Thursday, April 15, 2021

Sex & Romance in Role-Playing Games

PCs should be getting laid. If fiction is any guide, the three universal motivators are love/lust, greed, and revenge. They are human urges so basic that when presented in fiction they need no further justification. This is what people do and have been doing at least as long as we’ve been writing about it. Sex and violence are just good story-fodder.

The thing is, this tends not to be the case in RPGs. Yeah, we get plenty of money and violence, but where’s the sex? Where’s the romance? I’ve always wanted to find a way to encourage fictional romance at the table, but the problem seems three-fold. The first issue is that games very rarely touch the subject. When it does come up, it’s often in some form of generational play, concerning the joining of families or creation of offspring. This is more logistics management than romance. PbtA games buck this trend slightly, with Apocalypse World having moves based on sex: “When you sleep with someone, take +1hx with them”etc. This at least brings the thing into active play, rather than a background strategic element. Still, it’s... lacking. In my experience, even the sex Moves aren’t enough to pique a player’s interest unless it offers some kind of strong strategic advantage.

The second problem is that players, out of character, do not care if their PC gets laid. Players are goal-driven creatures. They want to win. They want to earn points, they want to beat the mission, they want to accomplish their goals. For the player, there is no real temptation to divert time and energy into a romantic interest that does not bring them closer to said goals. Compounding this, we’ve sort of trained players to want the exact opposite. If you do get romantically involved with an NPC, you’re just asking the GM to take it as leverage to use against you. Combine all this with the lack of mechanical attention paid to the topic and even those players who might be interested in romantic story elements may not be aware it’s even a valid option. After all, games communicate what they are interested in by the rules they choose to include.

So what do we do with this?

Sex and romance are a pretty hardcore set of biological drives for most humans, at least at some point in their lives. They are a unique area of focus that is difficult to sublimate just by focusing on other areas of development. They are such powerful drivers that we often do very dumb things in the pursuit thereof, eschewing our more rational priorities for even a fleeting glimpse of that rush (or release.) This is such a powerful factor in most of our lives  that as an audience, we don’t even balk when fictional characters risk upending their entire lives because they were lonely or the bartender was cute. Many of us have been there, man. 

In general, the way you get PCs to act like real people is by making the mechanical incentives of the game mirror the physical or psychological incentives the PC would have in-character. You are never going to get a player to really care about their PCs level of comfort or discomfort, or worry about the quality of their sleep. However, if you mechanically reward them for being exceptionally well-rested or start punishing them for getting shitty sleep on a bad mattress, the interests of player and PC align. Suddenly, the PC will be very concerned about the quality of their mattress and a good night’s sleep.

If we want players to be tempted to actively court romance or be tempted to make dumb decisions concerning their gender of choice, then we need to creative incentives for the players to do so. Getting this right, however, requires a few things:

  • It needs to be a discrete subsystem, the very existence thereof drawing attention to the fact that this is a valid thing to explore in play.
  • It needs to be built in such a way that it can be accessed or ignored at the player’s preference, without having to specifically build your character around taking advantage of it. This is ultimately why relegating the concept to a drive or trait doesn’t quite work. It’s fine for the P/PC who is specifically set out to do that thing, But for anyone else it may as well not exist.
  • The rewards must be unique enough that you can’t get them from other systems in the game and compelling enough to tempt goal-oriented players into making trouble for themselves to do so. This is even more important when you remember the liability potential of tying yourself to an NPC.
  • And ideally, we’d want it to (wherever possible) integrate into other areas of the game and plug into/make use of the existing mechanics so that it feels a natural extension of play. Accessibility is key.

You may have noticed above that I said three-fold problem and only listed two. The third and perhaps largest issue comes from the topic itself. Simply put, people have baggage. For a lot of people, sex is a significantly greater taboo than violence. The same group that will happily engage in fictional sword-fights and describe a disebowelment in gratuitous detail will get squirmy at even vague descriptions of physical intimacy. Even someone who is otherwise very comfortable with the topic of sex and their own sexuality may not be terribly interested in role-playing the details thereof with and in front of their friends at the table or watching said friends do the same. Unless, you know, you’re into that.

Existing RPGs haven't done themselves many favors. When people think of the topic, they often think about things like FATAL where the its inclusion is about simulating the act itself. Add to this the above issues of social-squick and potential prior bad experiences due to either group immaturity or deliberate bad actors and it's easy to see where this can lead to uncomfortable territory. Further add in the lack of representation of the topic in RPGs and it creates a culture where sex and romance are neither a normal part of expected RP experience, no one people know how to explore in a safe, productive fashion. No one wants to end up on r/rpghorrorstories.

The thing is, all of this latter point is a red herring. Most of the discomfort (and prior bad experience) comes from the idea of playing out sex-scenes at the table.  As ludicrously amusing as it might be to develop a God of War-style sex mini-game out of Full Contest (how else would you know who won?), that's not only unnecessary, it misses the point. The reason that sex and romance are valuable as a story element is through the exploration of character motivations and the relationship dynamics it creates. While the gratuitous nudity is good for HBO's ratings, the physical act of sex is not where the drama lies. From a dramatic standpoint, it's all about the lead up and the consequences to the relationships involved.

From a game standpoint, the purpose of such a system would be both to demonstrate sex and romance as a legitimate are of play and encourage PCs to behave in ways that feel more natural to reality and fiction. In so doing, it helps close the gap between the kinds of stories that S&S generates and the kinds of stories S&S seeks to emulate. 

Creating such a system would be a delicate balance. To feel legitimate, the system would require enough structure and guidance that it was teaching players the right way to use these elements in a story and explore them safely through play. That will include a necessary emphasis on the relationships themselves, in and out of character, and handling the subject matter in a way that's comfortable for everyone involved. Such as keeping the actual climactic details safely veiled and off-screen.

I don’t have more specifics, yet, but it does occur to me that this is a very close cousin to the social conflict topics I’m currently developing. One could easily plug into or effect the other. It’s thus worth a bit of consideration, as I’m solidifying the latter. It’s also a very, very big element in the kind of fiction that S&S seeks to emulate. How many Scoundrel-esq characters practically live out of a brothel?

At this stage, I’m seeking input. Any thoughts, questions, ideas, or suggestions? Have you seen sex/romance used as a part of play at the table? How did it go? How do you feel about the topic and its inclusion? Is this an area of development that interests you, or something you’d prefer left to HBO?

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