So, in the last couple of sessions of my M.A/C.C game something rather unusual has happened. I've had two players ask me for a girlfriend for their characters. Now, there's nothing wrong with this, but it does amuse me that in the dark and gritty game that players are requesting significant others for their character. Is it the system encouraging it? The amusement they get out of seeing the interactions one of the other players has with the IC relationship he made happen randomly? I suppose that the why is less important in this case than the how. As in, how do I pull this off if I even can? The thinking of it, has gotten me thinking about In Character relationships in general. So, please excuse me today as I rant just a bit about the wonderful world of IC dating.
Types of IC Relationship
Now, I'm not an expert on this, but in the time I've spent gaming there are two general kinds of IC relationships. This won't surprise you either, but there are the PC/PC ones, and the PC/NPC ones. PC/PC ones are generally the easiest, especially for the GM. No special work needs to go into it, the two PCs are just dating, or at least having sex, on some sort of semi-regular basis. PC/NPC ones are generally just place settings, unless the GM works to bring them in. The PC is in a relationship with an NPC, so in down time they presumably spend time with each other and so forth.
Now, modifying both of these types of relationships is their prominence in the game. I don't really have 'levels' assigned for this, but the higher the prominence the more the relationship factors into the game. To take an example from the comic books, Peter Parker generally has high prominence relationships. They are regularly shown, and regularly a factor in the challenges he has to over come. On the other hand, and in my again limited experience, Superman and Lois Lane traditionally have a low prominence relationship. Not that lois isn't a big part of the comics, but just that the relationship has very little to do with what is going on, and the challenges that Superman is facing. Even when he has to save Lois there isn't the "oh dear god Lois is falling!" so much as just another person he needs to save. I'm also not saying the relationship isn't important to Superman. Just that the relationship itself is generally fairly low in prominence.
Game wise, the prominence of a relationship is generally determined by the type of game. hack n slash adventuring? it is probably low prominence. Courtly/Political intrigue, it is likely higher prominence. Tragedy? Very high prominence (Houses of the Blooded has an entire chapter on romance for example). Superheroes? Depends really. Teen Superheroes? again, it depends but probably higher prominence than normal super heroes (gotta love that teenage angst).
Handling the Relationship
Now that we have the types of relationships, how do you handle them? Well, first off in a PC/PC relationship, ask the PCs if they want you to do anything about it. Sometimes the PCs are just happy having that set up and sitting there and don't want it poked at. In which case, hey, your job is done. Just leave it alone and poke the PCs in the ways you were planning to before hand. If they want it poked at, then go over some things with them and see what kind of ideas or challenges they want their relationship to face. Now, technically, you don't need to do this, but I generally advocate communication over the lack thereof. Especially in this case as the PCs may want the relationship to be low prominence, and by poking at it and challenging them on it as a GM you are making it a story focus.
With PC/NPC relationships you have a rather special tool now. You have someone totally under your control, not super significant to the story (generally anyhow), that has a screw in the PC. Now, this isn't an invitation to go nuts on that one PC, but it does give you a way to get them involved, to up the drama on them. What does the NPC know about the PC? What do the PC's enemies know about this relationship? You can get a PC involved in things fairly fast by just abducting their girlfriend or wife. Above and beyond this, there are a lot of fun things you can do with a PC/NPC relationship. Aside from the standard "SO in Distress" bit, you can fake that, have the NPC be working for the enemy, secretly be a big ally, have ties that can be a big help while causing trouble, the possibilities are fairly vast and the hard part is then figuring out which one it is you want to do.
The general difference in handling it though is that in a PC/PC one there is going to be less "i save you" moments simply due to the fact that both people involved are PCs. The handling it as a dramatic element then comes down to challenging the relationship. Matters of trust and faith in each other. Seeing if they pull together or push apart when they are pressed and stressed. With a PC/NPC one the more classic dramatic elements come out, not that the trust/faith can't be an issue just that it is usually lessened if only by the fact that that would require a lot of the GMs attention on just one person. So the other things come out. Oops, my boyfriend is actually the Joker. My girlfriend is a super criminal. Someone kidnapped my husband, and so on and so on.
Setting Up The Relationship
This is more specifically for the PC/NPC ones, and the first thing you need to know is that if your player isn't looking for one it is going to be hard to set one up. That being said, setting up a relationship can happen in generally three ways. The first is the player will just leap on one, grab it, and make it theirs. Often with little to no warning that it is even going to happen. This is how the first relationship started in my M.A/C.C game, girl came in to rob the place a PC worked. He asked her out, and they went out. Now they're in an usual but amusing relationship.
The second way is when the player and GM set up the relationship before the game. In other words, the relationship has already been initiated before the game starts. This is the easiest way, and it also gives the most creative control on who the GF is to whoever is doing the primary design on her. Connections aren't as important, because the story can just be written around making this relationship happen and handling it from then on.
The third type involves the type of situation I believe I'm in with my game. The requested relationship, where it needs to develop fully in game. This generally involves tailoring an NPC or two specifically for a PC and seeing which one they bite at. You have a chem nerd for a PC, do you make a chem nerd female npc? Or go for the more physical type and try for opposites attract?
No matter the case, don't try and force the relationship into the game. if the GM doesn't want to deal with it, it is going to be low prominence at best. If the Player doesn't want it, expect it just to be ignored. Both have to be willing to go with it for it to work.
Some Other Disclaimers
Just two quick disclaimers.
1) For those that don't know, online games tend to have more in the way of relationships, especially when you have larger communities and more player driven stuff. This isn't a bad thing, but just be aware of it. the larger the online game, the more this is going to be a factor.
2) I generally advise that people in relationships IRL not play couples IC. While occasionally or here and there is fine, you don't want to completely smother the other person with you always being there. Trust me, I've seen dozens of relationships (and I'm not exaggerating here, dozens) break up because the couples kept RPing together, and always in relationships together, until at one point IC bickering became OOC fighting that eventually sundered the relationship. So if you're dating, lighten up on the "always together" part of it, especially in games. (for online games, just be clear what constitutes cheating in your relationship with each other as well)
Like with all things, IC relationships can be a lot of fun if you play with them and have fun using them. So do that.