What is Romantic Fantasy?
by John Snead
I first came up with the idea for Blue Rose when I realized none of the existing fantasy roleplaying games were based on the sub-genre of modern fantasy I have termed "romantic fantasy." Romantic fantasy has been a popular sub-genre of fantasy for more than a decade and yet, no RPGs were written to specifically support roleplaying in such a setting. I saw an opportunity to open up a new sort of fantasy setting and roleplaying experience. Therefore, I wrote up an extensive set of guidelines, assembled a team of authors, and looked for a publisher. The innovative people at Green Ronin Publishing were interested in this project. After they have reviewed my work and mades their own changes and additions, Blue Rose will finally become a reality this year.
The Romantic Fantasy Genre
The world of Aldea is an entirely original creation. While it is inspired by the works of many of the more popular authors of romantic fantasy, it is not derived from any of these stories. Designing an original romantic fantasy setting and then working out the basics of the rules for simulating this genre was one of the most exciting and challenging tasks that I have ever faced as a game designer. When creating the world of Aldea, and Blue Rose in general, I first carefully considered the details of romantic fantasy novels and used these ideas as the basis for Blue Rose. To help people better understand my thoughts when creating Blue Rose, my analysis of the romantic fantasy genre follows.
In the 1960s and 1970s, fantasy literature was generally rooted in either the "high fantasy" genre as written by J.R.R. Tolkien and his many imitators, or the larger-than-life heroes of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and various other "swords & sorcery" genre authors.
However, starting in the mid 1980s a new series of voices entered fantasy. A generation of almost exclusively female authors grew up on Andre Norton's Witch World novels, Anne McCaffrey's Pern, Ursula LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea, and most importantly, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series. Looking to such works for inspiration, these authors created a new sub-genre of fantasy. One of the earliest examples was Elizabeth A. Lynn's Chronicles of Tornor (The Watchtower, The Dancers of Arun, and The Northern Girl). These novels are the history of a group of pacifistic martial artists who become a major social force and who eventually incorporate and begin training various people gifted with psychic powers.
In short order, Diane Duane's Tales of the Five series (The Door into Fire, The Door into Shadow, and The Door into Sunset) and many similar works followed. By the late 1980s, this type of fantasy was ready for a breakthrough success, which came in the form of the works of a new author named Mercedes Lackey. Her first series, Arrows of the Queen, Arrows Flight, and Arrows Fall concerned a young teen named Talia who escapes from her oppressive family, only to be chosen as a Herald of the kingdom by one of the magical, sentient horses (called Companions) all Heralds ride. Talia also discovers that, like other Heralds, she possesses a range of powerful psychic gifts and eventually saves the kingdom from a traitorous usurper. This trilogy was extremely popular and Ms. Lackey continued to write additional novels set in and around the kingdom of Valdemar. She has published seven trilogies set in this world. Naturally, her success inspired many other young authors to write similar books. Some of the other more widely known names in romantic fantasy include Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, Midori Snyder, P.C. Hodgell, Kristen Britain, and Diane L. Paxton.
Elements of Romantic Fantasy
In general, romantic fantasy features stories with strong, competent female characters. Since many of the fans and some of the authors are neo-pagans and most are at least sympathetic to the attitudes and beliefs of modern neo-paganism—it is unsurprising that the stories express similar attitudes about magic, the natural world, and power relationships. Today some (but certainly not all) of these novels straddle the dividing line between the fantasy and romance genres. Anne Logston is one example of an author who writes fantasy romances.
In general, these books, celebrate tolerance and diversity. Sexist and homophobic cultures and individuals are portrayed as ignorant (and generally come to see the error of their ways somewhere in the series) or are an enemy kingdom that is eventually conquered, destroyed, or vanquished and driven off. Romantic fantasy novels usually feature valiant female warriors and in most of these books, female soldiers and mercenaries are common and normal, at least in enlightened kingdoms. Needless to say, some form of herbal or magical birth control is nearly universal (and frequently given a passing mention).
In addition to these details, novels in the romantic fantasy genre tend to have other similarities of setting, theme, and plot. None of these novels contain elves, dwarfs, or similar Tolkienesque fantasy "races," and many feature no other humanoid species at all. Instead, these stories are typically set in a world humans share with one or more types of sentient or semi-sentient animals, and sometimes with a few magically created human sub-species. Some of the intelligent animals in these novels may simply be extremely bright, psychic pets, while others are free-willed entities, or spirits of great power inhabiting animal bodies.
Attitudes toward magic also differ from high fantasy or swords & sorcery. Instead of complex and dangerous rituals or calling upon dark forces, many characters have innate psychic or mystical powers, as natural to them as sight or hearing. Heroic characters often practice a kind of magic for controlling natural forces. These powers are seen as either an innate and positive part of someone's nature, or as part of the natural world. Characters who perform elemental magic often have a spiritual connection to their element. In either case, these powers are presented as positive gifts that only the ignorant or evil will fear.
In contrast, ritual magic in romantic fantasy tends to be the province of villains, who use it to bind others to their will or to summon horrific creatures and dangerous spirits. The only motives for such magic are the amoral hunger for power, or an overwhelming desire for revenge. This sort of magic is seen as unnatural, dangerous, and often inherently corrupt and corrupting.
The heroines and heroes of romantic fantasy novels are often environmentally conscious. Protecting wilderness areas and animals from the depredations of uncaring, greedy, and exploitative humans is a common plot element. Sometimes, the protagonists help to protect the habitats and kin of their sentient animal companions. However, the natural world and its inhabitants are also considered to have an intrinsic right to exist.
Romantic Fantasy Plots
Romantic fantasy tends toward certain classic plots and archetypes, just like the "fellowship of companions" of high fantasy or the "lone hero's quest" in swords & sorcery stories. Some of the common romantic fantasy plots include the following:
- A teenager, often from an overly strict or abusive family (or a family or village slain by bandits or monsters) runs away and discovers magical or psychic powers and a glorious destiny. This destiny often involves saving a city, kingdom, or other large group from harm by a powerful villain or dangerous monster.
- A person in transition—often someone who has recently lost a loved one or left home in search of a new life—overthrows an usurper or saves their kingdom from invasion. Such characters are rarely warriors, and normally uncover the plots through a combination of intrigue, luck, and use of special powers. In the course of this adventure, the character typically falls in love and, by the end of the story or series, their love becomes their life-partner.
- In a time of troubles, a group of adolescents or adults are drawn together by destiny to form a group or organization larger than the sum of its parts. Generally, these people are outcasts or orphans, on the fringes of society. Most or all of them also have some form of special powers. The groups' special powers are often complimentary, such as a four people, each with the ability to command one of the four classical elements.
The characters eventually find friendship, community, and sometimes love with the others in their newly formed group. This group frequently ends up overthrowing the current social order (often to restore it to the realm's previous idyllic state) or overcoming some threat no one else is aware of or able to face.
In all of three of these plots, characters may start as solitary, but they never remain that way for long. One of the key features of romantic fantasy involves the focus on relationships, social, political, and romantic. Characters all find close friends, lovers, and other companions who they either live or travel with, as well as a larger social circle where they belong. In addition, many characters have significant ties with the larger world. Many of these characters have noble titles, or a sworn duty to their kingdom. The rootless travelers of swords & sorcery novels are rarely found in romantic fantasy.
Even when characters leave an abusive or oppressive environment, their goal is not to become free from all social ties. Instead, such characters are looking for a new community where they truly belong. Being part of a supportive social group is considered far superior to being even the most independent and competent loner. Also, finding (or on occasion helping to create) a new social group where the character is happy is considered better than attempting to force their previous group to change. In such novels, significant changes of opinion and practice happen gradually and must ultimately come from within.
Many romantic fantasy novels are part of a trilogy. The first novel consists of the character or characters discovering or creating the social group they belong in. The characters must overcome significant obstacles to find and join this group, or defend their newly found group from harm. In the second novel of the series, the protagonists help other characters to join their group or learn more about the group and eventually (often after much self-doubt) find a secure place within it. In the final book of the trilogy, a great evil threatening the social group (or the entire kingdom or even the entire world) throughout the series is revealed and confronted. The protagonists and their newfound friends, lovers, and allies work together to defeat their common foe. Romantic fantasy novels that stand alone frequently contain all three parts of the story in a single book.
The Romantic Fantasy World
It is important to note that, except in those novels where the plot involves overthrowing an unjust and abusive usurper, kingdoms in romantic fantasy are generally both just and well run. With very few exceptions, these are hopeful, positive stories. Horrific events can and do happen, but they are performed by people in the service of evil who are ultimately punished for their misdeeds. In the absence of such events, these fantasy worlds are humane realms, where slavery, misogyny, and starvation are confined to a few lawless and backward regions or to kingdoms ruled by doomed sovereigns in the service of dark powers.
Romantic fantasy is also designed to fit a certain modern liberal sensibility. Cities are frequently large, but have few or no slums or beggars—in some fantasy worlds, cities even have modern features like streets lights and running water (often supplied by magic rather than technology). Slums, prejudice, crime, social strife, and similar signs of urban decay are clear symptoms of a corrupt society in romantic fantasy.
So in Blue Rose we have the world of Aldea, with the romantic fantasy kingdom of Aldis located amidst potentially (or even outright) hostile neighbors. Aldis, like the rest of the world, is only a few centuries free of the corrupt and repressive Sorcerer Kings, and seeking to rebuild the glories of the Old Kingdom, while avoiding the mistakes that led to its downfall. On the far side of the Ice-Binder Mountains lies Kern, the last of the Sorcerer Kingdoms, ruled by the unliving Lich-King Jarek, and a constant threat to Aldis' future. The people of Jarzon should be Aldis' allies; they, too, threw off the yoke of the Sorcerer Kings. But Jarzon is ruled by a repressive theocracy that considers Aldis a perverse and corrupt society. The forest-folk of the Pavin Weald or the barbarians of the Plains of Rezea may also be potential allies, if Aldin envoys can navigate their social rules and codes of honor. On the high seas are the nearby isles, pirates and privateers, and the promise of distant and exotic lands like the Matriarchy of Lar'tya.
With Blue Rose, you have a world to re-create the wonder and excitement of your favorite romantic fantasy stories, or to strike out on your own and create entirely new stories, inspired by the style and mood of the genre. For some time now, the visitors to Aldis have been a select few writers, editors, and artists. Soon, my world will be yours, to nurture, protect, and guide. I rest assured that the future of Aldis will be in safe hands.