Blue Rose RPG in some ways is a very typical d20 clone built around a style of romantic fantasy fiction exemplified by writers such as Mercedes Lackey, Diane Duane, Tamora Pierce, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Tanya Huff, just to name a few. Their works usually have a plucky but downtrodden protagonist with an untapped magical potential, an animal/spirit/magical companion, some true friends, and usually (by the end) love. When well done, it can make for great reading, especially when you’re 14 years old. I’m personally a big fan of Lackey’s earlier books like the The Last Herald-Mage trilogy, By The Sword, and the Mage Wars trilogy, though it’s been well over a decade since I read any of them, and the last Valdemar book I read… well, it just wasn’t good.
If you’ve ever played a d20 game, just about everything mechanically should feel pretty familiar. Apparently this was Green Ronin’s initial True20 product. What probably will feel very different from most other d20 games is the level to which the campaign setting is the star of the show. This isn’t something I’ve encountered very often, except in core books for licensed games like B5, Star Trek, or Star Wars. In Blue Rose, it’s not only the main focus, it steals the show.
When you have something as well written as B5, Firefly, or other finely crafted media this usually works out pretty well. You want your game to feel like the source material. That's the whole point. Plus by the time the game’s been written, there’s already a base level of knowledge about the setting that anyone who’s picking up the game probably already has.
Blue Rose’s technique wasn’t to draw on a single source, like the Valdemar series or the Song of the Lioness series, but to make the most generic pastiche of every romantic fantasy series ever written...
I could even forgive the generic... Looking at a lot of other RPGs out there, they’re pretty generic too. D&D for example. GURPS, by definition is generic. Rifts is kind of bat-shit insane with the kitchen sink, but still fairly generic until you really start tinkering under the hood. Drop jedi, and Star Wars becomes really generic too.
The main problem with the generic world building that Blue Rose decided to use? It’s sooooo boring. Boring is a bad descriptor though so what do I mean by it? There isn't any aspect of the setting that I would be inclined to include in my own home game. For example, the main action of the game takes place in Aldus, a noble land, ruled by the good Queen Jaellin with assistance from her advisory councils. The realm is protected by the Sovereign's Finest (police), the Sovereign's Guard (small army), the Knights of the Blue Rose (elite army), and the Spirit Dancers (arcane). The game strongly suggests that PCs be members of an established organization, and these groups are recommended. That's all fine, a bit boring but fine. Sounds a lot like Cormyr from the Forgotten Realms. It's been done.
The main threats to Aldis are Unscrupulous Merchants, Fallen Nobles, Bandits and Pirates, The Silence (mob), Shadow Cults, Shadow Dancers (corrupted arcane), The Unending Circle (cultists), Arcane Relics, Shadowgates, and Sorcery. This list is in the order it's presented in the book, and yes, Unscrupulous Merchants really are listed first. As someone with an accounting/auditing background, I can certainly see how those with financial power could threaten a nation, but does that really make for a good RPG? Bankers and Robber Barons the RPG anyone?
A note about Nobles - anyone can be a noble, as long as the ruler uses her magical Blue Rose scepter to determine that the person who wants to be noble detects as Good. Also, anyone can be the ruler. When the current king/queen dies, a magical stag picks the next one. Makes strange women lying on their backs in ponds handing out swords seem a little more normal, doesn't it?
The other thing about the setting that bugs me is the heavy handed egalitarianism of it.
This is an amazingly enlightened society, given that it's neighboring states are a patriarchal theocracy, an evil sorcerer lich, and various clans of (noble) barbarians. It can probably be explained, in part, due to the prevalence of magic in the kingdom. However, it still comes off as Kevin Sorbo's Hercules level of politically correct utopianism.
"The Kingdom of the Blue Rose makes certain all children receive a basic education"
"Aldins accept marriages between two or more legal adults, regardless of the sexes involved. Many Aldins expect everyone to marry. Once they figure out the types of people their single friends are attracted to, they become thoughtful, polite, but exceedingly determined matchmakers."
"Aldis's justice system is primarily concerned with restoring the social harmony a crime disrupts, not punishing the guilty."
"Murderers and other violent criminals are usually confined while they undergo counseling. They are only released when they have subdued their violent urges."
One of the things that makes RPGs (and stories, movies, books, etc.) interesting is conflict. Even better when it's interesting conflict. The kingdom of the Blue Rose seems spectacularly designed to prevent any such conflict from actually happening. It feels really odd for a game based on Dungeons and Dragons.
Beyond the world building, I found Blue Rose to have a writing and organizational problem. The prose is overly verbose and details are kept hidden. As an example, there is no timeline, just 10 pages of world history that you have to read through to get even a basic understanding. While I understand that the authors want you to really get their setting, it makes it harder to just pick up the book and run a game with it.
Information isn't necessarily well organized either. For example, the arcana effects for the cursed swamp is near the beginning of the book in the setting section, rather than in the arcana chapter. Since it's a sidebar anyway, wouldn't it make more sense to have the mechanical stuff (crunch) in the chapter with the other related crunch, rather then in the fluff?
I feel a little bad criticizing the fiction writing included, since I do the same thing on a lot of my blog posts. The thing is, it isn't any better than my writing, and it should be.
Next post will focus on the races of the Blue Rose RPG and looks at how it could have been done better, using Valdemar as an example.