The Soap Opera

COMPATIBILITY: This plug-in assumes that your game has a central resource that characters possess that is gained and spent in a way fairly central to play (usually points - action, fate, willpower, mojo, or the like), and that you’re representing it with tokens (or could) at the table. It also assumes that you want to turn your game into a soap opera. Just a warning, that.

The following plug-in is a way to rewrite your game so that character relationships are put front-and-center not only in play but in the mechanics as well. In addition, it works in such a way that those relationships will not only change, but cause serious problems, creating the potential for a whole lot of, well, Drama! Using this plug in means making a big change to a game - carefully set, it could turn the rules for Ars Magica into a set of rules for playing “Wizard High School”, complete with angsty love and (literally!) explosive breakups.

The PDF for this article contains the article text (including this paragraph, for no real reason), but has a form (for you to print) as it’s first page, which includes some ‘reminder text’ on the rules presented here. That form is a new page for the character sheet of every significant character in the game. It’s not a fillable form, because the contents will change during play; it’s a tracking sheet.

Your game must have a central resource that has a lot of uses, and which does see constant use (or would, if characters could just get more of it). Take that resource, and note down the normal ways to regain it easily and in significant quantities (including ‘downtime refills’). Those methods for getting the resource aren’t part of the game anymore. If this means that the only methods for getting the resource no require working for each token, that’s about right.

There are seven relationship slots. Each character may have one other character each in one of the ‘slots’. So, your character can have one Exemplar, one Keeper, and so on. These other characters must be named characters that appear regularly in play; they may only be the main characters of other players if those players give you permission to do so (in a really crazy soap opera game, permission should usually be given for this). You can’t duplicate a character across slots; if someone is your Exemplar, they can’t also be your Keeper.

All the following rules apply… This may seem fairly hefty, but is actually pretty simple stuff.
  • Gaining a Relationship: By gaining a new relationship at the ‘Implied’ level, your character refreshes their token pool (either filling it to the maximum, or, if there is no maximum, jumping up to a ‘refresh level’ set by the GM).
  • Reciprocality: There is absolutely no requirement for your list of relationships to be reciprocated in kind. You can absolutely have a Paramour that thinks of you as their Rival - in fact, such mismatches are typically awesome.
  • Escalating a Relationship: Relationships ‘escalate’ from Implied to Overt to Abusive to Murderous (note that the target of the relationship is not necessarily the one being abused or the target of murderous intent, and that many, even most, relationships won’t get to ‘murderous’). This escalation is not a question of realism, but of drama! After you have played out a relationship at a given level for at least three scenes, you can escalate it to the next level up and refresh your token pool again. You are never required to escalate a relationship; you can keep it at the same level for a long time; keeping a positive relationship at the overt level is how the system represents healthy relationships. Which are boring, in terms of play.
  • Removing a Relationship: If the target of a relationship is effectively eliminated from regular play for some reason, they may be removed from your list for free. Otherwise, you must spend a number of tokens equal to the level you refresh to when gaining or escalating a relationship in order to remove it.
  • Playing Out Relationships: Each of the relationships, listed below, describes how it is played out at each level. You should play to this level in any scene where the target of the relationship is present - especially the scene where you add the relationship to your sheet. If others at the table note that you’re not doing so, and have the opportunity, they can call for you to do so or discard a token. Note that you can always play above this level of intensity; what’s described is intended as the minimum level of drama, not the maximum.
  • Repeating A Relationship: Naturally, you can break up and fall in love all over again, if you want. If you have an empty relationship slot, you can use it to gain a relationship to someone that you have already related to. However, if you have already had one or more relationships (as described by these rules) to a given target, the second relationship you take grants you one less token than normal for taking it and escalating it, for each such relationship you’ve had to the target. So if you break off your Paramour, and then get them as a Rival, you get one less token each step; if you break that off and make them into your Paramour again, you gain two less tokens each step of the way, and so on. This reduction in ‘income’ doesn’t make it any cheaper to get rid of the relationship, however. You may insert a joke about the desirability of ‘fresh meat’ in long term play here, if you like.

Your Anathema is someone you want to destroy. An anathema is an enemy that your character wants to see reduced to nothing. While this relationship is merely implied, minor jabs and snarky witticisms, or just boiling glares, are sufficient for you. Once it has become overt, you will need to actually work to undermine them socially. At the abusive level, you begin looking for opportunities to hurt them physically (and get away with it), to mess up anything they care about deeply, to turn others against them. When this relationship becomes murderous, you’ll begin looking for a way to end their life. These acts need not be direct, immediate violence; sabotage, ‘accidents’, and even serious challenges to honorable fights all express this level of relationship.

Someone you want to follow. Your exemplar is someone that your character believes is somehow better, wiser, or simply greater, and that their greatness should be acknowledged by everyone else. At the ‘implied’ level, you may content yourself with small acts of admiration, possibly carrying a picture of them or trying to find opportunities to be near them. Once this relationship becomes overt, you should defend them against slanders in your presence, and will be plainly ready to do what they say when they’re present. At the abusive level, you’ll be ready to heap scorn and calumny on those that disagree with your Exemplar, and their enemies become yours.  When this relationship becomes murderous, you’ll be ready to kill to get them into a position of strength. (Note: Your Exemplar need not actually desire power. At all.)

Someone you want to escape, without leaving your own life. A keeper has some hold on your character - whether or not they know it; a man you are jealously obsessed with can be your Keeper just as surely as the serial-killing sister that your guilt won’t let you stop taking care of. At the implied level, this may simply mean trying to interest others in them (in hopes of foisting them off). As this becomes overt, you’ll begin making small attempts to eject them from your life, while still remaining in the realm of the socially acceptable. At the abusive level, you will likely begin to actively live in a way that you hope will repel them. And, finally, at the murderous level, you’ll be ready to kill them - or to kill someone and frame them.

Someone you want to obtain. Your paramour is someone that doesn’t fill the role that your character wishes them to in their life (a role which should, eventually, turn out to be one that the other will object to, even if it seems wonderful at first). At the implied level, this involves no more than significant and thoughtful looks and attempts to attract their attention. As it becomes overt, the first signs of how you want them to relate to you should be expressed, often with small attempts on your part to entice the other to take on that role. By the abusive stage, you will be entirely willing to harm or browbeat the person to act the way you wish towards you. And finally, by the time the relationship turns murderous, you’ll do anything, however vile.

Someone you want to defeat. Your rival is a character that your own character sees themselves as competing with in some way, trying to gain something (or someone).  Implied, you just view any competition (of any kind) that both of you are in as more intense, and may give small signs of just who you feel you’re competing with. At the overt stage, you’re obviously ready to take them on, anytime. Once the relationship becomes abusive, it’s not enough to just contest with them and try to beat them; you want to rub it in, for them to grovel at your feet - and it’s plain that you want this. In the end, once the relationship becomes murderous, the desire becomes such that you want them dead, and want everyone to know that you’re the one who did it. A rival differs from an Anathema in that the desire isn’t about annihilating them so much as it is about ‘counting coup’.

Someone you want to mold. Your protégé is someone that you think has great potential to be someone (preferably, someone that they don’t really want to be), and that you are the one that can make them into that person. Like a Paramour, you want them to fill a role; unlike a Paramour, this role doesn’t need to relate to you. At the implied level, you may simply be offering occasional advice or introducing them to ‘the right people’. As the relationship becomes overt, you should be mentioning the role you want them to fill to them, and explaining why this is perfect. At the abusive level, you’ll happily resort to blatant manipulation of the target, to teaching them ‘hard lessons’ through dirty tactics, and the like. Finally, by the time this relationship becomes murderous, you’ll be ready to excise from their life the people that don’t fit who you want them to become, by whatever means are necessary.

Someone you want to protect. Your ward is someone that you believe is endangered in some fashion by something (typically, by one or more of their relationships, or by the whole world), and whom you wish to keep safe. Of course, your ward should not want to be protected in the specific ways that your character will eventually choose to employ. At the implied level, this is the most innocuous kind of social presence and interference. Once it becomes overt, stern warnings to both the target and simple actions against whatever you think may harm them are the order of the day. At the
abusive level, you’ll act to drive off the malign influence - or even shove extra work on your ward, get them briefly detained, for their own good. By the time this becomes murderous, you’ll shoot that boy if he comes around one more time.