Sex, Romance and Attraction: Applying the Split Attraction Model to Larps

Sex, Romance and Attraction: Applying the Split Attraction Model to Larps

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of or any larp community at large.

The Split Attraction Model (SAM) was created within the aromantic (often shortened as aro) and asexual (often shortened as ace) communities to build language to describe members’ experiences. The model can be used to expand language in describing larps, in setting expectations, and in player negotiations. The language and understanding of the split attraction model helps to reduce struggles and misunderstandings.

To understand the Split Attraction Model, it’s important to understand the difference between sexual and romantic attraction, as they are often conflated. Sexual attraction is an attraction that would make someone desire sexual contact with the object of their attraction. Romantic attraction is an attraction that would make someone desire romantic contact with the object of their attraction. There is a societal view that people may experience sexual, but not romantic, attraction to a particular person: but the converse isn’t widely acknowledged, and when it is, it is generally presented in a negative context.

Split Attraction Model

It is helpful to start with some background to best understand the model. Asexuality is a sexual orientation where a person experiences little to no sexual attraction to anyone, and aromanticism is a romantic orientation where a person experiences little to no romantic attraction to anyone. That these are separate orientations, and that they are separate from more widely-known orientations, can be understood via this model. While the SAM is known and inherent in aro and ace communities, it can also be put to use elsewhere, including larp.

The Aromantic spectrum Union for Recognition, Education and Advocacy (AUREA) defines the Split Attraction Model as:

The Split Attraction Model (SAM) is a framework that makes a distinction between experiences of attraction, depending on certain characteristics, and conceptualizes them as different types of attraction. Commonly used are: sexual, romantic, aesthetic, alterous, platonic and sensual attractions.

An Introduction to Aromanticism, The Aromantic spectrum Union for Recognition, Education and Advocacy
The Split Attraction Model (Laura Wood)

The Split Attraction Model (Laura Wood)

The above diagram offers a simplistic view of the model. Sexual and romantic orientations are considered separately. The left column indicates whether someone experiences sexual attraction, and if so to whom. If someone experiences little or no sexual attraction they may be considered asexual and if they experience little to no romantic attraction they may be considered aromantic. If they do experience sexual or romantic attraction then they would be considered allosexual or alloromantic respectively.

Someone who experiences no sexual attraction, and romantic attraction to the same gender as themselves could be considered asexual and homoromantic. Someone who experiences sexual attraction to a gender other than their own and no romantic attraction would be heterosexual and aromantic. It can also apply to allo identities — for example someone might be sexually attracted to multiple genders (pansexual) but only romantically attracted to a gender other than their own (hetroromantic).

While the SAM was developed by the aro and ace communities, it is intended to be agnostic to commonly recognized orientations. Another example is someone who is heterosexual and biromantic who might otherwise be seen as “straight”.

The SAM in Larp

In the rest of this article, we will be discussing the SAM, and applying it in ways that refer to players’ interests within larp, which may or may not match their personal orientations. It can be common for a straight player to roleplay romance with players of the same gender, or to not have any desire to roleplay sex in larp. Likewise, an aro player may or may not want to roleplay romance in larp.

Larp often uses the terms ‘romance’ and ‘romantic’ as attributes to describe content, focus, or in creating character relationships: but the meaning varies and is often left unspecified. In some situations this means flirting, courting, and expressing feelings of love between characters. In others it may mean or include intimate or sexual content, in the background, off-stage or on-stage using metatechniques, or otherwise. This conflation is understandable, as many people view romance and sex as going hand in hand, and many societies avoid direct discussion of sex in public.

Larp Development

Understanding the SAM can be an asset to larp designers who need to understand the approach that they want to take to attraction in their larp.

It can help designers decide what they want to include in the larp. The model can examine whether romance is present in the larp and whether sexual attraction is assumed or played out. Even larps that don’t feature characters with romantic and sexual orientations that differ from each other might benefit from understanding how much play they want around each of these areas. For example many UK Freeform larps focus on romance, but don’t often have on-stage play around sex, although sexual attraction in the romantic relationships is usually assumed.

Working out the focus designers want to place on romantic and sexual attraction can also help development of metatechniques. If sexual attraction is an important element of the larp, then metatechniques used for sex generally reflect this, whereas if it’s less important then metatechniques may be less elaborate or omitted all together.

Using this model also opens designers up to the possibility of other relationship models such as queerplatonic relationships (ie close relationships which are not primarily romantic or sexual in nature) and a general approach of relationship anarchy (ie a belief that relationships should not be bound by set rules other than those which are mutually agreed upon).

Describing a Larp

Consent-based larp requires as a foundation that all involved are aware of what they are consenting to, which is something the SAM can help with.

When providing the details of a larp, it is common to include an overview of content potential players can expect, the principles of the larp, or a design document. Using the SAM when writing and sharing these details can remove ambiguity of what content players would be signing up for. This description or document can separately specify if romantic and sexual content is included, along with what is meant in each of those cases.

For example, without using the SAM, a larp may commonly indicate “romantic plots between characters feature strongly in this larp”. To some people, they may assume this means flirting, courting and expressions of love, and want to sign up for that, only to get to the larp and discover sheets which describe sexual content and a defined metatechnique that players can optionally use to represent physical intimacy during game. Using the SAM, this same larp might say “This larp strongly features romantic plots between characters including flirting, and expressions of love as well as sexual content in the background and use of a physical intimacy metatechnique.”

Character Creation

By separating sexual and romantic attraction and detailing how they are expressed within the character, the model can be useful for creating characters based on the type of play that participants want to experience.

It can allow them to understand exactly what they are opting into. They can feel comfortable creating or signing up for a character who has a romantic relationship(s), without feeling that there will be expressions of sexuality that they are uncomfortable with, or conversely can play a sexually driven character without feeling that there is an expectation that a romance should develop.

This can be used to build participant confidence in knowing that they don’t have to opt out of romantic or sexual relationships entirely in order to get the type of play that they enjoy. It also means that there is less uncertainty about whether a relationship will develop in a way that all the participants are comfortable with, leading to increased confidence during the larp. It gives agency to participants by allowing them to choose what is being expressed, rather than making assumptions about what trying to pursue a specific type of relationship entails.

Player Negotiation

In order for the participant in a larp to fully understand what they are consenting to, it is important that as few as possible assumptions are made about the nature of play. This is particularly true around romance, sex and relationships where participants might find it necessary to set boundaries for personal comfort but struggle to do this where the SAM model isn’t normalized, leading to players either continuing with scenes that make them uncomfortable or opting out of romantic or sexual play completely. Not only does that unnecessarily limit play, it can cause games which feature these things heavily to be unplayable by some people as they would be shut out.

The majority of people have expectations of what a romantic (or sexual) relationship should entail which are carried into larp. When two or more characters are defined as being in a relationship, it is generally understood that this will include romantic and sexual aspects. Discussion of participant boundaries would normally take place, but generally would start with the expectation that the player is comfortable in participating in at least some metatechniques involving symbolising sex within the relationship (assuming such metatechniques exist within the larp.) There would also be the assumption that the participant would be comfortable with playing on some romantic attraction, possibly as an endgame in a relationship which is initially based on sexual attraction.

By using the SAM the participant can discuss the sexual and romantic attitudes of their character, as well as the boundaries they are setting as a player. It also means that the other player in the relationship can understand the intended trajectory and steer play accordingly. Use of the SAM can also allow more people to play larps that feature romance or sex, by providing more detailed aspects to be negotiated on.

Posed photo from Live or Die: Break the Wheel, a Game of Thrones larp (photo: Maya Kuper)

Posed photo from Live or Die: Break the Wheel, a Game of Thrones larp (photo: Maya Kuper)

Examples of the Split Attraction Model in Larps

Just a Little Lovin’ (Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo) could potentially allow players to use the SAM during play. One of the key themes of the larp is ‘desire’: and there are metatechniques to offer sex and to play out a sexual encounter with the amount of desire and passion discussed beforehand by the participants. Afterwards each character gives a monologue about what occurred, which could allow them to express a (lack of) romantic attraction.

Cult used a technique where when characters negotiated physical intimacy off-game, they also discussed how the characters felt about it and how it would affect their relationship. Due to the setting (a manipulative and exploitative religious cult) it was assumed that not all sexual attraction would necessarily have a romantic element.

Born this Way (Rei England) has opportunities for participants to calibrate their relationships with each other and specifically to ask questions about any sexual or romantic attraction, or deepening of a queerplatonic relationship, as separate emotions, rather than assuming that one entails the other.

More Than Friendship (Quinn D and Eva Schiffer) specifies both romantic and sexual relationships and orientations in the main description, to be explicit and remove ambiguity. There, while the focus is specifically on platonic relationships, romantic and sexual orientations still need to be specified separately.

Currently in larps there seems to be more opportunity to convey that sexual attraction might not be romantic, than to convey that romantic attraction might not be sexual, as the metatechniques used generally focus on sexual activity.

Underexplored Topics

Most of the above is focused on romantic and sexual attraction because they are the most recognized and explored in larp. But the SAM also invites us to look at other types of attraction. While some larps do include some of these, there is a lot more that can be explored. In the same way larps often use romantic and sexual attraction to draw characters towards each other, these other types of attraction can as well.

A larp setting where appearance is important could lean heavily on aesthetic attraction. One focused on exploration of touch could explore sensual attraction. And almost all larps can focus on platonic attraction between characters. These are not often explored in larp simply as a reflection of our amatonormative society which supports the widespread assumption that everyone is better off in an exclusive, romantic, long-term coupled relationship, and that everyone is seeking such a relationship; and which prioritizes romantic connections above all others. By untangling these assumptions larp has more and various directions to explore.

Wrap Up

Using the SAM can help larp designers and players think about sexual and romantic attraction separately throughout the larp process. This allows more deliberate design and roleplay by examining and breaking into pieces something that society just assumes all goes together. And it better supports consent in larp by helping everyone understand what is included, instead of players interpreting things differently. The SAM can function as a language and tool in larp to recognize and apply the distinctions it brings. And it can help expand the topics explored in larp.

This article was released to coordinate with Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week, and inspired on the Ace / Aromantic Spectrum Larpers group.


Ace / Aromantic Spectrum Larpers Facebook group:

Guidelines for Asexual and Aromantic inclusive larps:

“I Don’t Get It”, a larp about asexuality available in the Make a Scene anthology:

History of the Split Attraction Model:

Cover photo: An in-game wedding during Live or Die: Break the Wheel, a Game of Thrones larp (photo: Maya Kuper)

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Laura Wood (she / they) is a British larper and larp designer. They are an organizer at Larps on Location. They have also designed several larps which have run in several countries throughout Europe including Here Comes a Candle, The Dreamers, and Inside. They love larp for its ability to explore relationships, ethics, and identity: and are currently interested in safety, consent, and community building.
Quinn has over a decade of experience writing, running, and participating in roleplaying events in a variety of formats and styles. In addition to multiple staff positions at the Intercon larp convention, on the New England Interactive Literature board of directors and Peaky Midwest, Quinn is co-founder and convention organizer of the Be-Con larp convention. Quinn values larp for its ability to build empathy, educate, explore human existence and create social bonds. Quinn's recent focus has been on emotional content, identity exploration and empathy building in a visceral and safe manner. In addition to, Quinn has previously been published in the Wyrd Con 2015 and Knutpunkt 2018 books. Outside of roleplaying events, Quinn enjoys making things, spending time with friends, and volunteering time for a local community health clinic.