Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Feast of the Unicorn

So, Blue Rose is possibly returning. I suspect it will make its Kickstarter target. This isn't Green Ronin's first rodeo, after all.

Blue Rose is an RPG modeled on what the designers termed “romantic fantasy.” We're talking about authors like Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Barbara Hambly, Anne Bishop, Jacqueline Carey, and many more similar authors. I'd also include Wendy and Richard Pini and the Foglio's for “Girl Genius” among them.

I do still encounter, on occasion, comments that equate this sort of fiction with stuff like “My Little Pony.” Folks wonder why a mechanic (d20 in the original Blue Rose) built around combat would be used for a game about making friends over tea parties and resolving conflicts through mediation and...

And I have to wonder what books these people are reading.

Actually, no I don't. I know they haven't read any romantic fantasy. They look at the pastel covers with the prancing horses, manes blowing in the wind, and the heroine gazing mistily into the distance, and assume.

Well, neighbor, if that's your assumption, reality's ringing your doorbell and has a whole case of bitch-slap to deliver.

Let's start with a classic of the genre: the prologue to Anne Bishop's Daughter of the Blood.

Very, very NSFW. Also, if you require trigger warnings, romantic fantasy is not the genre for you.

Want more? Try the prologue to C.S. Friedman's Black Sun Rising.

Keep in mind, these are not the meat of the stories. These are the prologues. They're just the hooks (though, like good hooks, they're short, sharp, and dig into your flesh).

And this stuff isn't unusual. Jacqueline Carey's original Kushiel trilogy starred a masochistic sacred prostitute. Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince pivots around the rape of a male character by a female villain. Mercedes Lackey's Arrow's Fall (sporting one of the most pastel-and-merry-go-round-pony covers ever) includes fratricide, rape, torture, and attempted suicide. The conclusion includes a violent execution and a pitched battle between two armies.

Sure, there are talking animals, gorgeous clothes, weddings, friendly dragons, and the occasional unicorn or gryphon. Why not? The target audience has proven through their buying habits that they love that stuff.

And yes, there are openly gay characters and bouts of polyamory now and then. But the sex isn't always the happy-happy hippy-trippy lovefest some would lead you to expect. Because the minds of teenage girls are full of monsters, and, as Ursula Vernon says, sex is “the mommy monster at the bottom of the well, with fifty lazily blinking eyes and muck settling across its back” and they want to drag those monsters into the light, see them, be terrified by them, and then toss them back into the well.

The truth is, all good writing is vicious. An author lulls you into caring for a character or three and then spends the next handful-hundred pages abusing them terribly. If the misfortunes of the characters resonate with your own life, the book will be all the more powerful for it. Nobody enjoys pre-chewed pablum. Most will enjoy a vicarious and dangerous thrill that flirts with the monsters lurking inside their own skulls.

Now, having said all that, if you want to argue about how well the Blue Rose game communicates and invokes that sort of thing, then we'll have something to talk about. :)


Cross Planes said...

Well said and hits the nail on the head why I don't run "romantic fantasy" stories. Many of the topics are areas I simply don't want to deal with at the table.

I picked up the original Blue Rose to get a picture of the nascent True20 system and if I back this version, it will only be to support the AGE system. Though, I feel that GR missed quite a bit of steam with it, waiting so long to divorce it from Dragon Age.

Anonymous said...

Nicely said. I actually picked up all f the Blue Rose books because I thought it had an interesting, "not standard Forgotten Realms/Greyhawk/QuasiEurope setting" - even if it seemed very Valdemar-esque.

I also don't mind players who want to explore romance or social mechanics - I've had players start guilds and work through all of the politics of that, or who've run Domain-level games that are less combat focused (save for good set pieces) and more about the relationships built and betrayed.

But, simply put, that's all where the role-playing comes it, and it puts the roll-playing at a bit of minimum. I'm not sure you need a whole new set of mechanics for it.


Yora said...

I think the problem with the True 20 system, and the d20 system in general, is not that it's too combat heavy, but that it suffers from what is now quite widely seen as "beeing too fiddly".
10 years back d20 was all the rage with huge numbers of people jumping on, often rather blindly. But since then games have been going back to much ligher rules system on a wide front because the one thing that d20 really does will is tactical combat.
In something like Blue Rose you of course would expect a good amount of combat that can turn very brutal and violent. But the experience should be based on high emotions based on the narrative context of the fight. Not on careful and logical calculations from a distached distance.
A revival of Blue Rose has been discussed a lot on RPG.net the last three weeks (which I assume was where Green Ronin got the idea), and there is considerable support for the idea to base it on the AGE system from their Dragon Age game. Other criticism have been that the setting as presented in the original version often seems too naively black and white and people wanting more conflict and "grit".

trollsmyth said...

Mark Craddock: and this is why I'm hesitant to recommend this sort of play for beginners. It really looks like diving head-first into the deep end of the pool, where even experienced DMs move cautiously.

But then, if you and your group have been steeped in this stuff since you were nine years old, that may make a difference.

trollsmyth said...

fluerdemal: yeah, I actually prefer the mechanics to stay far, faaaar away from that sort of thing. As I recall, True20 did have a few social mechanics, but we downplayed them or twisted them to be stuff like, "Ok, the polite thing to do in this situation would be ..."

And, True20 was simple enough otherwise that it generally got out of the way when we didn't want it involved.

trollsmyth said...

Yora: I haven't tried tweaking AGE enough to say how good a fit it is for Blue Rose. Probably as good as True20 was, possibly better. It does appear to have the virtue of simpler games in that, when you don't want it involved, it politely gets out of your way.

JB said...

@ Trollsmyth:

I missed BlueRose when it first came out (probably because I quit playing D20 games circa 2004-2005), and didn't hear about the game till it was out-of-print. The genre ("romantic fantasy") is the kind of niche awesomeness I dig...kind of a cross between Vance and V.C. Andrews. I'm just not sure they've got the right system for it.

JB said...

Oh...and "Feast of the Unicorn" is one of my favorite Magic cards of all time, just BTW.

trollsmyth said...

JB: I could get there with True20, but I definitely treated True20 as "Variations on a theme by Moldvay & Cook" so I can't say how true to the rules-as-written I was.

I also leaned a bit towards treating Aldis a bit like the human Imperium of 40k. It was a borderline Elizabethan-style police state whose militancy was dictated by the dangers of their neighbors and the constant threat of demonic invasion.

At the time (2006-ish), it had the frisson of post-9/11 "how far dare you go to be safe from very real dangers." Today, that same set-up would get infected by the internet slap-fights du jour and actively piss people off. :/

trollsmyth said...

JB: And speaking of pissing people off: Blue/Black Decks - Ruining friendships since '93! ;D

Yora said...

Oh yes. Blue/Black was weird, but always a lot of fun. I played a Necro-Mesmerist in Guild Wars; really the same principle and just as satisfying.

I am not sure if AGE is an ideal system for Blue Rose, but I think it's light enough to not get in the way of letting the story develop narratively or slow the game down by having to look up special rules or trying to figure out the right modifiers in combat. I also can't think of any other system I know that I think would be a better pick. And since Green Ronin already have their new in-house system they are preparing to launch, it really seems like the most practical choice. I think the biggest difference to Dragon Age would probably be the spells, as DA magic is very much fire and lightning. And the monsters, of course.

trollsmyth said...

Yora: I got to chat with Lindroos and Pramas briefly at GAMA. Changing the magic system away from the Dragon Age-specific system was high on their to-do lists for both Blue Rose and the free-standing AGE system. They did not divulge any details on what those magic systems might look like. I suspect (not based on anything I was told, just my gut-level guess) we'll still see some sort of corruption mechanic in the Blue Rose magic system.

David Larkins said...

I'm pretty much in the same boat as Yora; I found d20 (even in its stripped-down T20 form) to be somewhat lacking for recreating the tropes of the genre.

"In something like Blue Rose you of course would expect a good amount of combat that can turn very brutal and violent. But the experience should be based on high emotions based on the narrative context of the fight."

This actually puts me in mind of the Pendragon system. (Shocking, I know.) The combat system there is simple and brutal. It's more about the Traits and Passions that can force you into a situation where putting yourself (or loved ones) in harm's way is the only solution. I know absolutely nothing about AGE. Hopefully it can hit those same notes.

And yes, can we please see a "gritty reboot" of Aldis? It felt like a world where most of the big struggles had already been overcome. This is one time where the gritty reboot actually seems appropriate.

5stonegames said...

Blue Rose is a rock solid game with a great magic system that fits the genre very very well.

Don't know how it will work in AGE but I don't use those rules.

IME True 20 is a workable rules set and I personally rather like it and own many books for it including all 3 Blue Rose books

I've read basically everything in the bio and than some. And yes I'm, a Right Winger , I'm just weird like that.

My biggest issues are

#1 Its not a social game system really, its just D&D in tolerance land. The social rules are rudimentary at best and
you are mostly on your own. GURPS would actually work better since it has extensive rules (books of them!) for social skills and romance. There is even a skill for being good at sex (Erotic Art) for those groups that play that way

#2 The True 20 core world Aldea feels like a pastiche of the genre. Its vaguely based on Valdemar from the Mercedes Lackey novels but Aldea ramps up the tolerance and inclusiveness to SJW levels without making it fit all that well.

The thing about Valdemar is that yes homosexuality is fine in the capital at least and "good guys" are tolerant types and yes people learn to be tolerant at times, in general though, its a small state that does very little

. A small schooling requirement, occasional disaster relief and policing. They aren't for example trying to enforce political correctness, make areas more diverse or any of the other things I imagine that they do in Aldis

Heck when refugees enter Valdemar they send them to empty lands or to where they are welcome and mostly leave people alone to their customs.

. If anything Valdemar is IMO slightly Left Libertarian which not like the saccharine Progressive feel of Aldea.

It still not a bad game with the right group though and I suspect it will do well. and as I said before, the magic system is great

You can do Psionics, Jedi and Romantic Fantasy with it quite well.

trollsmyth said...

David Larkins: I am so intrigued by Pendragon but I'll admit, I normally get annoyed by mechanics that poke about in my characters mental and emotional space on a regular basis. I can absolutely see where you're coming from, though. Family is huge in the genre, and I'd think you'd want it to be a major factor in the RPG. (Granted, that's partly covered by the adventuring party, but still, I'd think there'd be some interesting mechanics you could do with that.)

That said, I didn't have much trouble with the setting. Things are mostly good in Aldis, but they're surrounded by clearly bad-guy realms. It seemed to me to be a pretty clear invitation towards "In Her Majesty's Secret Service" sort of play, a mix of Bond, the Queen & Country comic, and Brust's more Musketeer-ish novels.

And all that said, they didn't do a great job explaining the genre to people who didn't read it. I think a lot of the criticism came from folks who didn't quite understand what Green Ronin was doing.

trollsmyth said...

5stonegames: I rather liked the lack of social mechanics. Can't stand the things most of the time, and even when they work, they work best for me in limited doses or in one-shot games. But that's very much a personal preference.

Agreed on Aldis, though. There's certainly enough of a feel there that I felt justified in giving it a pseudo-Elizabethan police-state vibe. It'll be interesting to see what Green Ronin does with the setting this time around. I'm expecting (not, I'll point out, based on anything I was told, just Green Ronin's past publishing behavior) a much thicker book this time around, so I think we'll see things fleshed out to a greater degree.

David Larkins said...

I didn't really have a problem with Aldis per se. I guess I just wanted to see it as more of a point of light rather than a shining beacon. All the "bad guy" nations seemed rather marginalized, somehow.

As for Pendragon's mechanics, I'm okay with that sort of thing if it's the service of genre emulation. It's the same thing with Call of Cthulhu and Sanity--Lovecraftian protagonists are constantly fainting, fleeing, or experiencing dissociative episodes. Likewise, Arthurian heroes are constantly making patently wrong choices against their better interests due to inflamed passions. One could attempt to get the same effects for both games with a sort of carrot-and-stick reward system, as in FATE, but I find that bringing in the unpredictability of dice (and thus taking agency out of everyone's hands, including the GM) heightens the drama and produces satisfyingly unpredictable results. I'll get off my soapbox now... :P

trollsmyth said...

David Larkins: No worries. You're absolutely right about the genre emulation in Pendragon, and it does throw fun curve-balls into the game (especially if you're playing a multi-generational campaign).

I'm not sure I see that much of similar in the Romantic Fantasy genre. There's usually a True Love character the protagonist goes to crazy lengths for, but in general I've found it works much better to let the players pick their PC's crushes rather than assigning them or letting the dice pick.

Family, however, is huge in the genre (especially by liberal and sprawling definitions of the word). I'd throw in a lot of co-operation mechanics in Blue Rose, and make supporting efforts far more likely to succeed or far more potent in effect. I'd also include some potent self-sacrifice mechanics as well (though I'm not sure I'd include rewards for those, since that would very much undercut the whole sacrifice thing).

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