Although LARP plots focused on romance, family or any other intimate relationship among characters have historically been treated as secondary or optional in some LARP traditions, they have always been popular with some players, while other LARP traditions center narrative and play almost exclusively around intimate relationships. However, most players can attest to the hit-or-miss nature of relationship plots, and the frustration of being involved in a relationship plot that fails to fulfill its promise of dramatic or intensely emotional play. As with any other LARP element, relationship plots can be improved through thoughtful design and implementation.
In this article, I describe three key design principles for supporting satisfying relationship play, and suggest ways in which GMs can use these principles during writing, casting, pre-game and run-time. I draw on my experiences playing with the MIT Assassins’ Guild, at Intercon and related communities, and in some recent US or UK-run high-transparency, rules-light, weekend-long games that members of our communities have been involved in.
In our LARPing communities, players have always had a wide range of expectations about what relationship plots are. Depending on the game and the player, players may see relationship plots as:
I suspect that diversity of expectations is becoming an even greater issue now, as players cross over between communities with a tradition of secrets-based, highly-plotted, GM-written games, and those with a tradition of high-transparency, loosely-plotted games in which players negotiate and collaborate to pre-write content. With communities having different norms for what “plot” looks like and how relationships among characters work, players may arrive at a given game with differing expectations and not be aware of where the differences lie.
For a relationship plot to lead to satisfying play, the players need to have compatible expectations about how to play together, and they need to fulfill those expectations for each other. Their expectations also need to be aligned with the constraints and affordances of their characters and the game structure. As with other aspects of game design and implementation, both GMs and players can contribute to the alignment of expectations. The following three design principles can be used by both GMs and players to improve relationship play. This article will focus on the GMs’ perspective, suggesting ways in which GMs can use these design principles during writing, casting, pre-game planning, and play to create successful relationship plots.
LARPs are fundamentally made up of interactions among characters. The primary purpose of relationship plots, in particular, is to foster interesting interpersonal interactions, often involving intense feelings and emotional arcs for the characters involved. If characters are not interacting, the relationship plot is not happening. However, players do not always choose to engage with their characters’ relationship plots. Even when players do share the expectation that they will interact with their relationship partners, it can be difficult for them to do so if the structure of the game hinders, rather than facilitates, such interactions. For example, relationship play often fizzles when characters are motivated to avoid each other, do not have goals or conflict to drive dramatic interactions, or have so many demands on their time that they can’t arrange opportunities to talk to their relationship partners.
Even when all involved players expect to interact with each other, there can still be wide gulfs in the extent to which they prioritize the relationship plot. Prioritization has two related aspects. The first is, how much time does a player want to devote to this relationship, and in particular, how much time do they want to spend interacting with the other character(s) in the relationship? Some players want relationship play to be a major focus of their game. For others, relationships are a secondary or background plot, which they enjoy but only want to spend a limited amount of time on. The second consideration is how much emotional investment does the player have in the relationship plot? Emotional investment is partly a question of how committed each player is to the relationship plot: if time is scarce or other plots demand attention, will the player continue to make time for it? It is also a question of the extent to which each player is emotionally engaged with the relationship play and the play experience. As in real life relationships, players who make themselves emotionally vulnerable during play need to be able to trust their partners, as players, to take care of them. They also need to be able to trust that the intense emotional experience they share with other players is, in fact, shared; that “we’re all in this together,” and that their partners are also emotionally affected by the experience. The pain of in-character rejection or betrayal or incompatibility can be fun to play with, but no one enjoys the player-level experience of discovering that they were alone in feelings they thought were shared. Although GMs cannot, of course, control players’ feelings, they can use design, casting, and communication strategies to increase the chances that players enter the game with compatible expectations that can serve as the foundation for trust.
Relationship play is most likely to be satisfying for all concerned when players share expectations about the level of emotional intensity they are looking for, and the content, themes, or style they want to explore or avoid. For example, a romance plot may involve flirtation, seduction, sexual content, conflict between the participants, jealousy, infidelity, polyamory, romantic comedy, pining, kink, power dynamics, dysfunctional relationships, or abuse—among many other possibilities. If one player signs up for a “love plot” imagining teenage flirtation and is paired with another who is imagining dysfunctional angst, they may have trouble finding their way to mutually satisfactory play.
The creation of a LARP consists of four phases: writing, casting, pre-game negotiation and planning, and play/run-time (not all LARPs include all four phases). In the writing and casting stages of the process, GMs play a larger role than players and therefore, have more opportunities to encourage (or hinder) relationship play. In the pre-game negotiation and play phases, the balance of responsibility shifts to the players, but GMs still play a support role. During each phase, GMs can facilitate the matching of players’ expectations about the amount and type of interactions a given relationship plot will involve, and support mutually satisfactory relationship play.
In the written materials, GMs use character motivations and plot structure to communicate expectations for what sort of play the players should engage in. Furthermore, in a game where secrets are important and out-of-game communication among players is minimal, the written materials are the players’ main source of information about what kind of interactions other players might be expecting. In the absence of an explicit agreement among players about how to play a relationship plot, which could serve as the basis for trusting each other, the written materials serve as a proxy. In this style of game, players (implicitly) agree to trust each other to reach a similar understanding of the plot, based on reading the sheets, and to play in ways congruent with that vision. The more clearly GMs communicate expectations, the more likely players will be to enter game with similar expectations.
Furthermore, the writing and plot structure can either facilitate or impede satisfying relationship play. It is possible for players to compensate for misaligned expectations and other impediments, but it is best if GMs write in ways that support players and make it easier for them to play their relationship plots fully and satisfyingly.
Characters in a relationship should have something they want from each other, a conflict to resolve, or a problem they need to solve together. In each case, there should be obstacles or complications that make it non-trivial for the characters to reach a resolution. This gives characters a reason to interact more than once over the course of the game. Conflicts can take many forms. For example, Jamie and Chris are lovers, but Chris is married and has a political career that can’t withstand scandal. Jamie wants Chris to leave their family and go public with the relationship, Chris wants Jaime to keep the relationship secret, and both want to maintain the relationship. The two characters have opposing goals, each needs to get the other to do something, and each character has an internal conflict between “(don’t) publicize the relationship” and “keep the other person from leaving me.”
External conflict can also drive relationship play. For example, when Romeo and Juliet are in love but forbidden by their parents to be together. In this case, the parents had better be written with strong motivation to actively keep their children apart. And the players of the parents need to understand that part of their role is to provide conflict for their children’s relationship plot, and be willing to play accordingly.
As an alternative to giving characters explicit motivation to interact, external circumstances can force them to do so. For example, they’re on the same working team together (police partners, spaceship crew, political delegation, etc.), or they are corporation heads who have to negotiate with each other, or it’s a 6-person game where all the characters are trapped together in an airlock or at a dinner table. However, proximity only creates opportunities for interaction and without conflict or goals, it can be difficult for players to turn casual interactions into dramatic or meaningful ones.
GMs should not write relationships in which one or both characters are explicitly motivated to avoid interacting with each other, because players’ default instinct will be to do just that. It is possible to write a relationship plot in which the characters are trying to avoid each other but, nevertheless, end up interacting meaningfully. However, this either requires that external circumstances force the characters to interact (for example, a third character is motivated to get them talking, or their jobs require them to work alone together, or all the characters are due to be dosed with a potion that causes them to blurt out their secrets), or it requires the players to actively steer their characters into interactions that will further the narrative, despite the characters’ wishes. Steering to this degree is an advanced skill that not all players have, nor is it equally appropriate in all games.
Although GMs should not rely on player steering as a substitute for thoughtful game design, those who wish to encourage steering can do so by explicitly writing about steering strategies in the general briefing materials for the game. It is also possible to incorporate opportunities for steering into a game’s structure. For example, in Just A Little Lovin’ (Grasmo & Edland, 2018), one in-game event is the serving of the celebratory “green drink,” which is described in the rules as an opportunity for players to decide to either take their character in a new direction, or double down on their current direction. Primed to think about steering, players used the “green drink” as an in-game justification for their characters to do things like initiate difficult and dramatic conversations about the wrongs they’d done each other.
In lightly-plotted games with an emphasis on player-created content, GMs can encourage relationship play by providing all characters with some pre-written relationships. For example, in Marked: A School for Heroes (Piancastelli & Walmsley, 2018), each character belongs to an origin group and a training team, and also has one or two pre-defined relationships, such as romantic attractions, friendships, or relatives. The relationships between characters in the origin groups are fleshed out as part of the backstory, and often include specific reasons for characters to interact, such as unfinished business from the past or a desire to ‘get the band back together.’ Training teams are guaranteed to spend a lot of time playing together due to the game’s structure; relationships among these characters are left for players to develop through some combination of pre-game negotiation and in-game emergent play. Other individual relationships are fleshed out only slightly in the written materials, and players are instructed to negotiate details with each other pre-game. This structure ensures that whether or not they are able to engage in pre-game planning and content generation, all players have a set of people with whom they are guaranteed to interact regularly, plus a good number of others with whom they have potentially dramatic relationships, including some specific reasons to interact with relationship partners.
GMs of all styles of games can explicitly instruct and/or remind players to interact with their relationship partners. Telling players what to do in game is an option to be used with care, as players may feel that this restricts their agency and opportunities for problem-solving. However, I think explicit communication about expectations is a strategy worth experimenting with in our LARP-writing communities. When is it helpful to give players explicit instructions about how their characters should interact? When is it simply annoying and intrusive?
A common pitfall of relationship plots is when characters (and, therefore, players) do not care equally about the relationship. For example, Pat is madly in love with Sam, who has romance plots with three characters: their current spouse, with whom they have a strong friendship, the long-lost love of their life who has just come to town, and Pat, with whom Sam has been casually flirting. For another example, Robin’s main focus in game is controlling the life of their child, Taylor, but Taylor resents the interference and does not need support or permission from Robin in order to get things done. In these examples, unless the players deliberately prioritize the relationships more than their character sheets suggest, Sam and Taylor are unlikely to engage much with Pat and Robin, leaving Pat and Robin’s players feeling frustrated and neglected.
It is good for a character to have multiple important relationships, as long as these relationships do not directly compete with each other for emotional primacy, attention, and interaction time. The most common example of such conflict is when characters have multiple romance plots. Polyamory and love triangles where a character has to choose between two suitors are perfectly viable plot structures if all the participants know what to expect. However, beyond two or three romance plots, it becomes difficult for a player to share satisfying play with all their partners—unless the aim is simply flirting or sleeping around with little depth to the relationships. In addition, when characters have multiple romantic relationships, mismatch of priorities is likely: if Sam and Pat each have three romance plots, but Pat cares most about Sam while Sam prefers their other suitors to Pat, Pat’s player may still end up disappointed, despite having other partners to play with.
Another common pitfall is to give the characters unequal amounts of time and opportunity to engage with each other. For example, Frey and Luz are long-lost lovers. Frey is a political leader and will have to spend a lot of time in the political committee plot, which meets in a closed room. Luz is not a politician, and their other plots are not very time-consuming. In this case, although both characters want to interact, Frey is unlikely to be free to do so as much as they would like, and Luz will probably spend a lot of time waiting. One way to mitigate this problem would be to give Luz a different time-consuming plot to focus on; probably the relationship plot will be underplayed, but there will be less risk of hurt feelings. A better solution would be to put both Frey and Luz in the same political plot; the characters are forced to spend time together in public, though opportunities for private interactions may still be few. This situation can also generate a conflict for the romance plot (we’re in love, but must pursue opposing political agendas and keep our feelings secret from our teammates). Better still would be to structure the political plot so that it doesn’t consume all the characters’ available time, for example, by mandating specific times for committee meetings and breaks.
It is not impossible for characters with demands on their time to successfully be involved in relationship plots, but GMs should be aware of the risks and take extra care to mitigate them. GMs should think twice before giving relationship plots to characters such as bodyguards (who may be constrained to stick with their employers), journalists (if they are producing an in-game newspaper), politicians, team leaders, and characters likely to spend a lot of time on mechanics or out-of-game-space quests.
GMs use various methods to let players know what sort of play is intended, ranging from using the narrative of the character sheet to implicitly convey information, to explicit descriptions of character traits, goals or (in scene-based games) scenes to play out. In some games, character sheets explicitly describe the dynamic between two characters, although it is more common for a sheet to describe one character’s feelings or behavior towards others and leave the dynamics to be inferred. One powerful strategy I have not often seen used is to explicitly tell players “these are the characters whose relationship with you should be a primary source of play for you and for them; make sure you interact with them regularly.”
GMs can support relationship play by making relationship plots a priority in their casting decisions, attending to them as much as to other aspects of game.
The first step is to obtain relevant information that will help them make these decisions. It is common practice in many LARPing communities for GMs to gather information about players’ play preferences via a casting questionnaire. These often include questions about players’ preferences concerning romance and/or other types of relationship plot. Some also ask whether there are specific players a player wishes to play with or avoid, although this sort of question is of limited utility where players do not usually know in advance who will be playing the game, and may not know many of the other players. Questionnaire space permitting, GMs can also ask players what type of relationship play they are interested in and how much priority they will give to relationships. GMs can ask about play style and skills, what players are good at and where they need support to get to the kind of play they desire. Specific questions like these will help players understand the range of possibilities and articulate their own preferences.
GMs can follow up individually with self-identified novices, as well as people who don’t give useful information on their casting questionnaires. One-on-one conversations about these players’ needs and interests can be an opportunity for the GM to help players understand what game may be like and what the options mean, and to give them an opportunity to ask questions. More generally, GMs can contact individual players with targeted requests for additional information, avoiding spoilers for low-transparency games. For example, a GM could ask, “I am considering casting you as a character whose angsty families are a central plot, so you’d need to spend a lot of your time and energy on that. Does that sound like fun?”
With relevant information about players’ skills and preferences, GMs can use the three design principles to guide their casting decisions.
Fitting players to characters in a game is a complex optimization puzzle for which, usually, no perfect solution exists. GMs often end up having to give a player a character that fits them well in some respects, but includes some aspects the player is indifferent about or actively doesn’t want.
When GMs consider relationship plots to be of secondary importance, they may compromise by casting a player in a relationship they don’t want because they’re a good fit for a character in other ways. In this situation, the player is likely to de-prioritize the relationship or play it poorly. This will negatively impact the experience of their relationship partners, especially if they requested this type of plot and were looking forward to it. Therefore, when making casting decisions, GMs should consider the effects on all the players potentially involved in a relationship.
Even when players have compatible expectations, they can run into difficulties creating the kind of relationship play they want to have. If GMs have the relevant information, they can cast players with compatible or complementary relationship play skills. For example, one player’s questionnaire may say that they really want to play a romance plot but don’t have much experience, or are shy about taking the initiative, or don’t know any of the other players. The GMs can support this player by casting them opposite a player who has a lot of experience with relationship plots, knows how to take the initiative, or is good at encouraging novice players. As an additional step, the GMs could explicitly tell the experienced partner, “We’ve paired you with someone who’s new to love plots but really wants to give it a try, so you may need to take more initiative than usual.”
GMs can also attend to players’ relationship play strengths and weaknesses when matching players to characters. For example, for a relationship where Taylor is supposed to be constantly flirting, Quinn is jealous, and they are always fighting about it, the desired dynamic is more likely to come out in play if Taylor’s player is good at proactive flirting and Quinn’s character is good at initiating confrontations. And make sure to cast two characters who are each secretly pining and waiting for the other to make the first move, with players who are good at steering reluctant characters into dramatic interactions.
To encourage player trust and minimize the chance of frustration, GMs should find out how much priority players are likely to place on the relationship, in terms of both time devoted to the plot and emotional investment in the plot, and cast players of similar levels together.
It is always disappointing when one player puts time, energy, and emotional investment into a plot, only to have it fizzle because the other players involved didn’t make it a priority. The risk of hurt feelings is particularly high for relationship plots, because engaging with them means making oneself emotionally vulnerable, which makes it particularly difficult to completely separate character feelings from player feelings. When someone decides not to bother playing a relationship plot with you, it’s easy to feel like it’s a personal rejection, even if you know intellectually that it isn’t.
On the other hand, when all the players in a relationship plot are highly invested in a relationship plot, and they know it, trust can be established that allows for intense, courageous, dramatic emotional play. Relationship play is at its best when players trust that their partners want to spend time playing with them, are emotionally invested in the relationship plot, are willing to make themselves vulnerable, and are on the same wavelength about what kind of play is fun.
Some high-transparency games include a pre-game planning phase, in which a lot of the content-generation happens through player-to-player negotiation and collaboration. Traditionally, this phase does not exist, or is used only minimally, in low-transparency games. However, I think there are ways we could use it a little more while still being sensitive to potential spoilers.
In this planning phase, the GM hands over most of the responsibility for content creation to the players. Thus, the forms of support GMs can offer players are largely in realm of structuring the social environment to help players find compatible partners for relationship play, facilitate productive player collaboration and foster equitable access to this content-creation process. GMs can also use their big-picture knowledge of the game’s content and structure, along with key design principles, to help players set up the kind of relationship play they want and think about how to support other players’ play.
Whatever the type of game, GMs should set clearly communicate with players during publicity and recruitment what the expectations are for pre-game content creation. It is also helpful to reiterate expectations to players after they are cast, so that they know how to make the most of the pre-game planning phrase. This is particularly important as players from high-negotiation and low-negotiation traditions mingle, bringing their differing assumptions and expectations into game. GMs should be honest with themselves and explicit with the players about what pre-planning and content-generation responsibilities will fall to the players, and what the logistical requirements are to fulfill these responsibilities. Will all the pre-planning among players take place on-site in pre-game workshops? Will players be expected to contact each other in the days, weeks, or months before game to plan content? If so, will they be expected to do so primarily over Facebook, email, or some other medium? How much time should they expect to devote to pre-game content planning? What supports will GMs provide to players who have difficulty with the logistical or social aspects of content planning? For games with an emphasis on player-generated content and active social media pre-planning communities, GMs do players a disservice when they reassure them that participation in these communities is optional and everyone will have a chance to participate in the necessary planning during the on-site workshops. Conversely, if players are expected to restrict their pre-planning to the structured on-site workshops, they need to know that their content-generation options will be limited.
In the pre-game planning phase itself, GMs should try to identify individual players’ needs and offer extra support to those who need it. Players experienced at player-content-driven games may need little or no support, but most will benefit from some support structures, while some may need additional help to plan for satisfying relationship play. GMs can use pre-game surveys or other information-gathering methods to establish what sort of support players need, and then proactively offer support to individuals based on this self-report. For example, some players may need help connecting with like-minded potential partners, because they are strangers to the community, or are shy about initiating online negotiations. Others may need help figuring out how to create a relationship that will lead to satisfying play, once they have a partner. Others may not be able to participate in the group planning forums, either because they don’t have access to the right social media platforms or because they don’t have the time to engage in extensive pre-game planning. Different needs require different forms of support, so it is a good idea to use multiple strategies, in order to help as many players as possible.
Some support strategies will require extra work from GMs. Indeed, many games that emphasize content creation by players have “character coaches” on staff, whose job is to assist individual players with character planning. However large the staff, its capacity is always finite. Therefore, while it is important to offer players support, it is also important for both players and staff to understand that there are limits to that support. One way GMs can communicate this idea is to decide beforehand what kinds of support for pre-game planning they will be able to offer, and present this as a bullet list to players, asking them to indicate which forms of support they need and how strongly.
There are many ways for GMs to actively support player negotiations about pre-written character relationships. They can encourage players to contact those with whom they have pre-written character relationships, by explicitly instructing them to do so as part of their pre-game preparation. GMs can give written and verbal guidelines about norms and strategies for pre-planning (for example, “ask players about their feelings on spoilers before you start a discussion” or “talk about how you can give your characters reasons to seek each other out in-game”). They can facilitate planning conversations by giving partnered players each other’s email addresses or other contact information (though they should obtain players’ permission to do so). They can help players who are having trouble reaching each other. They can give partners written prompts they can use as starting points, or advise individual players who are unsure how to proceed. GMs can also help players negotiate about the level of transparency to use during pre-planning, so that players don’t accidentally give unwelcome spoilers to those who prefer to learn character secrets during play.
It is also important to support player creation of new character relationships, and to reduce inequities in access to play opportunities that can result from free-form planning. For games with pre-game planning phases, GMs often set up some online social structure that players can use to contact each other, typically one or more Facebook groups. Often pre-written teams (school houses, political factions, spaceship crews, etc.) will have their own groups. However, in my experience, these online forums tend to leave it as the responsibility of each individual player to initiate or find connections for themselves. Furthermore, not all players have equal access to any given social media platform, and some lack either the time or the social ability to keep up with a high-bandwidth, free-for-all planning community. Thus, in practice, these online planning structures are useful for only part of the player population, and if they are the only method of pre-game planning used, can lead to disparities in how well individual players are integrated into game.
Some games have a dedicated group for players looking to form relationships, where players can post introductions to their characters and state what they are looking for in relationships with other characters. This is a good addition to a game’s pre-planning support structures, especially if the group’s existence is well-publicized, along with advice for how to successfully participate in it. To take this idea a step further, GMs (or character coaches) could survey players after they have received their characters, to identify those interested in forming extra relationships, and those who want help in doing so. They could then match up these players in pairs or small groups according to character compatibility and player needs and interests. Or GMs could introduce these players to each other as a group and scaffold their efforts to form partnerships, for example, by sending out a list of character descriptions rather than leaving it to the players to make individual posts.
For players who need help with plot generation rather than with networking, GMs could offer a list of tips or prompts (for example, “give your characters a problem to solve together” or “two characters are attracted to each other but one has trust issues and the other has a secret they are afraid to reveal”). Or a GM/character coach could sit in on the players’ planning conversations to offer suggestions if they get stuck (for example, “that sounds like a cool relationship dynamic, but it might be easier to find reasons to interact if there’s something each character wants from the other one”). GMs can use the key design principles to guide these discussions with players, especially those who do not have much game design experience to draw on and may not understand how to set up a relationship plot that will encourage interesting character interactions (rather than simply sounding good on paper).
In games with a heavy player-content-generation focus, pre-game workshops can be used to help players form and plan character relationships. Devoting ample workshop time to this purpose is particularly important for the support of players who do not have time to devote to planning before they arrive on site, or who are better able to negotiate in person than online. If events are running behind schedule, these workshops may end up taking second place to can’t-skip workshop topics such as safety. However, if this happens, GMs need to be aware of the impact it will have on play, and consider whether there is anything they can do to compensate. GMs can also make sure to manage time within workshops so that every group or relationship pair gets similar amounts of time (a common failure mode is that the people who go first take too long, at the expense of the people who go last).Many games devote workshop time to planning with “core groups” such as primary social group, school house or training team. However, it is also important to set aside dedicated time for players to connect with their personal-relationship partners who do not belong to their “core group.”
As in online pre-planning, GMs could offer an optional “find new relationships” workshop. This could include structures to help players match up, for example, a ‘speed dating’ format, sorting players according to the type of play they’re interested in, prompt cards giving relationship ideas that players can select and then pair up with whoever has the matching card, or introductions by GMs based on their knowledge of characters and of the players’ needs.
Workshops have their limitations, and do not work equally well for all players. GMs should be prepared to offer extra support to players who struggle. For example, GMs can help players find compatible relationship partners, rather than leaving players to find each other by random combination in the moment. GMs can suggest ideas for players who have trouble making up details about relationships on the spot. They can prompt players to discuss the kind of play they want to have together and to give themselves reasons to interact.
Finally, GMs can set up a system for checking in with players after the workshops and before game, to identify those who are feeling isolated or unsatisfied with the outcome of their relationship workshops. It is probably best to delegate this responsibility to a particular staff member, rather than have the primary GMs do it during the bustle of last-minute preparation. At this point in time, there may be little that can be done to mitigate players’ difficulties, but staff can at least note the problem and plan to keep an eye on those players during game, and perhaps offer advice for players as they start game.
Online pre-planning and pre-game workshops also serve to generally foster trust and fellowship among players before game starts. Players have opportunities to meet each other as individuals and begin to form a sense of community. I suspect that this helps them go into game with a higher level of trust and goodwill towards each other than if their first contact was at the beginning of game. In games that do not include a pre-planning component, this sense of community and player trust comes largely from existing relationships between individual players, from players’ membership in the organization running the game, and, for games that run at cons, the community feeling generated by the larger event.
Trust and goodwill are a necessary foundation for satisfying relationship play. It is possible to have wonderful relationship play with a total stranger; indeed, most of my own best in-game relationship experiences have been with strangers (including meeting my future spouse). However, it can also be easier to take emotional risks and engage deeply in relationship play with a player one knows, even if only to the extent of “I’ve played with you before and it didn’t suck.”
Pre-game workshops are not appropriate for all games. However, perhaps the workshop tradition could inspire our LARP communities to explore related pre-game strategies for explicitly helping players get to know each other and feel part of a community. This need not involve discussion of in-game information, if the game is a low-transparency one. It could be valuable to do something as simple as setting aside an extra half hour before game for a structured gathering in which players introduce themselves by real-life name might help newcomers feel part of the group and foster a feeling that “we’re all in this together.”
GMs’ ability to assist relationship play during run-time is limited, because they need to leave play to the players as much as possible, and because many problems cannot be fixed. There is little GMs can do to help if players are not interested in the relationship plot, have incompatible priorities or play styles, or have poor chemistry with each other. However, GMs may be able to assist players who are unsure what sort of play their partners are expecting or how to steer their characters towards satisfying interactions. For example, they can nudge relationship partners to interact with each other, suggest ways to initiate more dramatic or meaningful interactions, or help a player whose relationships have fizzled find other characters to engage with.
During run-time, GMs can look out for players who are isolated or having trouble with relationship play. For large games, it is a good idea to have staff member(s) whose specific responsibility it is to support players who are struggling. However, GMs should use caution about breaking the flow of play to ask players if they need help; many players find this jarring, especially in the traditional type of low-transparency where the norm is for the flow to be interrupted as little as possible, with meta-talk kept to a minimum. In games that have them, NPCs can be used as a somewhat less jarring way to deliver this sort of support to players; for example, the NPC can give in-character advice or prompts to serve as an excuse for a player-character to take action. If the game has built-in structures that support steering, such as the “green drink,” GMs can help players use these opportunities to foster the interactions they want their characters to have.
In some high-transparency games, it is the norm for players to negotiate about play during run-time; this norm makes it less disruptive for players to seek GM aid, as well. As in the pre-game planning phase, GMs can actively help players negotiate their way to more satisfying relationship play. The longer a game is, the more time is available for negotiation and course-correction, as well as for relationships to evolve through emergent play. Some multi-day, high-negotiation games even offer explicit mid-game planning times. For example, Just A Little Lovin’ (Grasmo & Edland, 2018) is structured in three acts, with substantial between-acts breaks in which players have the opportunity to negotiate with each other about the sort of play they’re looking for in the upcoming act. In particular, players can decide that their character has moved on from their core social group and joined a new one. It is also an opportunity to create new plot arcs if old ones have been resolved, to course-correct if players are not having fun, and to negotiate with relationship partners. It is somewhat more difficult for players to find new relationship partners in this context, however, because the activities are structured by pre-existing groups (indeed, it can be hard to find time to negotiate with existing relationship partners who belong to different groups). Additionally, dedicated negotiation time does not, by itself, make it easy for players to have difficult conversations, or to identify and negotiate with others who might be interested in forming new character relationships.
As well as making themselves available to players who seek help during run-time planning sessions, GMs can sit in on the players’ discussions, identifying and supporting those who need help negotiating their way to more satisfying relationship play. They can facilitate negotiations when players are upset, uncomfortable, or shy, or offer suggestions if players cannot come up with a mutually agreeable compromise. If a player needs new relationship partners, GMs can identify players who are likely to be interested in taking on the new relationship and willing and able to put in the extra work to make it flourish on the fly.
In some high-transparency games that rely heavily on player generation of content, one strategy GMs use to help players who are not having a good time is to create new plots or relationships in mid-game, or even to let players take on a whole new character. In my own experience, I find this strategy is of limited utility when the player’s problem is specifically a lack of meaningful relationship play. There are two inherent difficulties. First, in order to provide the player with new relationships, GMs must find other players interested in engaging in extra relationship play. Second, a relationship formed part-way through game will lack the emotional foundation of a pre-written or pre-planned relationship, and the emotional detail that builds up through emergent play. The players have to start from scratch, and with little context, it may be difficult to integrate the new relationship into the characters’ existing emotional arcs. It can be easier when the characters forming a ‘new’ relationship have already interacted in-game, so that players can build on that foundation. For example, players could decide that their characters’ previous venting-about-their-exes conversation sparked both trust and romantic attraction, which the characters can now follow up on as the basis for their newly-created romance plot. However, it will not always be possible for GMs to find a volunteer who has already had interesting in-character interactions with the player they are trying to help.
When GMs are able to facilitate negotiation for the improvement of an existing relationship plot or the creation of a new one, they can use the three key design principles as a guide, making sure to find the characters reasons to interact, something they need from each other, something they need to do together, or a problem to resolve. In particular, if one player wants a new relationship and another has volunteered to help, it is important to give the second player’s character a strong reason to interact with the first. For example, rather than telling players “You got a message from your grandfather saying that this stranger turns out to be a long-lost cousin of your noble house,” have the grandfather’s message include an imperative to accomplish something during game: the new-found cousins must do the secret initiation ritual together, or find a spouse for the newcomer, or negotiate about how to split up the family business. If the players have agreed to start a romance plot between two characters who were previously unconnected, help them to come up with specific things they want from each other and obstacles to getting those things. For example, Jeff wants Max to introduce him to gay sex but is afraid of getting too emotionally attached, Max is looking for a long-term boyfriend and wants to find out if Jeff can be that for him, but without scaring Jeff off.
GMs can use these same strategies in long games that do not have explicit breaks for negotiation and planning, but it is logistically harder. It is even harder to help players course-correct in short games; GMs may find there is little they can do beyond helping players find ways other than relationship play to engage with game.
GMs can facilitate satisfying relationship play by attending to the three key design principles as they write relationship plots, cast players, and support players’ negotiation, planning and play with each other:
These principles will help GMs minimize the chance of misalignment between players’ expectations, those of their relationship partners, and the constraints and affordances of the parts in which they are cast.
Of course, there is only so much GMs can do to influence players’ experience, particularly once play starts. The players themselves share the responsibility for creating satisfying relationship play for themselves and each other. I hope to follow the present article with a sequel focused on how players can use these three design principles to guide and enhance relationship play.
Piancastelli, Joanna, Walmsley, Graham. Marked: A School For Heroes. 2018. Live action role play game.
Grasmo, Hanne, Edland, Tor Kjetil. Just a Little Lovin’. 2011. Live action role play game.