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).

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Mike Mearls’ Vindication

In the interests of putting something positive at the top o’ the blog, I want to recommend Mike Mearls’ twitter account. It’s remarkably informative.

For instance, earlier this month he offered up a really nice breakdown of how streaming and podcasting games has fed back into game design. I find it particularly interesting for illustrating how the forum culture during the 3E-4E years ended up freezing out some preferences, and gave abstract theory the upper hand for a while to the detriment of actual play at the table. It’s particularly interesting because it ties into some of the stuff Mearls was saying during the D&D Next playtest process, where he talked about the designers were surprised at how much appetite there was for a simpler, lighter game than 3E or 4E.

You also have him slipping out bombshells like the fact that over its lifetime the 5E Player’s Handbook has outsold the lifetime sales of the 3E, 3.5E, and 4E Player’s Handbooks (individually, not combined). Of course, we just have his word for it. But I am not sure WotC or Hasbro would be too thrilled with Mike sharing such information on his public twitter feet, using the #WotCStaff hashtag, unless it were true by at least some definition. (Mike makes it clear in subsequent tweets that this is in terms of books sold, not cash revenue.)

I can’t help but see this as a bit of well-deserved vindication of the new direction Mearls has taken D&D in – especially in terms of steering it back to the “big church” approach and going for a slow and steady release schedule rather than a glut of extra supplements. The forum culture may whine that it isn’t getting enough grist for the charop mill, but I think it is healthier for the game overall.

Referee’s Bookshelf – True20 Adventure Roleplaying and True20 Companion

True20 is one of the many unexpected uses Green Ronin have put the OGL to. Having already made out like bandits with Mutants and Masterminds, their adaptation of the D20 rules to superhero games, Green Ronin originally developed True20 as the system for Blue Rose, an attempt to market tabletop RPGs to the romantic fantasy crowd – a portion of the fantasy market typically poorly-served in a gaming context. I don’t know whether Blue Rose made any headway in that section of the audience, but it did get a reaction in the tabletop RPG hobby – who soon began lobbying for a standalone version of the system without all that yucky kissing attached. The end result is the True20 core rulebook. In its first incarnation, this included a collection of sometimes interesting but generally not awe-inspiring campaign settings at the back, but in recent printings it has ditched these and instead includes the material which formerly made up the True20 Companion. Therefore, I’m going to review both here (skipping over the campaign settings, which I don’t personally have much interest in) since between them they cover the material which Green Ronin are presenting as being key, core material for the game.

So far as I can tell from the explanatory notes and from the general approach behind the design, the intent behind True20 was to provide a system which was somewhat more intuitive than 3.X Dungeons & Dragons but wasn’t so radically stripped on that you’d describe it as a “rules-light” game – I think the idea was that the audience they were going for with Blue Rose weren’t dyed-in-the-wool gamers, so they would benefit from a system which was intuitively easy to learn, but at the same time they also tended to be grown-ups and so didn’t necessarily need to have their hands held. I’ve not read Blue Rose, so I don’t know how the rules concepts were explained there, but I wouldn’t give someone the True20 core book as their first RPG myself; it’s a little too dense to be beginner-friendly, and I think designer Steve Kenson unconsciously assumes the reader has a little more familiarity with RPG conventions – and particularly the conventions of the OGL – than a complete beginner would necessarily have. (In particular, the explanation of how damage works feels confusingly brief and I’m fairly sure the accompanying roll summary and gameplay example are actually incorrect.)

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