Note: This review originally spanned three parts:
Blue is the newest AGE (more on that) game title from Green Ronin. It is an update to their older True20 version of Blue Rose. This game expands the World of Aldea and the timeline a bit as well as give us some more option for play.
I am reviewing both the hardcover edition and pdf of this game. Both of which were purchased by me and not sent to me for the purposes of review. I will post my thoughts both on the reading and playing of this game.
The Blue Rose book is a 384 page, full color, hardback book. The hardcover is sturdy as hell and might just be one of the most gorgeous books I have seen in a very, very long time. The color jumps out at you. Blue Rose is not a grim-dark world and this book is not either. The PDF is huge and fully bookmarked and hyperlinked. I love PDFs, and for ease, I am using mine for review now, but there is no comparing it to the physical book.
The hardcover retails for $59.95 and the pdf for $24.95.
Blue Rose 2nd edition uses the same AGE or Adventure Game Engine, game engine found in DragonAge and Fantasy Age. All three games share "System wide" compatibility, but maybe not "thematic" compatibility. Though if you desire more monsters in your Blue Rose or Dragon Age games then the Fantasy Age Bestiary is the absolute perfect choice.
I will detail more about the AGE system in a bit.
The book is divided into three large sections:
The Player's Section covers the first four chapters of basic rules, character creation, and magic.
The World of Aldea covers the history of the world, the Kingdom of Aldis, and the surrounding lands. This takes up the next four chapters.
The Narrator's Section covers the last five chapters. This covers how to run a game, what makes "Romantic Fantasy" different, as well as rewards and adversaries. There is also a sample adventure in back to tide you over till you pick up a copy of The Six of Swords.
Now off the bat, an easy criticism would be, why not separate these out into three less expensive books. Charge $24.95 each and make more money in the long run? Sure that would work and that is what Green Ronin did with their True20 versions. Personally, I like having everything in one tome. Though I do see a need for a slimmer, maybe soft cover, version of just the player's section for players to buy. But Green Ronin has been doing this a long time if their economics support this then I am not going to be an armchair accountant.
The first five pages start with an introduction to RPGs. Most times I skip this, but this time I stuck with it since one of the expressed purposes of this game is to bring in new players. The "What is Roleplaying" section covers what is expected. This is followed by a section on "What is Romantic Fantasy?" For this bit, and for this review, I went back and read (or re-read) every book I could in the Romantic Fantasy cannon. This includes all the Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey (minus the last series) and nearly every book on John Snead's own "Must Read" list. I'll talk about those relationships in detail as they come up, but suffice to say (for now) that Blue Rose does do a good job of Romantic Fantasy.
The next paragraphs deal with how you go about creating a character in a game world. Not mechanics (yet) but an extension of your senses into this world. This section I noticed also features in other Green Ronin AGE books. It asks the questions "What do you do?" and "Who are you?" The focus of this game then is character dynamics. It is not "The party of adventurers set out to destroy the dragon." it is "Brynn, Heylg, Bethan and their friends sought out the threat to their beloved kingdom and stopped it before more lives were lost." There is nothing wrong with either situation, it is just one is better suited to Blue Rose. Becuase of this there is more focus on group dynamic. Maybe Bethan, normally a strong independent warrior who fights for just causes, is also deathly afraid of fire from an incident in her childhood. Now fighting this dragon is not just a straightforward matter of defeating a beast; it is now a metaphor for overcoming fear even when you are normally strong and brave. It could be that Brynn's best contribution to this battle is not her magic to attack the dragon or her healing, but her ability to empathize with Bethan and bring out the warrior she is from the scared girl she was. If this dynamic is not that interesting to you, that's fine, the Blue Rose/AGE game will still let you kill the dragon, but something essential is missed.
The next section deals with the AGE system itself.
The system is actually quite a simple one. 3d6 + Ability +/- mods vs. Test Difficulty.
What makes this system special though are the Stunts. Whenever you score "doubles" on a roll (on two of the dice, more later) you generate stunt points. Stunt points can be used for any number of special features. These are not limited to combat. You can score Stunt Points in any situation where you roll dice. So yes you can even generate Stunt Points (SP) while engaging in social interactions. I have long let Bards in my D&D/d20 games score "critical hits" with puns, but in Blue Rose you can now do the same (mechanically speaking) with all sorts of social interactions like flirting!
Finally, we end with a bit on the campaign world, but I will detail that, as does the book, later on.
Part I: The Player's Section
This section introduces us to both the Blue Rose game and the AGE system.
Chapter 1 discusses the AGE system and goes right into Combat and Stunts. I thought this was an odd choice in a game focused on characters. At first that is. After reading through it a few times now I see it makes good sense. I am not sure if the AGE system will ever "fall into the background" the same way d20 or Unisystem do for me, but it could get really, really close. The system itself is very easy to grasp. In AGE you really only need three six-sided dice. Two of which should be the same color. The off one is called the Drama Die. We will get to all those in a bit. The rolls of 3d6 + Ability +/- mods vs. Test Difficulty are simple enough. Test Difficulties start at 7 (Routine) and increase by 2 for each level. So 9 is Easy. The feel is the same as d20's Target Numbers or even Unisystem's Success Levels. The spread is closer to that of the d20 world so converting between the True20 Blue Rose and the AGE Blue Rose should theoretically be an easy one (in reality there is more to it, but not much more). Like most systems an "opposed" test will be one set of rolls vs another set of rolls.
Aside: Since the rolls here are 3d6 as opposed to 1d20 (d20/D&D) or even 1d10 (Unisystem) you are going to get far more average rolls and fewer extremes. This result is as subtle as it is ubiquitous. This means that most rolls (67.6%) are going to fall in that 8-13 range. 18's will only happen 1 time in 216, as opposed to a 20 happening 1 time in 20. This means that most actions will feel "normal". It's later when we add the Stunt Points and Conviction that the real acts of Derring-do happen. This puts the "criticals" more in the hands of the players and less to chance. They happen less often, but more where the player wants or needs them.
This is something I have done in my own Unisystem games for years. Instead of a 1d10 I use a 2d6-1 system known as "The Chicago Way" among Unisystem players. The effects are quite nice. The 3d6 gives AGE Blue Rose a solid edge over True20 Blue Rose.
In addition to these tests there are modifiers, which typically include a Specialization in a skill or other training. There are are also Conviction points. These are gained throughout your adventuring career and can be used to influence certain actions. Conviction is used a bit like a Drama Point or a Hero Point.
On every turn the character can take a Major and a Minor action. Each round is only 15 seconds long (4 per minute) so each action is short. There is a list of what major actions are (Attack, Defend, Heal) and minor (move, aim, activate). In truth, the lists are pretty simple and easy to grasp. There are also variable actions that will change depending on the situation.
Next up are Stunts, the life, and soul of the AGE system really.
If you get doubles on any roll of the dice you may perform a Stunt on that roll. So if the roll was a combat situation then you can perform a Combat Stunt. The roll you get on your Drama Die (the off color one) is a number of Stunt Points you get. You have to use them right away. So if you get a 4 you have 4 SP and can buy any of the stunts listed for 4 or under. These are things like "Knock Prone" or "Lethal Blow". As characters go up in level they gain access to more stunts and can buy others for less SP. There are also non-combat Exploration and Role-playing Stunts as well. There are even Arcane Stunts that can be used in either.
Chapter 2 covers Character Creation. This covers all the steps from concept to filling out your sheet. Blue Rose is a very character-focused game, so character creation should be something done all together for the first session. I even suggest talking about what sort of group you want to have. There is no reason why it can't be "You all meet in an Inn", but it should go deeper than that really. How do these characters interact with each other, what are their goals, their drives? In some ways the best Blue Rose group of heroes is something like what we get in the Dragonlance tales. A group full of characters internal desires and drives but a community, if not a family, of others helping them.
Blue Rose has 9 Abilities. They have familiar sounding names and are even rolled up the same way. In fact in Blue Rose, your abilities are rolled on a 3d6 IN ORDER. Yes, it is more Old School than many Old School games out today. The spread of ability modifiers is also similar. Every ability has more than one focus. These Focuses allow the character to be better at one particular area. Systematically Abilities and Foci serve like abilities and skills.
Next, choose your race. We get humans from various lands (with different bonuses), Nigth People (half-orcs/orcs), Rhydan (intelligent animals), Sea-folk, and Vata (elves). You also get a background, which is largely what country you come from,
Up next is Class. Like other AGE games and True20 there are only 3. Adept, Expert, and Warrior.
As you level up you can gain different abilities from your class. These are typically increases in abilities (which ones depend on class). Classes are presented from 1st to 20th level.
You then need to figure out (or randomly roll) your Calling, Destiny, and Fate.
Finally it would not be Blue Rose if there was not a bit on Relationships. Everyone in the cast is tied to another by one degree or another. These relations have role-playing and in-game mechanical features.
If you are looking for XP per level you will not find it in Blue Rose. This game uses the same philosophy as it's older True20 sibling; you increase in level after a few adventures. It leaves it in the hands of the Narrator as to when to level up. If you really want an XP chart for Experience to next level then there is one in Fantasy Age.
Chapter 3 details Focuses, Talents and Specializations. Every Ability has multiple focuses. The Fighting Ability has a focus on Axes and another Polearms for example. You can gain a new focus for everytime you go up a level. Talents are something else. These are only granted under special circumstances. They might be restricted by class and many have prereqs. These include abilities like Animal Training, Dual Weapon Fighting, or Psychic.
Specializations can almost be though of as "Sub Classes", these include Assassin, Bard and the like.
Chapter 4 covers Arcana, the magical arts. While anyone in the world of Blue Rose can have arcane ability, only Adepts can master them. Arcana are divided into six Disciplines; Animism, Healing, Meditative, Psychic, Shaping (for making Avatar like Benders!) and Visionary.
There is also Sorcery, the dark side of magic which leads to corruption.
Each ability is given with the Talent (Discipline) it falls under, sometimes it is more than one, time is takes (Major or Minor), Target Number and Test needed. What sort resistance covers this ability and fatigue TN? Some abilities have sub-abilities too. Many of Shaping abilities are like this.
The last part of the chapter covers Sorcery. This is great for all sorts of adventure ideas. Hell, 90% of my ideas deal with some form of sorcery and it's threat to Aldea.
Part II: The World of Aldea
Now when it comes to game-changing events I can make due with changes in power or in the way certain rules have been handled. It is the events in the next few chapters that will have me scrambling for the pencils to re-do my campaign! Well, Green Ronin never asked me what I was doing in my game and I never reached out to them to make sure they were not invalidating several sessions worth of my games ( +Chris Pramas, we will just have to talk in future! ;) ).
Chapter 5, What Has Gone Before, is still roughly the same as what we saw in the True20 version. If anything things are clearer now. The art, of course, is better and some things, like the rise of the Darkfiends, are clearer.
As before we get a history of the World of Aldea, from the Mythic Age (when the Gods were created) to the Old Kingdom (the “Golden Age” of the world), the Empire of Thrones (or the rise of the evil Sorcerer Kings) to the present age in The Rebirth of Aldis. The history of the world is given from the creation of the world by the four greater gods and then into the creation of the lesser gods, demons, and mortal races.
I think it is the goal of every RPG writer, either professional or just sitting at home, to create a mythology for their world. These myths feel more like The Silmarillion than it does say the Bible or Greek Myth. Though there is a fair appreciation for Greek Myths and Pagan beliefs in this. In makes for an interesting world to say the least. It has been asked more than once in my groups what gods do they believe in in the other parts of Aldea. Are they same with different names (likely) or they different ones altogether (a tantalizing idea)? We see bits of how this could work in Chapter 7 where the different lands worship different aspects of these same gods.
The biggest changes do not come till much later in the chapter. At some point between the True20 timeline and the AGE timeline. Queen Jaellin decided that she was "officially done with Jarek's shit" and invaded Kern via the hidden ShadowGate under the palace. The present day of the True20 version was 310 (Aldin calendar) to the new current day of the AGE version of 320. A lot has happened in ten years.
I read this and was like "whoa" what happened here? Personally, I'd love to have some scenarios where the PCs/Cast are part of that battle and raid.I think that would be a blast.
Also this was the last time anyone has seen the Golden Hart. The mystery here, of course, is whether or not it used up all it's magic in this last battle. We come to the "present day" in the game with political factions in an uproar, relations within and without in question and a Queen that has made some choices that many of her own court and people do not agree with.
Basically, it is like Valdemar at the end of the Winds of Fury.
Expanded from the True20 book this new chapter also talks more about the Great Rebellion that started Aldis in the first place. I mean wouldn't that also be a great time to play? The years leading up to Queen Seltha's reign. Heck, the art of the Undead armies is enough to make me want to give it a try.
Chapter 6, Kingdom of the Blue Rose then picks up with Aldis proper and discusses what is going on. We get background on the various races living in Aldis; human, sea-folk, vata, night people, and Rhydan. Why do all these people get along? Well... they try to. The Rhydan wanted a land that all were equal and free and queen Seltha ran with that.
We get a section on the Royal Court of Aldis. I REALLY wish I was good at running Court Intrigue. This would be the game for that. A carefully balanced dual of wit, manners and subtle backstabbing. This game makes me want to be better at it. There is just too much potential here and frankly it is not my strong suit.
Anyone who ever thought that a Kingdom that was accepting of all peoples lacks intrigue has never really read or played this game. Aldis is not just the idyllic land that some have depicted it. It is “enlightened” but there are still internal strife, crime, the odd sorcerer or even a leftover gates from the time before the Sovereigns, and the ever-present threats from inside and outside. A number of threats to Aldis and Aldea are detailed. Various unscrupulous merchants, a very effective criminal organization known as “The Silence”, fallen nobles, bandits, defective shadow gates, and the remains of various shadow cults. In a handful of pages we get plenty of ideas for characters to do. Plus we now have a Queen that may or may not be trusted by all her people. And the Golden Hart? Gone. Hasn't been seen since the raid on Kern. Something new is happening here.
There is a section on gender, sexuality, and marriage. Much less that you have been lead to believe mind you. Frankly, it could do with a bit more in my mind. This is Romantic Fantasy after all.
Religion gets expanded a bit as well. I like the new art for the Gods of Light, but I had to number them on my print out to keep track of them. I still rather like the Exarchs of Shadow. It helps solves the age old philosophical question of "From whence comes evil?" It gives a good explanation of how good gods such as these would have created evil beings. Plus in this version, they are more detailed with each exarch equated to a deadly sin. I might not be able to do court intrigue, but I can do horror like nobody's business.
The real expansion though comes in the form of the City of Aldis. Note if you are used to the map in the True20 World of Aldea book (page 18), this one (page 161) is rotated 90 degrees clockwise. It also looks like the city has grown some more in the last 10 years.
Other areas of Aldis are detailed as well. These include the Pavin Weald (Magical Forest) and refugees from Kern that have not quite integrated into Adlean society known as The Trebutane. If you want your spot to create Aldea-as-Valdemar and need a place for Holderkin Talia to be from, this is it.
Chapter 7, Lands Beyond deals with the lands and countries surrounding Aldis. This includes the Theocracy of Jarzon, the Khanate of Rezea (the Kaled'a'in/Tayledras from the Valedmar books, or the Kingdom of Damar from The Blue Sword), the Roamers (also Kaled'a'in Shin'a'in), the Shadow Barrens (just a bad place), The Forest Kingdom of Wyss (a new place, not in the True20 version), the Pirate Isles (more information here, can Freeport Blue Rose be far behind?), Kern (the really, really bad place. Mordor to Aldis' Gondor) and the Matriarchy of Lar'tya (basically Themyscira.)
Each section of the nation/land deals with the history of the lands, their rulers, religion, and people. Larger cities are discussed but never in the detail we got with Aldis. Some important NPCs have sidebars and their history, but no stats, are given. The lands also all have rough equivalents to the organizations found in Aldis. For example, the counterpart to the Rose Knights in Jarzon are the Knights of Purity and in Kern are the Knights of the Skull.
Of the lands, Jarzon and Kern are the most interesting. Jarzon is an interesting place where it could have been just like Aldis save for the intolerance of the Theocracy. I suppose then it is no surprise then that it lies south of Aldis. I could see a Jarzonni based game dealing with various heretics. Heck a fun game would be to play part of the Jarzonni Inquisition to discover a new threat to the whole world!
Kern is Ravenloft. Or maybe it is Thay. or Iuz. Or "The North" for the "Blue Sword" fans. I KNOW I can't be the only one to have thought in reading this new version of the game that when Jaelin killed the Lich King that the "Shadowed Seven" would be an even bigger threat.
Think of Thay without SzassTam or Apokolips without Darkseid. There is a lot of adventure ideas here. Play these evil regents off on each other. Or imagine their machinations if they ever decided to team up. I'd love a game where characters need to face off against these foes. That might be too "D&D" or even too "Buffy" but it would still be a lot of fun.
So advancing the timeline and story by 10 years is cool but it completely WRECKED my older Blue Rose game I was calling Black Rose. Eh. No worries. I can come up with some new ideas and maybe even resurrect some of the Black Rose ideas. Plus it will give me a good chance to pull out one of my old NPCs, Zenaida a Rezean Witch.
If you had the old True20 World of Aldea book then a lot in this section will feel familiar. There is a lot more material in the current AGE book and of course moved up 10 years.
Part III: Narrator's Section
Chapter 8, The Narrator's Art is the GM’s section. Again, I much prefer the term “Chronicler” to “Narrator”. “Chronicler” also implies that the characters are doing something worthy of Chronicling.
The chapter covers some very pragmatic issues of Adjudicating the Rules and Running the Game to the creative Creating Adventures and Planning the Series. The space in between this is the "Art".
What is particularly useful is the very old-school like table of 100 Adventure ideas. Need an idea? Roll a d100. Each one of these can be expanded into an adventure. This flies in the face of any notion that Blue Rose is a limited game. There are guides for roleplaying situations like Romance and Intrigue. Again, while situated in the Blue Rose and AGE systems, they could be used for any game. There is a section on how to run Intrigue (great for me!) and how to do it when the Characters have the potential to read minds or have access to other Psychic Arcana.
There is also a bit on the physical location where you play. Given as a means to manage all the information coming at you the Narrator, and also as a means of setting the mood. Blue Rose is a "well lit" game as opposed to horror games which need a dark tone. The book also has some forms here and in the back for Narrators to print out and use to track all the goings on. So bonus point to the PDF for this one.
There is advice on knowing who your group is too. I think this is more important for a game like Blue Rose that is very Character focused. Using these group dynamics in the real world can also inform the group dynamics in the World of Aldea. The chapter as a whole has some pretty good GM advice. Some we have seen before and others we have seen, but applied new to this game.
Chapter 9 details the Blue Rose Series. If chapter 8 is general GM advice, then this chapter is very Blue Rose specific. This chapter starts out with a note about consulting the players. I think this is good advice in general, but certainly more so for the Character focused Blue Rose. That is not to say you can't have an Adversarial GM (it is one of the options discussed in fact in the last chapter) but if that is what you are doing make sure that is what people want. If so, great!
We get into various Series Styles next. While the game is Romantic Fantasy, there is a lot of room in that broad term. Discussed are Dark Fantasy, High Fantasy, Horror, Low Fantasy, Swashbuckling Adventure, and High Romance. All of which work well within the Blue Rose frame.
Taking this advice we get some Series Frameworks of potential campaigns/series.
The default, and the one that most people associate with Blue Rose, is called "For Aldis and the Queen!". This is what you would have if a young Mercedes Lackey was your Narrator. It does pretty much what it says on the tin. "On the Road" is more of the style of the later Romantic Fantasy authors. It is also closer to the type of adventures you find in a D&D game. Put them on a boat and suddenly it is "7th Sea". "Coming of Age" are your Harry Potter or Narina stories. OR as the book points out, even the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. "Game of Thorns" (bad, bad Green Ronin!) are your darker court intrigue tales. The nobles that don't trust the queen or her new husband. I could make something of that easy.
There are more. The Quiet Knights, the Wedding Planners. But reading through these all should give you your ideas. A special shout out though to "Blue Rose on the Red Planet". That's not what it is called, but the art and the description support that. I'd play that in a heartbeat.
Chapter 10 is the actual Running the Game. The first bit we get to is Mastering Ability Tests. If you have any familiarity at all with d20, True20 or a host of other "Target Number" style games then you know what to expect here. Basic tests and Opposed tests are covered again.
Considerations are given for Minor and Major NPCs, handling different sorts of combat situations, Roleplaying vs. The Rules, and Hazards.
One thing that is quite interesting is advice on how to deal with divinations and how to work them into games. This time the authors DO mention the Shaowscapes Tarot by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law as the perfect resource for your Blue Rose games. I have a set and it is great.
I am going to spend some more time on the Tarot, Callings, Fates, and Destinies.
Chapter 11 covers Rewards. The beauty of Blue Rose is that there are many ways to grant rewards to characters beyond just level advancement. Though that is not understated here.
We start with Honorifics. Which I am TOTTALY going to steal for D&D 5. These are accolades and acknowledgments. Titles like "Lady Aerin, Dragonkiller" (if you have read that book you can smile with me), or "Champion of Justice" and others. These confer a small in-game bonus as well. The criminal types all have to make Willpower tests at -5 around our Champion of Justice for example. Given these examples, I can come up with a lot more. The next section mentions who can give out these honorifics in each country and under what circumstances.
Next follows Memberships and then Companions. After this are Special Items and Equipment. Often these are heirlooms, not necessarily magical. In fact, Arcane items are next and even then Arcane Weapons are listed last. Listed very last, and even very least, is wealth. So the things that motivate the average D&D character are the least motivating for the average Blue Rose character. In fact, Wealth only gets 3-4 paragraphs total.
Chapter 12 gives us Adversaries. We lead off with NPCs. Blue Rose characters are more likely to run into other people (Rhydan are "people"; just ask them).
For monsters, "Beasts", there are some familiar names here but don’t automatically assume you know what these creatures are about. Griffons, for example, are given more emphasis and intelligence here than in their D&D counterparts. This is completely due to how they are treated in the Romantic Fiction novels, in particular, the novels of Mercedes Lackey.
Also, unlike the novels, there are a lot more creatures here than what I recall reading. So there are plenty of creatures that can either guide, beguile or challenge the characters. There are about 70 or so creatures here. They are grouped by type, so all Rhydan, all Darkfiends, all Unliving, and so on.
Adding more would be easy, really TOO easy to be honest. Most creatures need have a good reason to be in the game/world. For example, there are no Manticores here. You could make a very good reason for them to be there as something like anti-griffon or even a magical race the bred true to fight griffons. Maybe they were created during the Shadow Wars or even before in the Empire of Thorns. They are rare now since most were killed.
Now I do have a copy of the Fantasy Age Bestiary and there are a lot of great new monsters that can be added to Blue Rose. I just want to be careful on how I do it and where I do it. Same would be true for any monsters I'd add from DragonAge.
There are slight differences in the stats between creatures of the same name in the various books, but not enough to make you think they are different creatures.
The last chapter is an adventure, Shadows of Tanglewood.
There are pages with Stunt References, Actions and Quick Reference Cards. We also get a nice full-color character sheet. Points again to the PDF. You can get these as part of the Blue Rose Narrator's Kit.
The index is fully hyperlinked.
What can I honestly say at this point? This is a great game. Well designed with beautiful art and an absolute joy to play. The AGE system is the first system I have picked up in a long time that I really like.
This is the best game of 2017.
[5 of 5 Stars!]