When the first edition of Blue Rose was published 10 years ago, it found a core audience of gamers that loved its unique take on romantic fantasy—and a few who pushed back against the game’s progressive push for inclusiveness. Now Blue Rose is back, and it’s found a better system and a wider audience.
In Blue Rose, players work to stave off the encroaching threats that loom over Aldis, a good and noble (though not unflawed) kingdom. There are interesting diplomatic conflicts, telepathic sentient animals, gay, bi, and trans characters, and an in-game culture that treats them all as equals—all things you don’t find in too many tabletop RPGs. The setting is described as “romantic fantasy,” and draws more inspiration from Mercedes Lackey than Robert E. Howard.
The original edition used a D20 system derived from 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons, which later became the True20 system. RPG design “technology” has improved since then; publisher Green Ronin created the AGE system for their Dragon Age tabletop game, and that system will be used for the new Blue Rose. One element of the old version that is coming back is the cover art by Stephanie Law, whose gorgeous watercolors helped define Blue Rose’s visual identity (all art pictured here is by Law, and comes from the original Blue Rose—none of the new art is ready yet).
I talked to lead designer Steve Kenson, who also worked on the first edition, about the unique things Blue Rose can bring to your gaming table.
io9: How does the world of Blue Rose differ from the typical sword-and-sorcery fantasy RPG world?
Steve Kenson: A typical sword and sorcery setting might be characterized by the old description “blood and thunder,” where it’s sometimes-savage heroes against a savage world. Whereas in Blue Rose it’s largely civilized heroes against sometimes savage, sometimes civilized dangers to civilization, theirs in particular. They are looking to use their skills and abilities to uphold certain ideals and to protect all that their society has managed to achieve in terms of crawling out of the wreckage of a terrible dark age and keep the world from sliding back into anything like that. Among other things, I think you’ll find a greater emphasis on the notion that the heroes are just as often diplomats and peacemakers as they are fearless monster-slayers.
One thing that people have focused on is the idea of a “good king.” Why does that fairly simple idea feel so revolutionary?
Kenson: I’m not sure. I guess it’s a mix of our modern cynicism concerning politics and leadership and our general disdain (yet fascination with) the notion of royalty and a noble class. Blue Rose takes common mythological and fantasy elements—the notion of the divine right of kings coupled with the existence of magical powers that can “detect good”—and puts them to practical use, in the form of a sovereign and nobility vetted by supernatural powers to ensure they’re the right people for the job, rather than granted it by accident of birth or force of arms, as is typically the case in both history and many fantasy settings.
Note that the setting takes pains to point out that this system is by no means flawless: sovereigns of Aldis (the Kingdom of the Blue Rose) have turned out to be mad, corrupt, or otherwise not suited for the job in the long run and have been removed from power, and the same goes for various nobles. It’s just that when they were chosen, measures were taken to ensure they were suitable, but people have free will and change, and things happen.
Could you talk about the reception Blue Rose received when it was first published, and the response to this new version?
Kenson: Much of the reception of the first edition of Blue Rose seemed heavily influenced by what people thought the game and setting were about, which tended to be rather flat one-note notions of either sexual equality/inclusiveness (with overtones of political correctness and “pushing an agenda”) or some kind of socialist magical utopia (likewise often with the word “agenda” thrown in there). Those who actually read the book tended to find it more nuanced, or at least those who commented publicly said as much.
Response to the Kickstarter has been very positive, right from the initial pre-launch discussion about a new edition of the setting. Most of the feedback we received was either “Oh, I loved Blue Rose! I’m glad to hear that it’s coming back!” or “Why have I never heard of this? It sounds great!” Within Green Ronin, we’ve said that, in some ways, the first edition of Blue Rose was before its time, and some of what seemed so unusual about it then is now eliciting, “Why was this ever seen as controversial?”
What does the AGE system bring to Blue Rose?
Kenson: It’s kind of funny how well the AGE (Adventure Gaming Engine) system synchs up with Blue Rose. AGE is built around three main character classes, and so was the True20 version of Blue Rose, and AGE has a similar system of defining characters by Talents and Backgrounds in addition to class-based abilities.
One of my favorite elements of the AGE system is its innovative stunt mechanic, where doubles on dice rolls grant a bonus players can immediately put to use, keeping the action in the game free-flowing and unpredictable. Jack Norris and I are working on a number of different subsystems and adaptations for the Blue Rose version of AGE, including some fun stuff involving relationship mechanics, personality and character goals, and an entire new system of psychic abilities adapted from the original edition of Blue Rose.
Do you have any advice for players and game masters who want to use romance as an integral part of an RPG?
Kenson: First and foremost, I think there’s often a misconception when we say Blue Rose is “romantic” fantasy that it is automatically, as The Princess Bride put it (complete with young Fred Savage’s expression of disdain): “a kissing book,” which is not necessarily the case.
“Romantic” refers to a style and a point of view that’s generally positive, hopeful, and cooperative: good people can make a difference, true love can and does win in the end, we can make the world better, people of good conscience can work together (and even disagree) but still coexist peacefully, and, ultimately, there is good in the world and it’s something worth fighting for. That romance often includes interpersonal relationships, from boon comrades to passionate love, and such things are both the reasons why characters take action and the rewards they receive for their efforts.
I think it’s remarkable that, in this day and age, even mature adult gamers won’t blink at games and stories that model the most terrible forms of violence, but become sheepish and embarrassed by stories modeling love and friendship and family, especially when tabletop roleplaying is such a social activity. While Blue Rose will most likely (we’re still in the design phase) have some game mechanics to support those relationships, my best advice to gamers is to balance a regard for everyone’s comfort level at the game table with a willingness to perhaps reach beyond that comfort zone for something that can be a powerful story element that has been missing from games aimed at telling legendary or mythological stories: the notion that love and connection are powers as great, if not greater, than any magic, any battle-prowess, or any cunning scheme.