RO (Romance Options) Design Theory

“Less is more” as Newton said. Probably.
I’m also a firm believer in “limitation is opportunity” when it comes to creative media.

On the other hand, @dwsnee, you can reply to different posts by quoting them like so

Or simply tag the username.


Glad it was helpful.

I can’t speak for others or yourself, but I got wrapped up in a lot of the lore for my story, unnecessarily so, to the point where I used it as a distraction from writing the thing itself. Eventually I concluded that I didn’t need to know everything in my own world, at least not right away, and the only things I needed to know where the things that players would need to know, or come across somehow, in the future.

I wouldn’t be too intimidated by the balloon fear since you do have the handy power of editing. I cut probably 5 characters from my story after realizing that they didn’t have a purpose. I tried to emulate the formula found in DA2 and how your companions’ stories develop over a period of time in-between the major quest lines. It works for DA2, but it would’ve been distracting in an IF, so I scrapped it.

And honestly, here’s another tidbit of advice. Don’t write your ROs to be ROs. Write them to be characters who are doing their own thing (i.e. give them goals, lives outside the MC, etc.) that just happen to be ROs.

For me personally, I start out small when designing characters namely quirks. There’s one character I just created (who’s also gonna be an RO in another story) and the first thing I thought about him? He doesn’t have any wheelie chairs in his home or anything pieces of furniture with wheels cause he doesn’t want to run over his own tail. I only have a few other quirks noted about him, but it’s enough for me right now because he’s just an idea.

Also just another forum note! Instead of replying to multiple people in multiple posts, you can @/USERNAME to message multiple people in one post.


If you’re interested in sharing, I’m interested to hear about your experience writing 2 and 5 ROs. Anything stand out among the differences? Anything counterintuitive about the crafting experience? What were the gender-orientation sets for those characters?

You’re right about DA. That’s something worth thinking about.

I’ll stew on the bit about more choices being less meaningful. I’ve been reading and rereading some stories with an eye specifically toward this. Everything I’ve read about your stories suggests they’re wonderfully well crafted, so I’m eager to take a look.

I’ve done a lot of work in screenplay. Have a lot of trauma with stories dying in Act 2, so I can’t appreciate the mention enough. I’ll keep a wary eye.

Thanks again for offering your hard-won insight. Cheers!

It’s interesting to hear from purely a reader’s perspective. I’m definitely going to have a look at Fallen Hero. I hadn’t heard much about Tin Star before.

I’m interested in what you mean by “illusion of choice.” Of course, I know what the term means, and the code sequence for fake choice, but I was wondering if you meant something more by it. It seems really self aware for a reader to say they know they want to feel like they have a say, but to not actually. Thanks for giving me such specific details about what you enjoy.

This is all really incisive. I’m getting the impression you really know your craft, and I respect that. Thanks for taking the time to teach me. I’ve read Wayhaven and know exactly what you mean. I think it’s a great way to make that point. I found myself servicing plot for the sake of furthering my relationship, and I’m normally a plot guy.

I’m interested in how an RO in an IF is different than a romantic counterpart or supporting character in a non-interactive form. Because player agency is involved, I imagine people would use them as a backdrop to express an idealized version of themselves? I wonder if people more often play as themselves injected into fictional circumstances or whether they take the opportunity to play someone vastly different from themselves. I’ll admit I have no idea who Cara Ellison is, but I’m going to find out! VtM Bloodlines?

I think Cyberpunk 2077 handled RO well, at least with Judy and Panam, if anyone’s familiar. Because I played a male and Judy is a lesbian, the romantic option wasn’t on the table. But I found the relationship by the end to be far more intimate than who I was ultimately able to romance. Not really a diver, but the scuba diving in her flooded home town was really touching to me.

You’re completely right about the evolution of the DA characters. However, I was always satisfied with how unsatisfying Morgan was as an RO, or rather the very real and believable way it was unsatisfying. Nuanced.

I’m interested, if you want to share more, in the implementation differences between romance-centric games and the whatever the opposite word is for that. I’ll taker a look at Gower’s last game to see if I can tell what you mean. And Lucid’s. Thanks for the recommendation. Cheers!

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This seems like a really sensible work around. I think I’m going to take a look at a title that does this to see how I feel about it. Another user recommended I take a look at your last piece, so I’m all queued up for that! I’ll give careful thought about what you said re: the inner workings minus a defined gender. Thanks!

I dig it @Szaal :wink:

This is an interesting topic, and some people have raised very good points already. Now watch me try to make a contribution without it turning into tl;dr rambling.

a. I don’t think giving ROs a set gender or orientation automatically makes them deeper characters. Most of my favourite ROs in CoG/HG are flippable and/or playersexual, and while I’m happy to romance any gender, I have different preferences for men and women (for example, I adore Farah from Wayhaven, but Felix doesn’t hit me the same, so if that character was locked to male then I’d be missing out).

It’s a bit of a pain to code all the pronouns, but I strongly believe the payoff is worth it. Or if doing all that extra coding for six characters is too daunting, you could compromise, and have a mixture of fixed and flippable characters.

b./e./f./g./h. As well as orientation, you’re right that some people will likely feel limited by race, and also alignment (depending on how heavily this factors into the romance). Looking at your list, #2 instantly strikes me as a character I’d be interested in. #1 and #3 I’d pass on due to their orientation. #6 I’d consider, if he could tolerate PCs of ‘worse’ alignments. #4 and #5 I’d consider, if the PC can be the same race as them, because I’d rather not be towering over a tiny girlfriend. That’s just one person’s thoughts, of course, but you can take it as an example of how individual preferences might affect RO selection.

However, you’ll never please all of the people, all of the time. While I don’t advocate for limiting gender or orientation, lines have to be drawn somewhere, or characters will just be undefined blobs of clay. So even if you’re thinking ‘oh no, making this character Race A and Alignment X might make less people want to smooch them’, don’t let that spoil all your plans. If the story will work best with Race A and Alignment X, if those are important factors in shaping their backstory and personality, then that’s what they need to be.

Normally, I’d hesitate to romance races other than humans and elves…but in the upcoming A Kiss From Death, I made different PCs to chase after pretty much everyone, from a skeletal lich to a gigantic dragon. Good, sincere writing can make an unusual choice more appealing, and poor writing can turn people off from an expected choice.

c. From what I’ve seen on the forums, it sounds like a significant amount of players do self-insert. But my own go-to PC - if the game’s options allow it - is a neutral-to-evil elven sorcerer, and I am none of those things IRL! Sometimes I’ll switch it up on different playthroughs, but only if there’s significant incentive to (and trying out other ROs is the most common incentive, unless it’s a very branchy game like Jolly Good or Choice of Robots). Otherwise I’m the type who’ll replay the same story over and over, and remain ‘monogamous’ with a favoured RO.

d. This depends very much on you as a writer, and what sort of load you want to handle. Evertree Inn only has two ROs, but that’s the perfect number for it. Heroes Rise only has one to start with, but I found them so much fun that I never wanted another. Both of these are the first story in a series though, and later installments add more to the cast.

In contrast, The Last Wizard has seven ROs, and while they’re not badly-written, I’d say it does struggle to give them all enough screen time and relevancy (especially since the entire game is less than 200,000 words). Consider how many ROs your story can comfortably make space for, without getting stretched out of shape.

i. I’d recommend playing The Evertree Saga, if you haven’t already done so (Evertree Inn, Sordwin, and soon Lux: City of Secrets). The writer does a fantastic job of handling multiple ROs - it’s now jumped from two, up to seven. There’s a mixture of fixed and flippable genders, no orientation limits, and various fantasy races (my favourite being the chaotic evil Captain Winter, who has no interest in either pronouns or mercy).

A Kiss From Death isn’t released yet (I just hung around in the WIP thread a lot), but it also has excellent, in-depth romance with a large cast of ROs, no orientation limits, and is high fantasy with both very good and very evil characters.


@Eiwynn Thank you very much for posting your very cogent thoughts on the subject.

Do you feel that romance in games needs gates or element of challenge in terms of “achieving” the desired relationship or can getting into the relationship be easy but bringing it to a happily ever after ending be the hard part?

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@dwsnee and @Jose_Garcia – I will respond to your follow-up questions later this weekend. I’m glad that you both found my post helpful.

It’s easy to say and very challenging to do, but I think the real key to having a romance that works and is compelling is to make the romance “gates” feel less like a game mechanic, and more like they are based on compatibility between the RO and the MC.

As an example of this, is that (spoiler for Heroes of Myth) Meredith in Heroes of Myth is not going to be in a relationship with an MC that is not pro-demon. If you are uncertain where you stand on the demon issue because you don’t have enough information, she’ll give you a bit of time to figure it out, but it is a clear deal-breaker for her.

The way it is executed in the game though, it never feels like it’s a punishment for playing wrong. If you are playing an anti-demon MC, they aren’t going to like her either, and it makes sense that a romance is impossible (and that you probably end up fighting her at the end). Because of that, even though it’s a clear “gate” to the relationship, it feels more like a real character having preferences about who they want to date than the game asking a bunch of tricky questions you need to get right to get a romance scene as a reward.


Priminee and Dornen? They topped the popularity polls as well, IIRC.

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I didn’t poll their popularity until after I’d written them ha ha.


(?) indeed. It’s best not to lean on sex, gender and orientation to give your characters their identity. That way lies both cliche and, if you want to offer a comprehensive range of choice, a lot more writing (which itself is likely to yield shallow characters, as you won’t have time to flesh them all out).


I agree that it’s important not to lean on these things to identify a character. But at the same time, aren’t gender identity and sexual orientation an important part of what makes a person who they are? I mean, I’m a cisgender homosexual male, and while I don’t think changing any of those things would make me have greater or less value as a human being, I also don’t think I’d be the same person if I were any different combination of those.

It’s the same with characters, to me at least - best case scenario, I view a character whose gender I can choose as two (or more, if there are NB options) different characters who are similar but not quite the same. But even then, I will always find a character whose gender I can choose harder to relate to than one who has a “canon” gender, regardless of what that gender is. I mean, my gender and orientation inform a lot of who I am and shaped me a lot as I was growing up, and I know that a character whose gender I can choose didn’t experience that, so that’s one very human experience that I cannot share with them. You know?

I still get the intent behind making gender choosable so that players don’t have that obstacle in pursuing relationships, and I’m not saying that a character whose gender I can choose has to be a featureless blob - I’ve still played IFs that have had gender-choosable characters that I really liked. But I do think that giving characters a fixed gender has legitimate upsides, and not doing that has legitimate downsides.


As someone who mainly creates straight female MCs (with a few exceptions), I can see where this may be a problem and quite limiting. Of course, that’s without knowing much about the story itself. Neither of these really appeal to me as a reader (lawful evil is as horrible as lawful good, or possibly worse, IMO) and an orc doesn’t really present a good visual image.

Well, maybe. In general, I prefer gender-locked NPCs (exceptions are romance-focused games like Wayhaven, FH, TSS, because if those didn’t have male versions of certain characters, like Mason, Ortega, and Az, then I wouldn’t be playing them). In a romance-focused game, then characters either need to be gender-flippable or enough ROs need to be included to offer the standard tropes (tight-ass, emo, nauseatingly sweet, bad boy/girl, etc) to MCs of any sexual preference. Otherwise, people get miffed.

Orientation-locking is a different story. Personally, unless there is a story-driven reason for defining sexuality of a NPC (think Dorian from DA:I), then I don’t think there’s a valid reason for including it. Some may call this player-sexual, but it does work unless there’s character-driven reasons for it not working.

Doing what I said above takes care of the problem of PCs ending up with no ROs.

I can only answer for myself: yes, this reduces replayability. As I said above, the majority of MCs I create are straight females–it’s what I enjoy reading the most, so of course, that is what I play. That said, I do play as other genders/orientations when I’m attempting to flesh out new characters to write, but I only do so using certain games (mostly video games like DA or ME, but I’ve also found TSSW helpful with this–Wayhaven doesn’t lend itself well to this because it’s too emo for most characters I write). Because you have such limited options in yours, I wouldn’t use it for this purpose.

Personally, I think you’re going about this the wrong way.

Instead of worrying about hitting demographics, you should worry about what fits in the world you’re creating. I have yet to write a CoG game (but am about to attempt it with my writing partner), but I do write a lot. Any time I create a character with a specific goal in mind, they end up doing something else once they start developing. They have minds of their own–if you start trying to shoehorn them in, the writing may become forced, and forced writing is a bad thing.

Yes, you want to have options for everyone, but you don’t want a 2-D piece of cardboard as an option just to say you have it. That’s one reason why, personally, I think it’s better to create your NPCs with a solid foundation of personality (and a loose backstory, because that will develop as they do, too) and, until they tell you otherwise, let them be player-sexual. It may turn out they don’t care who they’re with, or it may turn out that the neutral good elf prefers guys and doesn’t want girls at all. Write a few scenes with them and see where they go.

Read The Soul Stone War–excellent NPCs and ROs that are fixed gender but open-orientation. As someone else suggested, try Evertree Inn. Read Wayhaven to see how the gender-flipped thing works. Try a non-CoG game, too… anything by 13leagues is awesome (she knows how to write romance and weave it in).

Most of all, I think you should relax about it all and stop checking off boxes. Focus on the characters and the world they’re in–the rest will come.

Because I am attempting to learn… if you don’t mind, could we PM about this? I’d like to know how to develop a full-blown ace romance in what me and my buddy are doing, but neither of us really knows where to go with it (like, is any touching allowed? cuddling? kissing? or is it just a friendship thing where it’s love?). If you don’t want to, that’s cool… I just can’t write what I don’t know or understand, so it’d be nice to understand this more!


This is the perfect opener to further our discussion, because design implementation decisions carry with them consequences, some of which may be unintentional.

Using the Cyberpunk romances to help illustrate, let us examine a couple of design decisions which have impact on the audience.

Year after year, this community discusses this very thing. Each year, the conclusion is the same, with the same people self-inserting and the others role-playing. Very few do both.

This divide combined with the fact that most of our audience are one-and-done readers means that our design decisions have an additional heft or impact to them that non-IF games may not.

So by this point, you have figured out the scope of romance and the focus, leading you to implement the gates and tests needed to successfully romance a character.

In Cyberpunk’s implementation, we see fixed orientation and gender gates established. If Judy were an option in a Hosted Game, that means that those who do not role-play, or those self-insert readers who do not meet the gateway requirements lose out on content; which was implemented in a specific and focused manner.

If a reader does not find the RO specifically designed for them engaging, or if they had their heart set on romancing a character that was gated away from them, there can be issues as a consequence of that implementation.

As a side-bar, comparing and contrasting Judy and Panam shows us other consequences of design that we should be aware of.

One advantage that Judy’s design, as a character has over Panam, is that Panam carries the additional burden of being the vehicle through which a major area of content is introduced and explained to non-nomad protagonists.

Jackie, the companion character in Cyberpunk’s introductory act, has the job of introducing the street culture/scene to the protagonist, and it is done through 6+ hours of material.

Judy introduces and explains a sub-strain to the street scene, but does not have the additional burden of roughly a third of the world on her shoulders.

As a result of this design, given roughly the same amount of screen time with their dedicated side quests, Panam has a much heavier and harder job to accomplish. Judy has more time to devote to her personal narrative within the sub-culture she is world-building and thus has more time to hook the gamer into buying in on what she is selling to them.

As shown above, gates have consequences… some likely seen and others not so much. In Cyberunk, there will be many, some who are fanatical about the game, that will never see some of the gated content made for the game. I will never see Kerry’s romance content, unless I YouTube or Twitch it, which is something I rarely do.

Focusing specifically on your game, I feel it would hurt you, more than help you. The reason I feel this, is because, as we discussed before… you are introducing many of this audience to a world they have never seen (and because of recent world events) will never likely see in their lifetime.

Your game needs more ways to hook your readers into this world and it will require more effort to keep that buy-in going throughout… corruption of Hong Kong police is no doubt a topic you will be exploring, but if you put gates on further romancing the main npc character, will that help or hurt?

It might be rewarding for those gated through, but for the majority who are blocked, will the turn-off counter the efforts you made elsewhere to get your readers to buy in on this character and her development?

In certain IF games (specifically romance-focused) rewarding specific romances to targeted segments of your audience is a valued and prized design theory. In a Hong Kong Opera, that may very well be the first and only experience many in this community ever experience, I would say this design theory would hurt you more than help.

Imagine making a HG “Bloodsport” … the audience is served best by the “shallow” and “simple” romance option available to the protagonist. The focus of the narrative (the underground fighting culture) remains the main focus and the buy-in of the audience remains strong as their attention is focused on what the writers wish it to be, instead of being diverted by the romance.


Certainly. Shoot me a PM whenever.

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Do people think there is an advantage of having less romances (say 2 to 3) but giving the player total choice with their gender and thus player specific sexuality? I think it might be one of the better options for nuanced characters, though they also have to work as characters as all genders…

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Depends on the characters, I would think. Most times, the problem with only having two or three ROs, even if they are gender-variable, is that you are left trying to make them appealing to a very diverse crowd.

As @Eiwynn said, some people self-insert and others roleplay. Those who self-insert, from what I can tell by reading comments, tend to be more rigid in their preferences for ROs, whereas those who RP are typically more flexible in making their MCs. Either way, there is still one issue: if the reader/MC-owner or the reader/self-insert-owner can’t find a RO that suits their personal tastes (or tastes of their MC, as the case may be), they probably won’t be interested in the game. Unless, of course, it’s not a romance-centric game. In the latter case, it’s easier to ignore the problems, since (in the majority of non romance-focused games) ROs end up feeling tacked on and the romances don’t get enough “screen time” for it to matter.

That said, I agree that gender-flippable NPCs need to work relatively well as both genders. If the supernatural is involved, it tends to work better. Or if characters are immortal, really.