Romance and 'Romantic Fantasy' in Tabletop Roleplaying Games
December 14, 2016 4:41 PM   Subscribe

"What I want to call attention to is this: for almost eight hundred years, English used the same word for 'a fantastical tale of true love' and for 'a fantastical tale of magic and adventure', and that word was romance."

Maybe your regular game of Dungeons and Dragons is getting a little stale. Maybe, in the current political climate, the colonialist subtext of killing all the orcs and taking their stuff makes you a little uncomfortable. Or maybe you just don't think it makes a lot of sense, when you think about it for more than a second or two, that your PCs are all murderhobos with no homes and no families. Who would actually live like that?

If so, two related series of essays by Joseph Manola, of the Against the Wicked City blog might be just what you're looking for.

The first is about romance (in the modern sense) and romantic subplots in tabletop roleplaying games, with a particular focus on Old School Revival style Dungeons and Dragons. The first is the link above the fold.

On Romantic Fantasy and OSR D&D
PC/NPC Romances: From Liability to Asset!
Romance plots in RPGs

The second is on the concept of what Joseph calls 'romantic fantasy' in general. Think Labyrinth, Spirited Away, and similar movies where the protagonist saves the day with empathy and relationship building rather than by stabbing all the bad guys in the face.

Romantic Fantasy Revisited 1: What it is, and what it might be.
Romantic Fantasy Revisited 2: Why would I want this in a game?
Romantic Fantasy Revisited 3: How do I use this in a game of D&D?
Romantic Fantasy Revisited 4: So what does this look like in practise?

Bonus essay: If you or your game group have a tough time with a genre called 'romantic fantasy' because of the modern connotations of the word romance, try 'Hope & Heroism' instead.
posted by Caduceus (15 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you want to go straight to the romance, there's also Emily Care Boss's 3 love-themed tabletop RPGs, "Breaking the Ice" (about beginning romance) "Shooting the Moon" (about romantic rivalry), and "Under My Skin" (a LARP about unfaithfulness or the potential thereof).

I've played the first two and they're a lot of fun, and all three were recently republished in a single book by her company, Black and Green Games.
posted by edheil at 5:13 PM on December 14, 2016 [6 favorites]


As long as we're talking romantic fantasy instead of swords and sorcery, it would be entirely remiss not to mention Blue Rose.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:15 PM on December 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


""What I want to call attention to is this: for almost eight hundred years, English used the same word for 'a fantastical tale of true love' and for 'a fantastical tale of magic and adventure', and that word was romance.""

Like most arguments from etymology, this is wrong. From 1300 through about 1600, "romance" (really, "romanz" from Old French) meant verse written in the vernacular — French. It was contrasted with works written in Latin. From about 1660, the noun meant love stories and the verb meant to make up fictitious stories, with adventure only being a connotation added in the early 1800s. (Interestingly, "romance" gained its love-story connotation about the same time that "novel" arose for a longer work of fiction.) But the origin can still be seen in two loanwords: Bindungsroman, or "coming-of-age novel," and roman à clef, or "novel with a key," where light fictionalization is applied to real people.

So he might as well be saying that both romance novels and fantasy novels are called novels so they're the same thing.
posted by klangklangston at 5:37 PM on December 14, 2016 [21 favorites]


When I think of romantic fantasy I think of what James Branch Cabell was so effective in undermining, and not so much Spirited Away, for all its virtues.

Beyond that, though, I think fantasy RPG settings, or what little I know of them, could probably get quite a fresh perspective from pre-Tolkien works, whether it's Cabell, Dunsany, or beyond.
posted by selfnoise at 5:53 PM on December 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


See also Richard Burton's Masters of the English Novel, which is interesting about the realist tradition partly because Burton is so fond of the heroic, epic, and Romantic modes.

And From Ritual to Romance, for that matter. (What matter? The Matter of Britain!)
posted by clew at 6:06 PM on December 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


Is this a kissing book?
posted by zamboni at 6:16 PM on December 14, 2016 [20 favorites]


Like most arguments from etymology, this is wrong. From 1300 through about 1600, "romance" (really, "romanz" from Old French) meant verse written in the vernacular — French. It was contrasted with works written in Latin. From about 1660, the noun meant love stories and the verb meant to make up fictitious stories, with adventure only being a connotation added in the early 1800s. (Interestingly, "romance" gained its love-story connotation about the same time that "novel" arose for a longer work of fiction.) But the origin can still be seen in two loanwords: Bindungsroman, or "coming-of-age novel," and roman à clef, or "novel with a key," where light fictionalization is applied to real people.

It's striking, when you first encounter it, that the literary/philosophical movement of which the Schlegels were exponents in Germany and Coleridge in England was called "Romanticism" because they … were hella impressed with the possibilities of the Roman, i.e., the novel.

Interestingly, if you look up "romantisch" in the Grimms' dictionary, they say that it's a poetic work in French, but specifically one "de gestis militaribus in quibus maxima pars fabulosa est", "about military deeds in which the greatest part is fabulous [i.e., like a fable]". And also in the OED, while we do see that "romance" was "Originally denoting a composition in the vernacular (French, etc.), as contrasted with works in Latin." as a note to the first definition, you see citations already in the 1300s where it has the sense of the main body of the first definition, "A medieval narrative (originally in verse, later also in prose) relating the legendary or extraordinary adventures of some hero of chivalry".

Insofar as those tales would simultaneously relate knightly love and heroic deeds, it seems fair to say that English has had one word for those two things since yonks. But that would be a little deceptive, since it seems unlikely that it's best characterized as "one word for two things", rather than one word for one thing, which contained within itself the seeds of what later became two things. And by the time they became two things, "romance" seems not to have been used for both. (The first citation in the OED for "a story of romantic love" specifically for "romance" is in the 1901!)
posted by kenko at 7:16 PM on December 14, 2016 [9 favorites]


As my gaming group nears the conclusion of our 2+ year-long campaign against an evil dragon cult, these essays take on extra relevancy. We've been discussing what should come next, and there seems to be consensus that we don't want another long campaign that tracks our progress at becoming ever more powerful murderhobos. Frankly our campaign up to this point has been heavy on the roll-play, less so on the role-play, and we want to change that. I'll pass these along to our DM, thank you, in the hopes that they can contribute to and guide our discussions.
posted by The Nutmeg of Consolation at 7:39 PM on December 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


Hawthorne knew his own problems and perhaps anticipated ours when he said he did not write novels, he wrote romances. He was attempting, in effect, to keep for fiction some of its freedom from social determinisms, and to steer it in the direction of poetry.

--Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners
posted by lazycomputerkids at 8:23 PM on December 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


Great post, Joseph Manola is one of the most quietly innovative OSR folks around. His stuff on Central Asia-inspired roleplaying is clever, inspirational, really well researched, and manages to completely avoid the pitfalls of orientalism. The romantic fantasy approach is obviously not completely wedded to that setting but it applies really bloody well to it. It's a bigger attitude than just the trappings of a few positive world-building features.

I think you could see something similar in the idea of Goldendark Fantasy, a concept fleshed out well by Kevin Manwaring here. While Goldendark fantasy acknowledges "the bleak reality of things it seeks to offer a glimmer of hope – a last gleam of the sun before it sets".

This is coming from the fantasy literature side of things rather than RPGs and so sets itself in opposition to (or at least has a considered relationship with) the 'grimdark turn' in fantasy as exemplified in the works of Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin. You know the sort of thing, 'gritty', 'dark', and consequently 'realistic' and 'mature'.

Goldendark fantasy is similar to Manola's description of romantic fantasy in what it's reacting to, that they're both wonderfully rich, and in some crossover of examples. It's probably more fatalistic than Manola's work despite that but if the essays grabbed you as they did me, you might find it interesting.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 3:08 AM on December 15, 2016 [6 favorites]


Avery Alder's games are also an amazing example of how empathy, care, and love can be incorporated into RPG stories and game mechanics. Monsterhearts, which just finished a Kickstarter for a second edition, is the most obvious example, but I especially love The Quiet Year, which is about monsters and colonization, and I have had sooo much fun playing Dream Askew, which is about a post-apocalyptic queer community.
posted by ITheCosmos at 5:38 AM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Kudos to all in this thread for such inspiring links. As much as love, love, loved D&D1 and love the OSR, I have found it hard to get out of the Murderhobo rut. I want storytelling about relationships, and am glad to see I am not alone. Relationship is hard enough in the real world. Most of the energy I used to put into modelling relationship systems, I now want to use on IRL relationships. It is cool to see some game systems here that might actually make it easy, and stay out of my way.
posted by gregglind at 6:27 AM on December 15, 2016


Romantic fantasy as defined here—a "relationship-focused, diplomacy-heavy game"—describes something like 60-70% of the tone comprising the solo campaigns I DM for my spouse. It seems to me that the model would work best in a solo or small group with participants who know each other very well.

For instance, we just wrapped up a prolonged city-based 3.5 campaign. Her character was a psion in an era when psionics is deeply mistrusted (it's associated with the drow), and thus had to keep her head down. Trouble was, she was also a thief, troublemaker, and general lawbreaker. In time, her slightly reckless use of mental powers got her into enough trouble that she was compelled to seek sanctuary inside the city's healer temple, and pretty soon she realized—because she lacked the capabilities, loyal party members, or resources to just flee the city and live the murderhobo lifestyle—that her only option to avoid dire punishment was to become an initiate of that temple. The rest of the campaign revolved around her role therein; we went from level 2 to 12 IIRC. Interestingly enough, its climax was not a battle royale, but a long journey with a corrupted cleric from another temple whom the PC had been instructed by her goddess to redeem. (And redemption, of course, couldn't just mean "use psionics to control her until she's good again.")
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 7:49 AM on December 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


"It's striking, when you first encounter it, that the literary/philosophical movement of which the Schlegels were exponents in Germany and Coleridge in England was called "Romanticism" because they … were hella impressed with the possibilities of the Roman, i.e., the novel.

And there's some nice irony in that Goethe, whose romans were part of the tremendous expansion of the possibility of novels, while he was part of the proto-Romantic "Sturm und Drang," later rejected romanticism as a perversion.
posted by klangklangston at 1:20 PM on December 15, 2016


Man I love Metafilter! You guys are the best.
posted by Caduceus at 4:19 PM on December 15, 2016


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