Five Ways to Make Your In-Character Tabletop Romance Work

In my last writing post, I talked about the two D&D characters that ended up being the inspiration for the two main characters of Kingmaker. These two characters ended up in a relationship: obviously I didn’t play both halves of the couple, and that’s what I decided I was going to talk about today.

I realized as the campaign went on that my character, a paladin called to defend everything bright and beautiful in the world, would have developed a soft spot and eventually romantic feelings for the party’s bard. I was prepared to sit on that development for the rest of the campaign without acting on it largely because I was both a newcomer to RPGs and a woman: I didn’t want to fit into the stereotype of being a woman that brought romance into a non-romantic campaign. There was also the issue that, at the time, both I and the other player had our spouses at the table, and I didn’t want to seem like I was making a pass at him by making in-story romantic gestures toward his character. To make a long story very brief, I was encouraged to make it canon, confessed in-character after a particularly rough battle, and we went on to be adorable together for the remaining year and a half or so that the campaign lasted.

However, there’s a lot that I would have changed about how I went about the development of the romance. While everything happened to work out for us, I do have five things that you should think about when role-playing a romance that might help anyone considering the idea.

I am writing these tips from my perspective as someone that role-played a romantic relationship in a D&D campaign with a non-DM player that I am not and have never been romantically involved with. The in-character relationship was a monogamous one that was relatively drama-free: therefore, I won’t talk about polyamorous relationships or how to role-play exes, significant relationship drama, or a break-up. I do discuss sexuality and intimacy in this post, particularly in the fifth point, but my mother reads my blog, so it’s nothing salacious. All that said, here are five things to think about before you go romancing other players’ characters.

1.     Think About Why

Consider why you’re thinking about bringing a romantic relationship into your game, because there are good and bad reasons to do so. If you’re bored, interested in flirting with another player (regardless of whether or not they’re your real-world partner), feel like you’re “supposed to” as the femme player or character, or otherwise motivated by anything that’s not story- or character-related, I’d recommend reconsidering why you’re thinking about this and having some out-of-character conversations where necessary, safe, and appropriate. Obviously I don’t know all of the possible scenarios, so use your best judgment.

I’m a chronic worrier and considered quite a few angles. Would it look like I was doing this because I’m a woman? Would it look like I was flirting with him? Would it look like I was trying to derail the whole “we have Demon Lords to kill” thing? Was it even appropriate for me to initiate a relationship between two female-identifying characters when I’ve never been in a relationship with a femme person? I decided to make the jump because my reasons were character-motivated: it boiled down to “you inspire me to be better and make me happy, and also life is really short and we almost died yesterday,” which I figured was a pretty good set of reasons for one character to ask another one out.

2.     Talk About It Beforehand

This is the part where I tell you not to follow my example, because this is the part where I made what could have been a disastrous misstep.

I completely blindsided the other player with this. He was actually one of the last people at the table to find out what I was up to, and he found out at the same time his character did. To this day, he insists that what I did was fine and that being surprised helped him authentically role-play a character who would have been extremely surprised and flustered, but I still feel bad about it. It was unfair of me as a player, friend, and person to put him on the spot like that, and if I was making the decision now (and going forward), I would have tipped him off beforehand, even if it was with something like, “Hey, Janella’s going to take Sone aside and have kind of a personal conversation with her, just so you know.”

This same advice applies to more than just your intended as well. I did float the idea with other group members to test the waters and make sure no one would roll their eyes at me for bringing in romance (which makes it even more embarrassing that I didn’t tell the one person who most needed to know). Where possible, I’d recommend having conversations like this in a session zero kind of setting where everyone’s preferences with regard to romantic PC interactions are discussed ahead of time so you’re not months into a campaign wondering if it’s an appropriate move.

3.     …And Keep Talking About It

Relationships of all stripes aren’t done after one conversation. Consent needs to be continuously affirmed, and this is true of fictional relationships as much as it is real ones. Check in with your in-universe partner often to talk about how things are going, how you’d like things to go, how you’re feeling, and whether anything has changed. Establish and respect boundaries and trust your partner to do the same—you’re in this with them for a while, so trust is going to be important.

You should be checking in with other players, anyway, so also have discussions with them. In addition to them, I also checked in with my husband and his wife to make sure we were all on the same page about what was happening. Don’t get so wrapped up in your in-character relationship that you neglect the other people you’re with. Learn what they’re comfortable with seeing or hearing about if they’re comfortable sharing. After all, you’re all making this story together.

4.     It’s Not All About You

I repeat: you’re all making this story come together. A lot of games require more people than just you and your partner, so don’t forget about them. You might be two characters who interact a lot because of the relationship, but the other characters still exist. They’re the main characters of their own backstories as well as in the game, and they’re entitled to some of the spotlight, too. Let them have a turn in the limelight, and develop relationships with them so that you have role-playing opportunities outside of your romantic scene partner and give them more chances to shine: you might have a catty rivalry with the warlock, a deeper appreciation of and trust in the wizard’s courage and skill after spending a combat encounter in his body, or a profound wariness of the rogue beyond the go-to reasons for being wary of rogues, all of which are viable places for all parties to draw role-playing material from and make your character more than just their romance.

This is at once not a problem and also kind of a big problem for me. I’m a contradiction in that role-playing is my favorite part of these games, but I’m also really self-conscious about whether I’m doing too much of it. My theatrical tendencies earned me a literal trophy from my group, but the game isn’t supposed to be me and my supporting cast: we’re all main characters. Just like in real life, nurture those people outside of your romantic relationship, because your partner isn’t and shouldn’t be your everything.

A glass trophy in a fabric-lined box. The top has an image of a human female knight etched in it. The text reads: The Secret Podcast's Weeping Weaponmaster; To - Gretchen Turonek as Janella Kulenov; For her exceptional method acting skills, on-demand crying, and best feels in a leading roll.
I wasn’t kidding about the trophy, folks.

5.     Sometimes, Less is More

The other player and I were married to other people, and I have the added bonus of being asexual. We were also role-playing our characters in front of other people. This was D&D, so while we weren’t simulating anything physical (and not even a LARP environment would require that), we were more interested in the emotional and character parts of the relationship than the sexual component. It didn’t come up very often for us because Demon Lords are kind of a mood-killer, but the other player and I agreed that we would leave anything beyond passionate kissing up to a Constitution saving throw: declare what’s going on without providing a ton of details, fade to black, roll some dice to see how it went, and then cut to a later time or whatever the rest of the party was up to.

There’s a place for sexuality in games (and probably games that are about sexuality, although I don’t have any experience with them), and I’m not trying to say that all tables should be Puritanical or anything like that. However, this should be part of your conversations about boundaries and expectations and definitely part of a session zero conversation. You don’t want to make anyone at the table uncomfortable, and you shouldn’t be made to feel uncomfortable because of what other people are interested in or expect to see. Even in fiction, you’re entitled to privacy and bodily autonomy, and shouldn’t have to consent to anything you’re uncomfortable with. We’re just here to tell stories and have an enjoyable experience with people we enjoy spending time with: nothing about it needs to be uncomfortable.

Those of you that have had in-character romances, what do you think? Did I cover everything? How did it work out for you? Anything you’d like to share? Leave a comment below to talk about it!

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