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.
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!