RO (Romance Options) Design Theory

Hello! Writer, here. Learning ChoiceScript while waiting to hear back about my pitches. I don’t know much about the IF playerbase, so am humbly asking for insight.

My current abbreviated chargen design framework (D&D-ish):
Gender: male, female, non-binary
Orientation: straight, gay, bisexual, asexual; androphile and gynephile as nb only**
Race: human, elf, dwarf, halfling, half-orc
Class: 12 options, 3/type: melee, caster, trickster, hermit (ranger, druid, monk)
*for now, ROs do not have sexual preference wrt race or class

My current ROs:
1. straight human female; chaotic-evil sorceress
2. pansexual elf male; lawful evil warlock
3. straight half-orc male; neutral-good ranger
4. bisexual halfling female; chaotic-good rogue
5. lesbian dwarf female; lawful neutral monk
6. gay human male; lawful-good warrior

So:
a straight female PC has 2 ROs (2, 3)
a straight male PC has 2 ROs (1, 4)
a gay female PC has 2 ROs (4, 5)
a gay male PC has 2 ROs (6, 2)
a nb (non-binary) androphile PC has 3 ROs (2, 3, 6)
a nb gynephile PC has 3 ROs (1, 4, 5)
a bisexual female PC has 4 ROs (2, 3, 4, 5)
a bisexual male PC has 4 ROs (1, 2, 4, 6)
an asexual male/female/nb PC and all PCs have 6 intimate platonic friendship options

Here are some (perhaps wrongful) assumptions, dangers, and questions:
a. Gender/orientation-locking my ROs reduces options but increases individuality and concrete RO identity(?)–since I’m a strong writer but weak coder, this allows me to lean into a strength and away from a weakness. Am I lying to myself, here? Is there a CoG/HG I can play to dispel this as myth?

b. A PC could end up w/no ROs if their gender/orientation eliminates some options in their playthrough and class/alignment (e.g. evil) eliminates the rest. Design decisions to mitigate this?

c. Does having, say, 2 straight female options reduce replayability? Anyone have replay knowledge wrt 2nd, 3rd playthroughs? For example, do straight females play mostly as straight females? So, in RO terms, have 2 possible playthroughs? Or are they more likely to alter gender/orientation in subsequent playthroughs?
*maybe this is an impossible question w/o data.

d. 6 is the RO sweet spot(?) in terms of player memory, multiple options for all PC gender-orientation combinations, writer ability to deeply distinguish (archetype, appearance, voice, values), and opposed pairs wrt binary stat %s. Are fewer better? Has someone very successfully done more?
*the best I’ve read so far are Creme de la Creme and Wayhaven.
*outside CoG/HG I’m modeling w/Dragon Age and Persona

e. Is there a PC-race consideration I’m missing? e.g. straight female PCs would be irate w/only half-orc and halfling ROs.

f. With 6 ROs and 5 races, the race I’m repeating is human as I’m guessing that’s where the widest interest would be?

g. My pansexual option is an elf, since I think that would be the most-preferred “exotic” race option? Agree/Disagree?

h. My bisexual option is halfling (cheery, small), since I think that would be the next most-preferred “exotic” race? Agree/Disagree?

i. Based on my questions, is there a CoG/HG work you’d strongly recommend?

j. What question would I ask if I knew enough to ask it? Also, what is the answer to that question?

Grateful for any and all feedback. Cheers!

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I think what most people want in their romantic options is extensive statistical analysis on their preferences and a checklist of key elements.

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I think in the absence of context or information about a story, it is very difficult to give blanket advice that wouldn’t be completely generic and unuseful for you. All things being equal, sure more ROs are a good thing, in the abstract way that more cake is a good thing, sort of like how “more plot” is a generically good thing.

But all things aren’t equal, and 6 really well written and fleshed out RO are actually quite a lot. It can be done and has been done, of course, but if you intend to give them a lot of individual screen time and development, the word count will explode, like, way more than you would think. And that is something to consider. For a first Choice of Game, I would advise someone to scale seriously back. At least, that is what I would offer as like, generic, neutral advice that obviously depends on your skill level/time/aptitude for keeping it at, and stuff like that.

Pretend you have six ROs and you want to spend, like, three romantic scenes with them, which is way too few, but let’s just say. Let’s also say you want those scenes to have choices. So let’s say each of those scenes is, conservatively, 2,500 words. That’s like, way fewer than I personally would want from one, but let’s say 2,500. So that’s 15,000 words for each date, times 3, and that’s 45,000 words, which is 15,000 words longer than Choice of the Dragon already. And you haven’t even written the game proper yet. And don’t forget that it’s very nice to have something for people who don’t want romance–you can of course just skip to the next non-romantic part, but you could also write something specifically for those characters who instead go have a fun friendly time with that half-orc. Which means, of course, more writing.

I would probably recommend voraciously consuming as much interactive fiction (particularly choice of games/hosted games) as you can, and see for yourself what you like for romantic options, and how much time is spent with those people, and how choice-y you like those scenes to be. I would guess that if you play twenty games or so, you will just know deep in your gut the answers to these questions, which are really about your own taste. Does your story need an elf as a character, and is this elf interesting such that they demand a more intimate relationship? That’s good–that’s coming at this from the story angle.

But if you come at it from the angle of, ok, I need a bisexual halfling (second most exotic), that’s possibly putting story second. And players will feel that.

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I think you have more than enough options, any more than 6 and I forget who is who half of the time.

I also like that they are predetermined characters, I think that allows for stronger characterization.

The only thing I would suggest keeping an open mind on is limiting how class/alignment (e.g. evil) rules out ROs. Sometimes it gets a little too much where you are just picking options you think the RO will agree with, also it adds some interesting conflict if there is some disagreement rather than having to agree with the RO on everything.

At the end of the day I think what is important is well developed characters. People will replay to learn more about that character if they are interesting.

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Hmm, maybe so re: blanket advice w/o context. Useful to know in itself.

I guess one of my desires is that any PC gender-orientation combination would have at least 2 non-token options. Hard for me to get there w/<6 total ROs. Probably, I am underestimating the difficulty. The math you did was helpful. I’d hoped I could largely re-use “dates” for friendship, treating romance as something that is added on top of friendship. I don’t know if that cheapens things. I’d hoped, too, to party with, say, 2 people on missions to save word count, so that dialogue and action decisions would affect >1 RO at a time. I am doing my best to “steal” best practices from the games I’ve played so far. Don’t know if there is a thread for RO best practices buried somewhere I just haven’t found yet.

All of my thoughts at this point are guesses. I have a lot more reading and writing to do. My intuition is that you’re really very right about both 1) things being ultimately a matter of my informed preference 2) I will know after about 20 games. Keep you in the loop!

Thanks for writing such a thoughtful and detailed response. Really helpful. Super open if you think of anything else to add. Cheers!

Thanks for responding so quickly! By statistical analysis, you mean the moving percentage stats determined by action/dialogue decision? What do you mean by “checklist of key elements?” Thanks again.

One way around that is by making romantic options player-defined and what people like to call playersexual. (Before you is an attractive tusked half-orc _____). That is generally, but not always, my go-to solution. (and a mix of ROs like that, plus more defined ones can work too).

Some people don’t like player-defined ROs, and like the characters to have more pre-determined qualities, but I’m not one of them, and I also think one advantage of this method is it lets you break free sometimes of some of the easy gendered cliches in describing a character, and makes you think more precisely about what makes this person tick.

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I think you are probably right about the design decision not to have alignment effect RO, since they are already pretty naturally self-limiting. I 100% agree with you and like the way you worded the relationships of opposites. For some, love is friction. And conflict is (to me, anyway) almost always more interesting than agreement. In Dragon Age, anyway, you tend to only be able to be romantic with people who agree with your actions, so conversations can end up being echo chambers of agreement. And thanks for putting the relationship in terms of character at the end there. Can you tell I’m a plotter? Cheers!

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Generally, a lot depends on how significant romance is to the game. If it plays a huge role (even if it’s not required), then locking ROs behind orientation is bound to be problematic unless you have something like 10 ROs with most of them being bisexual/pansexual (you get the gist). If straight/gay MCs have 2 options only each, then there’s a huge chance none of them will appeal to a lot of players (there’s personality, looks, morality to consider). If your game is a fantasy one, it’s even more probable due to the different races affecting attraction. Something to keep in mind.

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Echoing what others have said, particularly @loyallyroyal and @Gower.

In an idealized version of your story, you might think the more the better. And then you start writing/coding and then you realize it’s a lot more work than you initially thought. Up to you if you want to pursue this and if you change you mind, you can always go back and edit things.

This is what one published author had to say about his experiences with one of his stories where he had multiple ROs and how it affected his sales. Might offer you some insight into what others’ experiences have been.

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Like I said before, it’s your story. Do what you want. If you want to have a gender locked story that features all homosexual males as RO options, go for it. If you want to have a gender choice story, with all female ROs, go for it.

Honestly, I think you’re focusing on too many of the fine nitty gritty details before you have started writing the scenes since, like Gower said, these projects balloon faster than anyone expected. It’s pretty common to hear about how other authors started planning for a 200 word scene and then the end product somehow become 4 scenes with a word count total of 8,000.

To answer your specific questions, though? Here are my thoughts:

You do whatever you want. It’s your story. If there’s anyone who should be satisfied with it, then it should be you. Write what you want to write and read. There’s an audience for every kind of niche thing out there. While it may not always be as profitable as writing for other audiences, you’ll be satisfied that you wrote for yourself.

As a reader, my only opinion is this. I prefer set genders for characters, regardless if they’re ROs or not. Having to come to a screeching halt in the middle of the story and select the gender of a character is immersion breaking. If you chose to have this as a feature, I’d like to just set the genders for the characters before I even begin reading so I’m not interrupted.

Just like loyallyroyal said, if you have more than 5 ROs (in my case) I honestly just zone out and focus on maybe one or two and ignore everyone else. I like smaller casts because it means that I don’t have to focus on remembering who’s who and don’t ever get whiplash when my MC is suddenly familiar with an NPC/RO that I literally haven’t interacted with at all as the reader.

Smaller casts means that as an author, I can dedicate more effort to each character as well. Not spread myself thin across a much larger cast but not offer as much depth because I’ve gotten burned out by providing only the minimum.

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Hello, there! I’m not sure exactly how to word it… But is there a reason asexual is only for intimate platonic relationships and not a full romance? It’s just…

Well, as an ace, I tend not to choose the asexual orientation in these games for that reason. It might be good to consider an option to make relationships solely platonic, but not through an orientation. Just my opinion.

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What I mean is that a reader will respond to a well-written character more than they will respond to a character that clinically ticks all of their boxes. People will tell you they want a faster horse when what you can offer is a car. Write about the kinds of characters you want to write about.

I initially approached a lot of the minor ROs in my game the same way you did – here’s a list of fun fantasy monsters and fantasy races, let’s get a good diverse array of them. In the end, though, I dropped a huge portion of them because I just didn’t have a hook that made me excited about the character. Two of my favourites to write were a boring human bartender and a boring human blacksmith – aggressively boring, in fact, the both of them – and yet they were among the most popular because they were written with truth.

I ran polls on which characters were most appealing to people, but by the end I just scrapped the results and did what I wanted to do anyway. I picked ROs who were meaningful to me, whose stories I wanted to tell, whom I felt had something to say about the world.

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I had 2 ROs in.my first game, expanded to 5 in my second and the wordcount grew exponentially longer. 6 sounds too much if you want them to matter.

Also, since you sound familiar with DA, consider the outcry and annoyance about orientation locking Cassandra, Morrigan and Alistair. Not counting Dorian since there was an in-game story there. So many mods going through the work of un-genderlocking the romances for players. Just give it a think if there is a reason for the lock other than artificial scarcity.

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I forgot one thing, but this is not about RO’s so it gets a post on its own now that I am not on my phone. I noticed you were just learning choicescript and looking at how you are handing RO’s I just wanted to include quite possibly the most important advice I have for you:

The more options you have, the less they will matter.

This goes for class options, skills, and other character related things. Go as narrow as you can get away with, otherwise the options either won’t matter, your game will be a million words long, or you will lose steam after chapter 2 and have to remake everything from scratch.

Cut away everything you have added just for variability, and focus on a few, central options and have them matter in the story. The game/story will be better for it.

That being said, options that are there for flavor but won’t be brought up much (like gender, looks, etc) are fine, but be aware that they are just there to let people customize their character.

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As a reader I’m going to give a quick note on really what I look for in a choice game and romance in relation to you points
Unless necessary static gender orientation should not be a thing, characters that can be any sex or gender are great in terms of creating choice and reducing character fatigue, gender should not be a personality trait unless necessary. Fallen hero is a great example the first book has two gender flippantly ROs and they feel real no matter what gender, same with in book 2 steel is a male gay and can’t be changed but his character benefits from it.
Replay ability is super low on n my list I do not have time nor do I want to replay a game unless it is really good and most choice games are not exceptional. I look for the illusion of choice and a good romance and this ties to your number of romances being 6. As said before fallen hero is great in this regard the two romance options are great and since they are gender flipable and gay/straight anyone can romance them and experience two great characters. The less ROs the more each one can be written, if you look around the forum and games the best romance options come from games with less than 5 usually.
The last points you make are all addressed every RO should be available to anyone unless it aids the characterisation in your case maybe the elf hates humans because humans killed their family or something like that.
Recommended games with good or interesting romance:
fallen hero (again sorry really like it)
Wayhaven
Tin star

Examples of bad romance or in better words where too many romance options create character fatigue is
Creme de la creme
Community college hero

I still really like the above books but each romance option is only really shown briefly and though you mention creme de la creme I find the ROs characters boiled down to a cliche really that could be written better if there were less and more depth

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The design of romance options normally has a specific goal, both from the “hook” perspective of user interaction and the “retention” of readers from beginning to end. The normal design goal of implementing a romantic option is character development.

What is often lost in this community is that romantic options should not be the end goal of a game. Those games that do promote romantic options as an end goal, only provide a pay-off, or reward at the end of the journey – Wayhaven is the most cited game of this nature.

For the majority of the games written and published in IF, the goal of a romance’s design is to further character development and provide psychological hooks that increase and/or maintain reader buy-in.

Cara Ellison talks about the two most popular extremes in romantic options design in today’s gaming:

Design involves crafting gates and litmus tests that the reader will need to pass through in order to get to know a character more in-depth. With normal rpg-types of games, the design scope is very limited and there are very few characters available to explore in greater depth.

Both @Gower and @malinryden have covered the issues of scope quite well in this thread, so I will keep the focus of this post on the design goal of character development.

Once you have figured out the scope you desire for romance, developing the characters involved becomes the most important aspect of your design.

Dragon Age characters have evolved since the original game. In the earlier games they were used as a vehicle to explore the game’s central narratives – Varric was the gateway into the Dwarf content and connecting it to the whole. In later DA games, the characters have evolved into narratives that stand on their own. Varric has gone from a cardboard cut-out to a central focus of narration.

This is where romantic option design differs for each writer/designer.

In games where the focus is on the characters, the implementation of romance should be different from games where the focus is elsewhere.

If your game’s focus is character-driven, development of each option (and thus the entire system) needs to be more complex. If your game’s focus is on something else (ie survival), then a simpler, less complicated system is called for.

Many people get lost in the details while designing, that they often lose sight of this core principle.

Gower’s latest game is a great example of a complex system that was developed to further the character-driven narrative — he has already expressed the impact of this type of system.

@lucid 's “Life of” series of games are a great example of games where the focus is on something else. As he successfully shows in his game design… a more simple system can work wonderfully and as successfully as a complicated system.

I’ve posted enough for now.

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This is helpful to consider. In some ways 6 sounds like a bad number in both ways–too few for a romance game and too many for a non-romance game. I’d intended for romance to function more as a B-plot. I guess execution will tell, either way. Thanks for your input and candor!

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Thanks for posting that quote–super insightful. It seems likely I’m too granular too early. It always seems to me that I should start everywhere. Sometimes–at least w other stuff–it helps me to do some inside-out world building and then outside-in, but inevitably I have to hone endlessly. I guess I was trying to build out from central cast. Who are these people? So I could expand into what kind of things would they be up to? How can I weave those things . . . etc.

The balloon fear is real. There’s some scary math there. I’ve been reading through some old posts. I’m leaning toward set characters too. I get the tradeoff nature and think, at least for me, the upside outweighs the downside. Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful response. I’m really taking it to heart.

Hmm, I guess I have to think about it. Maybe I just worded myself poorly. Or maybe I thought of the distinction as semantic and it isn’t. I’ll spend some time with the question because I certainly don’t want to misrepresent anyone or leave anyone out. Thanks for the insight.

Mmm, I understand. Thanks for spelling it out for me! And thanks for sharing your own experience. So helpful. I’m all for avoiding pitfalls on the page. “Vanilla” does make for the best sundaes. Do you by any chance have a link to the polls you ran? I’d be interested to see the results. I get what you’re saying about keeping to things you can put something real into. I’ll keep it in the forefront. Feel like sharing the title of your story? I think it might help for me to take a look at. Sounds like it’s set against a similar backdrop. No worries if you don’t, or you can PM it to me. Either way, thanks for giving of your time. Cheers!