Thursday, February 05, 2009

Romance, Sex and D&D: the College Years

(Part One of this series is here.)

Things changed radically in the game I ran in college. My college crew was probably the best group I've ever played with. Their skill at the game was exceptional, their styles (mostly) meshed very well with mine, and their interests took the game in directions I'd never considered before.

The biggest difference, I think, came from the girls outnumbering the guys. Most of them were already very familiar with 2e (this was the early '90s) and at least a few of them had experience with 1e as well. They also came from different literary traditions. The guys I played with in high school were fairly avid readers, and we'd enjoyed most of the same books: Tolkien and Brust, Moorcock and A Young Boy's King Arthur, Lovecraft and Rosenberg. We were not nearly as steeped in “the classics” of the Old School as some (I didn't read any Lieber until college), but we had our literary models and struggled hard to bash D&D into a shape that could play them, as the whim took us.

The ladies of my college game brought a different literary background with them. They shared a number of the classic influences like Tolkien, but added names like Bradley, Hambly, McCaffrey, and Lackey. I'd read from a few of those names before, so I had some ground to stand on there, but what really rocked the boat was what they brought with them from romance novels.

Romance is the number one selling genre in bookstores. It dwarfs even combined sci-fi and fantasy sales. Today, most nerds have a passing familiarity with the conventions of romance, thanks to folks like Joss Whedon, Stephenie Meyer, and the emergence of paranormal romance, which have brought them more into the mainstream (or, at least, what passes for mainstream among nerds). It wasn't so much the case back then, but the process had already started.

Gents, if you haven't cracked the cover on a full-blown romance novel, understand that you are missing an entire world of story structures out there. Romance novels have their own styles of pacing and conflict, an entire vocabulary of emotional states and expected conventions for their ebb and flow. And these books are not the halcyon daydreams you might imagine they'd be. Your female junior high classmates were reading books chock full of all the topics you've been taught to avoid in polite company: rape and incest, blackmail and character assassination. Yes, some are light-hearted romps, but others delve into a level of brutality that might even eclipse the other Brian Murphy's Top 10 Fantasy Battles list. (The historical romances tend to be the worst. I read one based on the life of William Shakespeare which described in agonizing detail the experiences of a character who is buried alive.)

So when I knocked down the walls and, in effect, announced that the campaign was sandbox-style (though we didn't have that vocabulary back then), sex and romance took prominent roles in the game. No longer relegated to a few laughs while we celebrated in town between adventures, time and effort and detail were expended on pursuing or luring the opposite sex. What are his interests? What is his favorite color? What sort of women does he prefer for marriage, and what sort for a tumble in the hay? What is his favorite scent?

And we went very Old School with this. The dice nearly disappeared as we played out the give-and-take of romantic conflict, a conversation of blades played out with social conventions, fashion, politics, and raw sex appeal. (Anonymous, this is a critical point in understanding the difference between 4e and Old School play. In 4e, this sort of thing might be boiled down to a single skill roll, or perhaps a skill challenge. Was the way we played it out time consuming? Absolutely. But “non-fun”? Oh, Hell no! Detailing the outfits and buying the presents and planning the parties was the fun! But I'll have a more detailed post on the topics you bring up over the next week or so.)

We still rolled for pregnancy, but now some of the PCs were trying to get knocked up. Issues of fertility, birth control, and motherhood came into the game. What do elves, who have so few children, think about a mother or father who leaves an infant with family in order to save a human city from destruction? Can a polymorphed dragon get a human woman pregnant? What happens to a pregnancy if the mother drinks a potion of speed? What if she contracts lycanthropy?

Anything and everything was pretty much fair game for that campaign. Some of the PCs were bisexual and others strictly hetero. Some eagerly played the field while others sought exclusive relationships. Virginity became a noteworthy (as in, we noted it on the character sheets) stat as we played with ideas on why dragons and unicorns find it important. And we explored topics that would make Carcosa look like a Sunday School coloring book. (For example, near the end of the campaign, one of the PCs ended up marrying the arch-lich Vekna for political reasons. But that's a whole story in itself...)

Keep in mind that none of this was the primary focus of the campaign. The PCs still foiled the plots of scheming wererats, battled orc raiders, dared the hidden fortresses of necromancers, and slew dragons. They played an important role in returning the rightful High King to his throne. They hoarded treasure and leveled up. The campaign lasted for years, even beyond our graduations from college. Level limits were reached and railed against. Orcus was slain on his home plane and a god was destroyed. It was D&D in every way that anyone who has played the game would instantly recognize. But it also warped into something so very much more than the ordinary.


Alex Schroeder said...

Wow, now I have gaming group envy!!

David Larkins said...

I love the idea of marrying a lich "for political reasons". Ah, but did she learn to love him in the end? Poor, poor Vecna. So misunderstood.

Kimberly said...

Yep. She loved him in a weird way. She was an uber-mage though, so it worked. Of course, if she knew what he did to my thief off-campaign, she crucify him and let him stay that way for a few weeks.

Brian Murphy said...

Okay, I wish I was in on that session. And I also feel the urge to dip into the romance genre (purely for research purposes, of course ...)

Ben said...

So how did you weave the plotlines between urban/social settings and the wilderness necessary for many dungeon encounters-- or did you keep your dungeon urban as well?

Jonathan Jacobs said...

@trollsmyth - I'm trying to get in touch with you about this blog post and the series it is part of. It was nominated for inclusion into the upcoming Open Game Table vol. 2; it passed through 18 peer reviewers, and was selected by the OGT editorial board as a top choice.

I can't find any contact information for you anywhere on this blog. Can you email me at your earliest convience so we can talk more about this?

Cheers! -- Jonathan

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