I had a simple idea: you can get plenty of interesting drama from two characters in a game if they’ve already had a romantic relationship, and sometimes more, than if they’re going to have one.
I’ve role-played two characters on this principle, and both times it’s been highly rewarding. I’m going to talk about the second one because it’s fresh in my mind. This is Link, aka Leo Snow, who I’m most recently playing in a game of Masks. Leo is a 17-year-old inventor of robots. He’s able to take an imprint of his own brain as he visualizes another person, and extract that other person as an artificial intelligence. The resulting AIs can be placed into a human-seeming robot body. So that’s how Leo built himself a robot girlfriend: he imagined someone who he could love and who would love him, then brought her to life through technology.
At game start, that relationship had already fallen apart. The robot girl, Pneuma, broke up with him after some hard self-reflection. She decided that she couldn’t trust the feelings she felt unless she had a choice, and for awhile felt like Leo had created her as a puppet or plaything. For his part, Leo was hurt, but the most important thing (to me) is that he accepted her decision and supports it even now. She’s not his slave, not his girlfriend, and not his toy, but she is his best friend and continues to work closely with him as a superhero.
For Leo, this is kind of a downer, since he still carries a torch and feels plagued with doubt and guilt about causing Pneuma this distress. But for me as a player, it’s great! This character is an emotional lever for my PC, for good or bad. It showcases one of his story goals (“AIs are people too”). It avoids the obvious peril of writing one character being in control of another (Pneuma is actually physically stronger and tougher than Link’s own powered armor, and sharing his memories she knows enough to stand up to him in any other arena). Leo does what’s expected of him (be respectful of the wishes of someone, whether or not you want something from them they won’t give) and still enjoys a mutually supportive, caring, beneficial friendship.
Most of all, Leo can still feel the strong emotions of someone in (or hoping for) a relationship, without being trapped by the story’s need to show progress on one. The audience doesn’t have to feel like the two aren’t making progress to hooking up. There’s also no problem with rising tension either paying off too early, or never paying off. Pneuma gets to be her own person, with surprising and interesting character twists supplied by the GM, and have her own story elements (like the robot-religion thing we’ve been doing on and off). Everyone wins.