I’m not really one for Valentines Day, but Dyson Logos’ adorable heart dungeon got me thinking about writing something in the spirit of the occasion. I’ve always thought that love and sexuality sit rather uncomfortably with D&D. Usually it appears in the context of certain monsters – succubi, nymphs, dryads, neirids. In this respect, D&D has a puritanical attitude towards sex similar to the horror film – sex is death, indulging your lust leads to your doom. While not necessarily evil, all these female-appearing monsters are dangerous because of their ability to seduce, but mythological monsters that incorporated male sexual aggression, such as centaurs and satyrs, appear to be lacking any kind of sexual threat. This is perhaps because of an assumed male perspective, or maybe just because the details would be quite distasteful (unlike the succubi and co, these beast-men are not seductive, mind-controlling monsters).
In the 1e DMG, love and sex appear, but, like the allure of the succubus, largely as a magic effect. The philtre of love is a classic fairytale love potion which could have interesting gameplay consequences. My players in my current campaign used one to reconcile a separated storm giant couple at the behest of the estranged wife, but I’ve never seen a PC use one to snag a lover for themselves. Satyrisis, nymphomania, sex change and losing interest in sex are all potential curse effects from artifacts. And then of course there’s the infamous harlot city encounter table. No mechanics as to what might happen when this encounter actually comes up. Nonetheless, for these curses and encounters to actually be meaningful in the game, the lovelives of D&D characters must have been assumed to be going on, and also to be important enough to the players that they would feel the sting of being hit by one of these curses, or interested in a harlot encounter. Some modules encouraged romantic engagements with PCs and NPCs. Scourge of the Slave Lords presented opportunities for romantic dalliances at a festival in Safeton before the main plot of the campaign kicked off. Throne of Bloodstone, which sets up high-level PCs for military campaigning and domain rulership, suggests marriage with particular NPCs, one of which stands to inherit significant territory. This is the level where I think that romance for D&D PCs can get most interesting – dynastic feuds and marriage alliances were at the centre of a lot of intrigue and conflict in the medieval period, and the PCs will be at a level where they likely have more than their fair share of magic and money, but their legacy is still something to fight for.
Still, while all this is hinted at, there’s no crunch to support it mechanically, so the DM who finds themes of love crop up in his murderhobo game just has to wing it. Games which focus more on politicking or interactive storytelling have systems in place to game-ify romance and sexual relationships when these things are important in the game’s themes. The actual act of sex is usually not covered in detail (for the best I think, that way lies FATAL and other cringe-fests). If you’re lucky enough to have erotic fantasy roleplay group sessions, involving hit points and percentile rolls is probably overcomplicating it. Dungeons and Dragons isn’t really about that, and I never set out to include sex and romance in my games, I’ve found that they tend to turn up anyway, usually arising organically from the players, and generally with positive results for the gaming experience. Given how lightly the topic is covered by the rules, I thought I’d share some stories about how love and sex has cropped up so far in my D&D games.
My first running of PC-NPC ‘romance’ was when I was DMing a Temple of Elemental Evil campaign. Facing a TPK in the moathouse at the hands of Lareth and bodyguard after all the other party members were bleeding out or had fled, the elf magic-user/thief ‘Raven’ (played by a male, I might add) made an heartfelt appeal to stand their ground to Elmo (lvl5 NPC ranger who had joined as a hired hand), just as I was making a morale roll to see whether he would break. Her charisma and good hearted nature as well as good roleplaying from her player modified the roll and won Elmo over, and he and Raven fought to victory against the odds. This event ended up being something of a meet-cute for these two, as they became fire-forged friends and more. As a DM I was impressed by the amount of effort Raven’s player put into the relationship, including shelling out a lot of money to resurrect the poor ranger after he failed his System Shock roll against a wand of polymorph. Raven took care to impress Elmo’s parents and even bought a house in Hommlet so that they could live close to his family. Sadly our elf’s ambitions of domestic bliss were disrupted when Elmo was kidnapped while out on a solo adventure (I don’t like long-running DMPCs, and Elmo’s stats were so good he outshined the main characters at times, I felt he was better served as a macguffin for the next adventure locale). I have to admit, at first I was reluctant to encourage the relationship, feeling that it might distract from the dungeoncrawl and sideline other players, but to my surprise the other players and their characters were supportive. And clearly the player was getting something genuinely satisfying out of roleplaying a woman in love. As a tribute to this romance, when I have run latter incarnations of ToEE, the local ranger hireling can be found meeting in the woods with his elf lover, if the players stalk him well enough.
In the same ToEE campaign there was a great example of how a good random roll can add to the game. I was playing with the rules from the Unearthed Arcana book, which added a comeliness attribute to determine a character’s physical attractiveness. Characters with high comeliness scores were able to fascinate those of the opposite sex (although I, and I guess other non-homophobic DMs, applied it to anyone of the relevant sexual orientation). Whenever my players took an interest in the appearance of a certain NPC, I rolled for their score with racial and charisma modifiers as if they were PCs. A natural 18 on the dice plus racial bonus transformed Otis’s henchwoman Murfles into a figure of unearthly beauty. The party’s illusionist and druid became infatuated with her and began competing for her affection. Despite the lovely elf’s indifference, this rivalry culminated with a blow-out display of magics from both characters after a very messy celebration at the inn of the Welcome Wench. Murfles the elf, however, remained indifferent to and somewhat embarrassed by the attentions of these lovesick spellcasters. No wonder the she kept up her disguise as an old crone whenever she could!
In my current 1e campaign, romance has not been featured so much. At times I employ a ‘carousing table’ to determine any interesting effects from partying, and one result from a revel in a djinni palace on the elemental plane of air meant that the party wizard snagged the affections of a slyph. Since such creatures are long lived and time passes differently on the planes, I guessed that casual dalliances with mortal planar travellers would be enjoyed but that the female elemental would not get too attached or pursue any serious commitment. But, it did mean that the wizard can call that specific slyph for aid or just company in the future, though a modified conjure elemental spell. Aside from that, one of the fighters has hinted at a slow-burning sexual tension with his henchwoman.
Once as a player, when describing my character’s background, I made an offhand remark about my wizard having having won marriage to a pirate captain in a drunken card game and needing money to pay her off after a divorce. This was intended as a humorous excuse to justify his dungeon looting, but as it turned out, the early campaign was a city-based affair, heavy on intrigue, swashbuckling and cloak-and-dagger politicking, and the main antagonist (a beautiful, manipulative leader of a thieves guild) was presented as my character’s ex. What would have been a rather straightforward enmity was complicated by my character’s personal relationship with the BBEG. He realised that his ex was mixed up in some dangerous plot, knew that she was ruthless and cruel but he still had feelings for her and didn’t want to see her come to a sticky end. By being able to meet and talk with the antagonist throughout the plot, this put more of a splotlight on the nature and motivations of the villain that we wouldn’t have experienced in the game if we’d only managed to encounter her in the back of a dungeon. It also gave the DM plenty of opportunities to fuck with us and try to sabotage our efforts. This was largely done through straight roleplaying although since it was a 3.5 game, some bluff and diplomacy rolls were called for. Also, with both of us being spellcasters with serious trust issues, some charm spells were employed now and again. Although I hadn’t conceived of playing this type of game when I rolled up the characer, I found it rewarding. It let me enjoy role-playing a conflicted character who desired to do good and redeem this villain but was also tempted by the more shady life he used to enjoy. She did eventually come to a sticky end, but my PC’s romance subplot with her made the resolution more satisfying (of course he was the one who had to kill her in the end).
These experiences from both sides of the screen have taught me to open my heart and let love into the game. If your group is mature, it can add a lot of fun and a richer roleplaying experience, resulting in more well-rounded characters and players who are more invested in the game world. I’ve found that love can make players do crazy things against their ‘better judgement’, as in, risk game advantage like money, items or just plain safety in pursuit of a purely role-playing based character goals. Maybe it’s easier to relate to this as a motivation, after your characters are sitting on piles of gold coins and magic swords.
I’ve been wondering about good ways to actually house rule love and relationships and somehow game-ify them, to inspire players and have a system to deal with these things within a limited time at the table. Perhaps a table for romantic entanglements to be checked during downtime that could dish out bonuses or problems. Or one for random generation of suitors if a well-heeled adventurer sets up a stronghold and lets it be known that he or she is looking. One that should also allow for some unusual results like magical beings, curses, spies, etc, to spice things up. Right now though, it seems that players who enjoy the idea of their characters having a lovelife have been happy to take the initiative.
P.S. I updated the post with some images, and for anyone who wants to think about sex in D&D in a more explicit, irreverent way, I can’t recommend Oglaf enough. Read it with your nerdy sweetie. There’s plenty of material in the archives to keep you occupied while I work on my dating mishaps table. Or a post on succubi. Whatever comes out first.