Finally In Full Bloom

Green Ronin’s Blue Rose struck me, back in its original run, as one of those games which is more talked-about than actually read or played. Promoted as an RPG based around “romantic fantasy”, it feels like it wanted to position itself as a potential entry point to RPGs for an audience that the market hadn’t previously catered to, though I suspect that by being sold as a big RPG rulebook and distributed and marketed through standard RPG channels meant that most romantic fantasy fans never realised it existed. Still, despite that, it undeniably targeted a fantasy subgenre which had been poorly served (or flat-out not served at all), which turned heads even if it put off people who either actively dislike romantic fantasy or who unthinkingly write it off because it’s got the word “romantic” in it.

Dig deeper, though, and there was more to talk about than just its chosen genre. For one thing, Blue Rose saw the debut of the True20 system, which provided a welcome lighter take on D20 than mainline D&D and most of its derivatives were offering at the time along with some novel system tweaks of its own. For another, it offered a laudably broad-minded take on what sort of romantic relationships could be front and centre in a campaign, in keeping with the best of the romantic fantasy subgenre: the setting it presented was overtly supportive of LGBT characters and themes, and also made a major effort to be inclusive and diverse in the characters depicted in its artwork.

In its time, though, the system and setting also had its detractors, as any game will. As you might expect, if you looked about you could find grumpy conservative sorts who found the inclusion of gay, bi/pan, trans, nonbinary and polyamorous characters in the setting on equal terms offensive (or, if they were being a bit more subtle about their objections, talked about it as being “too political”, as though assuming that a completely invented fantasy world would have no such people or have the same demographics and prejudices as Earth weren’t just as political).

Setting aside those objections driven simply by “ick, it’s different”, though, still others didn’t know what to make of Blue Rose. Gamers who didn’t have a grounding in the particular Mercedes Lackey-style romantic fantasy material that the game was based on seemed to not be entirely sure what the parameters of the genre were. Enough people said “I like the True20 system, but I’m not sold on Blue Rose as a setting/genre” that Green Ronin eventually switched from putting out new Blue Rose material to releasing a genre-neutral True20 core rulebook and trying to make a go of it as a generic line. Some people found the setting actively risible, with the selection of the monarch of Aldis, the realm that player characters are assumed to hail from, taking place at the whim of a spirit known as the Golden Hart – a practice considered by some to be weirdly theocratic.

For my part, I never got into Blue Rose for two major reasons. The first was that I had very little idea what the central conflicts and dangers of the setting were; I can see a point in an RPG add strong romantic themes to its fantasy bedrock, but it would seem to be toothless without conflict, and given that the society of Aldis in generally seems to be very supportive and friendly the usual “our romantic love is threatened by the disapproval of society” type of story seems to be off the menu – and with a lot of the discussion about Blue Rose focusing on people teasing the Golden Hart or expressing their approval or disapproval of the diverse and accepting nature of the setting, I was hearing a lot about the happy, shiny aspects of the setting but not hearing a lot about what challenges characters actually overcome in the game.

The second thing that put me off was that I really wasn’t sure that the game was for me – or for anyone. In common with many gamers, I hadn’t read much romantic fantasy (it seems like in some geek circles it’s looked down on compared to, say, high fantasy or sword & sorcery or George R.R. Martin-style grimdarkery or whatever), and the combination of focusing on a previously-unserved subgenre and the major streamlining of the D20 system offered really made it seem like Green Ronin were out to draw in non-gamers with it. On the other hand, the very traditional product-line-of-chunky-books presentation and the way it was exclusively marketed through standard RPG channels seemed, like I said above, to doom it to only get attention from seasoned gamers. It seemed to fall between two stools as a result.

(Also, bear in mind that this was happening right at the heart of the D20 boom, when all sorts of appalling shovelware was getting tossed onto the market, and I wasn’t that keen on D20 in the first place; I only realised how interesting True20 was in retrospect, when it got its own release and when Blue Rose itself had faded away from the shelves.)

In these days of Kickstarter, though, the cream has a chance to rise again, and Blue Rose has re-emerged as a plush new edition – an edition which in my view is better-targeted, better value, and altogether greatly tuned-up and improved over the original. I wasn’t a Kickstarter backer, but the book has now made it to the shops, and I finally picked up a copy – and was very impressed with what I got.

Whereas the original game line spread most of its material out between three books – the 224 page core, a 120 page Blue Rose Companion that added extra rules stuff (including various monsters translated from D&D 3E), and the 128 page World of Aldea supplement that gave deeper details on the setting, this second edition offers up in a single 384 page tome a complete update of the system, extensive refereeing support, a sample adventure and a great deal of setting detail, including much of the material which had been in World of Aldea with some tweaks. Setting-wise, it’s both an important update and a one-stop “best of” the previous line; in terms of system, it converts Blue Rose to the AGE system (“Adventure Gaming Engine”), as seen in Green Ronin’s Dragon Age tie-in RPG, the Fantasy AGE setting-neutral rules set, and Titansgrave.

Although removing True20 from the game that first made True20 a thing seems in some ways to be the final nail in that system’s coffin, at the same time AGE seems to be a highly modified descendant of True20 which works in some of the shibboleths of that system whilst giving it a different die mechanic. In common with True20, you have three basic classes – Warriors focused on fighting, Experts focused on skill use, and Adepts focused on supernatural abilities, known as Arcana in this setting – and you have attribute scores expressed as positive or negative modifiers. You have a level system based on a progression from level 1 to 20, and supernatural abilities are bought like feats. You also have Conviction points which you can use to gain various advantages or edges or avoid especially bad fates.

The most obvious difference from True20 is in the dice mechanism, in that it’s based on rolling 3D6 instead of 1D20. Such 3D6-based systems seem to have gone a little out of fashion, though back in the day they were a bit more in vogue – The Fantasy Trip is the oldest I am aware of, with its successor GURPS and the HERO system used in Champions being other examples. Multiple-die based systems like this are very useful if you want to avoid “swinginess” and reduce the frequency of extreme results, because results are on a bell curve rather than having a flat probability distribution. Rolling a D20, you can expect to get the maximum result 5% of the time (assuming a fair die); conversely, if you are rolling 3D6, you’ll get a 10 or 11 a quarter of the time but only have a 1 in 216 chance (less than 0.5%) of getting 18 on a particular roll.

This is handy if you want characters who can be reliably good at the things they are good at and reliably bad at the things they are bad at, and who don’t get shown up quite so often by people who are less skilled at a particular endeavour than they are. Whilst fluke results remain possible in a 3D6 system, you will also screw up or exceed yourself much less frequency and over time your performance will be much more consistent than in a swingier system.

Because of the bell curve, each bonus or penalty applied to a roll in a 3D6 system has a substantial influence on it – it drags the peak of the curve one way or the other. Bonuses are therefore kept small and manageable in AGE; when you roll, you add your ability modifier, and if you have an applicable focus you add a bonus (usually 2 points, though optionally the referee can choose to let a player-created focus give 3 bonus points if it is niche enough to not come up very often), and you try to beat a target number. “Focuses” allow AGE to jettison a traditional skill system – rather than fiddling about with points in skills here and there, as D20 and True20 alike do, you just see whether or not someone possesses a particular focus. If they do, they get the bonus, if they don’t have it, they don’t get it, but they can still roll unless the test involved is of a nature where if you didn’t have the specialist knowledge implied by the focus you really wouldn’t have a clue.

An additional wrinkle in AGE is the Drama die: the third die in your set of 3D6 needs to be distinct from the others in some way (usually by being a different colour from the other two), because it has to serve as the Drama die. If, when you roll, you get doubles on any of your dice (or a triple across all three) and your test successfully hits the target number, then the number on the Drama die gives you the number of Stunt points generated by your roll. These points have to be spent immediately, or they are wasted, and can be used to tack on a number of special effects like pulling off extra moves. Whilst they are divided into different categories for ease of presentation, any stunt can be used in any situation it’s appropriate to – so, for instance, stunt points generated by a combat roll can be used to do some social stunting to see if you can get a peaceful resolution to the fight. (“It’s over, Anakin, I have the high ground!”)

In addition to these basics, the book adds in some nicely Blue Rose-specific quirks. The major one is relationships – and these do not have to be romantic ones. The major system thing a relationship gives you is that once per session, you can spend points from a Relationship’s Intensity pool (a measure of how important it is to you) on stunts on a test relating to that relationship – excellent both for desperately protecting your true love and brutally eviscerating your worst enemy.

As far as the presentation of the setting and genre goes, I find that the book offers much more clarity and focus than the Blue Rose materials I had flipped through previously. For one thing, it does an excellent job of explaining aspects of the setting that people previously found hard to get to grips with. To pick out a specific example, it settles the whole “Aldis is a theocratic dictatorship” meme by making explicit that the Golden Hart is not, in fact, an individual entity with its own personal agenda or outlook; rather, it is a gestalt manifestation of the collective will and best selves of the people of Aldis as a whole. Thus, far from being as theocratic as it might look at first flush, in fact Aldis operates on a sort of subconscious democracy; in fact, thanks to its magical nature it’s got some major advantages over real-world democracy. (Unlike real-world democratic processes, the Golden Hart is not fooled by false campaign promises, but chooses a leader who actually does have the values and agenda that, on balance, the people of Aldis collectively believe they need, and through the Golden Hart system citizens can’t be tricked into voting against their own best interests.)

To go a bit more broad for a moment, the book does a really good job of making it clear where the danger is in the setting, providing a sense of conflict and threat I hadn’t previously noted. Aldea is a mostly-benign and utopian society, but it both has to handle diplomatic relations with other nations and has its own internal stresses – and over the whole world there lies a Shadow. Sorcery, magic wrought without respect to the integrity of nature and the personal integrity and consent of that which it worked on, stems from this Shadow, and Aldis and its neighbours all represent breakaway states that emerged from the collapse of an evil Empire of Thorns ruled over by dire sorcerers.

On the one hand, constant vigilance against the re-emergence of Shadow is necessary, for the sorcerer-kings left behind many harmful places and corrupted creatures – but on the other hand, that selfsame vigilance could turn to persecution through misunderstanding or deliberate misrepresentation, and literally anyone could fall to the Shadow.

The system backs up this idea through the Conviction mechanic. All characters have a Destiny and a Fate, their Destiny reflecting the heights they can reach if they become the best person they can be and their Fate reflecting the depths they can sink to if they indulge the worst aspects of their personalities; characters can recover Conviction by acting in accordance with either their Destiny or their Fate to further their Calling, their particular driving motivation in the world.

Those who misuse the ways of arcana by casting dark sorcery, and those who act in accordance with their base Fate in a place blighted by sorcery or in contact with an item tainted by it, is at risk of earning a Corruption point if they fail a Willpower test (with a bonus available from the Self-Discipline focus). Corruption absolutely sucks; each point reduces your bonuses from Constitution and Willpower, which has all sorts of nasty knock-on effect (especially considering that this is a bell curve system). If you get too much Corruption, you can either lose yourself entirely to your Fate, becoming entirely consumed by the negative behaviour type associated with it, or you could actually end up dying and rising again as a living Shadow. Removing Corruption is a royal pain – you have to do ten acts in accordance with your Destiny which would otherwise have gained you Conviction, passing up the Conviction point each time, to remove one Corruption point.

Now, here’s the juicy bit: you can just embrace your Corruption at any time. On the one hand, that means that your Corruption points no longer act as penalties to your Willpower and Constitution, and in fact can be used to power your arcana. On the other hand, it sets you apart from the common run of people: it means you can’t benefit from curative magic from non-corrupt individuals, regain Conviction through acting in accordance with your Destiny (forcing you to further embrace your Fate), and when you die you’ll rise as a vampire or ghost unless you redeem yourself somehow before death.

This is a threat which makes for great villains in a fantasy RPG. Corruption could conceivably arise anywhere through the misuse of magic, or because people have been poking about in corrupt areas or unwittingly carrying about and passing around corrupt items. Once it gets its hooks in someone, you can see how it would drive them to become the worst version of themselves. At the same time, because of the diversity of Fates offered, that gives numerous different ways in which their Shadow-tainted self can manifest – and when you take into account the number of Callings, the set of motivations are even broader. The Callings can be randomised by picking a Major Arcana from a standard tarot deck; Destiny and Fate can each be randomised by picking a Minor Arcana for each. This means that there are 22 sample Callings and 56 sample Fates, resulting in 1232 potential combinations of agendas and approaches that you can base antagonists around, each of which in its own way will be thematically appropriate to the way Corruption works.

Perhaps the most important thing about Blue Rose is the way it unabashedly declares that interpersonal relationships between characters – often, but not exclusively, romantic ones – can viably be the heart of a fantasy roleplaying campaign. In the discussion of romantic fantasy in the book, the authors explain how romantic fantasy series often involve their protagonists either being rooted in their communities from the get-go or finding their way into a community that accepts them, with sequels being about the protection and development of that community.

That represents a stark difference from the assumptions of a great many fantasy RPG campaigns, which tend to have the player characters as rootless wanderers going from place to place having adventures either for personal gain or for a higher cause which precludes them settling down. The alternative presented by Blue Rose is a handy addition to the portfolio of fantasy-genre RPGs with a greater than typical community element. As far as other examples go, in a tabletop context, you have games like Ars Magica, which centres itself on communities of magi, and Reign or the Birthright setting for AD&D which both cast the PCs as leaders of organisations or nations; in a LARP context, ongoing LARP campaigns will often have the player characters be members of a particular community (like the nations in Empire), and romantic-themed roleplaying is sufficiently widespread in LARP circles that I couldn’t imagine a game like Empire where such character relationships were not an important feature of ongoing player-initiated plot.

Blue Rose offers another model for community-focused, relationship-focused roleplaying in the fantasy genre, and for that alone stands out as an important product in its own right. More importantly, by recognising the importance of community to the particular subgenre it’s serving, it also offers ample opportunity for participants in a Blue Rose campaign to play significant characters with important relationships with the other PCs without necessarily taking those in a romantic direction: friends, comrades, mentors and so on all have their place. I would even say that the strength of Aldea as a setting is that whilst it is excellent for romantic fantasy purposes, you could junk the romance altogether and still play an entertaining Blue Rose campaign set there – simply focus on other types of relationships and you’re there. In fact, the book offers a bunch of suggestions as to how you could run games in the Blue Rose setting whilst taking it in a different direction from the assumed romantic fantasy genre.

The book is capped off with an expansive and excellent set of gamemaster advice, including a variety of campaign concepts, ranging from quests for the good of the Aldis to whimsical parties of adventurous wedding planners travelling the countryside using their very particular adventuring skills to ensure that lovers in trouble get their happily-ever-afters. As a big fat book of nearly 400 pages, I think this second edition of Blue Rose has few illusions about being an obvious entry point to tabletop RPGs for beginners, but as well as explaining the romantic fantasy genre extremely well to those who aren’t so used to it, I think it also offers enough support, encouragement, and just plain good advice that if someone did end up picking this up as their first RPG in defiance of the odds, they’ve got all the tools they need to run an excellent game and they’d be better off following the advice here than they would if, say, they followed some of the more auteur-ish advice in early editions of Vampire.

Blue Rose, in short, is the game which the RPG community didn’t know that it wanted, didn’t think that it wanted, but I think it genuinely needed, and this new edition of it really helps tease out the merits that the initial buzz around previous editions didn’t quite communicate. The AGE system is a really nice development of some of the ideas of True20 in a format which, thanks to its bell curve model, is likely to be less frustrating than swingier systems can tend to be, and bringing it all full circle here to return the Aldis setting to print with a juiced-up new engine under the bonnet is a great move.

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One thought on “Finally In Full Bloom

  1. Pingback: Two Systems, Both Generic In Dignity… – Refereeing and Reflection

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