Blue Rose is a roleplaying game in the romantic-fantasy genre. What is romantic fantasy you ask? Blue Rose describes it as fantasy with a more optimistic and open-minded outlook than traditional high fantasy or sword and sorcery.* Relationships are very important in this subgenre, though they need not be romantic in nature. Stories in romantic fantasy often focus on themes of finding one’s place in society or restoring balance to a troubled land.
Blue Rose was originally published as an expansion for D&D, but now it flies the flag of Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine. Will these new rules help Blue Rose with the story it wants to tell? You’ll have to read to find out.*
The Setting Is Diverse and Detailed
It is wonderfully refreshing to have a setting that is not only missing the all-too-common themes of sexism, homophobia, racism, etc, but also actively rejects them. In Blue Rose, your character can be whatever gender, sexuality, and skin color they like, and their society will not judge them for it. This is represented in both the setting’s description and its art work, with a broadly diverse range of characters depicted in all walks of life.*
Of course, there is still plenty of conflict in this setting. If your character is from the nation of Aldis, they might get grief from a resident of Jarzon because the two countries are at war. Or you might have a sworn nemesis who is determined to see your noble house fall to increase the fortunes of their own. But by default no one will come after you for who you like to date. This is really important for players who deal with prejudice in their daily lives and want to get away from it for a few hours in their fantasy.
Beyond the setting’s diversity, it is extremely detailed. Interested GMs can read for pages and pages about the world’s history and the people who make it up. This won’t be very useful if you’re a GM who likes to craft their own setting, but it can be handy if worldbuilding isn’t your strong suit. Just be careful not to overwhelm your players with information about the setting.
The Relationship Mechanics (Mostly) Reinforce the Message
You may remember from the intro that relationships are very important in Blue Rose. Connections between people, be they positive or negative, are what drive characters to the extremes of good drama. To take down a hated rival, a character might raise an army and travel halfway around the world. To save a beloved child from harm, another character might descend into a volcano’s fiery maw.
To back up this dynamic, Blue Rose has rules for strong relationships between characters. These relationships are rated for their intensity and can grow stronger or weaker as the game goes on. Positive relationships strengthen when two characters bond and weaken when they drift apart. Negative relationships work the same way, only in reverse. If Lord Aiya betrays Sir Emily, that will not only weaken or destroy a friendship but also make an enmity relationship stronger.
When a relationship is relevant to a conflict, PCs get bonus points to spend on rolls. Those points can be spent to strike down a hated rival or to dive into a raging torrent to rescue a dear friend. For the most part, these rules do a good job at making PCs feel connected to others in the world, both NPCs and their fellow party members. Giving those relationships a mechanical weight makes them real and reminds the players that no character is an island.
Strangely, Blue Rose sabotages itself by allowing characters to take a relationship with themselves. A self-focused relationship is much more mechanically useful because it is always relevant to any conflict the character is in. Relationships with other people are only useful if the other person is somehow related to the conflict at hand. A self-relationship also starts out at a higher intensity than normal relationships, making it even more powerful.
Fortunately, this is an easy rule to ignore, but it has the potential of messing up the otherwise excellent relationship rules.
The Conviction and Corruption Rules Feel Vestigial
In addition to relationships, Blue Rose has other roleplaying rules in the form of conviction and corruption. Unlike the previous section though, these ones aren’t nearly as interesting. Conviction is Blue Rose’s meta currency, and it is spent to improve rolls. PCs get it by playing to a pair of very broad traits, one of which is positive and the other negative. A character’s positive trait might be “courageous,” for example, while their negative trait is “slothful.” These traits are then grouped together beneath a character’s calling, which is usually a nebulous goal like “acquire wealth.”
While these rules are better than nothing, they’re too abstract to be very helpful for getting into character. Being courageous is such a broad category that it doesn’t encourage any specific behavior in order to earn conviction points. On the bright side, this doesn’t trap a player into a style of play that doesn’t interest them, but neither does it lend itself to creating deep or multi-faceted characters. Players wanting that experience will have to do it themselves.
The other half of these rules are the corruption mechanics. Corruption represents a supernatural influence that bends a character toward evil acts, similar to the Dark Side of the Force. Characters who perform immoral deeds like betraying a friend or murdering another in cold blood risk gaining points of corruption and eventually losing their minds as the evil takes hold.
That’s fine, except characters only ever gain corruption if they perform said immoral deeds in a corrupted place or while holding a corrupted item. Not only does this not come up often, but these centers of evil tend to be fairly obvious in the otherwise beautiful and wondrous world of Blue Rose. As long as a character can avoid sinning while in the Dark Scary Forest, they’ll be fine.
The exception is with mages, who risk corruption any time they perform dark spells. The problem here is the arbitrary way in which some spells are labeled as corrupting and others aren’t. Using Draw Vitality to transfer the mage’s fatigue onto another is considered dark magic and risks corruption, but burning someone to death with fire magic is fine. This makes corruption feel less like a supernatural representation of evil and more like a cosmic-rules lawyer.
Playable Races Are Uninspired
Like most fantasy roleplaying games, Blue Rose gives players a number of races to play beyond boring ol’ humans. The game also takes time to point out that this isn’t your standard high-fantasy setting with orcs and elves – oh no – these fantasy races are new and different. Well, the game is technically correct, there are no orcs or elves in this setting. Instead, it has night people, who look like this:
Tell me that’s not a family of orcs. An adorable family of orcs, but still obviously orcs. Night people even have bonuses to strength and stamina. They were created to be the slave-soldiers of evil sorcerers, for Tolkien’s sake! They could not be more like orcs if they tried. The only difference is that the night people are not inherently evil, which is nice, but that just means they’re orcs that aren’t inherently evil.
Then there are the vata: a long-lived folk with an affinity for magic, descended from an ancient and mystical race. If your elf-dar is going off, you’re not alone. They’re even divided into light vata and dark vata, because not only did this setting need elves, but it also needed drow!
There’s nothing wrong with having orcs and elves in a setting, but pretending they’re something else is annoying at best. Besides the vata and night people, the only playable humanoid races are humans and sea folk. Sea folk are basically humans who swim a little better, so they are not particularly interesting either.
The exception to this drab parade are the rhydan. These are telepathic, sapient animals, and they are by far the most interesting option to play. Because they have no grasping limbs* and communicate telepathically, playing a rhydan is very different from playing a human. Their personalities are flavored, though not controlled, by their animal instincts. The rhydan are great fun to play, and they feel genuinely unusual in the genre of fantasy roleplaying games.
The Core Dice and Abilities Function, but Don’t Shine
Blue Rose’s core-dice mechanic is to roll 3d6, add up the total, then add the character’s ability score and see if it surpasses the task’s difficulty. That’s simple enough, although it has the same problem as any static-die system* in that it’s easy for a character’s ability to either not matter at all or to matter too much. If a character’s ability is +2, then success or failure will be really random. But if their bonus is +10, then the roll barely matters. Fortunately, most Blue Rose characters will have closer to +5 in something they’re good at, but it’s possible to go higher, especially as characters gain levels.
The dice get a little more complicated because players must always have one of the three die marked separately as the “drama die.” The drama die determines a great many things, from how powerful a critical hit is, to a PC’s degree of success. That second one is a little counterintuitive. Usually, degree of success is measured by how much a roll surpassed its threshold. Rolling 14 against a difficulty of 13 means the character barely passed, but a roll of 20 against the same difficulty might mean they did so with flying colors. Instead of using that simple metric, Blue Rose players must consult the drama die.
Abilities in Blue Rose are also a mixed bunch. Instead of the tested stat/skill duality of most systems, characters in Blue Rose have only one set of broad abilities. These can get confusing, because they don’t all feel like they belong on the same list. Strength and dexterity, for example, feel like broad stats while fighting and communication feel like more specialized skills, but they’re all in the same category.
These core mechanics function, but they are far from elegant, and they can leave new players scratching their heads if the GM isn’t completely on point with their explanation.
Character Creation Is Cumbersome
There’s no way around it: creating a character in Blue Rose is a tiresome chore. It manages to be both restrictive and overwhelming at the same time, as if the worst of D&D and Eclipse Phase character creation were put together.
First, the restrictiveness. Blue Rose has only three classes: warrior, adept,* and expert. The expert is part rogue, part “everything else.” Theoretically, if you want a character that doesn’t hit things with swords or blast them with magic, you can make it with the expert class, but no matter what, that character is going to have sneak attack abilities.
This limit of three classes, all of which are very specific in what they can do, kills a lot of character concepts right out of the gate. Blue Rose is also very restrictive in its access to ability focuses. These are specializations within abilities like fighting or strength, and they give substantial bonuses. A skilled sword fighter might have the swords focus within the fighting ability, for example, but there’s no simple way to choose focuses at character creation. You need to search carefully through options like race and background, hoping to be granted the right focus for your character concept.
Next comes the overwhelming part, because creating a character in Blue Rose requires reading through long lists of options, each of which is slightly different than the other. These lists go on for pages and pages. First there’s the list of options from your class, then again from your talents, then again from your specializations. It’s even worse for adepts, who need to consult further lists of spells. Few of these options feel thematic or narrative, and they quickly blur into determining which ability most needs that +1 bonus.
Many of the options are counterintuitive as well, so you have to read them carefully. The Contacts talent allows you to make social rolls to acquire NPC friends, which is something you can already do. You may think that to become a better earthshaper you should max out the shaping talent, but all that does is give you access to other shaping elements. The list goes on. Some options are simply overpowered. The stamina focus of constitution, for example, is more useful than focuses like running or swimming because if a character needs to run or swim, they also probably need stamina.
Character creation in Blue Rose is a long slog of wrestling with the rules and hoping you get the character you want. Players who don’t enjoy reading long lists will be turned off, and even those that do will have their work cut out for them.
Combat Is Slow, Confusing, and Limited
From its emphasis on inter-character relationships, you might have thought that Blue Rose would be light on combat, but you would be wrong. The vast majority of this game’s rules apply to combat, and as such combat remains the default method for resolving conflict. Prepare yourselves, because it isn’t pretty.
Combat in Blue Rose takes a long time. How long? Even the flimsiest adept has 21 HP at first level, and the most powerful melee weapons do 3d6 of damage. Most characters get only one attack per round. So a very strong character who’s specialized for melee damage can probably defeat the world’s most fragile wizard in two rounds.
Most combat characters will have far more hit points, armor to reduce damage, and other abilities that make them more difficult to hit. Worse, hit points increase substantially with each level. Damage does not. Defeating even a single enemy in Blue Rose will take a long time, and that problem only gets worse as characters level up.
This might not be so bad if there was anything interesting to do in combat. Like so many other games, Blue Rose combat boils down to combatants trading blows until one of them falls over.* While there are actions other than attacking, few if any of them are of practical value to winning a fight. Rolling a critical hit does allow you to pick from a list of interesting effects, but those are exceptions, not the norm.
Disappointingly, Blue Rose has barely any rules for conflict resolution outside of a physical fight. There are rules for “critical hits” in social and exploration situations, but their effects are ancillary at best. The only support offered in the rules for resolving non-combat encounters is to use a single skill roll. Anything else will need to come from a GM’s house rules.
The lack of non-combat options is emblematic of Blue Rose’s bigger problem: it’s yet another in a long line of hack-and-slash roleplaying games that don’t actually have fun combat. Anyone running it must choose between boring the group to tears with long fights or skipping combat and watching most of their players’ abilities go to waste. This is the same problem that plagues D&D, Shadowrun, Eclipse Phase, and so many other games. Blue Rose is different only in its unusual setting. That setting might be enough to sustain you, but if it isn’t, give this game a pass.
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