Relating to Relationships
Relationships are complex and prone to change, and because of this they often play a secondary role in games. But this is a shame and not at all realistic: there are many views on relationships and thousands of books written on the subject of relationships, obviously it must be highly important.
The Power to Name
The second novel I read as a kid was A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. The power of naming is one of the greatest plot points of the series. This is so true when developing your character’s background, as you have the power to name important things, places and people from your character’s past, present and maybe even their future. Character creation is usually the time we look at our characters' relationships, so in this essay I want to concentrate on the people we find in our character’s lives. Players who have experienced “evil GMs” taking advantage of their backgrounds sometimes choose to avoid naming family and friends, and might even make their characters orphans in a sort of pre-emptive self-defense. Yet, without the mentioning of relationships all we have is a character being something. We don’t get to see how they are in the world, or how others see them. This sort of characterization would guarantee you getting a bad play review for being one dimensional. A better solution to this problem is to detail the people your character has relationships with―even if they're just bullet points―as you name them in the background. Focus on their motivations for being in the relationship in the first place and decide on their general stance toward you. This level of substantiated detail helps prevent the GM from turning them into enemies without your consent.
Of course, even if you do this, you cannot control every aspect of every NPC your character knows; you can't even name them all. This isn’t necessarily bad, because it allows you or the GM to bring new characters into your life as needed. However, if these characters are members of your family or have been around since prior to the start of the game, the GM should get your consent to mess with their basic definitions.
Taking the steps to add family and friends into your background is an exercise in trust between you and the GM. The best thing to remember is to put down some solid details about these people. This will not only strengthen your control and awareness of your own character, but it gives the GM, you and other Players something they can work with. Which brings us to the topic of playing with NPCs.
Interaction Between One or More Objects
The title of this section is a basic definition of relationship. We have talked about the creation of relationships before, and we often see them as static features, but in the best roleplaying games nothing is static; and this includes relationships. The key is to work out how relationships change over time. One of the best games I've seen for this is The Blue Rose by Green Ronin Publishing. There seem to be two general approaches to the definition of relationships. The “staircase” or “growth” models argue that relationships are like staircases, growing ever stronger (or weaker) as you move up (or down) them. The more postmodern models take them as being rather anarchic in nature: here the aim is not to grow a relationship but just to determine the allocation of time and resources between people around the things they enjoy. In this view there are no levels, just time.
Many game designers say you shouldn’t design a mechanic unless there is an issue that needs fixing. The Blue Rose is a game built around relationships and it includes an optional mechanic to simulate the relationships themselves. While the game refers to relationships as “bonds” and requires you to write them down, it’s really the Intensity Rating that makes it work mechanically. The game allows you to add relationships that grant intensity points as they level up. When a relationship reaches level 7 you get access to abilities which are applied to the bond. You can also decrease the bond to free up intensity points, or to move your intensity to other relationships. Each time you play with your intensity points you must rewrite the bond.
So you end up with a background filled with relationships, and the GM keeps throwing more at you: How do you handle all this? Take a hint from Blue Rose and write down how important or intense each relationship is to you. For instance, the high king might be an ass but if you don't have an intense relationship with him, the two of you will probably just ignore each other. You may wonder how to know what the intensity of a relationship is. Well, just think about how often you have met and how much influence you have on each other. A good GM will reward your roleplaying with bennies or inspiration; it just depends on the game.
Relationships change over time and can be measured on two axes: the first is intensity and the other is whether it's positive or negative. When you play around with this model you will often notice changes occurring in your relationships; this makes the game even more interesting and enjoyable.