The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day I hear from the Green Ronin boys that they’ve got themselves a fantasy game they want me to review. I’ve been at this long enough to know sayin’ “yes” meant more than gettin’ a book in the mail. It meant some weirdo comin’ to visit.
Don’t ask me why works that way, folks. It just does. It’s a weird hobby.
Now, I figured on the weirdo would be some fantasy type. But this guy… well…
“Greetings,” he says, all sing-songy. The ruffles on his shirt made a sound like someone waddin’ up cheap crapper paper when he bowed. “I am here on behalf Green Ronin to present you with a review copy of Blue Rose: The Roleplaying Game of Romantic Fantasy!”
“Verily!” the guy says. “And the game is equally as swift and simplified as its four-color kin. Although, alas, it lacks the large, strapping fellows in those delightfully skin-tight uniforms.”
“Ah… yeah,” I says. “So, what’s with the ‘romantic’ angle? Lotsa fellas ridin’ around on white horses savin’ dames in distress and so forth?”
“Well, yes, there is that,” he agrees, “But! The game does cater to all types…”
The guy gives me the once-over and waggles his eyebrows.
“Listen, pal,” I says, “pardon me for sayin’ so, but you seem like you might be…”
“…one of the Queen’s Finest?” he chimes in. “Indeed I am, my square-jawed friend!”
“…Is that what they’re callin’ it these days…?”
The introduction gives the reader a solid idea of both the game’s themes and its system. As such, it serves its function perfectly. If anything, it front-loads too much information that might be expected to be found elsewhere in the book.
In fact, it’s here that the game describes the basic mechanic, which fundamentally is no different from D&D 3rd edition: add the roll of a d20 to one of six familiar attributes – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Willpower, or Charisma – and a skill score, trying to beat either a target number or an opposed roll. The biggest change: what would be an attribute modifier of -5 to +5 based off of an attribute score of 3-18 (or more) in D&D here becomes the attribute itself. Combat ability and Saving Throws work the same way, using class-and-level-based scores in place of skill.
As to the setting, the chapter describes “romantic fantasy” as focusing on heroes finding their places in society rather than on adventuring as bold loners or outcasts. The societies in question tend to be highly egalitarian, with no tolerance for bias regarding gender or sexual preference. Humanoid fantasy races rarely appear, but intelligent and/or semi-intelligent animals are common. Nature is a positive magical force to be protected. Most magic takes the form of innate psychic powers and elemental control rather than arcane rituals, the latter being the purview of antagonists hungry for power or revenge.
Chapter I: World of Aldea
The book weaves a lovely, if not particularly original, mythology for its setting: the elemental Gods of Twilight created the world, but the earth god grew hungry for more power and sought it from the darkness beyond creation known as the Shadow. The Shadow drove him to madness and forced him to birth the gods of evil known as the exarchs of Shadow. The water god captured the tears the fire goddess shed for the destruction wrought by the exarchs and from them created the Gods of Light to oppose the exarchs.
Moving from pre-history to history, the chapter describes the Old Kingdom of Aldis, its fall to a cabal of sorcerers-turned-liches, and the kingdom’s eventual rebirth with the help of the enigmatic Golden Hart.
The Golden Hart thereafter would appear to choose the ruler of Aldis from among the nobles, who, in turn, are deemed worthy of their nobility (i.e., Light-aligned) by means of the Blue Rose Scepter held by the king or queen. Egalitarianism is the order of the day, since any citizen can become a noble and any noble can become king or queen.
That egalitarian ethic extends through all aspects of society, with gender, sexual orientation, race, or even species (in the case of the intelligent animals known as the Rhydan) being treated as equals.
The chapter goes into loving detail regarding the culture of Aldis, its geography, its royal court, attitudes toward mystic healing and the psychic arts (viewed as two different things even if they are not), and even modes of dress and types of festivals. Two relatively friendly neighbors also see some discussion: the Rezeans, a proud race of horse nomads like Mongols diluted with politically correct Plains Indian imagery, and the blatantly Gypsy-like Roamers.
All’s not completely hey-nonny-nonny, however.
Internally, Aldis faces the crime syndicate known as the Silence, assorted nefarious cults, and even unscrupulous nobles and merchants. Then there’s the danger posed by the shadowgates, a Stargate-like network of teleportation gates long since corrupted into demonic portals.
And at Aldis’s borders sit Kern, the requisite kingdom of Pure Evil ruled by the last great lich-king, and Jarzon, a kingdom that threw off Kern’s rule alongside Aldis but became a harsh, paranoid theocracy. The latter serves as both a moral contrast and as a misguided, redeemable (unlike Kern) antagonist: while the predominant beliefs of the Jarzoni are almost certainly objectively wrong from the setting’s point of view, those beliefs do, at least, have a historical context, and the Jarzoni can be stalwart allies against the evil of Kern. I suppose a very rough analogue might be a world in which the Democrats (U.S. version) are objectively correct but in which they can unite with the Republicans to battle the Nazis.
Standing against these threats are several organizations ideal for PC involvement. In particular, players may be interesting in having their characters join the Queen’s Finest, an organization of domestic troubleshooters, and the Knights of the Blue Rose, the elite warriors of the Aldis defense forces. Both groups have reason to work with each other and provide an immediate outlet for the game’s focus on community.
Chapter II: Creating Your Hero
I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to call Blue Rose a simplified incarnation of d20, but it certainly strips away a bit of dead weight.
For starters, the 3-18 attribute scale that’s grown largely meaningless since D&D 3.0vanishes altogether in Blue Rose, leaving only the -5 to +5 human scale for the standbys of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Constitution, with 0 being an average score. Players get 6 points to divide amongst these attributes, taking negative scores to earn more points to spend on other attributes. Rhydan PCs are the exception to this rule, starting with only 4 points but getting bonuses to species-appropriate attributes.
Characters may be from seven human races – the Aldins, Forest Folk, Islanders, Jarzoni, Kerns, Rezeans, and Roamers – or from four non-human species – Night People (basically orcs), Rhydan (intelligent animals), Sea-Folk (amphibious mer-folk), and Vata (elf analogs). Rhydan characters, in turn, may be dolphins, rhy-cats, rhy-horses, or rhy-wolves, and vata characters may be vata’an (“true vata,” a.k.a. elves) or vata’sha (“dark vata,” a.k.a. drow).
Players may be disappointed to learn that they cannot play the more exotic rhydan species: drakes, griffons, or unicorns. I assume this has something to do with game balance – drakes being too weak and griffons and unicorns being too powerful for starting PCs, respectively – but I’m not really sure rhy that’s the case.
(Sorry. Just a little rhy humor, there.)
Upon reviewing the non-human races, I noticed that the vata receive no attribute bonuses, instead receiving the Arcane Talent feat for free. More about Arcane Talents in just a bit; for now, just know that this makes all vata akin to multi-classed wizards (or wizards with a whole category of powers for free). Given the more mystical feel of the setting, I find that both entirely appropriate and a positive step in distinguishing the vata from their nimble sword-and-bow proficient elven cousins of more traditional D&D settings.
Speaking of traditional D&D, Blue Rose retains the class/level structure, albeit with substantial changes and simplifications. The game includes only three highly-generalized classes – the Adept (magician/psychic), the Expert (skill guy), and the Warrior (you figure it out) – which govern the access to class-related feats and skills well as base Saving Throw and combat scores. (In a nice touch, Expert characters can customize their Saving Throws to fit the broad range of professions the Expert class must cover.) Characters can purchase non-class skills for double the cost, but the purchase of non-class feats is not allowed; however, characters can multi-class in order to get around that restriction.
Blue Rose also maintains the D&D tradition of character alignment, here simplified into “Light”, “Twilight”, and “Shadow” (good, neutral, and evil). But there’s a twist: allcharacters have both Light and Shadow elements to their natures, manifesting as traits like Carefree, Reflective, and Adventurous for Light and Cowardly, Reactionary, and Narrow-minded for Shadow. They also possess Callings, which are their purposes in life.
And these natures and callings have an important game effect, too. Characters have Drama/Hero/Fate points called “Conviction,” which increase with character level and which may be spent for such things as re-rolls and damage recovery. While characters regain one point of spent Conviction per day, they also regain points by moving toward their callings in accordance with their natures – Light or Shadow. This leads to some golden roleplaying opportunities, as a Light-aligned character might need to be Sneaky or a Shadow-aligned PC might need to be Compassionate to accomplish a calling-related goal.
One final note about character creation: in keeping with the thematic importance of a character’s place in society, PCs gain points in Reputation that indicate the characters’ degree of fame (or infamy, depending upon the NPC’s point of view). I’m not too keen on the mechanical effects, however: the Reputation points indicate the chance of the character being recognized, but the result of recognition will always be a flat +4/-4 to Bluff, Diplomacy, Gather Information, Intimidate, or Perform rolls. In other words, “Hey, I know you! You’re Hitler!” will have no more impact than will, “Hey, I know you! You’re the jerk who doesn’t give out candy on Halloween!”
Chapter III: Skills
To my mind, the most noteworthy element of skills in Blue Rose is not the skill assortment itself, but rather the manner in which skills are acquired and increased. Unlike their counterparts in standard D&D, characters in Blue Rose gain skills at a fixed rate of (level +3) for class skills and (level +3)/2 for non-class skills (rounded down). Buying new skills requires the purchase of the Skill Training feat, which gives the character two new skills at the standard starting level or one out-of-class skill starting at the class skill level. This method certainly simplifies skill purchasing, which I count as a good thing, even if it does create abrupt leaps of competency that grow more pronounced as characters advance in level.
Chapter IV: Feats
(First of all, in the remote chance that any readers do not know: “Feats” in D20/OGL games are simply “cool things a character can do.”)
Appropriately, the most distinctive Feats in his game have a mystical bent. And unsurprisingly, the majority of these fall under the Adept’s purview, including the Arcane Feats that are the Arcane Talents giving access to Arcana (see below, and yes, I wish these things had been named a bit more distinctly, too) as well as abilities that tweak these powers in various ways. However, not all supernatural abilities available to Adepts are considered “Arcana” – among these, cleric-like curative powers, mage-like potion-brewing, enchanting,and summoning powers, and even the ability to conjure a sort of psychic lightsaber. While I’m not exactly clear on the separation between these powers and the Arcana, I do appreciate the range of abilities they offer Adepts in this setting, allowing them to fill both traditional cleric and mage roles as desired.
Also, while the Arcana themselves lack the kind of morally suspect ceremonial magic that stands as a counterpoint to more “natural” innate powers in romantic fantasy, the Arcane Feats for raising undead and summoning Darkfiends (a.k.a. “demons”) fill that gap nicely. (Arcane rituals get a full writeup in the Blue Rose Companion, which, I’m guessing, also includes more black magic rituals.)
Perhaps more importantly, members of all three classes have access to mystic feats – making armed or unarmed attacks affect creatures normally harmed only by magic weapons, for example, or being able to run across any surface without sinking, including water. Best of all, non-Adepts can learn individual Arcana (as opposed to Arcane Talents) or even “wild” Arcane Talents that provide the full range of related Arcana but which tend to go haywire in the finest Carrie/Firestarter tradition. All of this means that characters regardless of class can have at least a touch of psychic ability while maintaining the Adept’s position as the true mystical pro.
Feats allowing for characters to have found true love, be pure of heart, and be one part of a human/Rhydan psychic bond all also serve to contribute to the romantic fantasy theme.
Chapter V: Arcana
As previously mentioned, magic in Blue Rose more closely resembles psychic abilities than cast spells. Adepts may purchase the Feats known as Arcane Talents, which function as skills (i.e., PC level +3, half that rounded down for non-Adepts) and which give access to a range of specific powers known as “Arcana” (singular: “Arcanum”). Some Arcana may be used by anyone possessing the requisite Arcane Talent, while others require specific training. Some take time to use, and some cause fatigue. And fatigue aside, there’s no casting limit on Arcana; however, none of them reach anything resembling the level of D&D’s fireballs and lightning bolts. If you have the ability to control fire, for example, then an offensive use of the ability will amount to simply setting things ablaze with your mind.
The Arcane Feats:
Taken as a whole, the Arcana serve to enhance the setting’s airy, mystical aura, with magic as an expression of an individual being in tune with himself, with others, and with nature, while avoiding becoming a focus for power-grabbing that might detract from the game’s emphasis on interaction.
Not all Arcana are quite so benign, however. Some are considered “Sorcery” – a.k.a. “black magic” – but this is more of a Light Side/Dark Side of the Force distinction than any sort of qualitative difference. Again, some of the non-Arcana Arcane Feats help fill the “evil ritual magic” niche.
Speaking of Sorcery and the “Dark Side,” the game features an excellent system for simulating corruption. Using Sorcery or giving into one’s Shadow nature in areas of high corruption runs the risk of earning Corruption points. Earn enough of them, and the character begins to suffer both mentally and physically.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting: at this point, characters can choose to seek the hard road of redemption, buying off points of Corruption in lieu of regaining points of Conviction…. or characters can choose to embrace their Corruption. In the latter case, the penalties to mind and body instantly fall away. And while the Corrupt character can now only be healed by a Corrupt healer, the base score for all of his Arcana will be hisCorruption score rather than the relevant attribute. That’s really nasty for two reasons: the Corruption score may be higher than the equivalent maximums in human attributes, and the Corrupt character will have every reason to be even more evil in an effort to build his power still further. Given this simple but ingenious mechanic for simulating the strong temptation of giving in to one’s darker nature, I can certainly see why some RPGnetters have suggested using Blue Rose for a Star Wars game.
Chapter VI: Wealth and Equipment
As befits a game de-emphasizing the killing of things and the taking of their stuff, Blue Rose uses an abstracted Wealth score in lieu of exact coinage and prices. If the character wishes to purchase something of an expense score equal to or less than his Wealth score, the purchase is automatic; however, if he wishes to purchase something of an expense greater than his Wealth score, he must roll to see if he can afford it and must take a reduction in his Wealth score to reflect the expenditure. I like the way this keeps players from having to check their virtual coinpurse for every round of mead while keeping wealth a tangible factor.
That change aside, the equipment list remains pretty much as extensive as any you’d expect to see in standard D&D, right down to the cost of a meal at an inn. Weapon stats retain the magnificient little bits of crunch that I love – the variable critical hit ranges and critical damage multipliers, the concealability of daggers, the superior disarming ability of the flail, the speed of the rapier manifested through the Finesse feat, the Strength damage bonus from composite bows, etc.
One noteworthy addition to the standard Medieval armory is the cryston: a crystal mounted on a rifle-like stock that fires bolts of magical force guided by Wisdom rather than Dexterity when held by those with Arcane Talents. Doesn’t do much damage – in fact, appropriately enough for such a touch-feely setting, it doesn’t even do permanent harm to anything other than Shadowspawn or the undead – but hey! It’s a ray gun!
Chapter VII: Playing the Game
In a game emphasizing social interactions, it’s only fitting that the rules covering them come first in the rules chapter. While I’ve heard complaints that the book doesn’t devote enough space to the subject, I rather think it just deals with the subject efficiently. Social skills are slightly broad, and the section describes the various ways each skill can be used; e.g., the Bluff skill can be used for fast-talk, haggling, and even seduction.
The section has a simple table cross-referencing the target’s current attitude with what the new attitude will be given a specific result of the interaction roll. Really, I think anything more would end up as purple prose describing the joys of interaction without actually providing any useful information.
Initially, combat in Blue Rose follows standard d20 combat fairly closely: a roll of 1d20, adding the attacker’s level-based attack score, ability score, size modifier, and miscellaneous modifiers, subtracting range penalties for ranged attacks. The target number is the defender’s Defense score, consisting of 10 + armor bonus + level-based dodge bonus + size modifier + miscellaneous modifiers.
Note that the game retains the D&D axioms of Strength serving as the default modifier to hit in melee combat and armor making the target more difficult to hit rather than reducing damage. I’m not particularly keen on either under the best of circumstances, but the former’s emphasis on brute force seems particularly out of place in this setting. On the other hand, because armor limits one’s dodge bonus, armor becomes increasingly superfluous as characters increase in level. That, I suppose, does suit the setting, with the mightiest warriors of the realm logically being armor-free swashbucklers.
The system diverges dramatically at the damage step, however. In place of hit points, defenders who’ve been struck get a Toughness save: 1d20 + level-based Toughness save modifier versus a base difficulty of 15 + the attacker’s damage bonus (Strength and/or the weapon’s base damage). Success results in no significant damage, while failure has differing effects depending upon the degree of failure and the lethality of the attack.
In the case of both lethal and non-lethal damage, a failure by less than 5 incurs a cumulative -1 penalty on further Toughness saves – non-lethal saves in the case of non-lethal damage and all saves in the case of lethal damage. In other words, damage at this level has no effect beyond making serious wounds more likely.
Failure by larger degrees results in marks on a damage track, with each point resulting in progressively more dire consequences and with a result on an already-filled point moving the result to the next step down. With “unconscious” as the last non-lethal result and “dead” as the last lethal result, it’s possible for any hit of sufficient strength to take an opponent out of the fight. This is especially true for “minions”, the game’s incarnation of mooks/goons/etc., who automatically take the maximum possible damage result (unconscious or dead) when successfully hit. This is a mook rule I can fully support, since the defense score and Toughness save prevents the “mook tag” phenomenon as seen in such games as Feng Shui: while the minions may not take as much damage as significant characters, neither do they simply drop at the slightest touch. The power of the attack still matters.
Now, I haven’t playtested Blue Rose, but I have played Mutants & Masterminds, which uses the system on which Blue Rose is based. For that reason, I can report that this damage system really didn’t do much for me. True, the Toughness roll does allow for faster casualties, but keeping track of the assorted penalties that accomplish that result felt no more streamlined than did keeping track of hit points. I like the concept in theory, but in practice, I’d call the benefits over hit points pretty much a wash.
Chapter VIII: Narrating Blue Rose
I’ve found that “GM advice” chapters can become both trite and scatterbrained far too easily, throwing out suggestions GMs have heard a hundred times before and/or mixing in random rules that the author couldn’t figure out where else to include.
I’m happy to report such is not the case here. Well, not completely. While some of the information isn’t exactly revolutionary, the chapter does an excellent job of systematically covering the various challenges presented by both the rules and the setting: when to keep die rolls secret or to fudge them, how to handle bonuses and penalties, how to deal with PC/PC, PC/NPC, and even NPC/NPC romance, the ease of information-gathering with Arcana, and a personal bugaboo of mine, how to deal with characters in positions of authority.
Chapter IX: Bestiary
To my way of thinking, a good self-contained fantasy game requires a good-sized bestiary. Blue Rose does not disappoint on this front, with nearly 70 creatures to battle or aid the heroes:
|Bat||Bear, Black||Bear, Brown|
|Shark, Medium||Shark, Large||Shark, Huge|
|Shark, Dire||Snake, Constrictor||Snake, Giant Constrictor|
|Viper, Small||Squid, Giant||Weasel|
|Baleen Whale||Cachalot Whale||Orca|
|Air Elemental||Earth Elemental||Fire Elemental|
|Will o’ Wisp|
|Fiendish Rat||Fiendish Raven||Fiendish Shark|
|Darkfiend Soldier||Darkfiend Watcher||Darkfiend Whisperer|
First of all, I’m not sure what it says about the game that the Winged Cat is the only creature literally in a category all its own…
More generally, however, I find myself annoyed somehow at the extensive use of blatantly recycled D&D monsters. With the trouble the game goes to in order to be different in terms of PC character types, seeing these creatures here makes it seem as though the author got to this point in the book, found his creativity spent, and said, “…Ah, screw it. Let’em fight ogres and troglodytes.”
Still, I would much rather have a well-stocked bestiary of unoriginal creatures than a handful of wildly imaginative ones. That makes this chapter a net positive in my book.
Introductory Adventure: The Curse of Harmony
Adventure spoiler text follows:
The adventure involves the PCs answering a request for help from Jarzoni exiles claiming to be cursed by the Roamers camping nearby. The heroes must rely heavily on investigation and diplomacy as they deal with the mistrust between the two highly antithetical cultures. Complicating matters are a pair of gay (in case the game’s stance on the subject hasn’t been driven home yet) star-crossed lovers – one a Roamer, the other a Jarzoni, and the latter a wild talent responsible for the strange events in town – and a sorcerer posing as the Roamer’s healer while holding a wild rhy-cat captive.
Without a doubt, the adventure does a fine job of covering the themes present in the game: acceptance, diplomacy, diversity, romance, and so on. It also offers opportunities for the PCs to be heroic in a nonviolent but dramatic fashion, such as rescuing townsfolk from a burning building. However, players itching for an actual fight – players of Warriors, in particular – may be disappointed with the opposition, since the only violent confrontation will be with the individual sorcerer unless the adventure goes horribly wrong or unless the GM chooses to throw in some touches of his own. Granted, the latter’s easily done by throwing in some ogres or troglodytes or something somewhere along the way, but they won’t be anything other than distractions barring a rewrite of the main plotline itself.
Appendix: D20 System Conversion
Not being an expert on all the ins and outs of d20, I can’t speak authoritatively on how successful this three-page conversion may be. However, it does appear to address the key differences between the systems, most notably in the areas of damage and healing. Assuming there aren’t any major glitches here, the conversion obviously throws the game wide open to incorporating elements from the Great d20/OGL Empire. (And hence making a Blue Rose/Conan crossover game a real possibility. The mind boggles.)
I’d describe the visual aspect of the book as “very nice”. The art isn’t visually arresting, but it’s a cut above average. More importantly, the book has a consistent airy, dreamlike look throughout that meshes perfectly with the subject matter.
The layout and font choices make for easy reading, and the comprehensive table of contents and index make for equally-easy information lookups.
The Socio-Political Aspect
Some games come with a built-in agenda: Underground, Blue Planet, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, etc. This is one of those games. That being the case, I cannot adequately review Blue Rose without dealing with that agenda.
Specifically, Blue Rose is very, very much about the acceptance of alternative sexual preferences.
If this were simply a side-note to the setting as a whole, it really wouldn’t warrant mentioning; however, Blue Rose beats the reader over the head with its message of tolerance to the point of being cloying: a major god has a young male god as his gay lover and is the patron of gay couples, a mother in the game fiction prays that this god watch over her gay son and his lover, fully half of all Sea-Folk are gay, clothing styles are fully androgynous, and so on. Conversely, conservative religious values (represented by the Jarzoni) are objectively closed-minded and bad.
However, this is part and parcel of the fantasy fiction on which Blue Rose models itself. So, a conservative gamer knowing anything at all about the source material has no more right to be offended than does a liberal gamer at the oh-so-subtle themes of The Price of Freedom.
Furthermore, while the setting does present a largely black-and-white morality on the subject, there are, at least, a few shades of gray. For example, while same-sex marriage is completely accepted in Aldis, opinion is more divided on polygamous “star marriages,” which some in the eastern part of the country see as strange and/or immoral. For another, the people of Aldis – the queen included – have difficulty accepting the idea that maybe the Jarzoni exiles living within their borders actually prefer to maintain their patriarchal culture, with the queen hoping that they will hurry up and assimilate. And while the Jarzoni worldview may not be a good thing, it does, at least, have an in-setting explanation beyond purely arbitrary prejudice. So, while the game may drive its point home with a hammer, at least it’s not a sledgehammer.
(And, ironically, I’ve actually read complaints from liberal gamers about the “Divine Right of Kings” suggested by the appointments from the Golden Hart – what I like to call a “Venisonocracy”.)
I quite like the changes Blue Rose makes to standard d20. While it doesn’t go far enoughfor me in some respects, it does manage to appeal to me more than its parent system. I’d say that it’s a nice compromise between keeping the game familiar to fans of d20 and drawing in gamers averse to many of that system’s assorted complications and quirks.
As for the setting? Well, it, like the subset of fantasy fiction on which it’s based, won’t ever really be my thing. Then again, while I’m not really the target audience, I could still see the appeal of the game and would be willing to play it, if not run it. That being the case, I can only imagine it appealing very strongly to fans of romantic fantasy, and hence, I consider it an entirely successful effort and a quality product.
- Quality = 4.0
- Quantity = 5.0
- Quality = 4.0
- Quantity = 5.0
- Artwork = 4.0
- Layout/Readability = 4.0
- Organization = 4.0
- Writing = 4.0
- Proofreading Penalty = 0.0