In a recent episode of the Happy Jacks RPG podcast (Season 09 Episode 08), the hosts discussed romance, seduction, and sex in roleplaying games. I was really looking forward to this discussion as I am a big proponent of including these elements in games. While I wasn’t exactly disappointed with the discussion that ensued (the hosts were funny as ever, and their inappropriate banter is a large part of why I like the show), I did feel that there was a lot more that could’ve be said. The hosts only scratched the surface of this topic, and I wish I could’ve been there to add my points to the discussion. However, as I don’t own a teleporter, and don’t live anywhere close to southern California, this article will have to suffice.
Before continuing, I want to clarify something. (Just an aside here, but I find I have to start most my articles this way. That’s probably because nearly all of the people reading this don’t know me personally, and may misinterpret what I’m trying to say. I want to hopefully avoid that, and possibly give some context to the point I’m trying to make.) Anyway, onto the clarification. When I say that I’m a huge proponent of including sex in roleplaying games, that does not mean I think the act of sex needs to be roleplayed out at the table. I’ll repeat that.
Saying that people should include sex in their roleplaying games does not mean I think you should narrate or roleplay out the act of sex at your gaming table.
You can, and should, fade to black before situation gets to the sexual act itself. When and where you fade to black will vary, based on the tastes and comfort level of your group. Some players will want to cut away as soon as two (or more) characters leave the rest of the group with clear intentions (either expressed or implied) to have sex. Other groups will be comfortable following the characters right up until the clothes start coming off. Wherever you decide to cut away however, my point is this: don’t roleplay out the sex. It’s creepy.
All right. With that statement, some of you may be wondering how I can say that I’m a proponent of sex and seduction in roleplaying games while telling people to not show the sex “on camera”. Let’s see if I can explain this.
Around 35 minutes into the episode the hosts bring up love interests in superhero games. Someone suggests the idea of a superhero PC who must keep their secret identity hidden from an NPC whom they are married to. The PC is always out (fighting crime) and because of this neglect, the NPC spouse want a divorce. The hosts don’t explore the idea further, though I wish they had because this is exactly what I am talking about. Adding sex, seduction, and romance to your roleplaying games allow you to add “small messiness” to a character’s life.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m getting tired of those epic, continent-spanning, save the world style adventures. I like them occasionally, but after a while they start to get kind of boring. Another super villain bent on world domination. Another extra-dimensional race with it’s heart set on conquering Earth. Another evil wizard trying to complete a ritual to release the Demon Prince Lashtar from the 777th layer of the Abyss. And your characters are the only ones who can stop it. They’re fun once in a while, but not all the time. Not everything has to be big to be dramatic. The superhero who’s wife and kids are leaving him because he’s never home is just as dramatic as the alien invasion. It’s just on a much smaller scale. In both cases the actions of the characters will have dramatic effects on the world. It’s just that the “epic quest” story-line affects the whole world, while the other one affects the world of a single character.
Why sex and romance though? It’s true that you can have dramatic moments between friends, but romance and sex are just more intense. Think of how nervous you were back in high school asking someone out to the prom. Think of all the agonizing you did over liking someone and not knowing of they liked you back or how to approach them. Think of all the stupid things you did because someone you secretly liked asked you to do them. Love makes fools of us all, even when it’s one-sided or secret. Which makes for awesome opportunities to roleplay and to take the collective story in new and interesting directions.
When my group played Vampire: the Requiem several years ago, I decided to do something I hadn’t done before. I decided to play a purely social character. I created Tyler Lockwood, a vampire club DJ who worked (and lived) in a college town dance club and relied on his good looks, charm, and personality to “seduce” victims so that he could feed from them. I imagined him almost like an escort or a prostitute; he took people out, showed them a good time, and then feigned having sex in order to feed from them. A vampiric one night stand, if you will. But something happened when we started playing the game. I found that I couldn’t play a douche bag who was constantly having one night stands. I was too nice. I also found that it was a lot of effort to seduce a different person every single night. After a session or two, I decided that my PC would try to create a herd; a group of mortals who would willingly allow me to feed from them. Because of the way damage works in V:tR, I would need three mortals whom I could rotate between so that I didn’t accidentally kill one of them. Being the “super charisma” character that I was, the way to build this herd, and disguise it from mortals, would be through feigning romantic involvement. So Tyler attempted to juggle several different romantic relationships, and ended up creating this giant, messy, love quadrilateral that had to be constantly juggled or would come crashing down around his head. It was great. [¹] You don’t really have that kind of drama with friendships.
One moment in particular stands out in my memory.
Tyler had just finished feeding from Rebecca, someone he thought was a random stranger who’d come to his club. As he walked her down to the main floor from his room at the top of the building, the GM notes that he sees Heather and Indira in the crowd. These are the two roommates he’d fed from previously, and was trying to form into a herd. Tyler essentially has been caught cheating, as the two women spot him with Rebecca. Making matters even worse, Rebecca waves, and says “Oh! There’s Heather and Indira. They’re in my sorority.” Well shit. What’s going to happen now? I was sweating bullets, both as a player and as a character. Regardless if I could smooth this over or not, something interesting was going to happen. Maybe Tyler would crash and burn, losing the relationships (and source of food) that I’d spent a good 3 or 4 sessions building up. Maybe he could pull this off and placate everyone. But what would happen then? Adding a third person to the “dating nightmare” he was attempting would give him the required number of mortals to feed from, but make things all the more difficult.
This was intense and interesting because something was at stake. If Tyler botched his attempts to smooth things over he’d lose quite a bit. But he wouldn’t die. He wouldn’t be hurt. The story wouldn’t grind to a halt like if the protagonist in one of those “epic quest” stories died. No. Life would still go on, it would just be different. This is what I mean when I say that romance, sex, and seduction can add small messiness to games. Your characters can fail, and in big dramatic ways too, without putting their lives or the main story at risk. The GM doesn’t have to pull punches to make sure people survive, and player actions have real consequence. That’s what sex and romance in roleplaying games is all about and why I encourage people to include it.
In Popular Nerd Media
I realize that the game moment I related above won’t mean that much to people other than myself because it wasn’t their character or their story. We’re always more interested in things that happened to our characters, or stories that we experienced in our gaming groups. So, I’ll look at some popular TV series in an effort to show that romance, seduction, and sex are great ways to add drama to games.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
How boring would this show have been if everyone was “just friends”? If that’d been the case, we’d have something like The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers fighting vampires. Imagine that. Instead, we’re given a messy teenage love triangle right from the start of the show. Willow likes Xander, who likes Buffy, who’s friends with both of them. Awkward. And they all share a secret that holds them together; they all know that monsters are real and out to get people. Even if there’s tension between the group, can one of them just walk, away knowing it might put the lives of the other team members or innocent victims at risk?
This show has multiple messy relationships going on. Mal and Inara are obviously attracted to each other, but each refuses to act on their feelings. Kaylee and Simon have an awkward budding romance that’s constantly having wrenches thrown at it, both by their situation and the rest of the crew. Zoe and Wash’s marriage is often strained due to their “rank” in the command structure. Compressing everything, both literally and figuratively, is that they’re all trapped together in a small space for much of the story. There’s very few places to be alone on the Serenity, meaning that tensions are more likely to boil over and affect the rest of the crew.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
Oenomaus and Gannicus are both gladiators in the house of Batiatus and close friends, almost brothers. But Gannicus is in love with Melitta, Oenomaus’s wife, a secret he has kept hidden from from his friend, but hot from Melitta. What would happen if Oenomaus ever finds out? And just like Firefly, there’s no place for the characters to go. They’re all slaves of the same house, and are forced to interact with each other on a daily basis. Sometimes in ways that they’d rather not, but are forced to because the dominus or domina who owns them commands it.
As I said in the introduction, the act of having sex in these stories isn’t important. Meaningless sex does absolutely nothing to add drama to the story and is totally pointless. I’ve heard people equate having sex to going to the bathroom in roleplaying games; they’re both “bodily functions” some people would prefer to gloss over. And I couldn’t agree more, if the sex you’re “adding” to your game is nothing more than “I seduce the bar wench, we go upstairs, and a few hours later we come back down again.” What did that add to the story? Nothing. So why do it?
Adding sex to a game is only meaningful if it causes something happen in the story. How many movie or book plots have hinged on people changing after they’ve had sex? How many times have we seen characters “just hook up” or “try to keep things casual” only to develop feelings for the other person after a time? Sometimes the two people discover they love each other, sometimes the relationship is one sided, but things always change. And not always for the better. To use our media examples, what would happen if Buffy and Xander slept together? Would Willow leave? Would the team fall apart? Would one of them get hurt, kidnapped, or even killed because they were trying to sort out their feelings at the wrong time? What would happen if Zoe and Wash got divorced? Mal and Zoe have been together since the war, but Wash is hands down the best pilot. Who leaves? If no one leaves, what kind of crazy tension does their defunct relationship create in the rest of the crew? Could Oenomaus and Gannicus’s friendship survive if the secret got out? Would Oenomaus and Melitta’s marriage survive? Again, none of these situations seem all that big in the larger scope of things. But in each case, it will dramatically change the world for a small group of people: the player characters. And isn’t that who the story of your roleplaying game is about?
This is part of the reason why I love Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts so much. In both games, characters have a Sex Move. No, it’s not a list of preferred sexual positions. Instead, they’re mechanical game effects that trigger when the character has sex with someone. They’re rules that attempt to mimic the messiness and change that happens after two people sleep together. And I think that’s fantastic.
I’ve been trying to write this article for a while now. Close to two weeks, I think. For some reason, I keep getting writer’s block. The thoughts are there in my head, but when I try to express them, they don’t come out clearly. So I’m going to do something I’ve never done in the Happy Jacks community before; I’m going to plug my own weekly gaming podcast, the Idle Red Hands. One of the first episodes we ever did was about sex, seduction, and romance in roleplaying games. I went back and listened to Episode 8: The Art of Seduction while thinking about this article, and I did a much better job articulating my points in that episode. Plus, my co-hosts add several excellent points that I hadn’t thought of. Fair warning though, the episode is back from when we were still explicit (which I doubt is a problem with Happy Jack fans) and we talk blatantly about sex. Again, not a shocker given the title, but it’s probably best to not listen while your grandma is in the house.
[¹] OK. I shouldn’t have to say this, but let me point out that I am talking about a game. I don’t condone cheating, nor juggling multiple relationships at once. There is a lot of stuff I am willing to explore in a roleplaying game that I would never even consider doing in real life. That’s part of the reason why I play these games. I think that’s why a lot of people play these games, whether they’re willing to admit it or not. They want to be, to do, or to experience things that they aren’t, can’t, or don’t in real life.