Wednesday, March 29, 2023

(Blue Rose) World of Aldea

The World of Aldea (Jeremy Crawford, Daire Elliot, John Snead) greatly expands what we know about, um, the world of Aldea. The setting chapter of the core book had about 35 pages and this book has more than 100 (I'm not counting the sample adventures). But it's weird, I don't feel like I know three times as much about Aldea as I did before.

I think the corebook is more economical in its worldbuilding mostly because it's easier to establish more of the world in fewer total words by focusing on tendencies and relationships and ideological conflicts. World of Aldea is slower-paced and takes the time to explore details and nuance.

It's not purely to the game's benefit. The more we learn about Aldea, the greater variety of potential adventures there are, and the more dilute its romantic fantasy genre. Aldea seems like more of a living, breathing world than it ever has in the past, but it also seems like more of a D&D world than it ever has in the past. 

I'm trying to think if I've seen similar drift in other settings . . . and it seems like something that's always a risk (Trinity Continuum: Aeon is feeling more like Star Wars as time goes on), but I don't think it's inevitable (Rogue Trader never had any noticeable drift towards Star Trek, which is a shame because it would have done the game some good). I don't think it's because of any particular weakness in Blue Rose's writing or design that it's gotten more vanilla after only two supplements, but I do think it means there was never quite so wide a gulf between this and D&D as internet controversy would have us believe.

So the main value-add of World of Aldea is that it gives you a bunch of fairly conventional adventure fantasy stuff to do. We've got more information on organized crime and sinister Shadow Cults, forgotten tombs and barely deniable privateers sent from Aldis' rival, Jazron. It's more clear than ever that there are plenty of foes to face, even in this idyllic world.

We also learn a thing or two about Aldis' less than congenial side. There's a list of notable monarchs, including one that fell to corruption, one that suffered dementia, and another one that simply didn't like the job very much. And the sample adventure shows some of the human failings of the citizenry - the people of the town of Ennevan are biased against a group of recent refugees, because they've become too close to another refugee group from the same region, and the two groups have serious theological disagreements. When a young refugee woman mysteriously dies, can the PCs muster the diplomatic skill to heal the rift of mistrust that has arisen in this community? (Okay, that sounds a bit closer to Blue Rose's original pitch than all the stuff with the Shadow Barrens and the pirates, but I'm talking about a matter of degrees here).

Then, in contrast to Aldis, Jazron gets softened just a bit. Not a lot, mind you, but the book definitely affirms that they are sincere in their opposition to Shadow. Although the constant reassurances that "most of the inhabitants are decent people" start to ring a little hollow when we're also told more about their patriarchal subjugation of Jazroni women. It was a bit of a jolt to be reminded that this (transparently Christian-expy) religious society banned gay marriage, like, for fuck's sake, I'm being blindsided by realistic right-wing extremists in my fun fantasy game, but I do have to remind myself that this opinion was a lot more mainstream in 2006, and there was a school of thought that it was safe to depict fantasy sexism because real sexism was clearly on the way out.

Now, in 2023, I mostly just wish that more Jazroni were set up for PCs to punch. Blue Rose has clearly taken a side in the culture war, and I don't want to take that away from it, but sometimes it feels like a liberal from a previous generation, willing to hedge on some fairly basic issues in order to acknowledge that some people think we're moving too fast. That's just what happens you commit the memory of your political evolution to indelible paper, though. Artifacts from the time when you were becoming less ignorant wind up looking just plain ignorant World of Aldea isn't that bad, mostly, but it did upset me to learn that Jazron will arrest Night People and Vata'sha on sight and burn them alive, but somehow, their society as a whole is aligned with Twilight rather than Shadow.  Yikes.

The other main thing this book does is make the map bigger. We get a whole new nation in the Western Ocean, and it's fine. They're a matriarchy, to contrast with Jazron's patriarchy, and instead of violently oppressive sexism, they mostly have condescension and micro-aggressions against men. It's kind of a tough fantasy trope to pull off and not come across as "what about the men," but the book does alright. Seven out of ten, maybe. It could certainly be a lot worse.

We also get more details about the Roamers original homeland. And I have to figure that this is a romantic fantasy trope, because they are not being at all subtle that these guys are basically fantasy Roma. This is one of those things that I never know how to feel about. I have absolutely no emotional connection to anti-Roma racism, not even the defensive ranks-closing that comes from unexamined whiteness. Like, a European will talk about how much they dislike the Roma and I'll be like, "that's a pretty fucked-up way to think," but only as a naive reaction to it being a totally fucked-up way to think. So, in general, I understand that's it's kind of a bad idea to have a theme-park version of an oppressed culture in your fantasy game, but the Roma do have a beautiful and interesting culture, so why not use them as inspiration for an ethnic group that fills a similar niche?

I think it works better in more directly European-inspired settings, though. Take Flying Circus, which was very explicitly and specifically inspired by Germany, and then the Roma analogues and the Jewish analogues feel less like cultural appropriation and more like an acknowledgement of Germany's true historical diversity.

Here, though, the depiction was generally positive, but I couldn't help feel a little uncomfortable when I saw the serial numbers that had only perfunctorily been filed down.

Overall, I really liked World of Aldea. The Blue Rose core had a great elevator pitch for its fantasy world, and it was both enlightening and entertaining to see that pitch get fleshed out.

Ukss Contribution: The Unicorn. It's kind of a vanilla creature, used here in a vanilla way (as a symbol for the pure goodness of unspoiled nature), but it's also one of the things that makes Blue Rose so iconic. It's the game for people who are not embarrassed about liking unicorns.

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