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Game Theory – Moral Dilemmas: Arranged Marriages

26 December, 2011

I was watching the video of Emilie Autumn‘s Marry Me (mildly NSFW for language) and it brought this issue to mind as a possible source of conflict, challenge and adventure.

While marriage does not usually figure as one of the major themes of roleplaying games, it is an important facet of human life and culture and often a major component to the actions of people in a world.  As such, it deserves to be looked at as a source of both character development and adventure ideas.  First, we will look at arranged marriages.

    Through much of human history, marriage was a choice made -or heavily influenced- by parents, other relatives or the societal structure with only limited input from the people being married.  The idea that marriage should be only, and exclusively, for love is of fairly recent coinage and is not universally accepted even in the modern world.

As most of us are a product of a free society that values individual choice, the idea of arranged -or worse, forced marriages- are difficult to understand.  But the societal reasons for them are well established (whether or not you -or your characters- find them convincing is another matter):

•    Ensuring that the couple has the necessary resources to raise and maintain a household and family.
•    To bind families/communities together for dynastic, economic or political reasons (such as confirming a peace) or a combination thereof.
•    To keep groups (caste, noble line, members of a religion, and such like.) together.
•    To allow those who might have trouble otherwise finding a match to do so and be able to have a family.
•    In some cases, astrology or other fortune telling methods may direct or support certain matches.

Once such traditions are established they tend to be hard to dislodge.  Families looking for a match for their child will often contract with a matchmaker (such as a shadchan in the orthodox Jewish community or a nakodo in Japan) who will seek a suitable match for both sides.  Historically, this has usually lead to young brides, with many childbearing years ahead of them, being matched with older men, who have had time to establish themselves in their profession and be able to afford a family.  Among the nobility, however, the economic rules are different with significant differences in ages being unexceptional and husbands with older wives not unknown.

Arranged marriages are usually, at some level, about economics, often directly in the form of:

•    Bride Price, which is exactly what the name implies, money paid to the family of the bride, possibly originating as remuneration for the lost of work that the daughter performed.
•    Dower, which is money given to a wife, usually by her husband, for her use if he died (from which we get the term dowager for a wife who has outlived his husband).
•    Dowry, which is the money or property that a woman brings with her into marriage to help form the household, if often belonged to the wife and could be taken by her if she left the marriage (which could lead to interesting maneuvers to keep the wife happy -or at least contained- if the dowry was valuable enough).

Most families want to see their children do well in their married life, partly because the parents would later be relying on their children and grandchildren to support them in their old age.  Again this usually is looking at the economics of the situation and shows why parents might want to marry their daughter to an older man who was successful in his profession and had his own home rather than letting her marry a local boy just starting out.

For most roleplaying games, marriage is not usually a major factor, but in those involving nobility and the upper echelons of society, it probably should be (Legends of the Five Rings being a notable exception where marriage politics often plays an important role).

Here are a variety of adventure seeds associated with arranged marriages:

•    Star-crossed lovers, or just someone who does not wish to be married, have fled before an arranged marriage.  This will cause great embarrassment to all involved if they are not returned.  Bonus points for tying it to one of the character’s families.
•    The adventurers are hired to deliver gifts and a glowing report of a suitor to a distant family seeking a husband or bride.  Perhaps the person to be wooed will fall for one of the adventurers instead.
•    One of the character’s best friends asks for help in courting their ideal match.  All sorts of problems could arise, just ask Cyrano de Bergerac.
•    A character is reminded that a marriage had been arranged before he or she embarked on the life of an adventurer . . . by the arrival of their parents with prospective husband or bride in tow.
•    The characters are hired to polish the reputation of one of the wooer, or to tarnish the reputations of rivals, for the hand of a very eligible bride or husband.
•    A person of marriageable age, and good prospects, falls in love with one of the characters and begs them to marry.  Unfortunately, doing so would upset a long arranged marriage and the very presence of the adventurers may bring a whiff of scandal that the family does not want.

Traditional adventurers, even if not noble, will almost certainly become desirable marriage partners due to their wealth and personal power.  Impoverished nobles will seek to restore their family fortunes, merchants and guild members will look for support in their political games, and a lucky commoner can achieve security and comfort beyond their wildest dreams.  Offers of marriage should start to arrive once adventures have achieved a certain level of reputation, especially if they have a fixed base of operations.

The politics and roleplaying potential of marriages, especially arranged ones, should not be overlooked if you have the sort of campaign and group that enjoys such situations.

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