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WHY GO THERE?
Illicit affairs are everywhere in storytelling, from Zeus to Guinevere to Cersei Lannister. And as the tales show, adultery can lead to consequences for everyone in the blast radius of the event. Hera cursed Echo to only repeat the words of others words when she realized Echo had been distracting her from Zeus’s liaisons. Sir Agravain and Mordred spied on Lancelot to catch him with Guinevere. Duels, ambushes, and outright wars have been sparked by uncovered sexual trysts - but despite the risks, we can count on people from all walks of life in every era to fall to sexual temptation. Yet we don’t we see this featured very often in high fantasy and science fiction, or in roleplaying game adventures - but as adult gamers, we probably should.
A dash of infidelity can spice up nearly any setting or story with minimal effort and no need for graphic depiction. It can delve as deep into a person’s character you wish or remain on the surface of a larger story. Mere rumors can be enough to spark quests and schemes. Catching onto the clues that lovers leave behind can add twists to any private investigation. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, starting with small details and NPCs can provide distance and make the subject more palatable for many gamers. Direct PC involvement is also a possibility and can add a great deal to the life of a character. But either way, it never has to become awkward for those who know how to handle these themes at the table, which is why this section exists.
ANALYSIS, NOT ADVOCATING
It must be said that all of this is an exercise in fiction and will be discussed within a purely fictional context. I am not advocating any one approach to the material, since what one group needs will be different from the next group. I am not suggesting that gamers cheat on their significant others for any reason. Few things will tear a group apart faster than infidelity, so groups have more reason to discourage it. But this is something with which we all have some experience, even if it’s just from a distance. You have known cheaters, seen them in movies, and watched them on television. You already have a knowledge base to draw from. It shouldn’t be too difficult to work it into your gaming even if you have never and would never do it yourself in the real world.
The first thing to keep in mind is what a person, group, or larger entity considers to be “cheating.” A character can swear loyalty to more than one person, and their sexual behavior can be dictated by more than a marriage contract. The definition can vary broadly and change over time, and it can be codified into legal and holy books. Being found guilty of adultery can lead to serious consequences, so the boundaries of the concept matter - but they can be surprisingly difficult to figure out. Legal definitions can be misinterpreted, vague, or outdated. There can be a great deal of flexibility in the things partners expect from one another, or very little freedom at all. This is true whether a character is sworn to a person, an organization, or a god’s precepts.
But you can begin to build stories by touching on some familiar aspects:
Partners - Monogamy may not be demanded in a relationship, but even those with multiple spouses or open relationships can feel betrayed if certain lines are crossed. If their partner gets involved with someone without their knowledge, or falls in love with someone else when they have agreed to keep it purely sexual, then trust has been breached.
Activities - Many times, spouses are restricted in whom, when, and how much they can fantasize about others. Too many imagined moments with someone else could be deemed unfaithful. Some can share intimacy with another, but only through nonsexual activities and public interactions. Courtly love allowed knights and poets to woo ladies of high station, but not necessarily to have sex with them. A few are forbidden from certain sexual activities (such as more invasive ones) but allowed to indulge in others.
Who Decides? - An open relationship might exist so long as spouses approve of each other’s lovers before and during an affair. But when emotions run high, and if a spouse seems withdraw their consent unfairly, a breach could be forthcoming. It should be noted that a partner’s best friend, family members, and sworn enemies are usually off limits, but they can also be some of the most tempting and available lovers.
Motives - Some people may believe that sex outside of a union is acceptable if it is done for a specific reason, such as ensuring pregnancy (if a couple is barren), if it is strictly for physical enjoyment, or if it is demanded by those in power. Other motivations are likely to be completely ruled out. In any event, becoming emotionally more attached to someone else can be the tipping point and bring on the greatest sense of hurt.
Duration - Partners might have special dispensation to dally with others at special events, during particular holidays, or when they are away (from home or from the area). Once the time has elapsed, any further dalliances are automatically deemed adulterous.
Deeds - Especially in a fantasy setting, a spouse could expect their partner to perform a quest or deed in order to win the right to another person’s body. This gives their partner time to determine if the lover they want is worth the trouble and shows devotion to their original beloved by following their wishes.
Contract - Even the most clearly established parameters might not be enough to keep a spouse from feeling left out, let down, or resentful. It is one thing to agree to an arrangement in theory and another thing to live it out. In reality, a sense of betrayal or losing their partner could feel overwhelming and any agreement one has made could start to feel like chains.
A hallmark of adultery is a belief that one’s trust has been deeply breached in one of the deepest ways possible. Beneath the rage, disgust, and disappointment is a sense of complete betrayal that few other events can match. This belief is not always rational and might not be true if a spouse has been manipulated or is jumping to conclusions. But it is a powerful belief that can drive people to commit all of the other sins in order to confirm and avenge this kind of violation. It can also spur them to call for outside help to prevent, prove, and punish these transgressions. This is where friends, family members, and even complete strangers can be asked to get involved in some very personal business. For many characters, this is where the adventure begins.
On the other side of the equation, it isn’t uncommon for an adulterer to be aware that they are about to go too far. Those who pull away might still have to deal with negative suspicions, but they rarely have to bear the worst. Those who continue anyway then have many decisions to make. Do they hide what they’ve done? Do they repeat it? How do they keep their partner(s) from finding out? Or do they run off with their new lover? Those who cheat also have friends, family, and others who might help them hide their transgressions. Any enemies who find out can try to take advantage of the situation, stepping in with blackmail threats and ultimatums.
Either way, it’s safe to say that when it comes to gaming, the sex itself will probably be the least interesting part of an adultery story.
Common knowledge has a lot to say about why people cheat. We may have heard that powerful people are more likely to stray, whether that power is due to higher income, attractiveness, or another factor (like magic). Those who enjoy taking risks are likewise liable, as well as those with high sex drives. Folks who crave novelty and the thrill of the chase may be weak, while others believe it is their right to have who they want. And of course, relationships plagued by negligence, disrespect, and boredom drive partners to look elsewhere. But these motivations are only the most basic. Knowing more about what else can lead to infidelity can help you build plots that feel more realistic, nuanced, and surprising. All you really need to keep in mind is how the other sins feed into this one. For this section, I will be using Vices I developed for World of Darkness games, but they are universal and can easily fit into other milieus.
Avarice - An avaricious person might envy a relationship someone else has, whether they have someone of their own or not. They will jump at any chance to weaken others’ bonds, chip away at a lover’s resistance, and steal a partner away. They can aim at a rival or good friends and neighbors whose relationships seem to be wonderful. Luring a lover away may be done specifically to hurt their spouse. Other times, an avaricious person only cares about feeling wanted and powerful. Perhaps they are never satisfied and grow bored with their conquests, quickly moving on to someone else they shouldn’t have.
Carnality - A carnal character could be driven to sample every new experience and partner the way gluttons are urged to gorge. Some avoid giving in to temptation only to fail spectacularly. Others arrange to feed their need on a regular basis, often with brothels that offer steady supply and variety. For truly carnal people, sex is their high of choice. These individuals might have other addictive behaviors, but not all of them do. For a few, forbidden trysts do the job that other vices can’t. They can say no to anything else, but not their lust.
Corruption - Some people like to feel as though they are getting away with a crime and pulling the wool over other people’s eyes. They get a lift out of feeling superior, maybe because they are better manipulators (or because they have powerful spells or companions to help them hide their deeds). They could feel trapped, or at a disadvantage in their marriage and use cheating to tip the scales in their favor. Thus, avoiding the consequences becomes a game and they don’t mind doing underhanded things to win. Lying, bribing, and blackmailing enhance the joy of being bad and being good at it. They will likely encourage others to follow their worst instincts to bring others down to their level.
Despair - Sex can be a potent distraction from one’s normal life, and even more so when life seems unendingly bleak. Wars and diseases can drag on, but deaths in the family or long-term unemployment can also bring out the worst despair. In this case, an affair is not meant to fix anything; chances are, the cheater deeply believes that the situation can’t be saved. Instead, an affair becomes an entertainment, a secret spot of joy, and a way to feel good when everything else feels terrible. Despairing cheaters might not go to great lengths to hide their misdeeds, almost as if they wish to be caught and have their predicament recognized. They are likely aware that they will face more pain, but probably expect more pain regardless.
Sloth - Slothful people do not want to do the heavy lifting in life, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional in nature. Their ultimate goal is to get as much enjoyment out of as little effort as possible. Thus, they might take a willing new lover to avoid fixing problems with their spouse. That way, tey get pleasure from their lover and continue to receive any benefits their spouse offers them. They won’t mention that they’ve moved on because they don’t want to deal with the fallout. Or they will accept offers as they arise because it is easier than trying to turn lovers away. In any case, slothful folks keep their deceptions simple, using the easiest excuses and omissions. This can work very well, and in fantasy worlds the gods may be involved in their dubious good luck.
Vanity - Vain people value their own pleasure more than anything else; some view taking lovers as their proper due in life. Others are weak when someone takes an interest in them because it appeals so strongly to their sense of worth. They might have an admirable position (such as being a knight or a noble), attractive qualities (like a great deal of Charisma), or outstanding talents that draw more attention from others. Since they would not change these things and can’t be blamed for the attention they receive, a vain person has a ready excuse for spreading themself around. Sexual favors are special and intimate, so these acts become prizes to a vain adulterer. A few might target lovers that they feel entitled to or that symbolize success, like Tony Montana does with Elvira Hancock in Scarface. In other cases, cheaters believe that infidelity is simply a part of success and who they sleep with isn’t as important as having the power to sleep around.
Wrath - There is a simmering anger and deep resentment that can drive people into the arms of others. It might be in response to perceived problems in their relationship that make them feel ignored or disrespected. Whether those problems are real or sexual in nature may not matter. Wanting to take back power from a spouse or be appreciated by someone else can be enough. But rage is a common response to finding out that a spouse has cheated, or believing that they have - and sometimes, an outraged victim decides to become the perpetrator. As a twisted method of revenge, a person might seek out as many lovers as possible, or seek certain people like a spouse’s family members, friends, or superiors. Whatever will cause their partner the most distress upon discovery, that is what they will do, but physical assault is not in their plans.
THE ADVENTURER & TEMPTATION
Many roleplaying games keep player characters on the move, journeying to adventures far from home. Those adventures are usually nonsexual, based around tricky environments, open combat, or political games. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of sexual opportunity to be found. Gaming groups that keep sex on the sidelines might still featured succubi who trick characters and attack them in flagrante delicto. There might also be flirty bar wenches and temptations thrown at paladins. But adultery is every adventurer’s temptation. Wealth, travel, thrill-seeking, and notable qualities make PCs incredibly desirable and make many NPCs more agreeable. That doesn’t mean PCs are going to be free, however; plenty of them have ties back home.
One way to reflect this is in a character’s background, because few things distinguish a person like their mistakes. Say a secret tryst happened in their past. How long did it last? Was it discovered, and how? Do they have old enemies out there because they cheated? Did friends or family members disown them? What happened to their former lover(s)? Did they change moral alignment, profession, or another way because of that experience? Did they go on a quest to absolve themself in the eyes of their god? Did children result, either with their spouse or their lover? Have they continued to cheat, or are they likely to do so again? As you can see, the present, past, and future can be given quick and powerful details this way.
On the flip side, few things distinguish a person like betrayals they have suffered. You could just as easily decide that your character has been cheated on in the past and build from there. How did they find out? What did they do in response? Do they have any contact with their former spouse or their spouse’s lover? How does that old breach of trust affect their relationships now? Did they feel so upset that they changed moral alignment, profession, or other major factors in their life, either temporarily or for good? If they had children with their spouse, what do the children think now? Has your character gone on to commit the same offense against someone else? How do they react to those who are rumored or confirmed to be adulterers?
The DM can weave a multitude of plot threads from infidelities that happened long ago. Perhaps someone is seeking a former lover or their children. An NPC could be very upstanding in the present, but getting blackmailed for old habits. Will the PCs help him get rid of the threat? If a paladin fell, will their church try to help her, or stop her by force? An NPC could take it upon themself to punish cheaters because of what happened to them - but will the PCs allow them to continue to do so? Or will they take the contract to spy on a man who is being tested by his obsessively suspicious wife? You can spread these hooks out or let them pop up regularly, until it seems like half the world is cheating on the other half. (Who knows? Maybe it is.)
One way that player characters might hope to avoid disaster is by taking their spouses on the road with them. This might mean that another player is in control of the spouse or the DM is portraying them as an NPC. Some characters might insist upon it as a matter of companionship and having someone to trust close by. Others might balk at the idea because they want to protect their spouse or they want some time apart. Whether they want to leave their spouse behind for shadier reasons is a matter to be considered, but traveling together does not guarantee fidelity in any case. An affair along the road could destroy the group and disrupt the flow of a session (or more), however, so careful consideration is needed, especially if two PCs are involved.
Leaving a spouse at home is a common choice that might be supported by all parties - but it can leave simmering resentment when there is disagreement. It will generally be done when the spouse is an NPC, but that does not mean they will obey or be idle. They could decide to follow, to go on their own adventures, or to raise hell when their adventuring partner returns. Other than that, it tends to be a less stressful option all around. Outside entanglements certainly require less in the way of deception and maneuvering when a spouse is far away. What has happened on the road might just remain there - if everyone involved is content to let that be the case.
More to follow!