How a Show About Monsters Handles RPG Romance

A look at how the actual play web series LA By Night expertly incorporates a love story into their supernatural campaign.

Emily Buza
Jun 2, 2020 · 8 min read

So, you’re playing a TTRPG — maybe you’re even streaming it or putting it out as a podcast — and you’ve decided to add a little romance to your pen and paper game. You’ve checked in with everyone at the table, you’ve made sure everyone is comfortable, and now you’re ready to start romancing away. Only problem? You’re not sure how to fit romance into a game that might not be built with that kind of story in mind. Today, we’re going to talk about how a little web series about California vampires incorporates romance into their campaign by flavoring existing mechanics, allowing the narrative to affect game mechanics, and embracing smaller roleplay moments.

LA By Night is a live-streamed web series that uses the Vampire: The Masquerade RPG system to tell a dark and complex story of supernatural intrigue and personal horror. So, naturally, I’m going to be talking about how the series deals with a genuinely adorable romance within the context of a tabletop roleplaying game.

There are a few different romantic subplots going on within the world of LA By Night — Annabelle has two mortal partners, Mark and Ellenore, both of whom have slowly made their way into the outskirts of this supernatural world; as is fitting of a Toreador socialite, Nelli G has several ongoing flirtationships with mortals, ghouls, and other vampires; and even the main antagonists of the series, Vannevar and Suzanne, have a strangely sweet dynamic — but I’ve chosen to focus on my favorite romance of the series: Jasper and Eva. This reckless Nosferatu and Tremere flower child — played by Alexander Ward and Josephine McAdam, respectively — hold the distinction of being the first canon relationship on the show to emerge from in-game roleplay rather than backstory development during character creation. And with their sweet study dates and hesitantly evolving intimacy, who wouldn’t fall in love with these adorable monsters?

Their love story so far is one of beautifully improvising storytelling, very lucky (and unlucky) dice rolls, and actors who are just as invested in this relationship as their fans are. But today, I’m going to focus on a few specific moments from the show as examples of just some of the many ways you can explore romance in your own games.

First, let’s talk about flavoring existing mechanics to enhance the narrative impact of a roll. In “Hollywood Ending,” the Valley coterie and their allies embark on a risky mission to rescue a kidnapped Jasper from their enemies. When they eventually get him back to their safehouse, he is in a supernatural state of unconsciousness known as torpor and the only thing that can wake him is the blood of a vampire more powerful than himself. As a powerful blood sorceress who is very concerned for her new boyfriend’s well-being, Eva uses her powers to discern Jasper’s blood potency and increase her own to make herself strong enough to wake him. She then willingly feeds Jasper enough of her own blood to not only rouse him from torpor but also to decrease his hunger stat from a very dangerous five to a much more manageable one, preventing Jasper from entering a violent feeding frenzy upon waking.

This entire interaction — one driven by deep emotional desires and interpersonal connections — is fraught with mechanical pieces. Blood potency is a stat, one which can be discerned by the use of a special thaumaturgical ability and which can be affected by a different ability that requires an additional roll. Hunger is its own ever-changing stat within Vampire: The Masquerade, one that affects almost every power a vampire can use. In this multi-step process to wake and calm her comatose love interest, Eva must make several rouse checks, tempting the monstrous Beast inside her to allow her to use her supernatural abilities. First one check to increase her own blood potency and then three more to feed Jasper — she successfully passes all four checks, keeping her own hunger at bay throughout the entire extremely tense encounter.

In a different game with a different game master, this sequence of events might have remained a purely mechanical moment — one in which Eva simply rolled four times, got lucky on each, and achieved the desired outcome. But Jason Carl, LA By Night’s expert Storyteller, takes this moment as an opportunity to deepen the relationship between Jasper and Eva. Since Eva had to drink a small amount of Jasper’s blood as part of determining his power level, Jason rationalizes Eva’s successful rouse check to raise her own blood potency by saying, “Having tasted Jasper’s vitae, you feel no urge to have anything else. It’s perfect the way it is.” This same logic — one based purely on an emotional connection — stretches to encompass the three successful rouse checks she rolls while feeding Jasper, a statistically improbable feat which one of the other players even quietly jokes is the result of true love. With just a little Storyteller intervention and support, a random series of lucky dice rolls suddenly has a narrative implication that is only possible within the RPG sphere.

Another way in which LA By Night handles romance is by allowing narrative choices to affect mechanics rather than mechanics exclusively driving the story. For example, Eva almost always wears warded clothing that she has magically imbued with the power to cause severe harm to other vampires if they touch her. There are mechanics to these wards — dice to be rolled and stats to be checked — all to determine exactly how much damage she can do to another vampire without even lifting a finger. This kind of protection, while effective, can cause a few problems when the vampire you’re interested in is unaware that your dress can cause aggravated damage if he touches your shoulder.

As Jasper and Eva grow closer over the course of the series — and after he gets burned while attempting to comfort her in a highly stressful moment during his season two epilogue — she eventually makes the conscious decision to adjust her wards to accommodate him. With a bit of Jasper’s blood — a gift that reflects a deep trust between them, considering all the horrible things a Tremere can do to another vampire if they obtain a sample of their vitae— and a few recast spells, Jasper is now able to initiate contact with Eva without fear, an honor reserved seemingly for him alone. This technically mechanical choice — one which creates a small “flaw” in her defenses — isn’t like simply picking up a new piece of armor and adding it to her inventory, though. Instead, it’s a mechanical manifestation of a romantically driven character choice — Eva is, quite literally, letting Jasper in. By allowing narrative decisions like this one to affect mechanics in this way, LA By Night seamlessly weaves the romantic roleplay of the story into the more gaming-specific aspects of the show.

But not everything LA By Night does with romance is inherently wrapped up in mechanics. Much of the show is simply masterfully-acted roleplay with no dice involved, some of which fuels the romantic subplots of the series brilliantly. Jasper’s tendency to check in with Eva — to ask if she’s okay as soon as they get out of immediate danger or to offer physical comfort the moment he realizes she’s in distress — is about making room within the larger narrative for a romance storyline. And little things like Eva taking Jasper’s hand or touching his arm while the conversation and conflict rage on around them, ground their romance even in the most chaotic, plot-heavy episodes.

Sometimes your graph paper romance isn’t tied in tightly with the main plotline of your RPG, but that doesn’t mean it has to be ignored or abandoned. Big romantic gestures can be super fun — I know I’m not the only viewer who squealed at Jasper and Eva’s first kiss — but making time for small moments like these in the middle of a larger plot only further enhances the romance you’re building. If you’re in a home game, making eye contact with your love interest from across the battlefield or offering them a sincere word of encouragement during a stressful encounter will make you and the other players more invested in that relationship. And if you’re publishing your campaign online — as a livestream, podcast, or something in between — little moments like that will make your audience even more excited to see how those characters’ shared storyline will unfold.

Season four of LA By Night premiered in January and featured some incredible moments between Jasper and Eva before the season wrapped up in April. From explorations of genre-specific intimacy to navigating old flames and past trauma to the trials and tribulations of moving in together while a cold war rages on outside, this season allowed these players to examine what it means to not just pursue a romance but to actually try to maintain a relationship after your characters have gotten together. We’ll just have to wait and see what next season has in store for these two vampiric lovebirds.

I often say that there is no one right way to write a love story, and when it comes to RPGs, there’s no one right way to play one either. If you want to add romance to your own game and you’re ready to dive in, go for it in whatever way will bring you — and your fellow players — the most joy. But if it’s something you’re interested in exploring in-game, but aren’t quite sure how to weave into the larger story yet, consider taking a page or two from LA By Night’s sweet and spooky playbook.

Emily Buza is a writer, actress, and podcaster. As the co-host of Whelmed: The Young Justice Files alongside Rich Howard, she dives into the DC Comics animated series Young Justice, reviewing and analyzing the show from a fan perspective while also discussing what we can learn from it as storytellers. You can find more of Emily’s work — including additional articles, creative writing, podcast appearances, and more — at her website and connect with her over on Twitter.

Tabletop Micdrop is a publication about tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs), storytelling, and the RPG podcast industry. We want to share our passion for the TTRPG audio medium, introduce folks to new shows, and explore the RPG podcast industry together.

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