(Featured Photo by zelle duda on Unsplash.) Romance roleplay is one of the most prevalent kinds of plotline I see across all larping genres. Love it or hate it, chances are you’ve had to interact with it in some form — both in and out of character. Many of us absolutely love the highs of emotion that intense love stories can bring to a greater game — there isn’t much like the connection between true lovers and the tragedies, or the happily ever afters, that come therein. However, for as many of these plotlines as we’ve all seen, we’ve also seen it go awry. This is an area where roleplayers’ inability to set boundaries becomes extra problematic. At best, a person who lacks boundaries may end up with a passing crush on their in character lover without knowing that person out of character in the least. At worst? We’ve all seen marriages break up because one of the partners was in an unwise, unpermitted, or uncontrolled in character romance. The issues are so bad that half the people with whom I roleplay have sworn off ever doing any such plotlines, because they invite more trouble than they are worth.
However, like most challenging things, this roleplay can be done in a healthy fashion. I am, personally, someone who deeply enjoys this style of roleplay, but have spent much of my later years making certain to do it in clear cut, careful, pre-negotiated way so everyone knows what’s going on from the very start. I know I wasn’t always that way growing up and I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons over the years of how to conduct such roleplay in a healthy manner. This blog certainly isn’t the definitive set of DO THIS OR YOU WILL FAIL rules, but these are the things I’ve done which have worked for me. If you are considering approaching this type of roleplay, especially if you have little experience with it, I recommend at least going in prepared with some of these guidelines.
Are You Single? Set Boundaries for Yourself Ahead of Time: LARP IS NOT YOUR PICK UP CLUB. If you are single and going into romantic roleplay in attempts to pick up? Just don’t. Stop right there. That’s a gross abuse of the trust that people put into roleplay and it’s being the type of roleplayer that gives all of us a bad name. But, I’m going to assume you’re not doing that. Most people aren’t. You’re just single, lonely, and it’d be nice to cuddle up with someone in a game. It’s important to establish with yourself that while in game romance might be nice, it’s not a substitute for what you may or may not want off game. You also do not actually know the person with whom you are having that romance. The emotions you are feeling? They are manufactured in a fictional space.
The bleed (larp-crushes, as the kids call it these days) can be a lovely feeling, but it’s passing and you should let it pass. It’s important to remind yourself both before and after games that the romance is fictional and if you are feeling that romantic bleed, to do EXTRA debriefing to get out of the headspace. Get to know the other person out of character, non-romantically. Focus on other friends. Separate from the space and the emotions. If you find yourself unable to separate? Well, this is probably not the kind of roleplay you should be pursuing at this point in your life. Or, if you really want to get into it, pull back from the intensity of the roleplay. Maybe don’t make out at game or do anything beyond holding hands? Figure out the best line for YOURSELF and know that going into any roleplay negotiation.
Not Single? Communicate with Your Real Life Partner(s): I don’t care if you’re poly. I don’t care if you’ve done this a hundred times before. If you are entering a new gaming situation where romance is a possibility (be it a one-shot or a campaign game), and you haven’t set down clear, overarching rules in your relationship, you need to communicate with them. Tell them that you have signed up for a game where romance is a deep theme, or that you’ve been assigned a character in a committed relationship. Let them know everything you know and ask them what they are comfortable with you doing. Real life relationships ALWAYS come before roleplay and the more your partner knows, the less likely they are to feel jealous, cut out, or angry about the situation. Working with them to establish the boundaries you need to set with your roleplay relationships is essential to doing this in a healthy manner. These boundaries should AT LEAST include the following: Physical touch, in game communication, between game communications, and how emotionally deep the romance can proceed (aka: “I’m fine with you flirting with someone, but don’t get engaged to someone in character.”).
Communicate with Your In Game Partner: Once all those conversations are done and you have pre-set boundaries in your head that you are personally comfortable with for your own emotional state AND any possible OOC partners have approved, then you can approach the other person and open OOC dialogue about how to proceed. I generally start this with my name and intentions, then ask what my possible partner is comfortable doing. I never try to push my boundaries on someone first because if I’m approaching with the request of romantic roleplay, I want them to have full freedom without pressure of what I want. If they set rules that are beyond my boundaries, then I communicate the rules in which I need to play. If they do not, then I happily accept the limits that they set while always reminding them that the moment those limits change, they can always say no and there is never any obligation to continue.
If someone has approached me for romantic roleplay and I have pre-set boundaries with my partners, I will immediately establish those boundaries with them. As usual, the answer “Anything you want…” is a BAD response to consent negotiations, especially with romance. Making it clear where you need to stop, renegotiate any romantic scenes, and that you reserve the right to end the roleplay at ANY POINT IN TIME is highly important to accepting offers of romantic roleplay. If the person approaching you for it does not agree to that or seem comfortable with those terms, they are probably not someone you want to be having romantic roleplay with in the long run.
Check In After Each Game: If you don’t have the time (or want to break the scene) to check in after each encounter, make certain to MAKE TIME to check in on all levels after each game. A quick conversation out of character being certain that everyone is comfortable with what happened, that no one is bleeding too badly, and that your ooc partners are still comfortable with this relationship proceeding is a way to keep things healthy in a long term story. If you are playing in a one-shot, checking in with IC and OOC partners about OOC things is a wonderful way to help debrief an excellently intense experience.
Accept the Afterglow: There is a strange notion in North America that all bleed is bad bleed. I don’t agree, honestly. There is unhealthy bleed, but there are times that you can simply be riding a heady-high of good roleplay (often romantic for me) and that is okay! It will pass in a few days. Those larp-crushes happen and accepting them, remembering the good times, then letting them go is a perfectly respectable way of dealing with them. If I’m particularly crushing on someone, I will make an effort to get to know them out of game — not because I want to date them, but because it’s better to differentiate in my head that the person is not the character. I also have a new friend with whom I shared a deep emotional experience! But, trying to deny that feeling and forget that I such an experience happened often just bottles it up and draws it out longer.
Dating IC and OOC? Talk About It!: There’s no hard and fast rules to whether you should do romantic roleplay with your off game partner. Many people say it’s unwise in a campaign situation because if you OOC break up, the IC things become awkward at best. Also, there’s lots of discussion around larp circles about the couples that ONLY ever roleplay with each other. I spent 17 years of my roleplaying career firmly saying I’d NEVER date someone off game who I was with in game as a firm fight against bleed. Well, life changes and I learned different in this last year. Don’t let anyone shame you for roleplay you are doing in a healthy fashion. Just like above, the most important part of this kind of roleplay is communication. Make certain you both know your expectations for the game and that you have a healthy, strong relationship out of game as well. Anyone who questions it? Well, it’s not their business. And if a break up happens? Be mature enough to talk to each other about how to handle the story line and then INFORM YOUR FRIENDS so they know how to handle the roleplay. Getting the talk over like taking a bandaid off is far better than forcing everyone to linger in uncertain, non-communicative circumstances over ‘who got the game in the divorce.’
New to This? GO SLOW: If you are a newer roleplayer to romantic storylines, TAKE IT SLOW. You don’t know your boundaries yet. You don’t know what might trigger bad bleed for you. Many romance roleplayers never go beyond the occasional holding of hands in character and THAT IS PERFECTLY FINE. You can have amazingly deep story and devoted romance without anything physical EVER being present on-stage. (Sometimes, even more so, because then the story is focused on the character’s feelings, dialogue, and actions, not just making out at a game.) Talk about what sort of arc you might want and if your characters ever want to sneak off and go do something but you aren’t ready for it? That’s fine! Go take a break off game, get some fresh air, use the time to check in about your off game comfort levels and return when you are ready without ever having pushed a physical boundary, but your characters having had a lovely time! Slow, steady, and honest wins the race here, kids, I promise.
Now, the guidelines above are all nice and good in ideal circumstances. I understand that rarely do we have ideal circumstances and there’s a lot of gamers out there who have no clue how to have these conversations. I’ve also been handed characters in a relationship but an hour or two before a game, with little preparation time and no chance to talk to the other person ahead of time. The important thing here is that if YOU are the experienced roleplayer who wants to do this in a HEALTHY fashion, that you model good behavior for the less experienced around you. Introduce yourself, state intentions, and reinforce that the person can back out at any point in time. If you are pressed for time, quickly encourage the person to be honest with what they are comfortable doing. If they aren’t certain how to answer, then let them know what your boundaries are and assure them that you are going to check in before every step in the process. Then, any time you wish to progress the relationship, check in with them out of character before going forward. GIve them the chance to say no every step of the way until they’ve figured out where their own boundaries are.
And, of course, if you get into a situation that you’ve not managed to talk to your own off game partners about? Keep to pre-established boundaries or JUST DON’T DO IT. Good roleplay is not worth destroying real life, ever. We’ve all seen disasters before, don’t become another warning against romantic roleplay to the rest of the community.
Last but not least, if you’re not into this kind of roleplay? Totally fine! Just don’t damn it if people are doing it in a healthy fashion. I’ve seen this type of roleplay derided just as often for being stupid, childish, or cliche`. In truth, people seem to disdain it just because it is more typically seen as roleplay enjoyed by young women or the femme community. I’ve seen a lot of sexist hate in the direction of this style of gaming and if no one is directly hurting your game, there is no reason to shit on theirs. As long as things are healthy and communicative, let someone have their fun in whatever roleplay style sandbox they’ve chosen for themselves.
End Note on Predators: One of my Patreons (Thank you, Sharon Underberg!) rightfully pointed out that these conversations shouldn’t be had without the acknowledgment of missing stairs and predators in the community. Sadly, they are there. Even more sadly, some will use this kind of roleplay to pick up and find their next victim. This is all the more important reason for you to be honest with yourself, your partners and your friends about what is going on roleplay. Trust the people around you if they say it’s not healthy and, EVEN MORE SO, set your boundaries and KEEP them. If someone is repeatedly violating, or pushing up against your boundary and not listening to the things you are communicating to them? Get out of there. No healthy romantic roleplay should ever be pressuring or risk crossing boundaries on a routine basis. Even if someone says they respect your boundaries but isn’t doing it in practice? Actions speak louder than words. Keeping these rules for yourself and sticking to them is a good way to see early warning signs of people who don’t know, or don’t care about, healthy practices themselves.