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There's a dizzying array of marriage customs in the real life, especially if you consider different places and historical periods. The things that we take for granted about holy matrimony – like the idea that it should be rooted in romantic love – have not always been the norm, even in our own society. And the things that can seem far away in our world, like the holy nature of wedding vows, can be all too close and personal in fantasy games.
If you want to keep things simple, you can reproduce attitudes about marriage that your group is used to. It can be reassuring to see that dwarves are as iron-clad about being married as you might expect from their general reputation. But if you want to make characters feel unique or challenge players to navigate cultures unlike their own, you should think about playing with the various aspects of marriage. Tweaking the way that one part works can be enough to provide your game with an authentic feel and an experience that your group will tell stories about. And when players embrace the element of marriage, they will interact with it on their own terms and recall the weddings of their characters with a tinge of pride.
If you would like a quick way to generate marriage customs for a given group, please check out the PDF reference chart. As a D&D gamer, I know that the way to a DM's heart is through a well-appointed and informative chart!
The first thing to consider is the number of partners who can be joined in a union. The common, monogamous arrangement of one man and one woman is just one possibility. Two partners of the same gender can be wed, as well. Polygamous unions will join one man and multiple women, while polyandrous unions have one woman with multiple husbands. A group marriage could be allowed, too. An interesting possibility, given the nature of some fantasy settings, is a union between a mortal and a divine representative, like a celestial, or a demigod or deity. After all, it's one thing to be married in the sight of a god, and another thing to be the spouse of a god in and of itself.
Keep the interplay between these options in mind. If one religion allows any of these arrangements, its church could be the primary wedding place in town. If various religions allow for monogamous weddings, but only between couples, group arrangements could be shunned in the area. A country could have taken on polygamous and/or polyandrous marriage customs because of imbalances in the ratio of men to women.
Making this choice could lead to other choices about related laws and customs, and could lead to many adventures. If multiple men are married to one woman, does the First Husband act as the alpha of the group? And does he get special legal consideration when and if his wife dies? A society might sanction up to five people in a union to foster long-term growth and variety, while forbidding sex outside of the very generous terms of marriage. The “brides of Zeus” might gain access to extra magical abilities and gifts while they are in good standing – but what happens when Zeus' affections run out?
A person's freedom to choose their own mate, despite any family input, can be taken for granted. It is a relatively recent thing, historically speaking, and it's not without complications. For one thing, being able to marry doesn't mean being wise enough to choose a suitable partner; not everyone has a high enough Wisdom score. Characters who are on the road could expect to choose their partners at home, but might not be allowed that freedom in another location. If a character comes from humble origins, they could have more freedom about marrying because they have less to lose and less to gain. But if characters act on their own, they might not receive as many benefits from marriage as they could.
Family can play a large role in selecting a partner, since disapproval and strife with family members can keep a wedding from even taking place. If the families involved are expected to pay for things like a dowry, wedding services, or gifts, they could have more power in the process than children like. Since marriages can pass on things like titles and inheritance rights, families could have the law on their side when it comes to the final vote on a bride. The upper classes often have more restrictions on marriage because of the gamble involved. Thus, in some instances, the family gets the only vote that matters. Even if the family cares about a child's happiness, they could still require their offspring to marry someone because the elders require it.
Friends can also have a hand in the decision, although their influence is more socially than legally based. Social ostracism is a possible downside of a “bad match,” and no one wants to feel friendless. Members of a character's adventuring party can have double the influence of run-of-the-mill friends. If your party has saved your life for years but hates your husband-to-be, you might think twice about heading to the altar without their blessing.
Last but not least, a third party could be drawn into the deliberations in the form of a matchmaker. A matchmaker might be assigned by a church or institution, or they might be hired to serve a family's long-term interests, while at the same time providing a harmonious match for the client. Matchmakers are knowledgeable about family lines, local history, alliances, slights, and other bumps in the political landscape. They are expected to weigh many variables and to choose the best suitors to introduce to the client at hand, but they are also supposed to help the client choose a happy pairing. At best, the matchmaker can get the family and their client to agree on a mate. At worst, a matchmaker can side with one side or the other, providing a much-needed tie-breaker.
It's worth asking who can perform marriage ceremonies for members of a given faith. Given the mystical elements of many settings, it's unlikely that government officials will hold much weight in this arena, and since there can be many different gods, there's likely to be more than one standard. But if any cleric can supervise weddings, then it's just a matter of finding a character with cleric levels (and, possibly, the right alignment). If only higher-level clerics can bless a union, then run of the mill priests will not be enough and true marriages will be harder to come by. Such a simple decision will affect NPCs and PCs alike, since divine player characters (clerics, paladins, and perhaps druids) could be approached for just such a task.
But there could be further requirements for the marriages of higher-level members of a faith. If one type of creature is required, then finding the official for a wedding can become its own adventure. A nature deity might want their powerful followers to be joined by a beauteous nymph, while an evil god might demand that a couple face and survive the a medusa's glare before she officiates the ceremony. Giants might have to defeat an elder in single combat to gain his cooperation. And any creature might be needed for a supporting role. For instance, a music goddess could require that her devotees be married while lillendi play her hymns within 30 feet of the couple.
While it might seem like a simple question, there are many elements that can go into a wedding service. Witnesses could be required, either of a certain number or relation or type. Since holy (and unholy) ground can be a physical reality in fantasy, it might be needed, and in an unblemished state. A certain amount of money is likely to be required, not just for the necessities but also as a tithe to the god in question. Magical tokens and spells could be considered necessary, and if it's an evil ceremony, live sacrifices could be in order. There might be things that characters are expected to do at their wedding in order to earn their new status. The god of performance might only grant his blessing if the couple's wedding performance meets a minimum standard. The divinity of doorways might only smile on the union if the bride and groom each bests two suitors in single combat (with suitors representing a face of the deity).
There are many things that a marriage contract could ask its participants to do or refrain from doing, depending on the society. Rules about sexual fidelity, the legitimacy of offspring, expected levels of support, and the duration of the marriage are easy to expect. We hear them in our own world, after all: “For richer for poor, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” But vows are expanded to include other details, or personalized to fit the couple's expectations of each other. Many modern couples leave off any mentions of “obedience” to their spouse, for instance. Players who are enjoying marriage in a game might really enjoy the opportunity to shape their characters' vows.
These rules can be as specific as you'd like, even to the point of amusement, if it will add to the overall experience. Adherents to the goddess of wealth, for example, might be held to their vows so long as both spouses maintain church bank accounts greater than 1,000 gp. If at any point they remove the gold of their own free will, the investment in the marriage is over. Vows could include free spellcasting from your spouse at any time, or the offering of a deed once a year in your spouse's name. While such restrictions might seem tedious to player characters, they could easily lead to quests involving NPCs and their strange agreements.
Keep in mind that some unscrupulous gods will accept marriages even if one party is not willing or is being duped by drugs or magic. Gods of trickery are infamous for accepting the forced marriages of hostages, or even of people who couldn't make the ceremony, but whose signatures were placed on the wedding certificates.
What kinds of public and private benefits come with being married in your character's society? It could be as simple as admittance to a holy order, since you must be a wife in order to serve the Queen of Wives. A character might need to be married in order to inherit property, a title, or a throne; once married, a regular stipend will come in from one's holdings. The government could offer gifts to newlyweds, or to couples on their anniversary (which might be incentive to stay together). Perhaps the husband of a sun worshiper is entitled to treatment in the sun god's church, even if he follows another deity. Or a dwarven noble, once accepted into the family tree, could gain minor Diplomacy bonuses with other dwarven nobles. If there is a dowry system, then the family accepting a new member will be given a gift to take that person in, and the family giving up a child will no longer have to be responsible for them.
The greater the perks, the more pressure there might be to marry just for the lucrative benefits. In some societies, increasing your wealth is the primary reason that people expect to get married. Not only is such a motivation acceptable in a general sense, but it is viewed as normal, right, and good. Getting married for lust and love, on the other hand, might be frowned upon. After all, if you can have concubines in secret, why would you tie your fortunes to someone for life just to get a few thrills? It sounds like a bad bargain. And people with poor appraisal skills probably won't make it far in the cities of the Goddess of Wealth.
This is just one example of the power that motivation can have in a marriage and in society. Most societies have multiple intentions that are acceptable for matrimony, and any one of those reasons will be greeted with nods of approval. Many places have a couple of primary aims that are deemed to be the best, and one or two lesser reasons that are at least passable. But cultures might also disapprove of certain motivations, to such an extent that a new couple will be criticized, shunned, or actively worked against if they reveal why they've come together.
You can easily create a feeling of a different culture with strange norms if you choose motivations that are less acceptable in your own neck of the woods in real life. Tying these norms into the government type (such as a monarchy) and the major religions can provide a stronger rationale for these customs and make your fantasy setting feel organic and alive.
It is one thing to say “Till death do us part” when you are a relatively short-lived human with some distance between yourself and the hereafter. It's another thing to make such a promise when you have more contact with the otherworldly realms and know a lot more about the journeys that souls undertake. If you worship a different god than your spouse, your religion might really mean that your togetherness ends at death. Deities do not always share holy realms or allow souls to cross boundaries between planes to be together, after all. This can make converting to your spouse's faith a very big deal, if indeed you must promise to love your spouse “into the forever after.”
A lifelong pledge could be a reassuring and reinforcing tradition for some longer-lived races – but it could feel like an unbearable prison sentence to others. In this, perspective and attitude are key. Not only will race be a consideration, but alignment could also play a role in the expected duration of a marriage. A rough-and-tumble Chaotic Neutral frontier town could advise that people get married until the next great orc invasion (when some mates will inevitably be killed, and orgies will be held to replenish the town's numbers). A Chaotic Good enclave of elves sequestered deep in a forest could pledge to be wed until a particular river floods again, taking that as a sign from the gods to sever bonds and start anew. (For more on location alignments, click here.)
The more aspects you fold together for these customs, the more they will seem to support each other and your view of the fantasy world.
Race, Class, and Gender
Stereotypes can be dangerous things, particularly in the real world – but they can also serve us in gaming. While we shouldn't reproduce racist or sexist behavior in a way that offends our group members, it would be ignorant of us to ignore the possibility of prejudice in a fantasy environment. And exclusionary behavior seems to find a regular battleground in marriage. There have been laws about who can marry whom since the beginning of the custom, and while some tribes have used marriage to create peace, other groups have forbade weddings with people outside of a given race or culture. Real social penalties have been levied on children of mixed race unions, as well as people who have married too far “above their station.” Real benefits have been denied to those who want to join their lives and homes, but happen to be of the same gender.
So how do we use these elements tastefully? First, use them sparingly. Race does not need to be an inflamed issue everywhere the PCs roam; one city could be the model of segregation, while a neighboring kingdom could be accommodating to all who sign up for three years of military service. Likewise, be aware of the ways you link real world stereotypes with fantasy tropes. Strict rules about economic class will not only be found in evil societies, for example. Good people are not immune to prejudice, though they might eschew more violent or degrading ways of showing their distaste. Neutral places could seem relatively enlightened by allowing marriages for anyone who can perform a full military tour or some other strenuous work.
Lastly (and always), keep your finger on the pulse of the group. If someone is quite ruffled, remember that they have had experiences you know nothing about and even though this is a game, it can reflect things in our world that cannot be changed,or cannot be changed fast enough to undo the damage to people's lives. If you have to leave off an adventure focused on racial inequalities, so be it; there's plenty of ground left to covered elsewhere.
Is It For The PCs?
Some groups will give pause if NPCs are trying to get hitched or are already wed – but many groups will take it in stride. After all, people get married all the time, and marriage woes have been part of storytelling since Zeus and Hera (or Aphrodite and Hephaestus). A couple's interactions spill over onto others, making neighbors comment, scheme, and even pitch into the fray physically. A DM should have an easier time highlighting marital issues with NPCs, especially if those issues offer opportunities for treasure. But what about encouraging marriage amongst the player characters?
Some players will not be open in any way to marriage for their characters; it's not what they come to the table for and they really don't want to deal with it. Frankly, since many gamers are adults, marriage in a game might feel like a bus man's holiday. You don't escape from your partner into a world of fantasy once a week by having to deal with an imaginary spouse. (And if you don't know the expression “bus man's holiday,” look it up; it still applies to modern life.) Others actually want their characters to be able to play the field and will resist the ball and chain.
Many players will become curious or outright interested if NPCs are presented vividly and if marriage seems to lead to interesting things. If all nuptials in your game are cursed with constant troubles, players could get the idea that marriage is another way for the DM to punish characters. But if there are benefits as well as struggles, and if wedded characters are enhanced by their ties, players might be more open to the possibility for their characters.
If players want their characters to get married, by and large the DM should provide them with ways to seek it out. People enjoy different things at the gaming table, and it doesn't have to take a lot of time away from other parts of the game to let a player have a relationship. It can be most encouraging when players do make their desires clear and go after partners the way they would any other goal worth achieving. It can be fun to hear them scheme, and it can be easy to find ways for the whole party to be involved at some point.
Unless the players agree beforehand, the DM should avoid forcing marriage, or the choice of a particular partner, on player characters. If the society or game seems to call for it, players should be warned up front; otherwise, it can feel like long-term DM meddling in the worst way. In the best case, marriage should remain an option that is open to the PCs, perhaps with some gentle reminders that it's there, but never forced down their throats. Few things can tie a player character to the fantasy world like the ties they make with other characters who live there – and few things can make a place seem alive like a spouse to share your adventures with.