I signed up for what we all thought would be quite a light hearted romantic comedy called “True Love Match”, written and run by the very experienced Morgan Davie. The premise was quite simple: the five players would be four hopeful ladies vying to win the hand of the ‘Bachelor’ in the vein of those pernicious reality TV shows. My fellow players were all experienced and skilled roleplayers, and the game opened on quite a light hearted note, and I felt like we were set for quite a funny afternoon session of gaming.
I was wrong, but not disappointed. It wasn’t long before the game took quite a serious turn. From our post game discussion, it became apparent that we had all come into the game with the expectation of some light hearted silly fun – over the top characters, unreal scenarios, and a bit of taking the mickey of the entire television genre. However, the scenario managed to elicit a number of strong, unexpected responses.
The first was a sense of competition. The dates had quite a simple mechanic – if either one of you did something the other one liked, a dice was awarded, and rolled. 4-5-6 rolls were kept in a bag labelled “Love” and 1-2-3 were put in the Maybe box. Bad moments gave you the opportunity to rescue maybe dice. The time pressure on the ‘date’ scenes meant I suddenly found myself trying desperately to think of things to say and do that would give me dice. Whenever a hopeful returned from a date, the other contestants found themselves listening to the jingle of the dice bag to try and determine how the date went. As the game went on, and we geared up for the first elimination, we had a second round of speed dates, where it was visible that each of the hopeful characters was wracking their brains to think of how to woo the Bachelor. By this point, all the players were commenting on how unexpectedly intense the game got. Nobody was really laughing any more. It had become intensely serious.
The next most surprising response was the investment in the competition, and leading on from the sense of competition, there was a sense of investment in the competition. Far from being silly, the goal became something that mattered. Tension in the room was palpable as the Bachelor was about to hand out the red dice and black dice. Though my character was one of the ones that made it through to the final two, there was a sense of discomfort in continuing on. It felt like I was betraying my fellow contestants – whom my character had bitched about the entire way through – and feeling uncertain about wanting to win, yet pressured to carry on because if I didn’t, then what was the point of all this? Suddenly, the effort I had expended, mattered. Frequently, I found myself caught in a vice of how to play the character: do I say what I think the bachelor wants to hear, or do I stay true to the character as she is? More importantly, what does the character do when faced by the same dilemma?
When the bachelor chose the other contestant character and not me, I felt oddly embarrassed. Standing there, like a third wheel, while he professed his love for the chosen girl. The character felt the need to get out of there, because, what do you do? How do you excuse yourself? In the end I just walked out of the room. One of the previously eliminated contestants followed me and gave me a hug. I was surprised by how much my heart was pounding in my chest.
Coming from a larping background, I often have more trouble engaging with tabletop games than larp (this isn’t true for all larpers, by any means, it’s just true for me). I find it tricky to let myself be moderated by dice and stats than by my own acting and the response from the other players. What I found most striking about True Love Match, and what I think is it’s absolute critical winning element, is that the way the dice and stats were applied, it elicited a strong engagement response, one that I think roleplaying alone could not have in the limited amount of time we had to engage with the characters and the game. They created not just a sense of competition but buy in to the competition, leading a roomful of (excellent) roleplayers who had come in prepared for a laugh to have an intense experience in the awkwardly false and ultimately humiliating reality of “romance” reality TV.
I think the moment that summed up the game for me was from one of the contestants ‘Katie’ (played by Nikki), who after she had been eliminated, said to the confession cam: “For the girl who wins, I think you should think really carefully about being with someone who can break so many hearts.”