can be ruined by lousy SC, romantic and sexual roleplaying are going to be ruined by anything other than an unusual SC which specifically incorporates them as appropriate and expected roleplaying events.

The issue of audience and distancing seem central to the SC required for romantic and sexual roleplaying to function. I wonder if PTA-type mechanics might help with this. It seems to me that one of the major functions of PTA mechanics (although I haven't actually played it) is to support having scenes that don't involve the entire party. By giving players who don't have characters in the scene an active part in creating the scene (through fan mail, framing and outcome description), the game allows for scenes with only a few PCs to hold the attention of the entire group of players. Possibly, this same mechanism would help with romantic/sexual roleplaying, by actively incorporating the audience players into the scene, it both might decrease the degree to which they would suffer from the sensation of being trapped watching their friends make out, and might also serve to increase the distancing aspect between the two players whose characters are involved. If other uninvolved players are describing aspects of the scene, this might help to remind the active player of the scene as a scene, rather than as a situation being played out by the two players.

Thinking further about Six Feet Under, it is interesting to note that it is specifically about sexual relationships. The quality of the sex that various characters have is repeatedly key to the story.


30. On 2005-04-07, Cayzle said:

Thanks for this great thread! I linked to it for my blog series on sex in RPGs.


Cayzle's Wemic Site


31. On 2005-04-08, Vincent said:

32. On 2005-12-23, Metal Fatigue said:

This is (1) long, and (2) posted to a thread that's been dead for eight months. I wonder whether anyone will ever read it?

Anyway. (to coin a phrase)

Quoth Eric, way back when:

Having said that, of course, at least one solution is obvious. Don't give bonuses for a smooth-running love. Give it for snarks, fury, jealousy, and even cheating. Give it for the burn, not the toasty warmth. Balance that against the emergent benefits of things running smoothly between the one who flies the ship and the one who keeps it flying; neither solution "wins", both are rewarded. Yum. Because it's a heroic game, give the same bonus for valour when it's really called on, the beloved is in direct danger and so on... but make it somehow mechanically clear that "same old" gets you nothing.

Thinking about this sparked a mental model of relationships that leads to (what I think is) a neat mechanic, which I will share with you now:

Assume everyone has a resource that can be spent more or less freely to improve their effectiveness in conflicts.  I can't think of a good name for it right this second, so call it X.  It needs to be finely granular.

Flirting with someone new gives you a little X.  If you flirt with the same character again, you only gain X if the flirtation gets more intense (presumably determined by the other players).  Obviously, there's a limit to how intense a flirtation can get, so you can't gain points forever this way.

Getting physical with someone gives you X, too.  The more flirting you've done first, the more X you get.  However, every subsequent time you do it with the same character, the payout diminishes, to a minimum of zero.

On the other hand! One of the ways you can spend X points is to invest them in another character.  Any time you have a scene with the object of your investment that significantly develops your relationship with them, you get some X, awarded by vote/consensus/whatever of the other players.  Note that a relationship, in the sense of this paragraph, doesn't have to be romantic or sexual! If it is, though, the payouts stack.

X gain from interactions with other PCs is doubled, but the player of the other PC doesn't get to participate in determining how much X to give out for relationship development—only the audience.  Note that one side can be invested when the other one isn't! Unrequited love, what fun!

When acting to help/protect or harm the object of an investment, you gain X equal to your investment and increase your investment by one point (up to some limit).  Every time the object of your investment helps or protects you, increase your investment by a point (again, up to a limit); every time the object harms or betrays you, decrease it by a point and lose X equal to your investment.

If someone in whom you have no investment helps or protects you significantly, you may optionally create a 1-point investment in them for free.  Once you have an investment in someone, you may choose to spend an X point to increase it at the end of any scene in which you interact with them.

NPCs probably don't have their own X.  Too much work to track it.  This might be one of those games where players roll dice and NPCs just have target numbers for the players' rolls.

Whaddaya think?


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