[Games Anatomy] The Politically Correct RPG, Part I – Blue Rose

This Games Anatomy is a little different. For one, it’s actually comparing two games – both attempts to create an RPG that addresses some of the problematic assumptions at the heart of the hobby. For two, it’s got –

MEEEEEEEE.  What?  i heard someone mention “problematic assumptions at the heart of the hobby”, and i just had to get in on that.  Also, i haven’t had an internet fight in weeks.  They boot you out of the Mad Feminist Birds Society for slacking, y’know.

Two authors. Hark’s joining me on the magical mystery tour this week, mostly ’cause I’m bored of talking to myself and I thought she’d have something interesting to say about all this.

You poor deluded fool.  You only think i’m interesting ‘cos you can look at my tits whilst i talk.

For three, it’s bloody long, longer than usual, even after we split it in two. I’d put the kettle on before I clicked that ‘read more’ button, if I were you.

Get us some biscuits while you’re there.


Welcome to the world of Blue Rose, a fantastic reality where brave women and men, gifted with arcane powers, live and work side by side with intelligent animal companions. The heroes of the peaceful kingdom of Aldis strive to uphold the ideals of fairness, justice and equality, while protecting their homeland against its aggressive neighbours.

Hark: I’m going to do a sick.

Von: Surely not. What could possible induce vomiting here, with all these high and noble ideals and such?

Hark: Intelligent. Animal. Companions. “Whassat, Skip? Evil invaders from across the border?”

Von: Okay, fine, but you play characters who talk to animals in other things. What’s so badwrongfun about this?

Hark: *frowny face* That was just the first thing my eye alighted on. i’m not sure whether we’re going for a slightly-more-intelligent-than-average dog that’s going to be all “i’m going to point at a thing with my nose. i think you should dig up”, or are we talking Beaver with a Capital B? Intelligent by the standards of mankind? If i can play an intelligent beaver i might judge this game slightly less harshly.

Von: I’m guessing it’s Beaver with a Capital B. Blue Rose, for those not in the know, is touted as being ‘in the romantic fantasy mould, inspired by the fiction of Mercedes Lackey, Diane Duane and Tamorna Pierce as opposed to Robert E. Howard’s swords-and-sorcery style’. I’m guessing that talking horses with whom one shares a special and deep spiritual bond come with the territory.

Hark: And by “deep, spiritual bond”, you mean buttfucking?

Von: Are you suggesting that Ms. Lackey has a bit of a preoccupation with what’s vulgarly dubbed ‘teh ghey’?

Hark: And fantasy furry. She does like people shagging griffins. Especially boys shagging boy griffins. Not that there’s anything wrong with shagging griffins, griffins are very attractive as mythological creatures go…

Von: Nothing wrong with it… and yet, we sneer. Why do we sneer so?

Hark: Weeeell, she is very preoccupied with people shagging animals. The occasional one would be all right, but it did seem to be a big thing.

Von: It is a griffin’s thing. They’re quite large.

Hark: Naa, they’re part bird, part cat. It’d be quite small. Might even be a cloaca.

Googling ‘cloaca’ will return some TERRIBLE THINGS,
so here is a picture of budgerigars cuddling instead.
Now I must go and bleach my brain. Repeatedly.

Von: So, summarising… three hundred years ago, the Kingdom of Aldis threw off its tyrannical sorcerer-kings and has since become a kind of utopia, thanks to the Golden Hart and the Blue Rose Sceptre, which have brought about ‘a realm where all people can live together in peace… a culture of art, learning, craftsmanship and understanding’.

Hark: Oh Gods. And Goddesses.

Von: What’s wrong with that?

Hark: Far too many capital letters for a start. One must be sparing with one’s High Fantasy Proper Nouns (TM).

Von: Well, I think all RPG developers indulge in a spot of gratuitous proper nouning from time to time. What about all the utopian stuff?

Hark: It’s a bit… not even childish, but that thing where you decide that people are Bad for some weird, strange reason that’s due to their genetics or something, rather than the real reasons that people are bad.  That you can carefully breed any suggestion of meanness or selfishness out of your kingdom, and it can be ‘all so beautiful and lovely, and about joy and joyness and careful supervised visits to Candy Mountain’. No wonder all of the surrounding kingdoms want to kill them all the time, they’re probably sick of the smug gits.

Von: Yeah. Those surrounding kingdoms. On the one side you have a realm of undead ruled by a tyrannical Lich King who longs to bring about the return of rule by sorcerous oppression, on the other you have a fanatical ‘Church of Pure Light’ which is all about the scourging, the purging, and the ‘rigid and proper behaviour’. Real fire-and-the-sword stuff. Not that this is an allegory or anything.

Hark: No, not at all. i don’t know why he’s tyrannical. Sorcerous oppression? He lives by magic… undies by magic… he just wants a place for his undead dudes in the world. This lot are probably all “‘i don’t like the undead, they smell and oppress my nose, it doesn’t smell like blue roses and so I don’t like it.”

Von: See, I think that’s my problem with it. Aldis is a kingdom that will love and tolerate the hell out of you… unless, you know, you’re undead or adhere to a strict religious code, in which case you’re out by default. It’s a nasty little enclave of inclusiveness, where ‘inclusive’ is defined as ‘you’re welcome as long as you maintain the status quo and don’t challenge our liberal sensibilities and ideology in any way whatsoever’.

Hark: It’s not that I want RPGs to be full of “and i killed him and looted the body!” “But that was just a road-sweeper!” “Killed. Him. And. Looted. The. Body.” “But his children. They’re right there.” “i kill them, and loot their tiny bodies.”

i don’t like it when they tell you you have to be nice… unless we get into it and there are Rules for being nice, and you have to really think about being that nice. Make a roll for Niceness. “You were not polite enough to the city clerk. He fines you three Bad Points. Save a kitten to continue the game.”

Von: “You have too many Bad Points to remain in Aldis. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave the kingdom. Please leave your sentient griffin boyfriend inside the gates. He won’t be welcome in the Lich Kingdom of Kern.” “But I only wanted to challenge my griffin-parking ticket! I don’t want to live among the undead!” “I’m sorry, you were Rude to the clerk. Rude people are not welcome in Aldis.”

Actually, that’s it. I’m all in favour of telling people that their attitude to women/foreigners/homosexual sentient griffins is, well, problematic for this reason and this reason and that reason, but I don’t want everyone who has problematic attitudes booted out of the nation and left to fester. That doesn’t strike me as a way to make the world a better place, it strikes me as ignoring the problem and hoping it’ll just go away of its own accord…

Hark: Yeah, and there’s gonna be no human interaction in the Kingdom of Niceness. You’re not going to get any problems for the individual characters, unless it’s “your griffin boyfriend feels you have upset his feelings. You forgot your thirteen-month anniversary…”

Von: HOW CAN YOU HAVE AN ANNIVERSARY AT THIRTEEN MONTHS? ANNIVERSARY, FROM L. ANNUM, YEAR! THEY COME EVERY YEAR! *wheeze* *wheeze* Sorry. Pet peeve. I’m okay. Do go on.

Hark: “Thirteen is his favourite number! That’s why you have a special anniversary! Griffins love the number thirteen! Oh my Blue Rose, you’re so speciesist!”

Von: You know why it’s called Blue Rose, right? The blue rose is a symbol of love and prosperity that cannot exist in nature. A beautiful and unique impossible flower. This is equality and diversity for the generation that claims it’s a half-unicorn half-werewolf half-dinosaur reincarnation of a tenth century Wiccan priestess on its Tumblr page and damn the torpedoes of logic, historical awareness or common sense.

There’s thought experiments and identity play and they’re awesome, of course I think that or I wouldn’t play RPGs, but this isn’t thinking, this is sticking your fingers in your ears and ignoring anything that makes the world appear other than you would wish it to be, and the thing about wishing is it doesn’t change jack shit.

Hark: It just seems that if i wanted to deal with a furry huffy boyfriend and people whinging at me about things i can’t change then i’d live in the real world.

Von: I resemble that remark. More to the point, I think living in the real world involves whinging at people about things they can change, at least if they actually put some thought into avoiding it, which doesn’t seem to be the premise of Blue Rose. The premise of Blue Rose is more like “We all wished that hate and fear and prejudice would just go away and leave us in a magically protected miracle land which for some reason still has an inherited monarchy because there’s nothing innately divisive, unfair or socially damaging about an institutionalised class system.”

Hark: But their sparkle powers gave them extra joy and they have to share it with people! From a throne! Of soft!

Von: Whatever, it still reeks of unquestioned class privilege and makes me want to get my China Mieville on. The problem isn’t that you have the sorcerer king instead of the Golden Hart Queen or whatever, the problem is that you’re looking to the monarch to sort everything out by special monarch magic, even though the only thing that qualifies them for the gig is being someone’s daughter and fitting in the sparkly hat.

Hark: i wish i had a sparkly hat.

Like… like this? No? No, darling, don’t do that… spoons aren’t meant to go there!

Von: Okay, so mechanically it’s basically the d20 system with something called ‘Conviction’ that works suspiciously like Willpower in the World of Darkness (it’s based on your self-esteem and belief system and you can spend it to achieve a bare-minimum result on a die roll). Other suspiciously World of Darkness bits include a system of tick-box wound levels rather than hit points. Feats appear to have been replaced with ‘arcana’, magical powers like entering a psychic rapport or being really good at playing dead. We also have a sample adventure…

In this introductory adventure, the four heroes are all envoys of the Sovereign’s Finest, special agents of the crown of Aldis. They’re called to investigate the disappearance of some children from a village not far from the border closest to the Kingdom of Kern. Although there are unliving creatures involved in the disappearances, they are not tied to the agents of the Lich King, but to the ghost of a sad, lonely mother who simply wishes to be surrounded by the laughter of children once more.

Hark: Awww.

Von: That’s… weirdly more affirmative than the game seems to be.

Hark: And  like that there must be people going “oh, that fuckin’ Lich King, ‘e’s always nickin’ children, ‘e is” –

Von: They wouldn’t say ‘fuck’, you probably get thrown out of Aldis for that.

Hark: *grumpy face* Well, local equivalent. Anyway, then it’s like “actually it’s a ghost of one of your own dear departed” … although they should probably just use her as childcare.

Von: That reminds me of the world I designed where necromancy was legal and there was a Dead Rights movement and such. Got a ghost with a fixation on children? That’s fine, she’s cheaper than a living nanny and she probably won’t nick the silverware. Oooh, that’s a bit classist of me actually. I’d probably get thrown out of Aldis for that… if classism were acknowledged as a problem in Aldis… which it’s not.

Hark: i like that you nearly wrote ALDI. ALDI doesn’t throw you out for being a bit classist.

Von: Good job too, I need cheap German yoghurt in my life.

Hark: So… is that the adventure? Or is there something more now? It seems like the job’s done if they’ve found out it’s the sad mother ghost. Do we need to just go in there and Winchester it up, or negotiate rights for the childcare?  Or send an envoy and apologise to the Lich King of Kern for accusing him of child abduction?

Von: Well, among other things, there’s an encounter with some skeletons who are abducting a child and apparently you’re not actually supposed to fight them in case they harm the babby or something. Which is at least a bit more interesting than “IN THE ROOM THERE ARE SKELETONS! FIGHT!” And… the ghost is possessing someone and you have to persuade her to give up the body and there are about two pages of suggestions on how to use your arcana to do this in case you are, in point of fact, so utterly without initiative (since you’ve never experienced conflict before in your Be Nice Or Get Out kingdom) that you can’t look at a rule and think “I could use that for things that are of advantage to me but not to others!” Frankly I’d rather be the envoy to the Lich King of Kern. Maybe he’s recruiting.

Hark: Surely the persuasion is just… roleplaying.

Von: Well, some people are comfortable with funny voices and some people just want to roll Charisma against a target number based on Hostility. Don’t judge them. You’ll –

Hark: i don’t want to get thrown out of the kingdom for judging!

Von: Too late. You have been cast out of Aldis. Maybe Valdea will be more welcoming?

Next week: Von and Hark take on Novarium.

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