Saturday, 11 June 2016

Romantic Fantasy Revisited 1: What it is, and what it might be.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a short post about romantic fantasy and OSR D&D. It was really only intended as a brief explanation of what I meant by the phrase 'romantic fantasy' in the blog title, which might otherwise seem weirdly at odds with the darkness of much of the material I wrote about; but it's gone on to be one of the most-viewed posts on the blog (number 3 at time of writing), and it's the one that people have most frequently contacted me about, asking for further discussion or explanation. What do I mean by 'romantic fantasy'? Why might you want it in an RPG? Why would D&D, as opposed to some kind of fancy storygame like Monsterhearts, be an appropriate system to use for it? And what does any of this have to do with the world I've been describing in 'Against The Wicked City'?

When I started writing this post, I blithely assumed I could cover all this in a single medium-length piece. I was wrong. So this will be a sequence of posts, instead, tackling each part of the question in turn: first what the genre is, then why you might want to use it as part of a D&D game, and finally how, in practical terms,  you might go about doing that if you were interested in doing so. If you're just here for the Central Asian stuff, then, um... come back in about a week?

So. Like its on-again, off-again girlfriend, 'Gothic', the word 'Romance' has meant an awful lot of different things over the years. (It's one of the things they like about each other.) In the Middle Ages, a 'romance' was a fantastical story of chivalric adventure. In the early modern period, a 'romance' was an epic tale of love and war set against the backdrop of an idealised fantasy version of the historical past. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a 'romance' was a story of improbable and possibly supernatural adventures with an exotic (and usually historical) setting. And in the twentieth century, a 'romance' was a love story. The whole fantasy genre, especially the tradition of sub-Tolkien 'high' fantasy, is basically an outgrowth of 'romance' in the older senses of the word, but its relationship with 'romance' in the word's modern sense has been rather conflicted. Within the male-dominated fantasy tradition that D&D is primarily based upon, love stories often feature as parts of the plot, but very seldom provide the main focus of the story.

Now, in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, something of a female counter-tradition of fantasy writing began to appear, written by people like Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley (who was huge at the time, despite all the awful stuff that's come up since she died), and Jayne Ann Krentz. Their books were very popular, but because both their readers and writers were primarily female they tended to get marginalised within the fantasy genre as a whole. In their works, romantic love stories very often formed a major element of the plot, and so the genre that they helped to create - and which, more recently, has been developed in the works of people like long-term D&D gamer Elizabeth Vaughan - is now what most people probably mean when they use the phrase 'romantic fantasy'. As a genre, it fades away on various sides into paranormal romance (Annette Curtis Klause et al), time-travel romance (e.g. Diana Gabaldon's Outlander), young adult fantasy (e.g. Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle), fairy-tale rewrites (e.g. Ella Enchanted), urban fantasy (to the extent that it's possible to distinguish this from paranormal romance), and the 'mainstream' fantasy tradition of Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks, etc, etc. Its core tropes include imperilled but determined heroines, troubled heroes, animal companions (magical or otherwise), an emphasis on problem-solving through empathy and relationship-building as well as (or instead of) through violence, and a strong focus on the importance of sex and sexual attraction as a force in people's lives, for better and for worse.

Whenever my students start gushing about Frozen, I try to remind them that aggressive rewrites of fairy-tales have been part of mainstream popular culture since the mid-1990s...

There is, to my knowledge, only one RPG that bill itself as being a 'romantic fantasy' game, namely Blue Rose. (Monsterhearts is paranormal romance, which is related but distinct.) Blue Rose is specifically and explicitly modelled on the novels of Mercedes Lackey, and as such it emphasises one version of the genre: novels set in fantasy realms where people are mostly decent, the world is a pretty nice place to live, awful things certainly happen but they remain the exception rather than the rule, and so on. I would emphasise, however, that this form of romantic fantasy is by no means the only kind. As Trollsmyth points out in a post Yora linked me to, a lot of the genre - especially along its more Gothic edge, which is like this vast misty borderland infested with sexy shirtless vampires - is actually really, really dark. It differs from regular fantasy, and even 'dark' fantasy, not because it has any lack of horror or cruelty, but because it tends to have a very different view of where horror and cruelty come from, and what might be necessary to defeat them. 'Mainstream' fantasy usually mythologises the traditionally 'masculine' problem-solving methods of logic and violence: identify the baddies, formulate a plan which makes efficient use of your available resources, and then kill the fuck out of the bastards. Romantic fantasy, by contrast, tends to foreground traditionally 'feminine' problem-solving methods, based around relationship-building, empathy, diplomacy, healing, and love. Many of its antagonists are redeemable, and the ones who aren't are usually defeated as much by the heroine's ability to build alliances and make emotional connections with people as by her ability to beat people to death.

It's in this sense that I'd describe fantasy films like Labyrinth, Spirited Away, and Song of the Sea as being 'romantic', as much in the older sense of the world as the new: they depict worlds in which almost no-one is irredeemably awful, and in which the powers of evil can be overcome by ordinary people equipped only with the gifts of bravery, determination, intelligence (especially emotional intelligence), and love. I see them as similar to romantic fantasy 'proper' insofar as they share its focus on solving problems by building relationships and talking to people, and a corresponding lack of emphasis on solving problems by being super-awesome at murdering people. Their protagonists, like almost all romance heroines since the modern romance genre was invented, find themselves in worlds full of darkness, which they usually appear ludicrously ill-equipped to fight; but they beat that darkness back through acts of healing and fortitude and empathy, rather than by stabbing it in the face.

(I mean, some romance heroines also stab it in the face. And some of them manage to get their boyfriends to stop moping for long enough to stab it in the face on their behalf. But the face-stabbing is usually of secondary importance when compared to the relationship-building which precedes it.)

When I write about 'romantic fantasy', then, I don't just mean 'fantasy stories where the plot is built around two people falling in love'; as I'll discuss in my next post, I don't think stories like that are very well-suited to tabletop gaming in any case. Instead, I mean that form of fantasy which, like such stories, emphasises the importance and viability of non-violent solutions, and tends to take a relatively optimistic (or 'romantic') view of human nature, although usually not of the human condition. In this I see it as akin to many older 'romance' narratives of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, where kidnapped princesses are often able to guilt-trip their captors into behaving more appropriately, psychic governesses can bring out the good side of their horribly damaged hero-villain employers, and Gothic heroines can overcome their monstrous persecutors armed only with a straw hat and a sketchbook.

So. That's the genre. Next up: why any of this might be something that someone might want in a game of D&D!


  1. Even though the genre has the better claim to the term Romance, I find it not particularly useful as it has so overwhelmingly come to be associated with love stories. And that makes "Romantic Fantasy" really terrible for search engines. While it would be a noble effort to reclaim the title, I think it would be more sensible to rebrand it. I do have a strong affection for the term "Planetary Romance", I can understand why it has been largely replaced by "Sword & Planet". And Planetary Romance is something that sounds like a special term. Few people would notice the difference in capitalization between "Romantic Fantasy" and "romantic fantasy", which puts it into a much more challenging position.
    I am a huge fan of the style and also have a couple of big posts I hope to get written in the future in the hope that it catches on. But I am afraid that under the banner of Romantic Fantasy it won't get any attention. Yes, it's the correct term, but what use is the claim to being right when nobody even cares to listen to the explanation. If not replacing the term (which I think even now is really damn obscure even among people who already like the style) I think we need a more catchy "street name" for mass audience use.
    Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock did it when they created the term Sword & Sorcery. (Which even happened in just a place like this: The comments of a Conan fan magazine.) You love it, I love it, and the relaunch of Blue Rose seems to have an astonishing response among RPG fans (and a very different one from when the same idea was presented 10 years ago). I have a feeling the time is right for this style of fantasy, but a more practical term for it would greatly increase the odds of it getting a wider audience. Not necessarily a replacement, but a catchy synonym to give people of today a better impression what's inside.

    What really got me interested in serious worldbuilding and even considering writing, was playing the Mass Effect games shortly before the third one was released. It's set in space and has technobabble, but I think it nails the essential elements of Romantic Fantasy spot on. And again, this series was one of the biggest successes in CRPGs in the last decade with people particularly praising the interactions between people and the depths of the characters. The audience is there, even if they don't know what it is they want.
    Princess Mononoke is obviously another great match. There is also a somewhat obscure anime Mushishi, which I think might also be a contender, though the episodic format with just one regular character makes it somewhat unusual. And now that I think of it, Seirei No Moribito is also a pretty straightforward example. Both are based on books written by women in the late 90s. I think the basic elements have been much more popular and common in Asia for quite a while.

    1. Agree on Princess Mononoke. Most of the Ghibli movies fit, to be honest. The anime series 'Princess Tutu' is also a really good example, even if it does have a bit of a silly name. (Don't be put off by the fact its about magical ballet dancers. It's very, very good, and surprisingly dark in places.) I'll try to check Mushishi and Seirei No Moribito out!

      I did not know that about the origins of the term 'sword and sorcery.'

      I agree that the name is probably a turn-off for the traditional roleplaying demographic, even for those of them who, as you say, might actually like the idea of a more 'romantic' game. On the other hand, romantic fantasy has a *huge* readership - at least comparable to that of traditional 'mainstream' fantasy - for whom the name is a positive thing, and who would be *more* likely to look at a game that advertised itself as being 'romantic' (assuming they were in a position to hear about it in the first place). So which label one used might depend a bit on which demographic one was trying to communicate with.

      Perhaps we should use our blogs (and/or forums) to crowdsource a new name that might be more palatable in traditional gamer circles?

    2. Mushishi is outstanding. If I were going to be overly taxonomical about it, I'd call it Romantic Weird Fiction. Each episode focuses on the way that a different type of spirit interacts with human communities, few of which are comprehensible (for example, parasitic horns that make you hypersensitive to sound). They can be dangerous, but it's repeatedly mentioned that they're not malicious, they're just organisms that live in ways we don't understand. The spirit doctor protagonist's solutions are usually a combination of therapy, diplomacy, animism, medicine, and ecology. A little bit like Roadside Picnic as seen through the lens of Princess Mononoke or My Neighbor Totoro.

  2. Romance is certainly many faceted within even genre works.Many of Borough's tales are traditional/classical romances with the hero taking on nations to free their loved one.

    1. Absolutely. It gets even more complicated when you realise that 'love story' didn't become the *primary* meaning of the word 'romance' until about the 1930s, so in, say, the 1920s - when a lot of really important early fantasy is getting written - the word still mostly means 'a tale of love and adventure with an exotic or historical setting'. Which is exactly what a lot of those very early fantasy narratives are!

  3. When you're answering the question "Here is why you might want this in a game of D&D", I'd also be very interested in you addressing the - in my view harder - question of why "Here is why you might choose D&D as the system to run a game based around this".

    1. Well, like I say in the post, I do plan on getting round to that. But the short answer is basically that it depends where you want the emphasis of your game to fall. If you want to run a game where it's basically completely irrelevant whether the PCs win or lose their fight with the orcs, because the only thing that really matters is whether Bob confesses his secret love to Kate or not, then D&D is absolutely the wrong system. But if you want something a bit closer to trad fantasy gaming, just with more diplomacy and romance and stuff, then I think B/X D&D might actually be a pretty good place to start!

  4. Have you by chance heard of _Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine_ (self-published by Jenna Moran after her publisher ran away with most of her Kickstarter money)? It's a roleplaying system that was built around facilitating slice-of-life adventures in Ghibliesque settings. The engine is a set of concentric rings that give you XP for larger and larger story structures --

    - XP Actions, which reward XP when you are in a scene appropriate to the game you're in, such as a scene in which you connect with someone else's feelings, or a scene in which you discover something that makes you have a strong emotional reaction;

    - Issues, which reward XP for completing small-scale plotlines such as "building up to a climactic confrontation with a miniboss" or "coming face-to-face with feelings you have hidden from yourself";

    - Quests, which you spend XP on to represent concrete advances towards a personal goal or life-stage;

    - and Arcs (classes/levels), earned by putting together several Quests in one of eight orderings, each of which corresponds to a story type.

    The task/conflict resolution system is diceless; it's pretty much directly lifted from Nobilis, although with some elaborations to suit the lower power level of a Chuubo's game. As with Nobilis, direct conflict is to be avoided, since you're far more likely to exhaust everyone's resource pools than to actually defeat your opponent.

    There's a great deal of setting and lore, of course, but that's the gist of it.

    1. I have, and I was mildly curious about it, but I was strongly put off by the descriptions I saw of the XP system: the only reason I play RPGs at all is to see situations emerge dynamically from play, and the idea of players and GMs writing down a list of the things they want take place in advance and then deliberately working towards making them happen in play is enormously off-putting for me. My tastes in gaming are very much more traditional than that. It's possible that I've misunderstood how it works in practise, though.

      (I did like the old Big White Book version of Nobilis, which I bought back when it was new, but oddly enough I never found anyone interested in actually playing it...)

    2. Yeah, it's best approached as an alien RPG from another culture, an untranslateable import. I personally found it perfectly reasonable - refreshing, even - because the way that my old freeform RP group worked was exactly like "writing down a list [...] and then deliberately working towards making [it] happen".

      There are diced rules to put some doubt into whether you succeed at XP Actions (although in that version of the game, quests are left intact). And I'm pretty sure you could lift XP Actions and put them in a different framework, waiting to put together Quests and Arcs until only after the XP has been found.

      I'm not sure how to do that, though; I find traditionalist tabletops to be insufficiently structured on the story-level. So I shall have to content myself with bringing up the idea and seeing if anyone else can help elaborate it.

      Also, if you're looking for other people who are interested in Nobilis, there's a thread on that's mildly active, and a small Tumblr outpost of the fandom that's slightly more active. In case you ever want that kind of thing.

      (My current project in the Nobilis fandom is an indie-tabletop-style small game, designed to play from the perspective of the Excrucians [the antagonists]. What I've got so far is at There isn't much yet, but I'm hoping to introduce the rules for the wound track shortly, and that should be interesting.)

  5. Nice article. I'll only quibble with the "marginalized" comment. Anne McCaffrey was "marginalized" with a Hugo, a Nebula, a Gandalf, a Golden Pen, the NYT's Best Seller list, and the The Science Fiction Book Club's Book of the Year award six times. All this "marginalization" led to her living in her own private castle in Ireland.

    We should all be lucky enough to suffer such. ;)

    Female authors were huge in the '80s. McCaffrey, MZB, and Lackey dominated the shelves and sales. That dominance would last well into the '90s when they were edged out by the giant door-stop books of Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, and, of course, GRR Martin. That said, I'd still consider JK Rowling to the be the reigning queen of that particular crop.

    Nit-picks aside, this is an excellent intro. Looking forward to reading the rest.

    1. Well, I did mention the scale of their popularity... but, yes, I should probably have said something like 'marginalised within critical discussions of the genre'. It's a familiar pattern: romance fiction is the best-selling genre *in the world*, but if you read most critical or historical accounts of twentieth-century fiction you'd hardly know it existed. Same with other varieties of 'women's fiction': the 'girly' end of any given genre is usually taken less seriously than the end which is dominated by men. As you note, however, their sales are often enormous!

    2. True that. The interesting thing, to my mind, is how writers like Joss Whedon and George RR Martin are making serious bank by, effectively, stirring in a bit of the "romantic" themes and techniques into their work. It used to be when I discussed things like romantic tension I got blank looks in response. Now everyone is familiar with such tools and tropes.

    3. Well, Whedon went big because he made shows (and, later, films) that appealed to male *and* female demographics. GOT seems to have been mostly read by men, at least back in the 1990s, but the TV adaptation has found an enthusiastic female audience - a feat which it has achieved partly by scaling up some of the more 'romantic' elements from the books. You can see something similar happening in the recent Marvel movies, which have also played up a lot of the more 'romantic' elements from their source material.

      I suspect that a lot of this boils down to economics. People read books alone, so you can market men's books to men and women's books to women separately. But because of their much greater production costs - and because film and TV watching is much more likely to be a group activity - there's much more pressure on such media to appeal across the gender divide whenever possible. Meanwhile the male audience for fantasy books that kept Jordan et al thriving back in the 1990s has collapsed as their target audience abandons print for screen media, leaving fantasy books for girls and film and TV fantasy for men and women - complete with their attendant romantic fantasy tropes - to dominate the field...

  6. Are there any good examples of Actual Play for a Romantic Fantasy adventure/campaign? I imagine it to be pretty difficult to pull off, because of many reasons, like setting, player mindset, but mostly: rules. Small-scale violence is easily abstrated into numbers and grids. You don't fight out your boss fight with the game master. Imagine how uncomfortable many people would actually have to do this. It's not comparable to role-playing sex scenes, but close enough to keep people away from the table.

    Social interaction rarely gets to a level of abstraction where people losen their restraint. No iteration of D&D or its retroclones achieves it (and skill checks are boring anyway). There is one exception, which doesn't really get the love it deserves: Torchbearer. Although designed solely as a dungeon crawl survival game, it is able to handle social conflicts quite well, since all conflicts are essentially treated the same way and use the same ruleset. Only your weapon wouldn't be a "Sword", but an "Argument". FATE is even more adaptable and there are other systems out there that include social conflicts.

    What's also really nice about physical violence is that the conditions for victory and defeat are clear: death or subjugation. In social conflicts the stakes are rarely so well defined and must be improvised again and again. Partial "victory" or "defeat" are even more difficult (but an essential part of the Torchbearer conflict system!).

    I expect things to go right out of hand once you switch from the individual (small-scale) conflict to the plot level. Strategy, tactics and coincidence become blurry and players often feel uneasy when the premises are not clear. My long-time GM has a Shadowrun group. They often come up with an elaborate plan, catch an enemy to interrogate them, find their weak spots... and in the end solve everything with brute force.

    This brings me to my last point, as why regular RPGs are ill-equipped to make Romantic Fantasy possible: A system is not just a bunch of rules of constraint and abstraction, but also of rules of production. The players look at their character sheets and the rules to see what actions there characters can take. GMs construct the adventure around this. Both will shy away from anything not covered by the rules. And for good reason: Otherwise you'll hit dead ends, be drowned in complexity or simply don't know what to do. There is an excellent piece from Justin Alexander on game structure that also tells us why Dungeoncrawls work so well for RPGs (

    1. Okay, I'm a bit late for this and haven't so far read anything about ATWC. Will catch up on it now.

    2. I've not seen Torchbearer, but as I've argued here -

      and here -

      - I reckon that ordinary OSR D&D is basically 90% of the way there already, if it's approached in the right frame of mind. The morale, reaction, and retainers rules already make it a vastly more social (and potentially non-violent) game than it's usually given credit for.

      I think people over-estimate the difficulty of coming up with social solutions to problems in RPGs. They often seem to imagine that it has to be some terribly complex, Machiavellian system of manipulation, which will either require complex roleplaying or complex mechanical systems... but if you look at the source material, it's not like that at all. Romantic fantasy heroines don't engage in fantastically subtle bouts of social manipulation. (That's a villain thing!) They just notice that the troll looks really miserable, and ask him why he's so upset, and if there's anything that they can do about it. And then they actually listen to what he tells them in response...

      So I don't think you need complex rules support: OSR D&D will do fine. The social problems involved don't have to be (and, indeed, probably shouldn't be) any more complex or ambiguous than the physical and tactical problems which D&D players are used to solving as a matter of course. You just need a GM who's willing to run a world in which people talk to one another and have problems that can be resolved by means other than violent death!

      (Incidentally, I strongly disagree that 'players look at their character sheets and the rules to see what actions there characters can take' should be the default state in RPG play. That's a big part of the reason I play OSR D&D. With no laundry lists of skills and special abilities to fall back on, players are pushed into thinking with their heads instead of their character sheets!)