When I ask you to describe romance, what comes to mind? Roses, beach walks at sunset, and candlelight dinners, perhaps?
Why, therefore, is romance in TTRPGs reduced to the age-old stereotype of a hypersexual bard or tavern hookup with some hurriedly named NPC who fades to black?
I've played enough games and asked enough GMs for a romance arc to know that this is exactly what you'll get. To be honest, as an Ace, I'm not at all interested in the fade to black aspect. I want the desire, the wanting, the flutter of falling in love, but it always has to come down to sex for some reason.
Asexuality is part of the A of LGBTQIA+, it does not mean Ally. Ace is a wonderful umbrella that includes all sorts of attractions or lack thereof. Ace people are as varied and diverse as the rainbow we belong in - for clarity and ease today we will be talking about my brand of Ace - the lack of sexual attraction.
As someone who has never been sexually attracted in their entire existence. I'm perplexed by the idea of seeing someone and wanting to have them in bed with you or being aroused by them. That is not to say I don't see someone and think "wow, that is an attractive person" - I am Ace, I am not blind - but that is where the thought ends, nothing else happens, and as I go about my day, that attractive person has been forgotten as quickly as I looked away.
But there's one thing: I'm a total sucker for romance, and romantic gestures. On our first date, my now 10-year partner took me to coffee, then bought us both milkshakes because I don't like the lying bean juice, cooked me dinner, and gave me a pair of Mass Effect renegade and paragon earrings. I was completely swept off my feet.
And in the above sentence, I have described four different love languages that can be used in the TTRPG experience.
There are various ways to express and experience a heartfelt commitment to someone you care about. That first date was filled with affirmations, such as my partner not making me feel silly for preferring a milkshake to coffee. Cooking me a meal is an act of service. Gift-giving with those earrings, and overall, there was quality time spent in intellectually stimulating conversation.
There are five in total, according to Gary Chapman, the writer of “The Five Love Languages”.
So, what has this got to do with TTRPGs and storytelling? I've listened to a lot of podcasts and watched a lot of shows, and there have been great storey arcs of defeating evil, saving the world, and experiencing the strange and wonderful. Yet I’ve never witnessed a decent romance that was more than a tavern hookup come to fruition.
What would LotR be without Aragorn and Arwen, or my personal favourite - Faramir, Eowyn, and Aragorn? To be honest, LotR would be fine without them, but they added so much to all of the characters involved without detracting from the overall plot of the task at hand.
In a piece of fiction, romance is the syrup on your ice cream. It just adds a little something extra to your stories, making them a little more special and memorable. Furthermore, as a GM, you should take pleasure in yet another tool for manipulating your players.
My first piece of advice is to use love languages. As I briefly explained above, love languages are ways to express affection to someone you care about. Everyone has a favourite. Add a love language to your NPCs as you add quirks to them. Inquire about your players' love languages.
Also, be delighted when one of your players sets their sights on an NPC and decides to gift them something, only to discover that this particular NPC prefers acts of service over gifts! This not only adds depth and realism to your NPC, but it also allows the player to try to figure out what this NPC prefers, whether it's a roll or a downtime activity.
If you've decided to make this NPC asexual as well, don't make their asexuality an obstacle to overcome. While every romance storey includes an obstacle, this is one you should not include under any circumstances. Asexuality cannot be cured, it does not fade over time, and it cannot be resolved by meeting the right person.
Allow long-term NPCs to interact with your party, giving them opportunities to learn about one another and form bonds. Perhaps it's a travelling salesperson who always arrives on time with the right item, someone who works/lives close to the base of operations, or even a competitor with the same goals as your party. Repetitive meetings are not only realistic, but also reduce the chance of one-night tavern hookups and increase the chances to bond.
Battles and the experience of surviving them cause people to bond and grow closer. Anyone in the military can tell you about the special bond that develops between squadmates; I believe it is best depicted in the Mass Effect series between Commander Shepard and Garrus. Putting PCs and the intended NPC through perilous situations that they barely escape creates something special between two people.
My final piece of advice is to avoid making sex your ultimate goal. We've all seen the "sex is nice, but have you -" meme. Relationships and romance are all about companionship. Someone to share your joys and sorrows with, and to have someone waiting for you at home after the world has been saved. Perhaps the person who is waiting for you is the only reason you make it back home.
Finally, have fun with it; writing romance is just as exciting as writing dragons, dungeons and elves. You just need to do more than have a lover in every bar; once you do it, you'll wonder why you ever lived without syrup on your ice cream.
About the Author
Leoni is an experienced marketing professional who worked for various London-based companies for over a decade, including positions in the gaming industry. Leoni's passion for D&D led her to begin her own tabletop group, which went on to become one of Twitch’s fastest-growing TTRPG streaming channels and is now the Producer of Into the Motherlands alongside ongoing duties as a localization and translation specialist on major releases such as the recent Destroy All Humans remake. In the few spare moments Leoni gets every day, Leoni runs a handcrafted costume jewellery business. You can find them on Twitter at @GlossandGadgets