Romance is a part of the earliest fantasy stories we hear. From mermaids who fall in love with sailors, to princesses locked in castles guarded by fearsome dragons who can only be saved by a suitor of pure heart, to the betrayal of a king for the love of the queen, so many of our stories include this element in their make up. The same can be said of a lot of our RPGs, because they either draw on these old fairy tales as part of their inspiration, or simply because it's part of the goals we have for our characters.
However, all too often we don't stop and ask ourselves what relationships look like in our fantasy worlds. Not just to our character, but to the cultures they come from, or the species they belong to. Asking this question can often open up a lot of interesting roads that we didn't even consider when it comes to telling our stories, and making our characters.
What Does Love Look Like To You?
When we think of traditional relationships in fairy tales, we tend to think of the monogamous, heteronormative pair whose feelings are based on mutual attraction. Even if we fast-forward to media that isn't based on two traditionally beautiful people falling in love, like Shrek, we still see a lot of pairings that are a traditional husband and wife for the purpose of having kids... even if they aren't exactly the same species.
And while there is nothing wrong with that, it is worth asking yourself if that is the same format love and relationships take in your game's cultures, countries, and individuals. To take a moment and ask why the mating rituals and courtships look like in different places among different peoples, and what relationship structures look like either where your character comes from, or elsewhere in the world.
For an example, take the Takatori dwarves from my Sundara: Dawn of a New Age setting (found in Species of Sundara: Dwarves for DND 5E and Pathfinder Classic). Dwelling in hot regions such as volcanic islands, the Takatori are polyamorous by culture, and families are often made up of a large number of different people. As such, rigorous record-keeping, as well as familial and clan tattoos, are a large part of Takatori culture, ensuring that bloodlines don't cross in unwanted or unexpected ways. They still have marriages, expectations of those who become parents, and social mores for the kinds of relationships one has, but the very idea that someone would have only one person they love at a time would seem very strange to a person raised in this culture where that is something of a rarity.
There's more to this question than the number of partners one does or doesn't have, of course. There's also the question of whether bloodline is considered important in relationships (thus making interspecies or even interracial relationships a taboo), whether same sex relationships are treated differently in a culture, if there are rules or mores about relationships that cross caste boundaries in a society, or whether marriages are chosen by those who enter into them, or if they're arranged? There's also questions about religion and spiritual beliefs (as these often play into cultural expectations, along with blessing any unions), about what tokens must be presented or deeds accomplished as part of a courtship or marriage, and what is considered desirable in a partner.
Whether a suitor has to sword fight every male member of a household before they're allowed to court a woman from that house, or a society allows married couples to have whatever kinds of affairs they want as long as it doesn't result in children, or it's considered a whirlwind romance if your courtship lasted for less than 20 years among particularly long-lived species, there are no wrong answers to these questions. However, much like when I recommended that players Have Both a Good Ending (And a Bad One) For Your Character, it's the very act of considering the question that starts your brain working.
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