After a long hiatus, Blue Rose, the AGE RPG of Romantic Fantasy, returns to the world of roleplay. It brings with it a vision of intuitive, well-considered design that breathes new life into the romantic fantasy genre.
To unpack that a little, romantic fantasy is characterized by the emotional struggles of its characters. The romance is not, as you might fear, between player characters but in the woodwork of the settings and stories themselves. These stories are about growth and change, the magic only a tool to help explore the emotional depth of the human condition. Playing through these stories will show you high melodrama, sweeping tales of love, and heart-wrenching tragedy.
Blue Rose itself brought about controversy when it was first released in 2005, due not to its elegant and inventive interpretation of the d20 system but a negative response to its progressive stance on gender and sexuality. The world of Aldea is a place with more liberal attitudes than our own, where gay, trans, and those living along the spectrum can exist in harmony and equality. This was, at least in some circles, met with ridicule and distaste. Twelve years later, these ideas are more settled in the public consciousness. Those elements are still present, but that fact on its own means nothing. The real question is how that material is integrated into this setting, whether organically informing the decisions and culture or being more “shoehorned in” as critics will insist. Reading through the book settles these concerns definitively. This aspect of the setting is actually very minimal, but is one of the many, many examples of how every part of Blue Rose is built with a singular, overriding agenda: to make a great game.
These aspects are handled sensibly, which is a high compliment. You don’t get beaten over the head with any sort of message; rather, the status in society of the LQBT+ community is based on the history of the culture and nature of the world itself. Everything has a justification in the lore, and one that exists for itself rather than to construct a social narrative. Laevvel, the Aldin name for trans and intersex individuals, have special status because they are more attuned to magic. This might trigger some eye rolls, the trope being that trans people are inherently special because they are magically attuned. However, The in-game reason is more grounded and well thought out. Because of the unique qualities of Laevvel, their energies are anomalous to creatures that can read spirits, such as fey and elementals. Logically, this attracts their attention, and Laevvels are thus more likely to study the arcane as a means of curiosity or self defense.
The most important factor in this writing is that you are never told how or what to feel. Blue Rose doesn’t tell you outright that the LGBT community is made of moral standouts who you must support or be one of the vile, traitorous scum of the other political leanings…It doesn’t judge your opinions; it only presents you with people, and leaves the judgment to you. In a romantic world, those people are more accepted, but not by all. They can be good, bad, smart, dumb, or otherwise, and you are meant to judge them for their actions, not their orientations.
The look of Blue Rose is beyond exceptional. If you were totally illiterate, you could completely understand the feeling and aspirations of Blue Rose simply by flipping through this book. Pages breathe life and emotion as if they were real, often styled off of the medieval tapestries that would line the halls of castles of France. These depictions are not limited to people or combat, either. We get stirring vistas of cities against sunsets. A family of Night People sitting contentedly with their newborn. Couples of mixed gender lounge on a tree, overlooking the remains of the afternoon. Hal Mangold, the art director, should be commended for his care, research, and dedication to the world of Aldea. This art is particularized to this locale, and doesn’t stray into the realm of the mundane except to set itself apart. Yes, we have the typical picture of an adept blasting away her foe with a bolt of magic, but as she does so she is looking away, to the small girl at her back that she is protecting.
Digging into the setting is a daunting process, setting you with names, kingdoms, religions, rulers, histories, mythology and more. What you find, in essence, is a renaissance Eropean setting where the niceties of society are beset by intrigue between noble houses and the vile machinations of the Shadow. The Shadow is an evil force from beyond our world that seeks control by corrupting the beauty created by the gods. Shadow reinforces the threat of tragedy in Blue Rose, even drawing players into it under the right conditions.
Meanwhile, countries vie for power against one another and within themselves, and opportunists all around seek to bring down the works of many generations. Aldea is a bright world, but one that casts long shadows. Shadow cults stalk the cities and assassins seek to upset the balance of power, in exchange for generous offerings of coin. Digging through this massive section will be a large task for GMs and players alike, but doing so uncovers seeds of plot threads that could become large campaigns all their own. The writing is more than just functional. As you make your way through the setting material, you will come across songs, stories, and rumors in sidebars to flesh out the world of Aldea and its many nations. You get a peek into the culture of Aldea by learning the people’s’ hopes and fears from the ground level.
While many kingdoms are free of the Shadow and its exarchs, Kern is still under the thrall of a lich king, and refugees flood Aldis, the kingdom of the Blue Rose. This element provides an essential element of tension not only externally but internally, as the kingdom struggles to reconcile itself with these new populations. All of this is in addition to its ongoing conflicts with its neighbors, military or otherwise.
As intriguing as this setting is, it is based deeply in the familiar, perhaps too much so. Aldea has its own life and themes, but at its core resembles many basic principles of fantasy. There are good gods and an evil one, different races that are mostly humans with some variations, and your general array of kingdoms and struggles. Despite the themes that Blue Rose works hard to enforce, you could easily play this as a standard dungeon crawler and have it fit right into this world. The system’s focus on combat forces comparisons to D&D as well; this system takes many impressive steps forward but remains and echo and a response to those original influences.
That said, Blue Rose’s system is not only easy to use, it is tied directly into the themes of romantic fantasy at numerous key junctures. The basic framework is taken from the AGE system, a starting point I already have strong confidence in. It made my top list when it first came out, but even so I was concerned that it would be a bad fit for Blue Rose. AGE is built around action and combat, excelling at cinematic set pieces, whereas Aldea is made from emotions and internal conflicts. Green Ronin has combined these pieces with extravagant flair, keeping what works and modifying as necessary.
The basics of the system are simple: characters have nine basic attributes and skill bonuses which add directly to those attributes. The attributes, thankfully, consist only of their modifiers. No longer will you have to compare them to a reference chart only to then apply that chart’s result to a set of separate values. To complete any action, you simply roll three six sided dice and add your appropriate bonus. The 3d6 keeps the math within a certain manageable range, not swinging randomly as it would on a d20.
Creating a character or reading an NPC statblock is nearly effortless, made up of only a few numbers and simple abilities. The only drawback is, as written, how much randomness there is to character generation. While there are rules for making these decisions on your own, the official method of determining attributes as well as racial and class bonuses are done randomly, which is a strange decision in 2017. Blue Rose is not built with this type of randomness in mind, like Traveller was, and there are so many aspects that players do get to decide that it seems out of place.
One of the system’s real standout qualities is its stunting mechanic. One of your three dice will be a different color than the rest. When you roll doubles during a test, you gain stunt points according to the number on that die. Those stunt points can be used to fuel class abilities as well as a set of maneuvers available to everyone. The more powerful cost more points. This system not only allows for combat to be dynamic, interesting, and memorable. It builds those moments directly into the system and incentivizes you to use them. These stunts affect combat and spellcasting, but extend further than that. There are also stunting tables for social interactions and exploration, the other two pillars of roleplay, that far too often go ignored.
The classes are split into adept, warrior, and expert, with unique abilities and subclasses in each. On their face, these three are the standard D&D classes that you would expect, and see recreated in incarnation after incarnation. However, early on in your advancement you can specialize into a number of different classes which range all over from Diplomats, Healers, Spirit Dancers, Spies, and more. These specializations offer minor bonuses in specific areas, and are often similar at their lowest level. They open up the world into more than the base classes, and allow you to make your character more of his or her own entity. The higher level abilities are even more specialized to make each subclass feel more unique.
The magic system is as intuitive and thematic as the rest. There are multiple series of disciplines that your characters can gain, such as Animism or Healing, which grant you access to certain powers. The powers themselves are simple and useful, but can be modified by your familiarity with the subject of the spell. Your abilities are not limited by a prebuilt number of spell slots or mana points. Rather you have to worry about your fatigue level. Certain spells put strain on you, which build up over time. You have a chance to resist, but for every failure it will be harder to use subsequent spells. You also have the option of dipping into Sorcery, dark magics that are connected to the Shadow. These spells are powerful tools, but threaten to open you up to Corruption. Every time you cast one you might gain Corruption, which drains your strength and may kill you. Corruption can also be gained by evil actions, or decreased by noble ones. This is another area I have to point out specifically as integrating mechanics into the story. Your characters are tied to their actions, and you to your characters. For instance, you gain Conviction (which are special points you can use to help succeed or survive) by following your character’s overall goals and beliefs. The struggle for the fast, easy solution is dangerous, and you constantly have to weigh your options between what is right and what is effective.
This being a fantasy setting, there are of course various races to choose from. You have standard Humans, who fall into the common trope of being the most “adaptable” race with widespread and diverse culture. Night People are descended from Shadowspawn and are essentially more civilized orcs, who struggle to integrate in a world that knew them as enemies. Rhydan are animals who have become sentient and intelligent. Rare enough to not have a civilization of their own, they have a unique perspective on situations. Each animal type has different stat bonuses and abilities, and if you want to find a place to min/max it is most likely here. The sea folk are human offshoots that are more aquatic, and Vata are born of humans but changed by magic at some point before their birth.
Characters also have Backgrounds, which are essentially places of birth tied to small stat bonuses, but help enforce your connection to your roots. More interesting is the Relationship system, which are a measure of Bonds to other people. These Bonds can be positive or negative, but must be powerful enough that they would drive your character to action. Your Bond could be “I love this person with all my heart” or “I will flay the skin from your flesh and the flesh from your bones and scrape your bones dry. And still you will not have suffered enough.” Each Bond has an intensity rating from 1 to 5, which translates to that many free stunt points you get to use per session on rolls related to that Relationship, regardless of whether doubles are rolled. You have access to special stunts as well, and intensity can affect the efficacy of magic as well.
This system is the hallmark of using mechanics to enforce a theme. It is built directly on the rules you will use every session, but it reinforces the themes and world at play. You want to be connected to your Bonds, for mechanical and story bonuses both. You are tied directly to your character, striving for love, hate, revenge, or sorrow. The system is effortless to use and explain, but engages you directly in your character’s motivations.
In terms of navigation, bookmarks are extensive and effective. I especially appreciate not only the plethora of quick reference sheets but that they are specially highlighted in the PDF bookmarks. They didn’t skimp on the index, which is in many ways the true test of quality and attention to detail for any RPG book. It covers the many game aspects you may need, going on for several pages to make sure you can find what you need quickly.
After a generous adversary section you will find Shadows of Tanglewood, an adventure to get you started in Aldea. The adventure is simple, but contains a mixture of exploration, combat, and investigation as you uncover the tragedy at the heart of the Tanglewood. This adventure is well written for new GMs, giving them a range of options for how the players may react.
Blue Rose: the Age RPG of Romantic Fantasy
Designed by: Jeremy Crawford, Steve Kenson, Jack Norris, Chris Pramas, and John Snead
Published by: Green Ronin Publishing
Ages: 13 and up
Mechanics: Roleplay, Stunting Mechanics