No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
-John Donne, Meditation XVII.
Contrary to Donne, roleplayers often create characters—PC and NPC, hero and villain—who are islands. Roleplayers show an inordinate fondness for friendless orphans; people who haven’t met a soul until some adventuring group stumbles into their lives. Players see wives, children, even good friends as potential weaknesses, and therefore as something to avoid.
This is a shame. Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Self conflicts are difficult to portray in RPGs, so most game sessions focus on Man vs. Other conflicts. Relationships are the heart and soul of Man vs. Other. Conflict fuel if you will.
Add octane to your games. Ask your NPCs, “Who do you have an interesting relationship with?”
By a happy coincidence, relationships also bring a handful of other benefits to the table. One example is how they make it easy to show off the character’s personality. The way a character treats their mother or spouse speaks volumes about them. So does the way they act in the presence of their worst enemy.
As social animals, human beings are good at assessing social interactions. We can pick up on nuances that show that a superficially happy couple is having problems, or that a child is not as fond of a parent as they should be. When our instincts tell us that a relationship is not what it appears to be, the lie screams at us. We often react worse to someone that tries to put up a lovey-dovey front, but treats a loved one poorly, than we do to someone that is open about their problems.
Sometimes a relationship adds depth by contrasting with the character’s normal behaviour. A villain that happily rolls around on the floor, playing with his kids, is very different than the psychotic loner. Finding out why the superhero is a deadbeat dad in his secret identity may be much more interesting than the intergalactic adventures of PerfectMan.
Relationships also make many characters more believable. We can accept the occasional wise hermit or reclusive genius, but experience tells us that a person that goes a long time without any meaningful relationships usually has deeper problems. A heroic warrior that has a worried father or an adoring lover is more immediately acceptable to us than a charismatic loner. The story of the charismatic wanderer who finally finds the right person and settles down is even a bit of a cliche because it is a compelling tale of a transition from abnormality to, we assume, happiness.
Part 2 of this article will discuss using character relationships in play, including
- good ways of tracking complex relationships in play
- how to put pressure on a player character’s relationships without causing the player to abandon relationships as a weakness
- which relationships normally provide the most drama