Thursday, March 2, 2023

Blue Rose

There are two separate and distinct things that are interesting about Blue Rose (Crawford, Elliot, Kenson, Snead) - its unique take on the fantasy genre and its extensive modifications to the d20 system. This puts me at a crossroads - do I focus on system nerdery or on genre nerdery?

Normally, I'd prefer to talk about the genre. That's an overall more exciting conversation than breaking down the changes to how combat damage is applied - instead of hit points that are whittled down over time, Blue Rose uses a "toughness save" which gets more difficult the more often a character is struck in combat, making one-hit kills vastly more likely, while also ensuring that encounters are in general more survivable, thus giving every fight a high degree of unpredictability, which may or may not contribute to a genre feeling, I wouldn't know, because I'm actually completely unfamiliar with the sub-genre of fantasy that Blue Rose is trying to emulate.

Yeah, oops. I mean, the book tries to explain it - talking animals instead of demihumans, psychic powers instead of scholarly spellcasting, heroes who work inside the bounds of institutional authority instead of loners and rogues, egalitarian societies instead of quasi-historical hierarchies - but I never read any of the source material, so I'm just kind of taking Blue Rose's word for it.  Don't get me wrong, I like what this game is doing. I just can't appreciate it on a fully literary level.

I suspect my unfamiliarity with the source material and Blue Rose's reputation for controversy come from the same basic source - unexamined femme-phobia. I haven't really done a lot of non-rpg fantasy reading since I was a teenager, and while I was hardly a macho guy, I was also not really one to question the implicit gendering of the genre. I just kind of knew that some fantasy books, like Mercedes Lackey, were "for girls" and had what I'm sure I would have described as a benign disinterest.

So, what I remember about my initial decision to purchase Blue Rose was a time when it was absolute flame-bait. When this specific book had a loud and dedicated anti-fandom, largely composed of intolerable misogynists. And I remember thinking, "oh, Blue Rose is like D&D for girls, I should check that out, because I'm in my mid-20s now and I'm starting to question my childhood femme-phobia, plus anything those jerks hate can't be entirely bad."

And I've got a vague impression of reading it, roughly 15 years ago, and coming away with positive feelings, but now, in 2023, I'm in a bit of a tough spot because I'm not sure what parts of this book were ever supposed to be contentious, let alone "for girls."

However, I'm not sure those questions are even interesting. I mean, it's kind of fun to imagine going back in time 18 years and blowing peoples' minds by telling them that to children currently being born, this book is going to seem crypto-conservative because the trans-affirming spell is technically dark magic ("is that a price your [transgender] hero is willing to pay?") and the main playstyle has you cast as fantasy cops, but honestly, the whole subject of Blue Roses' "controversy" is overblown, except as a historical curiosity. When I was young, bad takes were common, but even though there are still people with a stick up their ass about gay marriage, very little in this book would seem remarkable compared to recent trends in D&D-style fantasy. The reason you can't play a psychic wolf in 5e has more to do with the lack of opposable thumbs than genre gatekeeping.

Which is why I wish I had more fluency with the genre of origin. Then I could make comments that focused on how well Blue Rose did at emulating specific elements of the books. Does this rpg make me feel like Tamora Pierce made me feel - that seems like a question that somebody should be able to answer.

Unfortunately, I am not that somebody, so I'm largely confined to trying to win decades' old flame wars . . . except, I actually went back and looked up some of those flame wars and they are absolutely asinine. "How do you roleplay in a utopian world?" I don't know, let me get back to you when I read an rpg that depicts utopia. Blue Rose is set in a world with almost all the same exact problems as every other fantasy setting, except instead of having ahistorical kingdoms that are vaguely coded as patriarchal medieval European, it's only got one of those, and the other main area is an ahistorical kingdom that's vaguely coded as an egalitarian bureaucratic state with European sensibilities.

What do you do in Blue Rose? You defend isolated villages from rampaging monsters, counter the machinations of the dreaded Lich-king, go head to head with a thieves guild, and expose the plans of corrupt nobles - except you are representing a state that has a respect for the dignity of the individual and an informal understanding of civil rights, so you shouldn't act like rootless mercenaries, even if that means sometimes a plot is resolved with negotiation and compromise instead of steel and spells (although, you do have plenty of steel and spells and plenty of opportunities to use them).

I think the thing that impresses me most about Blue Rose, as a romantic fantasy novice, is the seriousness of its world-building. I couldn't really relate to it as a distinct fantasy subgenre, but I could appreciate it as a unique bit of speculative fiction. What if there really were a "good" alignment, and what if there were a way to check? It blows my mind that alignment, of all things, is my favorite part of an rpg, but unlike Dragonstar's "Principle of Active Morality," this game uses alignment in a way that actually makes sense. "Good" is a cosmic force, and the people of that world are like, "this is what we want for our kingdom, we want to be ruled by people who are good."

And because this is such an obvious and sensible thing to want, the game mines drama and conflict out of making it difficult to achieve. This isn't like mainline D&D, where canonically hundreds of people had the Detect Alignment spell, usable daily, and then just inexplicably did not allow that to inform their society. There is only one Blue Rose Scepter and it's so important that it's the title of the damned game. It's a divine miracle that allows you to touch someone with a stick and instantly pass judgement on their entire life. It only works once per person, and that seems a bit arbitrary, but why look a gift horse in the mouth? You've got a state where you know that all high government officials at least started out with good intentions, and it's not really surprising that this works out pretty well. Similarly, Blue Rose asks "what if there really were a divine right of kings" and the answer is "it would help, but it wouldn't solve every problem out there."

And maybe as a leftist atheist I should be more cynical about monarchal systems and the intentions of the gods, but if you buy into the game's fantasy premise ("what if the priests of Pelor were not lazy as fuck") then it's more or less unobjectionable - you've got a whole list of problems, driven by both systemic and historical factors and the decisions of individual bad actors, but you can at least count on the machinery of the state to have good intentions more often than not. You win this round, liberals.

I am, of course, funning around just a little bit. There's a lot to be said for being as progressive as it was as early as 2005. It's also one of the few rpgs to move me to tears, just from the sweetness of the fiction of a mother supporting her gay son. Even if Blue Rose's alignment system was as bad as Planescape's or Dragonstar's, that would buy a lot of forgiveness from me.

Anyway, my overall impression is that Blue Rose and its world of Aldea are worthy additions to the tabletop fantasy genre. There's part of me that wishes I could see more of a Marxist take on its central speculative conceit, where even a guarantee of having good people in positions of power is not able to mitigate the systemic injustices of feudalism. And there's another part of me that wishes the game were fluffier and girlier, with more friendship, more cute animals, and more kid-friendly fairy tale conflicts. But the fact that Blue Rose strikes a balance between those extremes is probably a good thing. I suspect it's truer to the game's romantic fantasy roots, as well.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to pick the most asinine controversy in a game whose history is filled with incredibly asinine controversies - the golden Hart. A magical deer will appear when a monarch of Aldis dies in order to choose the new ruler. There is no reason this should have riled people up as much as it did. Oh, what, having a physical manifestation of the heavenly mandate was too out there for people? Like, they were shocked by a fantasy setting that utilized a common element of European folklore? Or perhaps the fact that it took the form of a common heraldic symbol was too . . . feminine?

Anyway, there's going to be a kingdom in Ukss where the rulers are chosen by a magic stag and it's mostly going to work out okay.

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