Yesterday, in my Continuum game, I had an amusing little situation, where someone said something without realizing the way it would be taken by the NPC they're talking too. Kinda like that famous exchange between Merlin and Julia in the Amber novels, where context tells us that the two characters will walk away from a conversation without realizing they completely misunderstood each other. It's a sick, evil GM like me that lets that sort of thing happen to his players.
First, some backstory...
Way back when the campaign started, I had all the players make me short lists of defining moments from their characters lives. It's a time-travel game, and as such there's reasonable chance a PC might be tempted to revisit their past.
One of the players included in his past a note about his character Ron's last romantic relationship. On the list of defining events in his life, he put the date they broke up, and made it clear that in the years between that break-up and his learning to time-travel, he'd avoided relationships and romance entirely. Maybe the player is saying they don't want romance to be in the game at all, their character will go through life single and unattached, just keep that sort of stuff away from them. On the other hand, the player may be saying that being cold and broken-hearted is part of the character concept, and they're looking to the GM for opportunities to let them play that. Asking the GM to challenge them, in a way. (If he is trying to signal that romance should not be in the game at all, it would be a vast change from the last campaign I'd gamed with that player in it, where he fell for a known enemy NPC and betrayed the party to her.) So my inclination is to dangle some minor romantic plot-thread out there to at least give them an opportunity to role-play that character element once. The plan is to then gauge based on their reaction whether or not to sweep the plot thread under the rug.
It being a time-travel game, there's a great deal of flexibility, and plots need not always be presented in a linear fashion. So, more than a year ago, I introduced an NPC that could potentially be a way to illustrate exactly whatever it was that the player was getting at. This NPC is a female time-traveller from Tibet named Penuri Pemba. Depending on the era and society she's encountered in, sometimes she's dressed as a well-manicured pulpy femme fatale with long beautiful hair, and other times she's been in the robes and shaved head of a Buddhist Nun.
I've had a lot of fun implying that she knows the PCs well, in particular Ron, the relationship-shy PC I was describing above. She calls him by a pet name that clearly indicates she knows a lot about his pre-time-travel life, and she plays coy little information games not exactly explaining how she knows him. Her past is his future, for the most part. I've kept it in a narrative quantum state, where depending on how the PC proceeds, they could turn out to be good friends, or another badly failed relationship. Could be an unrequited love, a predestined future betrayal, or she could even be stalking him. I know what my preferred default interpretation of their past & future is, but it being a time-travel game, I have to be prepared to scrap my ideas on a moments notice if Ron chooses a course of action that conflicts with my plans. The true nature of how she knows him will eventually be defined by Ron's player's decisions and actions. The options are all over the emotional map, and could be dialed to any degree.
For the most part I've been gentle and subtle with it... except for one session several months back when another NPC who was clearly a friend of hers walked up to Ron, shouted something in an Asian language that included Penuri Pemba's name, and punched Ron in the face. Clearly, it's not all garden of happiness... but whether that guy was being protective of a friend whose heart Ron broke, or is a romantic rival, remains to be scene and will be defined by what Ron does. The punch definitely dialed things up a notch, but could still be interpreted in any of several directions.
Lately, I hadn't used Penuri Pemba much, just left things simmering off-camera. Seemed like Ron's player was avoiding the whole situation, and I didn't want to force anything if he wasn't enjoying it. But shortly after the start of Monday's session, he brought up the idea of seeking her out as a possible source of information on a mystery he was trying to solve (relating to possible murder/kidnapping of yet another NPC, and completely unrelated to Ron and Penuri's possible stormy past/future). He made the connection to her, it wasn't suggested by plot or clues, so I figured that's an indication that he's okay with what's been put out there so far.
So, they meet up. She's dressed as a Bhikkhuni (Buddhist Nun) with her long locks shaved away, and a sort of serene sadness about her. They talk for a while, and she's able to help him with things she knows about his mystery. After getting the plot-and-clue stuff out of the way, she says "It's very good to see you again after all these years,"
His response: "I wish I could say the same."
Just an absent-minded turn of phrase. From the objective GM viewpoint, it was clear at the moment (and later he confirmed it at the end of the session when I asked about it) that he meant that it has not been years for him, and that he still doesn't really know her as well as she knows him. But from the point-of-view of this person who might be his long lost future love, or his future bitter stalker, that sentence just couldn't be good. Either an insult or a let down, possibly both. She's clearly testing the waters, and he clearly hurt her, even though he didn't mean to. End of conversation, and she makes her exit ASAP.
While Ron didn't take a particularly strong stance or intentional action towards resolving what their connection is, I can clearly cross a few things off my list just the same. Sometimes it's good to be the dirty evil no-good rotten GM.