Romance Mechanics in Megagames

Like many people, I am isolating at home, and have a bit of time on my hands. At least one event that I was hoping to host a megagame at this year has been cancelled, and the fate of the others is uncertain. I am going to try and post a blog article every Monday on megagames, while still continuing to tinker with mechanics for future games. This weeks topic is romance mechanics in Megagames.

Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon, 25 January 1942 (all the comic images here are from a Titan Books reprint “The Fall of Ming”, published in 2013)

The word romance is a bit loaded, so I plan to unpack what I mean by it first, before addressing the topics of safety and mechanical implementation. In Middle English, romance originally denoting a composition in the vernacular as opposed to works in Latin. Early use denoted vernacular verse on the theme of chivalry; the sense “genre centered on romantic love” dates from the mid 17th century. While a lot of current use focuses on the sentiment of love, I am also interested in its use to indicate a literary genre, perhaps most famously with the Arthurian romances.

Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon, 1 February 1942

I choose the Romance of the Seven Worlds name for one of my current megagame design projects for two reasons. One was to indicate an interest in the Planetary Romance sub-genre of science fiction, also sometimes called Sword and Planet for tales where the heroes end up on worlds without modern technology. In these stories, the bulk of the action consists of adventures on one or more exotic alien planets, characterized by distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds. It is the planetside adventures which are the focus of the story, not the mode of travel. The other reason for using the romance world was to indicate that the game would include a specific type of action that occurs in these works – romance between the characters.

Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon, 1 February 1942

I have only had one game in the past where romance was a factor. I ran a fantasy medieval civil war in the early 1990s, in which alliances required marriages between characters. This was a mechanic I took from the board game Blood Royale (Games Workshop, 1987). My recollection is that it worked well enough on the night. The reason my attention has returned to the topic is because I want play in a planetary romance game to emulate the genre that inspired the game. You can see an example of this with the accompanying pictures of a few panels out of Flash Gordon from 1942.

Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon, 1 February 1942

Romance of the Seven Worlds draws on the Sunday newspaper comic strips of the 1930s and 1940s. These comic strips only had a few panels to tell a chunk of a continuing story, rather than just getting to a gag or punchline. So even with a lot of expository text on the panels, it had to develop the story quickly.

Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon, 1 February 1942

These example panels show how characters react to the heroes from Earth – there is an instant strong attraction to, or dislike of the hero. This often disrupts the existing status quo that existed before the meddling Earthlings turned up – witness Prince Brazor’s rapid demotion to Captain Brazor, or Emperor Ming’s sorting of the meddling Earthlings into the categories of Marry, Enslave, or Execute. From this initial reaction follows a willingness to act to restore the status quo, exploit the disruption to gain advantage, or scenes where characters in a love triangle try and resolve who ends up with whom. No skipping straight to the happy ending in a good story!

In the original film serial adaptation of the comics, Doctor Zharkov, was the character everyone else wanted to recruit – he was a man of science! This was a rare thing on Mongo, as everyone seemed to have a laboratory full of Tesla coils, but very little in the way of scientists or lab assistants. If you are more familiar with the 1980 movie adaptation, think about how Princess Aura reacted to Flash. Traditional strategy games are really good at reproducing logical actions, especially when it comes to personal survival. How good are they at creating the kind of action Spock might call irrational? Why does Aura fall for Flash, saving him from execution, when it means angering her father (Emperor Ming) and making her lover Prince Barin jealous? It is bad strategy, but good story.

Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) and Princess Aura (Ornella Muti)

So the design goal is a mechanic that can emulate the genre. Here are a few different ways I could achieve this.

Safety First

First, I think its a good idea to put in place some of the safety tools used in tabletop roleplaying games or the various LARP scenes. The LARP guides are likely to be more useful for megagames, due to the number of players involved and the rules having to work without control/GM being present for all interactions. No one should end up in a place where they feel uncomfortable about the romance element in a megagame. My current thoughts on what you need to do at a bare minimum is:

  1. Make the romance element of the megagame one that requires players to opt in during the signup for the game. This may require some key characters to be flagged as requiring a romance opt in (e.g. an Imperial prince or princess with no formal role in the imperial government).
  2. The romance opt in is signaled with an obvious heart symbol on the name tag players wear in the game – no heart, no romance.
  3. Player and control briefings for the game need a specific section covering how romance will be handled in the game. There should be a policy and process for dealing with harassment. Everyone should be playing with the same set of expectations.
  4. Nothing happens in the game until two players with the heart symbol interact with a short conversation, and at least one player asks for romance roleplay. Consent is a continuing requirement.
  5. If anyone wants the romance roleplay to stop, it stops. Everyone needs to understand how to signal this in the game and how to pick up play of the game again after the interrupted scene.
  6. At least one member of the Control team should be a point of contact for people on any issues arising from romance play.
  7. There should also be clear opt-out spaces, where no romance is to take place, e.g. bathrooms, sacred spaces, or dining areas.

I will repeat that this is a bare minimum. I would do a lot more research on sources similar to those linked above before writing the briefs for a romantic focused megagame. If you know of a good resource I should examine, please leave a comment so that I and other readers can follow it up.

Now to get into three different options for implementing romance in different megagames.

Keep it in the Brief

Based on the game design principle of keep it simple, include all the essential elements of the romance plots in the character briefings, and let the players take it from there. Each character that is part of a romance plot needs one or more love triangles to be involved in, and some in game barriers that prevent happy resolution in the first turn. This puts romance in the game, but in a moderately predictable manner, rather than one that facilitates emergent play. A more open approach would be to tell players that they have a goal of romantic liaisons, and to specify a minimum number of such liaisons to ensure something resembling the hilarity of your favorite romantic comedy.

Empress of the Hour

This is a simple approach for games with a focus on trading and resources. The key rule is that all diplomatic deals between different factions require a marriage alliance between two people, and that each marriage alliance lasts an hour. If betrayal on trade deals is normally easy, but marriage alliances can be trusted while they last, the players have a strong incentive for some romance.

A similar option to encourage romance is to have a specific reward. This could be a resource currency in the game, or a “True Love” special action card.

Beyond the Hookup – changing goals

The idea here, is that romance leads to players creating new goals for players to pursue, which will take the emerging play into unanticipated directions.

After spending a minute interacting for the first time, two romance aspiring players interact with Control to draw a card from a playing deck consisting of just Aces, Jokers, and Royals.

  1. If they both draw spades, then their characters have taken an instant, intense dislike to each other. You now have a new goal of trying to make life unpleasant for your new rival.
  2. If they both draw hearts, they are instantly boon companions. You now have a new goal of being helpful to your new friend.
  3. If both draw the same card, they are experiencing “true love” (even if spades, diamonds, or clubs). I have five versions of this true love, tailored for Romance of the Seven Worlds:
  • Spades: forbidden love. No one must discover our secret love!
  • Clubs: open love, militaristic. We will overthrow the evil emperor and rule the galaxy together!
  • Diamonds: open love, chivalric. We shall rule our realm together with great justice!
  • Hearts: open love, freedom. We will overthrow the evil empire together!
  • Jokers: besotted/mad love (only death or external force can part you – players to remain within 2m of each other as much as possible for the rest of the game).

As well as changing personal objectives, a player can choose to change factions to join the faction of any of their boon companions. This need not mean a current faction is abandoned.

Unrequited love – if you have a true love match but they will not set aside their current paramour, or they take a new love in their life, then you can choose to add a goal of destroying your rival!

When a match occurs, the cards are removed from the deck and given to the players. As the deck gets smaller, the chance of a match increases, but the number of players seeking matches will probably decrease as the game goes on.

So what we have is a mechanic that acts to change your goals during the game, and potentially changes your team/faction. Why is it random – I am trying to imitate the randomness of cupid’s arrow, creating a surprise for players. Two main objections I can see to implementation, the first is it is a relatively complex mechanic. The second is the true love outcomes might not be what players actually want.

Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon, 1 February 1942

Reconciliation

The romance rules should not act as a straitjacket for the rest of the game. For players who find they have become rivals, if they are not enjoying this fact, then in the romance genre there are obvious routes for reconciliation through honorable dueling, or facing mutual enemies and shared dangers. In much the same way that a pulp hero can escape from a death trap, there should be an in-game way of exiting a romantic relationship.

Next Week – Assassination in Megagames

Next week I will post a few thoughts about assassins in megagames. If there is a specific topic you would like me to explore in a future Megagame Monday blog post, please leave a comment. I will keep trying to do a weekly post as long as I can keep finding inspiration.

3 Responses to Romance Mechanics in Megagames

  1. Your “beyond the hookup” mechanic is used in various weekend-long UK larps (e.g. “Tombstone” or “Troy”), though they often give players a special romance ability that is given to their partner. Which is both an incentive and a wya of mixing things up in the game.

    • texarkana23 says:

      Interesting. So you would know what the ability was that your partner would get? I quite liked some of the action cards in Den of Wolves which were along the lines of breaking ties in your favour. Not overpowered, but useful at the right moment.

  2. Yes. There’s a series of articles on the topic here: http://uk-freeforms.wikidot.com/romance

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