Thursday, August 18, 2016

Romantic Fantasy and the Heroine's Journey

Over on G+, Kiel asks:

So I'm asking anyone who knows more than me:
Does the above paragraph line up with what Blue Rose was/is/is supposed to be? Does it line up with what romantic fantasy is about?

Blue Rose: no, not really. The original, at least, was basically a very nicely streamlined version of 3.5 D&D (that later became True20) with the trappings of romantic fantasy, but lacking much of the substance. For instance, Blue Rose allowed you to play an intelligent, psychic animal without really understanding the role of such animals in the fiction.

Romantic Fantasy follows a particular sort of “heroine’s journey” that’s similar to, but distinctly different, from Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” The big difference, if you want the tl;dr version, is, where Joe’s hero meets people, the heroine of romantic fantasy collects people.

Typically, the heroine (though occasionally it’s a hero) starts off in a bad family situation. She’s unappreciated, perhaps even hated, by what should be her family. Perhaps she’s even in danger. Some instigating event causes her to leave home. She may have a destination in mind or just be wandering aimlessly.

Early on her journey, she’ll encounter a being in trouble. She’ll rescue this being and earn its loyalty by embracing her principle virtue. This being is often a psychic animal, but could also be a gay male imbued with mystery and often Bishōnen characteristics. What’s important is that the heroine can absolutely trust this being because they are both not acceptable as a romantic interest, nor are they potential competition for the eventual romantic interest.

This typically begins the second act (assuming a traditional three-act structure) dominated by the heroine collecting strays of various sorts (usually among the marginalized, mistrusted, or scary) and building a new family for herself. By the end of the second act, this family will be a firm source of strength for our heroine, and the third act is heralded by the family being either temporarily shattered or the heroine leaving that family and putting herself in great risk to save the world/kingdom/whatever. Of course, the family rejoins to support her at a crucial moment.

There are many, many novels that follow this pattern, and the ‘80s was a heyday for female authors of what we now call romantic fantasy. Chief among them was Anne McCaffery. Dragonflight was the book that started the Pern series that eventually got her a castle in Ireland, and it’s a great book, but if you want something a bit more condensed, try Dragonsong. It’s the first of a trilogy because it was published in the ‘80s, when everything in sci-fi/fantasy came in trilogies.

The other big name from that time was Mercedes Lackey, and she probably had the greatest influence on Blue Rose, especially its setting. I’d suggest Arrows of the Queen, but I’ll admit I’ve barely scratched the surface of this prolific author’s work, so others might have better suggestions.

If you want something more military, try Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. This is classic ‘80s fantasy; bits of it read very much like a D&D session from the time. Moon was probably also the most successful in moving the formula into space.

For something a bit more risqué and modern, look to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. This one messes with the formula most of all by pushing the full arc out into the trilogy and then mucking about with the order things normally happen in.

Outside novels, there’s lots of anime that fits as well. From Miyazaki, there’s both Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Vision of Escaflowne banks heavily on you being familiar with the formula so it can subvert it from start to finish. The most true to the genre, however, is probably Fushigi Yuugi.

So yeah, long story short, SW, SM looks to be closer to the genre than Blue Rose 1e was. You could certainly play a romantic fantasy story with BR, and it was closer to the genre than D&D, but it was just as easy to play it as D&D with talking animals.

The big challenge to my eyes is that romantic fantasy is very focused on its heroines the same way Dr. Who is focused on the Doctor. How do you keep that same sort of personal discovery and coming-of-age elements without making some characters feel like bit parts? Can you have multiple families being built simultaneously (and possibly even overlapping)?

Definitely study the genre, but don’t let yourself get trapped by it. There’s some great stuff there, but there’s also some cruft that doesn’t belong in anything but possibly solo PC campaigns.

(Oh, and here’s an interesting exercise left to the reader: is Dune romantic fantasy in space?)

9 comments:

Scott Anderson said...

This sounds almost exactly like a modern romantic comedy movie.

faoladh said...

"SW, SM"?

PCBushi said...

That formula reminds me of Harry Potter, actually. Minus psychic familiars or gays. Orphan living in a bad family situation; stands up for Ron and makes his first and best friend. He "collects" friends and allies who are kind of outsiders or marginalized - arguably Hermoine, Luna, Neville, Hagrid, etc. Perhaps doesn't fit your description perfectly, but that's the first story that came to mind for me. "Family" is put in danger when war comes and people start dying. And finally Harry goes to sacrifice himself to end it.

trollsmyth said...

Scott Anderson: Really? I'll admit, I haven't seen a romcom since "The Truth About Cats & Dogs" I think. Got any to recommend?

faoladh: Snow Witch, Shield Maiden. Kiel's been working on it for a while now, and he just started playtesting at GenCon.

PCBushi: Yep, it's not quite the same (there were multiple teases that Ron and Harry were going to end up rivals in a love triangle, for instance), but it's not too far off. I've also heard it posited that A Song of Ice and Fire is a romantic fantasy in which everything goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Timothy Brannan said...

Or basically, Wizard of Oz, minus any romance.

JB said...

@ Trollsmith:

Wow, this is the most clear, concise description of heroine/romantic fantasy that I've ever read. This is the stuff those old MUSH on-line games were made of.

There must be a way to do this in an RPG. Something like what Blood Red Sands does with rotating protagonists. Jeez, now I want to get a copy of Blue Rose just to strip it down and re-jigger it to the genre!

trollsmyth said...

Timothy Brannan: Yep, not far off at all.

JB: Thank you. But wait, old MUSH games? Please tell me more. I'm afraid I missed most of those.

JB said...

@ TS:

Back in Ye Old Telnet days of my university youth (circa '95), a MUSH was like a MUD except that it was more concerned with role-playing and crafting stories. If a MUD was the precursor to MMORPGs (like Warcraft, etc.), than the MUD was kind of the on-line equivalent of a LARP.

Actually, that's a terrible apples-oranges analogy. Sorry.

Max Whittier said...

@Trollsmyth Sheepfarmer's Daughter (and the rest of the books in that series) read like a D&D game because the basic storyline came from a game of D&D Elizabeth Moon played at a convention, The Village of Hommlet or The Temple of Elemental Evil if I remember correctly. Paksenarrion even fights giant frogs near a moathouse filled with bandits in one of them