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Ending a relationship is rarely a simple matter, and even a friendly parting can become difficult quickly. While these kinds of complications can make real life feel like hell, they can make for very engaging roleplaying - and they can lead to adventures that involve the whole party. After all, divorce is a private matter, but it often becomes a public statement and a public struggle. Fantasy games can take it to the next level, with magic duels and epic quests that make court dates seem like child's play.
The first thing to consider is whether or not divorce is allowed in the first place, because in the real world it hasn't always been an option. Marriages involve a pledge to stay together for a period of time, and in lands of magic, such oaths tend to be taken seriously. Asking to part ways might lead to such bad repercussions that people would rather leave the area instead. Or the ability to dissolve a union could be restricted to a certain class, such as the commoners (since they own little) or forbidden for a caste of people, such as the knights of the realm.
Even if divorce is acceptable, that doesn't mean it will be easy to obtain. In some places, only the nobility have enough gold to afford the privilege. In other places, there are caps on how many splits are allowed in a year, or within one family. These restrictions are put in place to encourage reconciliation, but they can also be used to make people suffer for their bad choices, to profit from the misery that results, or to provide an example to others. On the other hand, certain churches and cities have a reputation for granting fast marriages and equally easy separations. These groups might be wildly popular, but they might also be deeply despised for cheapening the sacredness of marriage.
Another option is annulment, which basically states that the marriage was never official in the first place. Societies that shun divorce might offer annulments if there are special circumstances and proof of wrongdoing. Depending on local laws, things bigamy and using magic to trick or compel someone into marriage can be causes for annulment. If one spouse can prove that their partner lied about fertility, fidelity, bloodline, or gender, they can probably expect to get their marriage invalidated. And if the marriage is not consummated in an acceptable period of time, a tribunal could call the obligation off.
In some cases, a couple could be forced to part against their will. If no children are born within the first three years, for instance, that might break the contract. Or if a noble family can make a better match for one of their scions, the family could arrange a divorce and remarriage with little input from the bride or groom. One side-effect of changing faiths might be that the character is no longer married in the eyes of their former god. Catching (or curing) diseases like lycanthropy, acquiring a condition like blindness or petrification, or showing “unnatural” abilities (like vile spells) could be grounds for parting ways, whether the couple approves or not.
A Matter of Faith
In many fantasy worlds the gods join couples together, so they must also be involved in putting them asunder. Thus, the rules for divorce are likely to vary by faith, since different gods look upon their followers' promises in different ways. Lawful deities tend to make couples stick to their oaths unless a serious breach of contract has occurred. The grounds for divorce are covered in church documents, but the process could become downright Byzantine in lawful temples. Chaotic powers, on the other hand, usually allow detachments with less resistance, given how much they value individual freedom and choice.
Good deities focus on making social bonds stronger and on planting something new to make up for the relationship that has been lost when they grant separations. For instance, a good deity might demand that the spouses craft something that benefits the whole temple (such as art or a magic item). The former couple could be required to serve the community for a duration of time or to go on a specific quest chosen by the clergy. (If they are forced to work together, they might even reconsider breaking up by the time they are done.)
Now, you might ask why an evil character would bother with divorce at all; why not just kill their spouse and let their wicked god sort it out on the other side? The problem with that is that even evil societies have rules and consequences. If someone turns up dead, the first suspect is going to be their spouse, and that kind of attention can be very nasty and inconvenient. But even more importantly, marriage in a church represents a spiritual union – so if you truly despise your spouse, you will not like the idea of their soul being bound to yours for all eternity.
Evil gods understand hatred, resentment, jealousy, and loathing, and they know how desperate people can be to get rid of each other. Unfortunately, that means that evil gods can be mischievous and downright cruel when their followers seek divorce. They are far more likely to make their worshipers jump through difficult hoops that take serious time and effort to complete. What's worse, some evil gods will keep the goal just out of reach or rescind their permission at the last moment, just for their own amusement.
Some kingdoms offer civil ceremonies that are strictly legal arrangements concerned with inheritance, property, and rights of kinship. This setup lets local rulers reap all of the rewards of marriage and divorce, they collect all the fees for those services. It also gives people options if they follow gods that do not offer marriage in the first place, or if they just want to make an earthly bond that only represents one lifetime. Civil unions can also make things easier when it comes to splitting up – though that is not automatically the case.
The alignment of a place is a helpful, basic guide to how easy disunion will be, though the unique situation of each city should be kept in mind. Lawful towns will urge couples to attend to their vows, but if they petition properly and persistently and follow all regulations, they will earn their breakup. Neutral leadership will not want to dig too deep into citizens' personal issues, preferring for them to regulate themselves and only stepping in when a third party is needed to settle things. Chaotic rulers will probably ask petitioners to prove their desire for a permanent split, perhaps through combat or a quest that will keep them away from their spouse for a time.
The power structure of the area could dictate who really has the power to dissolve marriages. If the local thieves guild holds the true authority around town, then getting permission from the puppet lord of the manor might not mean much. If a council of nine have to vote on the split, then spouses will race to influence the needed number of councilmen before the vote is called. And if the military rules, a number of battles or campaigns could be required.
If you want an additional level of complexity, allow civil and religious systems to work side by side; characters will have to petition the government and the church they were married in to get a legal separation.
While there are many reasons to want to part ways, not all of them will be accepted by society. Boredom, for instance, could be considered a completely ridiculous reason for dwarves to rely on. Dwarves live long enough to know better than to give up just because they've fallen into a routine. Yet in halfling communities, a dull marriage could be taken as a fatal sign that one or both spouses aren't dedicated any more. Separating could be seen as the best way to help the couple move on and renew themselves.
Sometimes a couple changes so much that they no longer fit into each other's lives. This happens a lot with adventurers and those who travel regularly. If they leave spouses safely at home, then their partners become distanced from the world of danger adventurers usually inhabit. Battles and losses can create a chasm between warriors and the people they love the most. But even when they travel together, an enterprising couple might come to a point where they want to move in opposite directions, seeking completely different goals. Major mistakes and disagreements along the road can shatter marriages, as well.
Some life changes are not as dramatic as all that but lead to separation anyway. Many couples find that once their children are grown, they feel no pressing need to be together. Others pull away from their spouse when they change profession or when they have spent too many years together. Some people divorce when they change faiths or when they want to take religious vows that require them to be chaste. Although many find it cowardly, a lasting illness can make a spouse seek their freedom, especially if no cure seems likely.
It seems natural to assume that major deception would nullify a union, but the type of deception and the society in question matters most. If you lied about the gender you were born into but you live in a city where magic is common, then it might not be a sufficient reason to separate. As long as both parties are fertile and able to to conceive, what's the problem? But in a place where magic is distrusted or forbidden, proof that a spouse lied about their true gender or race could result in an annulment and forfeiting all rights and property to the offended partner.
You might automatically expect adultery to end up in harsh penalties, and in many places it will, but not all societies believe that infidelity is a grave sin. The terms of the marriage will often determine how offensive adultery is. If a couple promised to forsake all others, then that promise was required. If the couple promised never to reveal their lovers to each other, then getting caught is what causes the most damage. Many societies condemn people who commit adultery and lie about the true parents of any children that result, however, since securing family lineage is one of the most common reasons for marriage.
Going to court (or a temple) and submitting increasingly arcane types of paperwork is actually the simplest method for marital dissolution in fantasy settings. Barristers exist to help such cases along, and opposed rolls could be required to see who comes out ahead in the final decision. Skill checks to lie, detect lies, and intimidate are common and can move things along but they can also backfire spectacularly. An opposed roll can finish things off and should gain bonuses from diplomatic efforts, knowledge of the law, and abilities to discern lies. But that doesn't sound like a hell of a lot of fun, does it?
Dueling is a common alternative, particularly in military cities and in martial temples. It might seem natural to pit the spouses against each other and let them get their aggravations out in one last cage match, and some places do just that (sometimes selling tickets and trading bets openly for the event.) But other traditions demand that the spouses choose champions to fight in their stead, or that each spouse face a different champion or threat. Interfering in the results of these battles could be expected, or could be so harshly punished as to not be worth the risk.
Hunting fearsome creatures is another way to win your freedom (and your goods) from a spouse. The town elders might choose a handful of local threats and declare that whoever brings back a creature's head first is the winner. Thieves and assassins guilds routinely demand that members kill one or more of the guild's targets if they want to get the upper hand. Some kingdoms will order powerful characters to clear a local ruin, capture an enemy outpost, or pull off other, major campaigns. Quests for legendary weapons and artifacts can begin with divorce proceedings, as strange as that might sound.
Nonlethal and noncombat competitions are arranged in many good cities to keep things civil and to benefit the populace whenever possible. Performances and games can keep everyone entertained, and obstacle courses are not unheard of. Spouses have been tasked with scaling mountains, riding over vast distances, or swimming great bodies of water without the aid of magic. Monasteries have been known to ask members to respond to difficult koans or riddles of existence. In some cases, those who return or finish first determine the terms of the separation (or even if a separation will be allowed). Other times, a single judge will decide the verdict or the populace will get to vote on who performed the best.
Casting votes is another method for determining a detachment. Sometimes votes are cast publicly, and the spouses will know who was on their side when all is said and done. This can lead to deep grudges but can be done to keep everything open and transparent. Other times, voting over a split is done in private, either in masks or in a private room with an arbiter to keep things fair. Voting is usually used in smaller groups, such as the members of a particular church, guild, or village. Since the couple will probably know everyone who is eligible to cast a ballot, they can try to influence the result through diplomacy, bribery, blackmail, and physical intimidation before the vote is called.
A rare but lively method is to call for an auction to determine the outcome. Gods of wealth and trade have been credited with introducing this method, though trade guilds and obscenely wealthy nobles have also come up with it on their own. Generally, the spouses are placed on opposing sides, and people bid in support of one or the other. Sometimes only specially chosen people (like family members) get to take part, but many times the proceedings are left open for whoever has the coin to spend. Whichever spouse raises the most money in the time allotted wins the right to decide whether their marriage ends or not.
Since the couple usually puts their own wealth on the auction block, there doesn't tend to be a lot to split, but the winner might also get to decide how to divide whichever assets were not put up as a bid. The final proceeds from divorce auctions are usually divided a number of different ways: some for the church and/or town treasury, some for the winning spouse and/or their family, some for the children, and some to cover local community projects (such as bridges, homes for orphans, or pensions for the elderly). Local tradition could require that both of the former spouses receive an even stipend to help them get started on their new lives.
There are as many reasons to dread divorce as there are to welcome marriage, and the most beneficial unions tend to cost the most to dissolve. A divorcee could lose any titles and affiliations they gained through their partner. In addition to fees, divorcees might need to pay fines to their former spouse or in-laws. They might be forced to surrender weapons, armor, or magic items (or to at least split their supplies). They could also lose their place to live, as well as any property they gained from their marriage or while they were joined.
As bad as all of that sounds, the social penalties can be even worse. In some places a person's reputation will suffer real damage that can take a lot of time and effort to fix. People might feel unable to trust the character's dedication or their word, leading to ridicule, loss of work, or higher prices with some merchants. A character with followers might take a temporary penalty as some of them leave in disgust. A divorcee will probably lose some friends and contacts and might not be able to get remarried until the social stigma has worn off. In exchange, the character will probably gain new enemies.
When faced with the mounting difficulties of dissolving a marriage, many characters will dissolve into their worst traits and destructive habits. The anger, sullenness, and pessimism that people try to hide to get along with others can come out in flashes of temper that can be downright devastating, depending on the power levels involved. This can lead to confrontations with town guards, as well as jail time and other legal woes. Trouble with authority can also result from the gambling, drug use, and disregard for responsibility that divorcees can get into. Some heroes with strong reputations lose face because of their own recklessness rather than the separation itself.
The custody of children tends to be one of the worst sticking points of divorce and can lead to violent repercussions in fantasy worlds. Parents tend to be attached to their children, and they might have very real reasons to fear their spouse's affect on the kids. When daddy is casting evil spells or mommy is summoning demons in secret, physical custody of the kids might be non-negotiable, and to hells with what the judge or church says. For those who cannot travel far, the threat of taking the children many days away can mean never seeing them again. And for spouses who hate each other enough to take revenge through their children, a host of options is available.
Twisting children's opinions against one parent is a time-honored tradition in some ways. In fantasy settings, however, a parent can raise their child not only to hate the other parent but to be a real weapon against them. Infecting children with lycanthropy, performing experiments on them that leave them with monstrous abilities, and other unsavory tactics can also be used. Kidnapping is another all too common method of trying to save kids or trying to make the other parent suffer (or both). It's bad enough when a parent hires guards and horses and takes off in the dead of night. It's even worse when they can use or hire a teleportation spell to gods know where, or step through a portal to another plane.
But the most horrible option is older than the tale of Medea, who murdered her children as revenge against the husband who didn't want her any more. In fantasy games, not only will such a terrible crime bring immediate outrage, it will probably lead to swift vengeance. And while death does not have to be the end, some parents would not want to resurrect their children after such an event, or they might not be able to do so without a powerful spell. Which is a powerful motivation to keep moving toward a day when magic can set right something that went so badly wrong.
Once a character is released from their marriage, they are usually released from the obligations that went along with it. Unless they parted on friendly terms, the character does not have to come to the aid of their former spouse or their spouse's family. Demands on the character's time or services are gone, so they can dedicate themselves to their own interests. This could mean that a character can finally use all of their spells as they see fit or learn magics that were forbidden to them before. Moving out of the household (or fully claiming the household) might mean adding the wizard's lab or training rooms they wanted to add before.
And lest we forget, it should be said that divorce can be a way for a character to add to their wealth and power. Splitting assets could leave a divorcee afloat in a pile of fresh gold that they didn't have to fight a dragon for. Even better, powerful magic items and heirlooms could have been turned over, or the deed for a building might have exchanged hands. It has not been unheard of for courts to order the surrender of sailing vessels, spellbooks, mounts and pets to a spouse. Even if social penalties are severe, these new supplies could help to make up for it.
But this stage of development has deeper implications for a character, from the ground up. Some people will take on a whole new class or start racing to the next level, if only to feel stronger. Bards create some of their strongest material from their strife (and can ruin reputations in the process). A number of divorcees head to monasteries to seek discipline and self-mastery, though few stay on the path through the long term. Rangers or druids who spent more time near civilization to be with their beloveds usually head back to the wild – but on the flip side of that coin, those who stayed in the forests might seek out cities for the first time, if only to disappear into the crowds. Paladins and clerics often seek atonement, but some turn away from religion altogether.
It is not uncommon for divorcees to completely rework their skills, feats, and bodies through retraining. Others will undergo makeovers through mundane means (like cutting off hair), magical means (such as a spell that changes their features), or a combination of the two (such as tattooing). Dropping or gaining a lot of weight is common, but characters left in emotional turmoil might also suffer from bouts of inexplicable fatigue, nausea, or shaken nerves (as per conditions or flaws) until they are able to reconcile themselves with their new lot in life.
Reconnecting with friends (such as an adventuring party or old companions from a guild), spending time with followers, and communing with gods or nature can help a character rediscover their purpose. Many divorcees will join new companies and take on new causes, sometimes to spite their ex but also to fill their time with projects. Those who stick closer to home often become entrenched in research and experiments. It's an ideal time to go on pilgrimages to holy sites or to roam in search of new adventures. It is also a prime opportunity to break away from an area entirely.
Separating from a dangerous spouse might not be easy, but it does give a character a powerful sense of freedom. Churches that espouse the domains of healing, luck, protection, and travel are known for helping people to relocate and escape marriages that have become life-threatening. Once fears have subsided, characters can find new joy in new romances and remarriage, and in new children. Those who dive back into battle often end up in quests of epic scope; indeed, some heroes would never have become such great names if they hadn't suffered the hell of divorce and come out stronger on the other side.
Separation and the Player Character
Divorce is easiest to integrate into a game when it involves non player characters on both sides. At that point, the PCs might hear about it and might have to deal with some of the consequences, but they can step back from the situation at any time. And a Dungeon Master can do just about anything to an NPC, including removing them from the game altogether, with minimal fuss. It's when the player characters get personally involved – or when the players get personally invested – that things can become awkward or downright nasty. So it's best to think about your strategy beforehand.
If player characters are allowed to marry NPCs and if marriage is actively used in the campaign, then it is wise to leave options open. This does not mean that a DM should keep attacking PC unions until they break, but the relationships of adventurers naturally undergo a lot of stress. The more options a PC has when things go sour, the more interested they will be in dealing with the situation. They could end up in hilarious exchanges of words, trial separations, or quests to finalize the divorce. But forcing a PC to stay put could make them feel trapped and might cause the player to resent getting involved in the first place.
The same thing can be said of player characters who marry each other and find themselves at odds. Forcing them to stay together because breaking up is not allowed or because it will damage the party could do more harm than good. It can be fun to have some tension and disagreement in the party, but too much tension can make for big headaches all around. If a PC couple is fighting more often than usual and it is affecting game play, the DM should take the initiative to talk with the players out of character and figure out the best way to resolve things. One of the characters might need to leave the group, at least temporarily. Or both characters could use the divorce as their exit, giving the players the chance to try new characters.
But PC on PC divorce is messiest when it reflects real problems between players. It's bad enough when gamers are just not getting along anymore and it spills over into a session, but it's much worse when you're at the table with a couple that is actively fighting. The whole group gets front row seats for people's out of character feelings and issues and can feel helpless to put a stop to it. When partners are determined to argue with each other, they can end up turning their venom on anyone who tries to get in the way – but that doesn't mean that a squabbling couple should be allowed to preempt a campaign. At the very least, the DM should be willing to stand up for everyone's desire to have fun.