With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, it seems prudent to examine the role romance can play in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Let’s begin by viewing a highly informative video clip about how not to include romance in a fantasy setting, courtesy of Ator: the Fighting Eagle:
The moral of this story is twofold: don’t give the object of your affection a bear as a gift, and don’t ask your sister to marry you. Now, let’s continue.
There are three over-arcing themes in pre-modern literature: death, religion and love. And while most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns have plenty of the first and occasional allusions to the second, the third is usually entirely absent. Of course, there are often good reasons for this, as romance can detract from a storyline that would otherwise hold greater appeal for certain audiences. For example, consider how many purists were annoyed at Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films for making Arwen, a decidedly minor character, far more prominent in the films as a love interest for Aragorn, a circumstance that was entirely absent in the books.
The fact that few published adventures have romance as a central theme isn’t surprising, given that D&D is largely marketed to males, who aren’t exactly famous for their sophisticated emotional wiring. About the only such product this writer can think of meeting that criterion is the 1e classic Beyond the Crystal Cave, which cast the heroes in the role of a search-and-recovery team for a pair of lost lovers.
It was a boring adventure.
So is creating romance adventures even worth the effort? Indeed it is, so long as a handful of maxims are followed.
The first step is to assess whether or not the players want to have a romance adventure. A group of more emotionally sensitive players, or players in a setting sufficiently role-playing heavy to make being in love or bringing lovers together a worthwhile adventure objective, are more likely to accept an adventure based solely on romance. A group of blood-and-steel orc slayers probably wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) care about such things.
If every one of the players is on board with the idea, go ahead and create the adventure using the maxims below. If even one balks at the idea, suggestions for bringing that player along are outlined in “When players balk,” below, then return to the maxim section of this post.
The second step is to determine who will be participating in the romance. If one of the heroes is party to the romantic relationship, a Dungeon Master (DM) is unlikely to encounter much resistance from the players; they will probably accept the adventure lead as part of the ongoing campaign, and figure that a special lead directed toward each of their characters is forthcoming.
Encouraging heroes to undertake a romance adventure where two non-player characters (NPCs) are romantically involved is a different matter. For some players – especially those with a bend toward action and combat – it may not seem worthwhile to risk one’s own skin for the reward of bringing two strangers together. In that case, skip down to the “When players balk,” section below, then return to the maxim section of this post.
Romance Writing Maxims
The formula for writing a romance adventure is pretty straightforward. Pick two people in love, then put all manner of obstacles between them for the heroes to remove.
Beyond that, there are a few maxims that will assist in creating the story. The following maxims were drawn in part from a set of romance novel writing maxims posted on All About Romance; only those that translate well to RPG adventure design have been adopted and modified for our use.
Lead characters must have a fair amount of angst but should be largely unaware of their impotence in solving their problems. They should be out of touch with their feelings, except for anger and boredom.
The key here is to make the NPC involved in the romance pretty one-dimensional and a little clueless. If they could figure out this star-crossed relationship by themselves, they wouldn’t need heroes, and their own selfishness or immaturity should be one of their biggest obstacles.
If your character falls in love, it should be clear to the reader that he or she is probably being misled by some character flaw, loneliness or personal problem stemming from childhood. A married middle aged man is probably having a crisis—not falling in love. In fact, the reader should not be able to determine why the character loves this person whom he says he loves. This way the end of the relationship, which will come at the conclusion, will be more logical than the pairing itself.
Love is indeed blind – so it isn’t necessary for the attraction to make sense to the players, any more than in needs to make sense to any one of us when a friend becomes involved with a person in whom we see limited potential. In fact, inexplicable pairing becomes fuel for interesting player speculation, and their ideas for why these two people are attracted may be better than whatever the DM can invent. Always be open to a better idea, especially since the player’s won’t know if the DM uses their thoughts.
Relations between people, including children and parents, husbands and wives, neighbors etc. should be fairly sterile. Characters may be depressed. They should have difficulty communicating emotion. They should keep secrets from one another and live lives of quiet desperation. Problems between parents and adult children should remain largely unresolved as everyone but Dr. Phil knows they are unsolvable.
That one is pretty self-explanatory.
A nice touch is adding a ghost or some kind of inexplicable thinking on the part of a character so that the reader is not completely sure of what is going on.
In a fantasy setting, this one is easily workable – especially if the shade of a dead relative or prior lover does or doesn’t like what is happening.
When Players Balk
If even one player character would balk at spending an evening’s game to bringing lovers together, don’t make romance the central theme. Note that the operative word in that sentence is central – there are still plenty of ways to bring those less sensitive types through an adventure, but to expect them to risk their skins for the sake of romance alone is too much to ask.
A prime example of this technique comes from the classic film Cyrano DeBergerac, starring Jose Ferrer. In one scene of the film, Cyrano is asked to protect a pastry cook who also writes poetry; the cook wrote some satirical verses about a powerful nobleman, who sent about 50 soldiers to kill the cook as he made his way home from the pastry shop. Cyrano accepted the assignment in spite of overwhelming odds. When asked why, Cyrano replied,”Because that pastry cook is my friend. Also, because that pastry cook is a fellow poet and lastly, because if he doesn’t get home tonight, he will be unable to open his shop tomorrow morning, at which time and place I am supposed to meet Roxanne.”
Thus, by making solving the lovers’ problems related to the heroes’ own goals, even the most insensitive player will likely play along. Is the thief artifact-hunting? Have the young man disappear questing for an artifact where the hero would want to look anyway. Is the cleric concerned about cult activity in the region? Have the young lady be persuaded to join or be kidnapped by the cult.
If all else fails, we can also consider this maxim from the romance site:
If the characters are of age, single and truly love each other, kill one of them.
There it is, folks: the ultimate anti-romance. If, at any time, the players don’t like the romance theme, you can switch from romance to tragedy pretty quickly, so designing a romance adventure is at least worth a try.
After all, it’s almost Valentine’s Day.