Posted by: Sean | September 4, 2008

Theme Week Romance: Alright, alright. I love you. Geesh.

I had a cookie. No really, I had one of these. It was delicious. I… I’m better now.

In an effort to restore a little bit of goodwill, especially on a day where we’ve had quite a remarkable amount of traffic, I’d like to finish off romance week with perhaps something a touch more heartwarming and genuine. Which is to say, how romance can perhaps work after all.

Jess has privately observed to me that my prior post was far too cynical. Also that water might be wet, which hadn’t occured to me until now. But her main criticism was that I argued for having dead relatives as a one-way ticket to Mary-Sue land. It is not the case. Of course it isn’t the case. My own undead character openly pines for his long dead wife and daughter, and I like to think it’s actually one of his more endearing characteristics. There genuinely is a tremendous amount of death in the World of Warcraft universe, and having relatives who have died violently isn’t unusual.

That being said, the reaction counts. If you’re defining your entire character on a desire to gain vengeance; if their death becomes your raison dêtre, then yes, you might just be headed on the Mary-Sue train. It can be done well, but I maintain such plots remain better untouched. Batman was never less compelling, after all, as when he was hunting for the specific criminal who murdered his family. The execution (pardon the pun,) counts if you’re going to do this, and oddly enough, love really is the key to making it work. If you sell the love, if you manage to conjure the more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone, then you have a pretty decent chance of making your character sympathetic, reasonable, and workable. Love, not just stated but shown, can really work to give your character some depth. If you’re only referring to it, however, rather than really feeling it, then it can add depth and sorrow to your backstory.

Now, that said, let’s focus on the real story: Love and romance in game. I do maintain this isn’t easy, and the reasons I said remain true: There are almost no external obstacles that can really be formented to create dramatic or comedic tension. That leaves mostly internal tensions as your only way to really create that sense of longing and frustrated desire that all great romantic drama and comedy thrives on. What I think I underestimated in my sleep-deprived, Yahtze-inspired rant, is that there are a number of ways you can play internal tension well. As a few examples:

  • Pride: There are lots of very proud characters in World of Warcraft, and pride can definitely be a way to put roadblocks in the path of an easy, smooth (and therefore boring,) romance plot. Romeo & Juliet is only interesting because of the issues with their families, but Beatrice & Benedict get along just terribly without anyone having to push them apart. The kind of perpetually bickering, occassionally hooking up lovers is a fine construct, especially for a more comedic romance. More recently, Elliot and J.D. of Scrubs personify this approach.
  • Nervousness: As noted before, particularly for younger characters, sheer nerves can keep people apart. There’s a lovely line in the mostly uninspiring The Dish wherein two observers watch a pair of youths, clearly absolutely smitten with each other, fail utterly to ask each other out during a long stammering session. Eventually, one of the onlookers derides the whole situation, “God, this is excruciating. I can’t watch this anymore.” It’s a charming moment, and if you do it right you can absolutely recreate this in a role-playing session. If you can, after a few weeks, manage to get your entire guild to demand that you finally just sleep with each other, for heaven’s sakes, then you’ve done your job right.
  • More dramatically, social taboo can kick into gear here and make the whole thing work. The idea of one of the aristocratic Blood Elves falling in love with an orc, for example, has a lot of heft in spite of, and indeed partly because of, the awkwardness of the image. The grace and beauty of a Blood Elf matched against the brutish nobility of an orc could see both sides laughed at for even considering it, and you can run with that. I’m not convinced about this one; it still seems to require collaborators for it to truly work, and these kind of things are tremendously difficult to organise, but it’s plausible, at least. You could do similar things with some classes; what about a priest or paladin whose taken a vow of celibacy in order to devote themselves more wholly to the Light, and then falls in love? Love is never more sweet than when it’s forbidden.

And also, there is of course the love triangle. This is a hard thing to set up, and I definitely think you’d need to collaborate on it before you begin. But yes, if you have three players who all have their roles set up, you could definitely set up a love triangle as a successful romantic plot – It has tension and drama, so it’s good. What does worry me about it is that the weight it places on “the hinge” as we might call him or her, the one person in the drama that is beloved by both suitors. On her turns the plot, and that’s a heavy weight to carry.

Also, like all romance plots, it’s exclusivist and doesn’t scale up well. It’s hard to involve more than two or three people in a romance plot, although you can do it somewhat with roles like the confidant, the non-threatening friend of one of the people in the relationship who is clearly not interested and can therefore be trusted for advice. As such, I still say that overall, you’d have to say romance is a difficult and tricky thing to play, and I’d recommend against it for beginning role-players.

But it can be done.

And cookies are awesome.



  1. I understand your previous post is mostly the product of bitterness, and I am myself not a great believer in WoW-love stories. That said, I have been part of one of probably the best such. So just in a confirmation that it can be done – the short story of my experience.

    My character, a Mage with almost all her family members still alive and okay, met a paladin. Now, this paladin was a REALLY properly roleplayed one, hating demons, warlocks, even mages a bit (at least strongly mistrusting the latter), devoted to the Light and viewing love as an unnecessary evil in a much of a Jedi-like way – loving one person will make you lose focus, make them more important than everyone else, and ultimately draw you away from what you, as a paladin, should make your life’s goal – to care for and protect everyone. The mage was roleplayed as slightly bitter-inside and disillusioned, too sharp-tongued for her own good and severely distrusting her own powers (the Arcane is corrupting to the mind), wanting to do good and right things, but fearing endlessly that one day she will fall to the power-hunger clawing within her, and turn into what she fights. Add to this his circle of friends – a bunch of the most stuck-up and proper druids you can imagine, who went all growls and teeth at the sight of anyone arcane-meddling (all of them, great roleplayers).

    To cut the long story short, there was an instant chemistry between the tongue-in-cheek yet insanely devoted paladin and the jaded smartass mage. But it took them weeks to actually even admit that, and then even more time to get through their issues with their attraction (he – his devotion to the Light; she, the belief that in a world so full of death and war, love is just an illusion and a hindrance). And when they finally got together, his friends kicked in, doing all in their power to separate them. And while in the end my mage did win the grudging admiration of their leader, she was never welcome, never accepted, and forbidden to enter Moonglade under the pain of death. Somewhere along the line even a love-triangle showed up, two actually.

    Needless to say, in the end the relationship ended in pain, but not because of any of those factors. Nevertheless that was the greatest roleplay I have ever had, with lots of challenges and drama, and lots of true intensity to it, and also some lovely bursts of smartassy black humour and outwitting-competition flirting between the two. None of it needed to come from the game-mechanics, but all of it came from game-lore and great players knowing how to use it.

    Sorry if this response is a bit too long 🙂

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