GameJoy: GM Advice: How our D&D game turned into a dating sim (PART 1)

Art is from Fair Barovia, painted by Jesper Ejsing, 2012.

For almost four years I’ve been running an ongoing D&D campaign of Curse of Strahd with my wife Arella. The game is just between the two of us, with me as the Dungeon Master and her taking up the role of her longtime character Prianna Rein.

Early on, the game had a distinct cooking theme to it (it was inspired by Hannibal and Food Wars in equal measure), so we affectionately referred to it as Five Courses of Strahd.

That was how it started four years ago. Over all that time the game has organically morphed and changed to the point where the only thing it really retains from the original Curse of Strahd book is the locations and the non-player characters. The actual adventure has become something much more…personal.

In its latest iteration, our campaign has become a full on homesteading themed dating sim set within the misty valley of Barovia. In the next few blog posts this season, I’m going to dig a little deeper into how this came about, what tools and mechanics I used to support it, and how you can give it a try too!

PART 1. The Path Towards Romance

Every D&D campaign I’ve ever run has involved romance between a player character and an NPC, in one form or another. The cleric has a soft spot for the local potion maker, eventually leading to them romancing. The fighter accidentally seduces the cult leader, and the relationship just keeps developing. The half-elf bard marries the vampire lord for political gain, but slowly they find love together. I love schmaltz and stories of love blooming in unexpected times, and I’m a sucker for NPCs responding in kind to players’ characters getting flirty as a goof.

When I first started Five Courses of Strahd, I had romance and relationships on my mind from the beginning. Prianna, my wife’s character, already had a history of romancing Strahd von Zarovich, Victor Vallakovich, or Ezmerelda D’Avenir in previous games, so I planned accordingly just in case she wanted to pursue any of them again.

I started simply enough, giving each NPC an affection meter of ten empty pips next to their stats in my notes. Every time Prianna took an action or said something that would attract the NPC to her or improve their opinion of her, I filled in a pip. I tried to only fill these in for big actions or gestures that aligned with their personalities, so it was a big deal when one gets filled in. Actions that betrayed the NPC’s feelings caused a pip to be erased.

At four pips, the NPC was friendly to her. At seven pips, they became romantically interested. At 10 pips, they were ready ready to commit romantically long term (marriage, moving in, etc).

It was a simple system that worked decently well, however…

What actually ended up happening over time was a whirlwind of reveals and confrontations that ended the first ‘season’ of our game with Strahd and Prianna getting engaged, with her poised to become queen and ruler of the valley. Before anyone else, Strahd had gotten to 10 filled in pips! 

I hadn’t planned on that, but I quickly set to work to accommodate it.

As Prianna moved into the castle full time, she was suddenly surrounded by all of the NPCs she’d befriended and made allies with all the time. Very quickly they were becoming an ensemble cast of attractive characters, many of whom were either romantically interested in Prianna, or otherwise romantically available.

Strahd was committed, but had no qualms or hang ups about Prianna pursuing others (provided he was still involved romantically), as the ancient vampire had others he was interested in as well.

So I essentially had the cast of a dating sim game.

Now it was time to adjust the game to give greater focus to that, which I’ll focus more on next blog post.