Tuesday, July 20, 2010

NPC Gallery: The Regretful Ex

It's kind of hard to stay mad at Raylan
- Winona Hawkins, Justified

One of my players turned me on to an excellent series, Justified.  The entire series is worth your time for not just the drama but for the rich cast of character, though sadly the main character won't make it onto the Gallery: the stoic gun-fighter isn't exactly an uncommon character that needs highlighting.

I find his relationship with Winona Hawkins fascinating, however.  She's his ex-wife, but far from being a hateful harridan as ex-wives are often portrayed, her reasons for leaving seem sound enough, and while she expresses happiness at her current state of affairs, an undeniable spark remains between them.  Anyone who has broken up with a long time companion or seen such a break up knows how profoundly a couple can become tied together, and even if they are genuinely happier apart, it's so easy, so tempting, to fall back into old habits.

Justified plays with this dynamic very well, with the pair struggling to come to grips with their past and their present.  They fight, toss accusations about who left who, but they also linger and glance.  It makes for riveting watching.

How often does an ex-wife come up in a tabletop game?  In all my years of running games, I've never seen one, never even heard of one in another game.  Players, I think, prefer to see their character as free, so that (should they be interested in romance at all) they can pursue romance with a free conscience.  Once they fall in love, they typically imagine a happy ending, and all of the drama occurs when the two try to get together.  It never occurs once they are together.  But how many dramatic opportunities does this miss?  An Ex-wife fills so many roles at once: Companion, long-standing friend, rival, enemy, love and lost love.  She says something about your character's past and she offers the chance to find redemption and fall in love all over again.

I doubt players will think of this on their own, but it's the sort of thing that works well in a long-standing game.  Let a player fall in love, let him win his woman, let them marry, and then tear them apart, and then bring them back together.  It'll require working closely with the player (it'll be easy for him to simply hate the NPC for her "betrayal" unless you handle it very carefully), but it might be very rewarding if it works out.  The Ex doesn't have to be an Ex-Wife either: She can be an ex-girlfriend too (Or ex-husband, or ex-boyfriend), which can allow you to initiate a slightly less intimate version of this story a little faster.
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