How to Have an In-Character Relationship

by Carol Townsend and Judy Stucky

When looking at all the various characters we've had in all the different role-playing games we've done, we've come across some characters that are virtually social hermits as well as those characters which just cry out for interpersonal relationships. Usually you can tell what sort of character you have within a few weeks of playing her, but not always. And as any true gamer knows, you just have to let the character do what the character needs to do.

We come at this from a "role-player's point of view;" that is, we prefer to role-play, not just roll dice and play. We like to delve into a character's psyche, often journaling a game session from that character's angle, or spending an inordinate amount of time just talking in character. Not adventuring, not accomplishing anything that is of use to the party. Just talking.

Type of Relationships

Before we get too far into the "how to" part, let's first define some different relationships and how they affect the gaming character. Each of these relationships would, of course, be approached and played out in different ways, depending on the situation at hand.

  • Acquaintances
    • This includes anyone your character would nod hello to, but she may not be sure of the other person's name.
    • Your character probably wouldn't miss these people if they weren't around.
    • Acquaintances could be people like a shop owner or mailman, stable boy or bar wench, starship ensign or security guard.

  • Working Relationships
    • These are people your character sees on a regular basis and whose names she probably knows… most of the time. However, more information about the other character (family, hobbies, etc) would not be known.
    • She might miss these people if they weren't around, but only if their absence affected her work somehow.
    • An adventuring party may be made up of characters in a working relationship, especially if most of those characters are NPCs.

  • Family Interactions
    • Mom, Pop, baby sister Rose, Uncle Schlomo, etc. These are people who are related to you either by blood, marriage, or some "family understood" way (like the way your Mom's boyfriend is your "uncle" for a while).
    • Your character would definitely miss these people if they weren't around… IF they were around her on a regular basis in the first place.
    • The "far flung relations" can be good fodder for plot hooks. A GM can often find ways to guilt players into rescue missions based on familial obligations.

  • Basic Friendships
    • This is the meat and bread of most gaming groups, either as players or characters.
    • You miss these people if you don't see them on a regular basis.
    • These are the people that help define who your character is; her enemies define her further.

  • Buddies
    • There are many types of 'buddy' relationships: Hope-and-Crosby, Kirk-and-Spock, Gilligan-and-Skipper, Scooby-and-Shaggy, etc.
    • When you see one of the pair, you invariably see the other.
    • Your character may not miss the pair if they're gone, but if one person of the pair is missing, she'll notice it.
    • If your character is in a buddy relationship like this, it is a defining part of her sense of self.

  • Platonic (courtly love) Relationships
    • The romantic relationship is idealized, but there is no physical relationship involved.
    • Often seen in medieval or renaissance knight/lady interaction.
    • These pairings can be long term or quite fluid, and often occurring between those who are not married.
    • The definite connection between the two in the courtly relationship is apparent to all, and would be missed if one of the pair were gone.
    • This is a standard plot hook for many GMs from which to start adventures.

  • "Hot 'n Heavy" Short Term Physical Relationships
    • Sex is the key to this relationship; in fact, it's about the only thing in this relationship.
    • Very transitory in nature.
    • Can be for procreation or recreation, depending on the character's needs and motivations.
    • Your character probably wouldn't miss the other person in this fling if they were gone; she'd probably just find another if she wanted.

  • Committed and Stable Partnerings
    • Marriage or other codified partnering.
    • Absolute hole left in your character's life if her partner goes missing.
    • Stability of the relationship is the key and is a defining part of your character.

Establishing the Relationship

Now, how does one go about having a character-to-character relationship? First, define what your character needs. Does she want a life-partner or just a buddy? Is this a short-term thing, or are you in it for the long haul? Is it planned or does it just hit her between the eyes? For the sake of this article, we will assume that the character is interested in something more than just friendship. Most people, gamers included, can handle simple friendships. This article will focus on the more difficult, deeper, sometimes long term, relationships.

Ground Rules

The most important thing to remember when dealing with an in-game relationship is that it is your character having the relationship, not you. Everyone involved needs to understand this fact; you, your life partner, the other character's player, all other players in the game, the GM…everyone. Forget this and you will probably experience more pain that you were planning on.

After this has been established, you need to set up some basic ground rules for your interactions during the game. What are you and the other player comfortable with? What is the rest of the group expecting? Where are the limits to be set? It is best to establish this up front, or at least in the early part of the relationship, before misunderstandings can occur.

An important part of the relationship will also be determined by who is in the relationship. Is it a player character (PC) marrying another PC? You may need to tread carefully, as the repercussions to the party could be enormous. What do you do as a party if there's a falling out between the two lovers? What if one of them strays while out adventuring? How would you react if you saw one of them doing something you knew their partner wouldn't like? Who do you talk to first?

In PC-to-PC interactions, you need to take a bit of time to flesh the relationship out. Most often, this will be out of game time, when no one else is around, allowing the two of you to find the equilibrium that you want to bring to the game as a couple. There will always be some good chances for in game interactions later, but find your footing first, then have fun henpecking him in character later.

Is your character falling for that hunky NPC (non-player character) that will be around for only a while? How do you convince the GM to keep him around? What if you fall for that camp follower, the "army's favorite girl," who has decided to make an honest woman of herself? What if there's an arranged marriage waiting for you at home and you've gone and taken your vows elsewhere?

In PC-to-NPC interactions, you can often quickly establish the type of relationship in game, and then fill in the blanks later. This is best done as a one-on-one game session with your GM, apart from the rest of the party. This way, you'll have plenty of time to see where the characters are going and not bore the party who wants to go hack-n-slash another dungeon.

Nurturing the Relationship

Next, you should find some time to interact as characters one-on-one. Some game groups have no problem allowing this non-adventuring time during the game session; others prefer it to occur on another day. However, it is important to get some time when your two characters can establish their relationship, define its parameters, and decide how to continue to interact with the rest of the party. If after the establishment of the relationship your characters determine that one-on-one time is important to them, then by all means, continue this interaction time. Be careful though of possible misunderstandings that could occur. If you have established with all important parties that it is your characters who are interacting, then misunderstandings will be minimal.

It needs to be said that when your two characters have this sort of one-on-one time, spend that time in character. Let your character's thoughts and emotions flow, not yours. Listen with your character's ears. Feel with your character's heart. Weigh things based on your character's past. Remember your character is the one who is important here; spend this time not only developing the relationship but also developing your character. The more you can get into your character's head, the more you will enjoy the relationship in the short run, and the entire gaming experience in the long run.

The great thing about gaming is that it doesn't have to occur face-to-face all the time. You can game over the phone, by email, by snail mail (imagine getting a card or letter addressed to your character!) or other inventive ways. You can also spend time journaling or writing a diary from your character's point of view, and then have your character's partner player read it. However you get to spend time in character interacting with the other character is time spent nurturing that relationship.

Dissolving the Relationship

When things go bad for your characters' relationships, you sometimes have to face the reality of separation or divorce. As in the real world, things can be handled in a variety of ways. It is easiest to let a relationship go if it is a PC to NPC relationship. The GM simply puts the NPC into the "used" pile and goes on. The PC then needs to deal with their own feelings about the relationship in the way that is appropriate for that character.

More difficult is the PC-to-PC interaction that goes bad. Your characters will probably continue to see one another, but won't be as involved with each other as before. Imagine what it would be like working in a small office with your ex-husband. That's the sort of thing your character is going through. While this can be fun role-playing, it can also be a bit of a strain, unless you continue to remember the central tenet of all game relationships: it's your character, not you.

The other way a relationship can end is in death. Depending on your role-playing system, this may or may not be a permanent situation. Giving your character the time to mourn may be an appropriate thing to do, and depending on your party and situation, it probably can be handled best out of game time.


A good example of a player to NPC relationship occurred in a super-hero campaign set in an alternate universe where the Nazis won World War II. Jane, our PC, is an American that works as a cop with the Nazis by day, but puts on a mask and hunts down the evil invaders at night. One day, much to her surprise, a Nazi lieutenant asks her out on a date. She accepts for the chance to get closer to any Nazi secrets through him. They go to the propaganda file, out to eat and back to her place. She turns on all her feminine wiles and gets him into bed.

Here is where things take a turn she didn't expect. Turns out this lieutenant wasn't the evil scum she thought. He was actually very naive, innocent and sweet. He was a virgin that fell madly in love with her. And over time, she fell in love with him. He helped her learn how to love again. She showed him the truth about the Reich. To make a long story short, they eventually helped bring down the evil Nazis.

This relationship was one of the "it just happened type" with a NPC. Neither the GM nor player had any idea things would happen this way. The GM introduced the NPC as an atypical character and gave the player the option of the date. The player took it, with her character's goals in mind of getting information from him and securing her position. The relationship was played out over the phone between sessions so it wouldn't bog down the game sessions. This also helps the PC involved get individual attention without neglecting the others.

In the role-playing, the player had to weigh the character's reactions to this unexpected situation and with the help of random determinators (dice) decided that her plan backfired on her – in seducing him, she also fell in love. This turned into a long-term, deep relationship, which continued to be played out between sessions.

An example of a PC-to-PC relationship comes from a fantasy game. The two players involved rolled general reaction dice when the two characters first met. They decided that the first impression was positive but not an instant knockout. Over the course of several sessions as all involved got to know and understand who their characters were, smiles were exchanged, small favors, kind words, etc. The other players noticed and there was some in character ribbing of the two, but all accepted it as in character reactions. The hard times that beset the adventuring group drew the couple closer. Eventually the relationship became physically intimate. Knowing this, the GM rolled and determined that there was a child on the way. The couple got married, bought a homestead that also served as the base for the adventuring company. The woman chose to stay at home while the others went to fight the dreadful evil. After having the children, she left them in the care of a servant and rejoined the group.

There was a lot of in and out of game role-playing of the relationship. The ups and downs, hopes and fears, and so forth of the couple were played out as time allowed to build the relationship, being careful not to make the relationship the main focus of the campaign. Often the players would quietly have these interactions when the GM was spending time on other players or as quick one liners to allow the game to flow and progress.

Final Thoughts

Relationships in the gaming world are all too often like relationships in the real world; messy, fun, causes of pain, anxiety and joy, someone's reason for getting up in the morning or going to war, all rolled into one package. They are great plot devices for a GM to play with, as they are often the basis of a major character motivation. For some people, gaming is a great way to try out things; relationships fit well within that aspect.

How do you really have an in-game relationship? We can't tell you how to ask that cute elf out on a date or how to get that hunk of a superguy to notice you. We don't know your specific game. We do know one thing: you just role-play it. You follow what your character's heart is telling you and you remember that it is 100% in game. You try out new things and succeed or fail, just like real life. Only it's not real life, it's a game. So have fun!

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