Title: Blue Rose: The Roleplaying Game of Romantic fantasy Authors: Jeremy Crawford, Dawn Elliot, Steve Kenson, and John Snead Creator: Green Ronin Publishing, LLC 224 pages Product Rating: 4 / 5 (****) Game Play Rating: 4 / 5 (****)
Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2005 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John
The Blue Rose game is in some ways a fairly standard release for the RPG industry, while in others quite controversial -- rather surprisingly so in the hue and cry which it has generated.
On the standard side -- it is set in a medieval fantasy setting with many common tropes. The background includes a half-dozen races of different abilities mixed together, a good-aligned monarchy threatened by an evil kingdom ruled by an undead Lich king, and various monsters from unicorns to griffins to skeletons and other undead. The system is a variant of the D20 system used by 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons -- and includes 16 pages of feats, 20 pages of spells, a dozen pages of equipment, and a 66-creature bestiary.
However, the flavor with which all this is tinged is distinct. Blue Rose is patterned after the "romantic fantasy" genre, and cites Diane Duane, Mercedes Lackey, and Tamora Pierce as its inspirational authors. There is a nice summary of the genre in the book's introduction. It describes the stories as being about characters who are outcasts who prove themselves and find a place in society. The settings have more egalitarian societies, and positive forces are associated with nature.
I have read some of Tamora Pierce and Diane Duane, but none of the specific books listed on their inspirational list. Also, I have not read any Mercedes Lackey, which I think was a major influence. So I have some feel for the intended genre, but I may miss some nuances. In general, I think it does a good job of leveraging the genre. It uses many familiar elements, but conveys them in a different light. From what I have read, intrigue and relationships are important -- but the climactic scenes are still action scenes, generally combat. The system supports that to a fair degree, but there are some holes which I think the designers have not tackled well.
The rulebook is full-size (8.5x11), soft-cover, perfect-bound 224 pages. There is a detailed two-page Table of Contents and a 2-page index of medium quality. It has small black-and-white illustrations roughly every other page, of slightly varying style but overall very high quality. There is particularly stylish use of watercolors in some of the key illustrations including the full-color cover. The layout is simple and clean, with thin decorative left and right borders, chapter title at the top, and page number at the bottom, centered.
The game is set on the world of Aldea, a temperate region with four main kingdoms: Aldis, Rezea, Jarzon, and Kern. Aldis is the center for adventures -- a benevolent monarchy which is highly egalitarian and multi-cultural. It is roughly the size of France and Germany combined, and natural barriers separate it from its neighbors. To the west is Rezea, the home of nomadic tribes. To the east is Jarzon, a militant and disciplined theocracy. To the north is Kern, a slave state ruled by the Lich King.
The setting begins with a description of the mythology. There are four Gods of Twilight (primordial powers based on seasons), seven Gods of Light (patron gods of different aspects of culture), and seven Exarchs of Shadow (based on the traditional deadly sins). Then it describes the history, which begins with a golden age of magical wonders. A key faction in history are the rhydan -- intelligent and psychic animals who are now a key part of the leadership in Aldis. The glorious Old Kingdom was corrupted, however, leading to a dark age where evil Sorcerer Kings rules the entire region. Then three hundred years ago, a great rebellion broke their hold everywhere except Kern -- though sometimes with devastating consequences for the land. Aldis was flooded with refugees of many different types, and was shaped by the resultant mix of races and cultures. Besides humans of various cultures and the Rhydan, there are Night People (sorcerous creations similar to orcs), Sea People (an aquatic race), and the Vata (inheritors of magical blood). Aldis is a monarchy, but each ruler is chosen by a semi-divine magical being originally summoned by the rhydan, the Golden Hart. The kingdom's officials are educated professionals who are sworn in only after being tested a magical artifact (the Blue Rose Scepter) that checks their good intentions and alignment. So while the titles used sound feudal (i.e. queen and nobles), really it is more of a bureaucracy perhaps most similar to historical China.
The suggested model for adventure is for the player characters to be a band of the "Sovereign's Own" -- roaming envoys of the Aldean government who deal with local problems. The setting chapter describes typical threats to deal with: unscrupulous merchants, fallen nobles, bandits and pirates, the thieves' guild, shadow cults, cursed arcane relics, shadow gates (through which demons can come), and corrupt sorcerers. Whereas most fantasy RPGs suggest adventures in wilderness or ruins, Blue Rose characters typically deal with internal threats as empowered agents of the government. A GM could easily make adventures out of raids into the evil lands of Kern, but the default is intrigue within Aldis.
My general thoughts on the setting are:
The mechanics are dubbed the "True20" system, a variant of Wizards of the Coast's D20 system incorporating many changes used in Green Ronin's Mutants and Masterminds game. It uses only twenty sided dice (hence "True20"). The basic mechanic is to add attribute + skill + 1d20, and compare the total to a difficulty number. All rolls in this system follow that this approach.
This core mechanics is exactly the same as in other D20 games, but there are a number of distinct features. Compared to Dungeons & Dragons, the major differences are:
Overall, I would say the rules are not significantly simpler than D&D. While they are streamlined in some ways, they are expanded in other ways (more feats, damage rules, fatigue rules). However, it is more elegant in many ways, which many will find appealing. The core D20 roll mechanic is much more emphasized -- using it for wealth, spellcasting, and damage. This is a crunchy game with a significant learning curve for those who aren't already familiar with the system.
Character creation is entirely based on point-spending and picks -- there are no random rolls involved. There are two main picks (Role and Background), plus three separate pools of points which must be spent: attributes, skills, and feats. Step by step, the choices are:
There are some weaknesses. While it is more flexible than Dungeons & Dragons, I was a bit disappointed in the range of characters possible. I would like to have seen more options, including more support for starting characters at levels greater than 1, and also for characters with greater or lesser attributes -- i.e. exceptionally talented beginners, or more experienced veterans with less raw talent. These may be addressed as options in future supplements, however.
In addition, there is no encouragement for making characters outcasts at the start. As explained in the introduction, the romantic fantasy genre is about outcasts finding their place in society. However, the only allowance for this is a Reputation bonus which increases at a fixed rate as characters increase in level.
Arcana are the magical effects of the system (singular "arcanum"). In some ways they more resemble what is usually termed "psionics" than traditional RPG magic. A central arcana is "Mind Touch", which allows mental contact magical effects on targets from a great distance -- based on how personally familiar you are with them. Other effects include various mental manipulations, and control of nature -- such as control of and speaking with animals, plant shaping, water shaping, etc.
There are a total of 49 arcana defined in the core book. Each is much more broad than a typical spell in D&D. A single arcanum will often have multiple functions. For example, "Heart Shaping" has six functions: Despair, Fear, Friendship, Hatred, Hope, and Rage. Further, arcana are not graded in levels. Instead, they are all considered equal and each arcanum's effects grows more powerful in proportion to the caster's level. For example, rather than a low level "Ray of Frost" spell and a higher-level "Cone of Cold" spell, there is a single "Cold Shaping" arcana whose effects scale with the caster's level, and which can be cast at reduced power for a reduced chance of fatigue.
An intriguing touch is the option for evil magic -- termed "sorcery" here. Essentially, sorcery is powerful and dangerous magic, but carries a risk of demonic corruption. With each act of sorcery, you risk gaining a point of corruption. Corruption is a grave threat unless the character chooses to embrace it, essentially turning over to evil.
There is a brief 3-page system of social actions. An NPC is defined as having one of five attitudes towards another character, specifically: Hostile, Unfriendly, Indifferent, Friendly, Helpful. There is a fixed difficulty to try to change each attitude to a better attitude, displayed in a five by five table. There are also notes on usage and modifiers for the six social skills (Bluff, Diplomacy, Gather Information, Perform, and Sense Motive).
This section could definitely use some advice and examples. There is not an involve mechanical process, which many would see as an advantage. Unlike combat, only a single roll is generally allowed for a given interaction. So as I see it, use of a social skill might typically involve a brief in-character dialogue leading up to skill use, followed by a quick roll, then back to dialogue to resolve the results of the roll -- say to hear new information if the target's attitude changed from Indifferent to Friendly.
Combat is a major focus of the system. For those familiar with the D20 system, most of the combat section is familiar. The major changes are the wound track damage system, the options for Extra Effort and Conviction Points, and removing attacks of opportunity.
Damage works this way: the person who is hit makes a D20 roll plus Toughness saving throw stat, with a difficulty of 15 + the damage bonus of the attack. If he beats it, he takes no damage. Otherwise, he takes a level of damage for every 5 points he misses it by. Failing by 5 is wounded; failing by 10 is disabled; failing by 15 is dying. Also, any failure means a -1 on your next Toughness roll. This is very high variability for damage. i.e. Most blows could do anything from a scratch to fatality depending on the roll.
I had some concern about the wound track. In other game systems, a wound track makes for anticlimactic fights, as a target who is wounded starts on a downward spiral towards death where each hit makes him less effective. Thus instead of a rousing climax you get a mopping up of weakened opponents. However, in Blue Rose the spiral is fairly quick, and the damage has a high variability so it is possible to overturn the spiral with some luck. This is a bit of a concern for pacing. With a brief string of good rolls for the PCs, a combat may be over rather abruptly. And with a bad string of rolls, combat could drag out a while.
Some variability is offset by Conviction Points and Extra Effort. Probably the most powerful use of Conviction Points is to reroll any die result and take the better of the two roll, with a minimum of 10 in any case. Players can and generally should use this to protect against bad rolls to resist damage (i.e. rolls form 1 to 5, say). This reduces the variability for them. However, it cannot affect the damage saves for NPCs, since you can only reroll your own die rolls.
Overall, I'm impressed with the design. It has a nice range of options, minimal bookkeeping, and moves fairly quickly. I have a number of nitpicks in layout and clarity -- but especially compared to most first edition games, they are minimal.
There is a 13-page section of advice for game-masters. In general, such sections are notoriously difficult to write, and the results tend to be annoyingly vague. Overall, I would rate this chapter roughly average. It does try to delve into what is specifically different about Blue Rose as a game and romantic fantasy as a genre. But it is still vague on most points, as opposed to providing some clear-cut techniques and ideas. It is broken into five sections: "Running the Game", "Rewards", "Setting Considerations", "Roleplaying Romance", and "Roleplaying Intrigue".
The highlight is probably the list of one hundred single-sentence adventure ideas for the setting -- which goes a long way towards giving an impression of what sort of adventures are expected. The intrigue section is also useful, since typical adventures are more like police work than dungeon skirmishes. Unfortunately for a game of romantic fantasy, I thought the section on romance was the weakest -- though to be fair, the romance referred to is more style of adventure than necessarily romantic relationships. I suspect that the authors actually had little experience on this front.
This is 8 pages of rules for special creatures, then descriptions and stats for 66 creatures, including 24 mundane animals, 11 rhydan animals, and 31 other creatures (3 animate plants, 4 elementals, 5 shadowspawn, 4 aberrations, 9 unliving, and 6 darkfiends). The creatures are for the most part standard fantasy creatures. Thus, it is regrettable but not awful that most are not individually illustrated. In general, this section is useful but uninspired.
A significant lack is statistics for typical non-player characters of various types. In Dungeons & Dragons, the default is that the player characters will be adventuring in uninhabited wilderness, caverns, and ruins. Thus, these could be left out. However, in Blue Rose the default is for them to be acting to root out trouble within civilized lands. Thus, I think it is a significant failure not to include more stats or at least guidelines for characters like city guards, bandits, Rose Knights, and so forth.
There is a brief 7-page sample adventure, which I played through at a convention. Sample adventures are notoriously bad, in my opinion, and many games will simply not include them. This is no exception. As written, it is a fairly linear investigation whose clues are weakly described, and with no support given for player ingenuity. Unfortunately, I suspect this indicates a general weakness in how to provide well-supported adventures.
In general, I think this is a strong design. In a gaming scene which has generally fallen into a rut, this strikes a balance between making use of familiar elements (fantasy tropes and the D20 system), but putting them in a new light. It has a good concept, with good organization, and good execution on the mechanics. On the negative side, it is dry and vague in place in the setting material, GM advice, and sample adventure. I think it needs to have the setting gone through in more detail, and more effort made at adventures -- not just as useful products, but as exercises in seeing holes and problems in the adventure concepts they lay out.
There is a core story of sorts -- i.e. the envoys find a hidden plot within Aldis, root it out, fight the bad guys, then set things aright. There are issues with this which have not been thought through very well, but this is far stronger than most first editions turn out.