I, somewhat flippantly, said in a previous post that people want to be cool when they roleplay. I believe this to be basically true: we roleplay to be better than we know we really are. I’ve indulged, just as you have, in one-line quips, excessive posing and exalted over defeated foes. It’s not just games either. In real life, I’ve never slain a dragon, or stolen a priceless idol from the Prince of the City… I take my moments of cool the same place most folk do: sporting triumphs or academic success. I take them where I can get them.
There are lots of ways to be cool in roleplaying. Like the Wizard who killed a Dragon in one of the AD&D 2nd games I played in. We’d previously killed Wyvern or something, and taken its poisoned tail. Our trusty wizard was high enough level to cast “Levitate” and took a running jump, coasted onto the back of the dragon, rolled a 20 on his attack roll and the Dragon failed its save. The image sticks in my mind almost 15 years later: cool. It was an awesome David v. Goliath moment backed up by vivid visuals and a healthy dose of blind luck. The thing is though, that it could so easily have gone wrong and still been cool. The two fighters in the party were savvy and well-equipped, and with the thief sidling to get the gems we’d come for irrespective of the fight itself, it was a situation that basically couldn’t go wrong from a fun point of view, short of a TPK.
Casting my mind over moments of awesomeness, there have been few games where there weren’t rich veins of the stuff of cool just waiting to be tapped. Some games have bought into this more than others, obviously, but when it comes to living my dreams of witty ripostes, glorious victories, and high drama, roleplaying provides a more personal vicarious thrill than anything else.
However, there’s one whole segment of my gaming career as liberally littered with awkward misunderstandings, missed potentials, and bitter second thoughts as anything in my real life: Romance. Whether it’s been me as an NPC puppet master, as the innocent target or as the questing lover… my experience with Romance plots is absolutely packed with the very antithesis of cool.
I think the reason for this is simple: in real life Love is a place where we become vulnerable. A working definition of love might be that state where defences are removed and surface appearances and pretences are put firmly aside. It is a conscious or unconscious deconstruction of the very base elements of cool, where we pretend to be the best of all possible worlds. Cool is all about appearance, about the world at large, and about proving that you are best. And love permits none of that if it’s honest.
And for this reason, I think that Romance is often treated with kid gloves. In its shallow form, in the shell of The Romance, there is scope for comedy and peculiar happenstance. The processes and characteristic acts of love are observed, but always with a wink at the audience, and not with an investment of real emotion in the characters’ lives.
It is a very rare game that allows you to tap in a real way into those emotions. Aside from the enormous technical difficulties highlighted by Morgue, we need to overcome our own basic desires to be cool. In my whole gaming career, of nearly 20 years, I have engaged in significant game-shaping Romance plots in 5 games. Of those 5, only 1 was invested with real emotion. And let me confess right away, it was not cool.
I was playing a fallen lady: a thief and a whore given a second chance at respectibility, in the act of protecting and aiding a young noble woman find a suitable husband. Over the course of numerous balls, meetings, dinners, walks in the park, she slowly became enamoured of a young noble, and, well.. some of the most intense roleplaying experiences ensued. When the shoe finally dropped… Well, it was not quite the real thing, but so uncomfortably close, that I think I am still affected by it in the way I play these stories.
Looking back, the way it built up was insidious. I never made a conscious decision to have Esme get so involved, and I never made a conscious decision myself to care that much. And I think that is probably true of many of my real life experiences too.
My conclusion, and my encapsulating thought about Romance and Love in Roleplaying, is that it is very difficult because it can play to our simplistic stereotypical story aspirations of “coolness”; or simply as a source of story conflict. But it will never be as satisfying in that mode as almost any other story, because it will always fall pitiably short of the experience it could be if you played it in earnest, as well as having a much higher chance of fizzling in some or other way. And if you play it in earnest, beware: even the fictions of the heart are dangerous, and they are almost never cool.