This is the first of three articles where I am going to address these three issues and I will endeavor to 1) keep some semblance of maturity and 2) not offend/alienate anyone. Today we will discuss sex, and while I realize sex, love and romance are all three different things and you do not need two to get the third, for the purposes of this article I will discuss all three because while it might be okay to discuss romance and love with some people, in games it can be as poisonous as sex.
Before I get seriously into it, this article will have little or no bearing on those games which are focused on romance or sex. I realize those games exist. I also realize that I am not qualified to discuss them in any great detail.
A while back I wrote an article concerning a Star Trek game I was briefly involved in. In it I jumped in without doing any homework and I discovered I was on the Love Boat. Romance was rampant and the adventuring and problem solving was secondary to the relationships. The GM decided I should not be left out and created an NPC which was supposed to be my character's obvious love interest. Without talking to me about it. Combined with the overwhelming flurry of posts between players about how much in love their characters were with one another, I quit.
So I learned a few things from this experience, among them how bad an idea it is to not give potential players all the details regarding a game; players have a right to know what sort of game they are joining. But other than that I learned a few things, and other facts I was already aware were reinforced.
First of all, and this is the most important. If your game is going to have a strong romantic/sexual element to it, then warn your prospective players ahead of time!
Second, it is up to the GM to make players aware somehow of their game's maturity level. In my game I have a rules page, showing the Vindicators game is PG-13. This means sex is implied, it is not written about. Any sexual contact results in a fade to black sort of situation. If your game is rated R or NC-17 then it is the job of the GM to make players aware of what they are getting into. Even so, when it comes to PBEMs it is almost always implied games will not contain adult content unless specified. Still, it doesn't hurt to drive that point home.
Third, do not create NPCs specifically for the purpose of creating romance for player characters. Instead, NPCs should be created for the purpose of propelling the plot forward in some way. They should fill a skill/knowledge/power gap the GM judges needs filling, or they should act as a foil for the PCs. Or they should act in a supporting manner or be the source of a sub plot. Creating an NPC you think would be a great romantic sub plot for a PC without discussing it with the player before hand is a very bad idea.
But wait, Tom, you might say. If you discuss it with the player beforehand doesn't that remove the sense of adventure and surprise? Sure, a bit. Part of the GM's job is to provide surprises and excitement. But when it comes to sex and love no one wants an unpleasant surprise. What if the PC had different ideas regarding their character's love life? What if the player thought of their character as being gay and you, the GM, assumed the PC was heterosexual? You see how things might get awkward?
But Tom, you might say. Shouldn't the player tell the GM his character is gay? Why? It's the twenty first century, people. If someone wants to play a gay character they should be allowed to. Similarly, if they want to keep that character's sexuality in the closet that's their right, too.
It is best if the players pursue the NPCs, looking for romantic involvement themselves. Follow their lead. This does not always mean their efforts should be successful, however. In the pursuit of love and romance there are no sure things. Later on, after a considerable time playing with people, when they have become your friends, then perhaps you can dare to produce romantic sub plots for them.
Next, there may be situations where players may decide between themselves they wish for their characters to pursue a romantic subplot. Let them. If the two players consent and they seem to be handling it in an adult manner, and if they work within the confine of the game's rules then they should have every opportunity to role play it out. It is when one player's advances are unwelcome that there may be trouble. Like the situation between PCs and NPCs, players should really be discussing this sort of thing in advance. Again, yes, this takes some of the fun of the unknown out of the equation. It also prevents a player from quitting because they feel uncomfortable. In one of my games I had two players actively pursue sub plots like this and it made for years of good story telling. In one case the relationship ended in tears, in the other the PC and NPC got married. And in both cases the players never, ever made the relationships the primary focus of their characters; they were just one of many facets.
Which brings me to the issue regarding how much such romantic sub plots should impact the game. In that Star Trek game I was overwhelmed with e-mails focusing on characters saying virtually nothing outside of how much they loved one another. It was like a Stephanie Meyer book, it was so bad. It was nauseating for me to have to read that crap. And then two of those players did the same thing in my game. Oh sure, some of the posts contained relevant content but a majority of it was insipid dialogue a person had to wade through.
So, what is the solution? First of all, if two players are writing a post involving a purely romantic scene they should submit it in the form of a joint post. A joint post produces a minimum of space in the mailing list and if someone doesn't care about it they can skim the e-mail. If the scene is actually necessary to the plot as a whole then it is up to the romantic interests to reign it in. They should be aware that not everyone likes that stuff and they should tone it down. Not every single post should have a character citing an endearment or a statement of how full of love their eyes are or some romantic nonsense like that. Players should have the good sense to realize their romance might not be to everyone's liking.
Finally, I want to address an issue that came up in a Star Trek game years ago. A guy wrote a post flashing back to an incident in his character's past. This incident involved a relationship his male character had with an under aged male NPC of his creation, of how they had been lovers and they had been forced apart. The player had no idea why some people took offense to this. This player was an idiot. When writing such a thing it is important to gauge the mood of player and GM alike. Consult them, damn it! Do not assume just because you don't have a problem with sensitive subjects like this your peers share your views. There is a good reason why this sort of thing is a taboo subject in Hollywood; it disturbs most people. You remember Indiana Jones?
Adding these elements into the movie would have made Indy considerably less likeable, less heroic, wouldn't they? So yeah, stuff like this does have an impact on your character and you should really think twice before adding them for fear of alienating your fellow players. When that guy submitted this flashback it started a storm of posts that caused people to quit, because the GM should have booted the player right then and there, no question. There should have been absolutely no debate. A player that stupid, that irresponsible does not belong in your game. And a player who writes that stuff in a mainstream game should expect other players to forever see him in an unpleasant light and not wish to play with him. Yes, this Star Trek game was going to have adult content. There is a difference between writing about adult content and criminal content.