What Do I Know About Reviews? The Blue Rose Adventurer’s Guide (5e OGL)
Way back during the d20 boom, Green Ronin released a system that utilized the d20 SRD, but in a way similar to what they had with Mutants and Masterminds. It was a d20 level-based system, but it didn’t use hit points, and realigned the concept of classes into three broad archetypes. To go along with this game system, the Blue Rose setting was developed.
Blue Rose was differentiated from other fantasy settings because it was “romantic fantasy.” The focus was on stronger interpersonal relationships, adventuring for the greater good, and evincing enlightened ideas to a world that has lost its way. This was fantasy that was as much inspired by Mercedes Lackey, Tamora Pierce, and Marion Zimmer Bradley as it was by Tolkien.
As time moved forward, Green Ronin released another new fantasy game, Fantasy AGE, and Blue Rose became one of the showcase settings for this game as well. With Blue Rose updated to the modern era, now is the time for it to get the 5e OGL treatment, translating the setting for the current version of the D&D rules.
The Book of the Blue Rose
This review is based on the PDF version of the Blue Rose Adventurer’s Guide. The PDF is 178 pages, including a title page, a two-page table of contents, two player handout pages for the included adventure, a two-page index, and the OGL legal page.
If you have seen any other Blue Rose products, this book features the same atmospheric, almost serene artwork that defined the original setting. The interior is formatted in a manner that is similar both to the Blue Rose Fantasy AGE core book, and Green Ronin’s The Book of the Righteous. This includes blue and gold borders on faux parchment pages, gorgeous full page chapter artwork, and lots of half page art of gods, symbols, places, and characters.
I’m not going to lie. I really enjoy just looking at Green Ronin products, and their 5e products have been especially stunning.
The Big, Big Picture
Blue Rose was conceived of as a setting that promotes tolerance. In this way, it was on the cutting edge of some movements that we are currently seeing in the fantasy RPG space. Creatures enslaved by evil are not born evil. Beings corrupted can be saved, if they aren’t literally part of the metaphysical manifestation of evil itself.
Another aspect of this is that the setting assumes that this is a world where most of the nations don’t hold the same view on love, relationships, and marriage that our world does. Pansexuality is the assumed norm, although no one is looked down upon if they favor particular partners over others. Polyamorous marriages are more or less common in different areas but are only really frowned upon in Jarzon. Jarzon essentially exists as the place to pin all the real-world intolerance of anything outside of a heterosexual marriage that exists to produce children.
I appreciate these much more open-minded assumptions for a campaign setting. The setting comes up with its own terminology for different genders and sexualities, as well as terms for marriages, and while I appreciate that the authors want to use those terms to reinforce that these aspects of society are ingrained in the setting, those same terms can be hard to remember. It’s one of those setting building details that may work better in fiction than in an RPG product.
Chapter I: The World of Aldea
The World of Aldea gives the big picture view of the setting. This is a world created by primordials, ruled over by a second generation of gods, and where the “evil gods” are the metaphysical shadows of the second-generation gods.
Souls enter the Wheel of Rebirth, and those that remember supernatural mysteries are called Adepts. This is a call back to the game systems that utilize a single spellcasting class, but in this case, it’s a shorthand to anyone who casts spells. In fact, there are a few sections of the rules where characters with the spellcasting feature are noted as being in tune with certain supernatural aspects of the setting.
The “lost empire” of the setting managed to travel across the globe in airships, bringing back people from around the world. Access to the rest of the world, or the peak magical accomplishments of the ancient empire, are still beyond the modern era.
After the empire fell to the corruption of Shadow (a literal force of evil, connected to the concept of the Exarchs and the shadowfiends, lesser manifestations of the evil shadow gods), the shape of the modern world was determined, with nations under varying degrees of control by the Shadow, and forever affected by the corruption of the ancient empire before its fall.
Because Shadow is a real force in the setting, and corruption and redemption is a recurring theme, this chapter presents our first mechanics. When characters perform morally questionable actions in areas tainted with shadow, characters make a save to see if they gain corruption. Corruption lowers effective Wisdom and Constitution scores and may trigger madness checks.
Characters can lose levels of corruption by spending the inspiration they gain from doing altruistic or positive actions. Speaking of inspiration, characters can tempt fate by calling on Shadow to gain inspiration automatically.
I like having another “hook” for the currency of inspiration, although there are a few bits of implementation that feel as if they could be fleshed out more. I’m not a fan of tying madness to corruption, and outside of minor transgressions, it feels strange to only call on corruption checks for something like “murder of a friend or loved one” when characters are in a region of shadow corruption.
I also think that corruption is so immediately bad that characters that may want to play with the corruption/redemption cycle might be dissuaded because of the immediate hit against two ability scores.
Chapter II-VII: The Kingdom of Aldis, The Theocracy of Jarzon, The Khanate of Rezea, The Thaumocracy of Kern, The Matriarchy of Lar’Tya, On the Borders
The next several chapters examine the various regions of the setting in more detail. While each region receives enough attention to make it interesting and to generate adventure ideas, Aldis comes through as the hub around which the other nations revolve.
Aldis is ruled by a sovereign chosen by a magical stag, and its nobles must all take a magical test that assures the sovereign and the other nobles that the noble puts the interests of the nation before their own. This test can only be taken once, however, so the test is no guarantee that corruption will never settle on them.
The nobles appoint envoys to travel the land to address the trouble that might become an issue for Aldis itself. This is a very clear explanation of what role typical player characters will play in the setting. As special agents of Aldis, they will be sent to various places around the setting as troubleshooters. I greatly appreciate this built in and supported campaign expectation.
The next nation detailed is the Theocracy of Jarzon. Jarzon is so concerned at potentially falling into shadow that the nation has become inflexible and intolerant. Marriage is only between men and women, and only for producing children. The supernatural must be strictly regulated and controlled. People like the Night People, used as armies by the Shadow aligned in the past, are rejected as unclean and lesser.
The Khanate of Rezea is a region of horse nomads, but with a few supernatural twists. The guiding spiritual force of the Rezeans are their witches, and some of the horses that are citizens are the awakened horses known as Rhy-Horses.
The Thaumocracy of Kern is where all the evil Shadow influence has concentrated. There is a colorful council of evil creatures (yetis, evil cats, vampires, etc.) that rule the land, and scheme against one another now that the lich king has recently been destroyed. Kern uses the Night Folk as overseers against the human work crews, to keep the factions from allying.
The Matriarchy of Lar’Tya is another of the nations presented. If Aldis is the “best” of all the nations, Jarzon shows what happens when religion becomes too out of balance, and Lar’Tya shows what happens when privilege is overbalanced. It’s not an evil nation, but its rigid in a different way than Jarzon, with strict caste systems.
The final chapter in this section is On the Borders, which covers all those areas that don’t directly fall under control of one of the established nations. In this section the Roamers are detailed. They are clearly analogous to real world people such as the Roma, but instead of focusing on any kind of sinister connections, the Roamers received a vision of the fall of their nation and travel now until they receive a sign that it can be rebuilt.
This section also details the Pirate Isles, which, as a fan of pirates, I am very happy about. The Shadow Barrens are also detailed. If Kern is an evil nation, the Shadow Barrens is an evil land, as in the place is cursed and home to wandering evil mutated by influence of the Exarchs.
What I like about this section is that even a nation like Aldis, which is presented as the pinnacle of modern Aldea, has dangers described and border regions that hold adventures. I’m very happy to see a clearly defined place for adventurers and an easy to ascertain role for adventurers, although I do wonder a bit about what campaigns that originate from the other nations might look like.
Chapter VIII: Aldean Ancestries
Aldean Ancestries delves into the game rules used to explore and portray the people native to the campaign setting. The player character ancestries include the following:
- Rhydan (sapient animals)
- Sea-folk (aquatic humanoids)
- Vata (the partly human descendants of a lost magical race)
- Night People (they aren’t orcs, but they’re orcs)
Not only was Blue Rose ahead of the curve when it comes to curbing some of the less desirable fantasy RPG tropes, but this book is also on board with decoupling ability score adjustments from ancestry, stating that there is a floating +1 and +2 that can be applied to a character regardless of their ancestry. There is also a section that looks at culture, separate from ancestry, that shows what languages are common for different regions.
While the Rhydan in setting can be any number of awakened animals, the player character rules narrow the field a bit by presenting awakened cats, dolphins, horses, and wolves. Horses break the 5e tradition and allow for large sized characters. The rest are all medium, as Rhy-cats tend to be larger than normal felines. All the Rhydan can form a telepathic bond with one particular person, allowing them to communicate over any distance. Depending on the individual Rhydan, you may have bite, claw, ram, or trample attacks, and pick up other traits like pack tactics, charge, blindsight, or pounce.
Sea-folk abilities are probably not surprising, granting them a swimming speed, the ability to hold your breath for an extended period of time, darkvision, and the ability to communicate with (non-Rhydan) dolphins, but are prone to needing more water than others.
The Vatazin are an all but extinct magical people, but the Vata are born to other Vata or to humans. Vata tend to have all white skin and hair, or black skin and white hair. The Vata’sha are Vata that have been exposed to the shadow, but in what seems to be an intentional twist, the Vata’sha appearance changed, but did not predispose them towards an affinity for shadow, despite the paranoia of some of the less open-minded in the setting.
The Vata pick up two of the psychic feats presented in the book as natural abilities, representing their affinity for the supernatural, and they also have dark vision, and a bonus to their spent hit dice to reflect their hardiness.
Most Night People outside of Kern are refugees trying to live a normal life, and in Kern, they are used as soldiers and overseers to give the local population a “villain” to hate. The Night People statistics are . . . a lot like standard half-orcs, but I really like the emphasis on their true nature versus their assumed nature.
I appreciate all the native ancestries for their role in Blue Rose but given the wide range of options in D&D 5e, I don’t think I would port them to other settings, other than the Rhydan. I know there has got to be some desire for “no, not animal people, just animals” as player characters.
I’m also a little torn on using straight up feats as character abilities, just because technically in 5e, feats are an optional rule. I realize you could keep feats optional, and allow them as ancestral traits, but it’s just a little bit of “slightly out of phase with conventions” that I wanted to mention.
Chapter IX-XI: Aldean Classes, Aldean Backgrounds, Aldean Arcana
The next collection of chapters deals with subclass options inspired by the setting, modifications to existing backgrounds, new backgrounds, feats, spells, magic items, and equipment rules.
The new subclasses appearing are the following:
- Path of the Wasteland (Barbarian)
- College of the Roads (Bard)
- Radiant Domain (Cleric)
- Circle of the Clans (Druids)
- Peacekeeper (Fighter)
- Way of the Spirit Dance (Monk)
- Oath of the Rose (Paladin)
- Shadow Hunter (Ranger)
- Rebel (Rogue)
- Primal Sorcery (Sorcerer)
- The Autumn King Patron (Warlock)
- The Winter Queen Patron (Warlock)
- The School of Psyche (Wizard)
There are a lot of fun concepts in these character subclasses that I enjoy a lot. In general, the design feels very solid, and most of these will fit in well with options that already exist in D&D 5e, but they do feel a little more “early 5e” versus current 5e. What I mean by that is, in addition to the more obvious design conceits, like abilities that work a number of times based on ability bonus instead of proficiency bonus, some of these feel like they fit their “broad theme” fine, but aren’t quite as tightly focused on theme as some of the more recent offerings.
There are a few places were the specific Blue Rose conceits may make a subclass more reliably useful than if the subclass is used in a broader D&D setting. For example, a few classes gain abilities that work against fiends and shadowspawn, but unless you plan on introducing demonically corrupted monsters as a regular element of your game, fiends may be something a bit more specialized as a theme for a campaign (although, we do already have one published WOTC adventure where this would work well).
A few classes have unique relationships with the setting. The Primal Sorcery Sorcerer is very much a Draconic Sorcerer with a few details changed. This is because dragons are legendary creatures that may never have existed in Aldea. The Oath of the Rose Paladin has a very specific Oath that is Aldis-centric, and while you could adapt it, it feels natural to this set of assumptions.
The Autumn King and Winter Queen Warlock is an interesting bridge. It creates a warlock tied to two of the original, primal gods, allowing for a warlock that feels less villainous, but also overlaps with the primal sorcerer a bit. I think it’s fair to say that warlocks are tricky in this setting, because they work for the setting, but the biases of the setting imply that they may be in for a hard time if they draw on less savory patrons.
- The Path of the Wasteland includes a rage resistance to everything but force and radiant damage, requires less food or drink if they have raged, can do magical damage with their attacks, gain tracking and a ritual casting of tiny hut, and the ability to interpose for attacks, which triggers an automatic rage if desired.
- The College of Roads has dance and divination-based abilities, allowing them to inspire as a reaction, gaining extra spells based on the theme, and the ability to spend bardic inspiration to “dance away” from opponents at higher levels.
- Radiant domain clerics can turn fiends and shadowspawn (slightly less useful outside of Blue Rose), fire beams of radiant energy, generate a protective circle of radiance, and gain extra uses of sunbeam and sunburst.
- The Circle of Clans is effectively Circle of the Land, but includes five more themes based on roles in the nomadic clans. Even as a “drift” from an existing subclass, I think this is a nice bit of expanded flexibility.
- Peacekeeper fighters are fascinating to me, as it’s definitely not an archetype we see elsewhere. They gain the ability to disarm opponents, charm opponents in a fight to call for a truce, gain the ability to disarm or grapple as a reaction when dodging, and they gain the ability to inflict double damage when subduing a member of their own “type” in combat.
- Way of the Spirit Dance monks are a slow burn class. Early abilities allow for exceptional (even for monks) jumping, and resistance to being knocked prone while ignoring rough terrain. Their 11th level ability allows them to effectively “toss” an opponent that misses them, not doing damage, but positioning them further away after an attack. Mirror dance is interesting but it’s a 17th level ability. It essentially allows the monk to know exactly how to move to counter your opponent, granting a sequence of advantage and disadvantage, as well as allowing the monk to move with their opponent.
- Shadow Hunter rangers continue the trend of giving some martial classes the ability to attack as if using magic weapons. They also gain resistance to necrotic damage and advantage against being charmed or frightened by fiends (or shadowspawn). Shadow Hunters also get a fascinating ability where they can damage a summoned creature and translate that damage to the summoner. I love this, even it if is situational. The capstone ability is to gain advantage against “occult” spells and all spells from fiends and undead. In this case, we have a class ability determined by setting rules (occult spells are essentially charm or necromantic spells used against your will).
- Rebels are another subclass where I love the theme. These are rogues that are rabble rousers, gaining disguise, improvisation, inspirational speeches, and the ability to surprise a group of opponents right in front of them. Two things make me less thrilled about this class–always prepared could be better defined, and I wish Surprise Maneuver was a save instead of an opposed check against perception.
- If you miss having the psychic wizard option that UA presented, you have another option here. The School of Psyche gains a psychic feat and can declare a certain number of spell psychic spells, cast without any components. Eventually you gain an Intelligence bonus to psychic damage spells, and advantage on Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma spells that subvert your “mind or will.” I wish that was a little better defined.
There are several new feats mainly to model psychic abilities. Looking at similar feats in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, Telekinetic is a better version of Shaper, and Telepathic is a better version of Psychic, with both doing something like the feat in this book, but also scaling over time and providing an ability score boost. Body Control, Psychic Shield, Psychic Weapon, and Seer cover other psychic abilities, and Psychic Weapon is like the “take a class feature from another class” feats in Tasha’s, in this case giving you a psychic knife that can represent the totality of your psychic abilities. As you do.
Backgrounds don’t introduce radically new mechanics, but I do like that the book mentions how background assumptions differ in this setting. I also really like the Reawakened, representing someone that remembers more of their past lives.
Narrative equipment is one of the most intriguing options in this book. Essentially, this changes the paradigm of weapons and armor to something more akin to 13th Age’s rules for weapons and armor. If someone has their gear and is proficient with a particular type of weapon or armor, characters receive specific damage based on that proficiency, instead of tracking individual weapons. It’s also interesting to see armor split to light, medium, and heavy armor only, and strength added to the base heavy armor class.
There is a list of spells that don’t function in Aldea, in part due to the fact that Aldea’s connection to other planes is either elemental, fey, or through the shadow plane. There is a list of spells that count as “occult,” as well as some general notes on creature types and how telepathy works.
The section on magic items mentions changes to magic items used by the Rhydan, as well as some magic items that function like magic items in other settings, which have forms more fitting for the themes of the setting. I imagine the potion of stamina, which removes levels of exhaustion, would be a popular imported item to other settings, and one of the more iconic Aldean items is a crystal rod that blasts people with non-lethal energy damage.
Chapter XII: Aldean Creatures
There are general notes on creature types in Aldea. For example, true dragons don’t exist, but wyverns and lesser drakes may be found. Giants are usually ogres or less “jotun-like” folk. Griffons and Unicorns are both considered the highest order of incorruptible Rhydan. Centaurs and other creatures like them are fully considered fey creatures.
As far as unique creatures, the leftover wonders of the old empire are represented with clockwork creatures. There is a template for changing any regular creature into a darkfiend, a fiend from beyond the shadow that takes on a form native to the material plane.
There are broad stat blocks for Fey Nobles and Fey Revelers, as well as example Rhydan NPCs. There is also a template for Shadow Touched creatures, creatures that have spent too long in a shadow tainted region, which now count as shadowspawn. The example stat block is the shadow wolf.
Shadows of Tanglewood
The adventure included reinforces some of the expectations of the setting. The default is that player characters are emissaries sent to investigate a mystery. During the adventure, the player characters track down a missing agent, encounter fey and clockwork creatures, and adventure in a lost manor.
The theme of the adventure isn’t seek and destroy, but learn, mitigate harm, and maybe even reverse corruption that has set in.
Chosen By The Blue Rose
Sometimes, when I read setting information, even when I like the setting and am entertained by the details, I don’t know what to do with those details. The Blue Rose Player’s Guide does not have that problem. The world is clear and engaging, and it does a good job of communicating what stories it facilitates telling.
The fifth edition rules elements feel like they are well realized. This doesn’t feel like someone uncomfortable with 5e stitched together the specifics of these rules. It feels like the implementation is solid, and it introduces many useful elements that can crossover to other 5e games.
Lying in the Shadows
There are a few places where the book “shorthands” explanations, for example, referring to shadowspawn or the psychic feats introduced in the book, and it makes it feel like those aspects of the rules feel more “native” to Blue Rose and less able to be “cross pollinated.” Thankfully, this isn’t the majority of the elements introduced.
The rest of my criticism is largely just wanting more. I wish we had more details on narrative treasure and equipment. I wish we had a little more guidance on what a Blue Rose campaign that isn’t Aldis centered would look like. Knowing that the Fantasy AGE version of the games have rules for tracking relationship bonds, I would love to have seen what that looks like in D&D 5e.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I know that the core Blue Rose assumptions don’t always align with Dungeons & Dragons truisms, so I’m pretty impressed that this book managed to make things like arcane, divine, primal, and pact magic all feel like they have a place in the setting.
This is a good purchase for anyone that wants to explore the D&D 5e options, or people that want a setting that facilitates characters acting as heroes more than adventurers. Beyond those recommendations, this is a great book to look at to see how you tailor the elements of a setting to translate to a new game system.
Looks beautiful, but I’d rather not have my RPG books be trying to propagandize to me.
Since some of the people that contributed to the book are LGBTQ+ and/or polyamorous, what this actually sounds like is you saying “there are people I want to pretend don’t exist.” You are saying that people incorporating elements in their art that have affected their lives are propaganda, but people that are heterosexual and monogamous are the baseline that all people should assume.
Telling people that they shouldn’t share their experiences in their art, because there is only one approved expression of relationships, sounds a lot more like propaganda than a fantasy setting that explicitly includes more people than just cis straight people.