Episode 66: Rupert of Hentzau Wants You Dead

This month, Roger and Mike (plus a supporting cast of birds and trains) fire players, think about themes that make them uncomfortable, and indulge in Ruritanian romance.

We mentioned

Alarums and Excursions, Little Fuzzy, In Nomine, Good Society, GURPS Horror, Count Yorga, Vampire and The Return of Count Yorga, The Prisoner of Zenda, Graustark, Royal Flash, The House of the Four Winds, The Prisoner of Zenda (the 1937 film), The Education of Dawn Summers (first story), (all by this writer), Castle Falkenstein, GURPS Swashbucklers, Romanoff and Juliet, Jo Walton, The Mouse That Roared, Bir Tawil (unclaimed territory), Lace & Steel, and Florin and Guilder.

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com.


Always good to hear Castle Falkenstein discussed. My roommate during undergraduate brought a copy with him and we’ve spent years planning but never managing to play it.

On Ruritania romances, my recommendation is Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Mad King. It is a fast, fun read. It covers all the tropes. It stretches into the impact of the first world war. It is in the public domain.

The movie Grand Budapest Hotel is the piece of media that evoked Ruritanian romance up through a more modern day for me. There’s not any chandelier swinging but there is some swashbuckling feel to the affairs. The Republic of Zubrowka is magical in a magical realist sense rather than a spellcaster sense but I think there is something there that could cross-pollinate with the faerie in Falkenstein.

A good movie which deals with truth-seeing magical powers is The Shamer’s Daughter, a Danish movie: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3022458/

Thanks, RJ - loaded onto my Kobo.

Good episode! You presenters seemed more lively and interested. I think the dubious English spring agrees with you.

One thing that I would like to add is that I think the phrase “Ruritanian romance” was coined intending “romance” the obsolete sense in which Tolkien considered The Lord of the Rings to be a romance in contrast against a novel. Although affairs of the heart invariably obtrude their complicating selves into the political thriller-ry, the Ruritanian romances are not so described because they are a sub-genre of what is now called “romance”.

romance (countable and uncountable, plural romances)

  1. A story relating to chivalry; a story involving knights, heroes, adventures, quests, etc.


The romance is a closely related [to the novel] long prose narrative. Walter Scott defined it as “a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents”, whereas in the novel “the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events and the modern state of society”.

— Wikipedia

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Are you familiar with Northrop Frye’s categories of prose narrative? He has those two; but he also has the anatomy (or the Menippean satire, as I saw it called in The Martian Named Smith) and the confession. I’m pretty clear on the anatomy, which is exemplified by Candide, Gulliver’s Travels, or Stranger in a Strange Land; I think the confession is autobiographical works like those of Augustine or Rousseau.

I don’t think the confession as a form is very well suited to rpgs, but the anatomy may be; in particular, satiric or parodic games like Paranoia may fit there. But then, it’s also true that the romance works better in rpgs than the novel. In both the romance and the anatomy, the focus of interest (incident and character, or theme and dialectic) are mainly projected out into an imagined external world, which the GM can provide. . . .

Sorry, I think we both assumed that our listeners are educated and smart and know things like that. To me the romance, in this model, is a much better template for RPGs than the novel in the same model (where the distinction is that it should be realistic).

The anatomy would be more or less cognate with the picaresque, then, in that the main point is to show off the world?

Where I’ve found this potentially weak in RPGs is that the GM can’t rely for long on descriptions of scenic vistas and strange politics; there has to be interaction. (Indeed, Brett’s interpretation of Traveller could be argued as being something close to this with sufficient interaction.)

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You know, on one hand, I would have thought romance was the natural home of RPGs too. But on the other, the ongoing discussion of London NW makes it sound closer to a novel, or to the dramatic equivalent of a novel, with a totally realistic setting and a focus on ongoing character interaction.

I don’t think the anatomy alone is about “showing off the world”; I think that’s also true of the romance. Frye said, “Of all fictions, the marvelous journey is the one formula that is never exhausted,” and marvelous journeys necessarily are about showing off the world and “seeing the elephant,” right? On the other hand, I don’t think this means either form has to rely on descriptions and scenery. I think maybe it’s more like what some critic (maybe Le Guin?) said about the Quest of the Ring: That in a realistic novel Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Gollum, and Sméagol would all be internal aspects of one character, but because Tolkien was writing a romance they are four separate characters. (And in the same way, in a confession, the debate between two great ideas takes place inside the confessor’s head, but in an anatomy, each idea has its own spokesperson, as in John Savage’s culminating dialogue with Mustapha Mond.)

I haven’t read a lot of picaresque, but I think it may not be strongly tied with anatomy. On one hand, it seems to be a kind of plot structure, a nonculminating one that strings incidents together on a recurring theme, in the style, say, of early seasons of Kung Fu. (Boy, I’ll bet I just dated myself!) On the other, I don’t see a lot of clash between ideas and points of view in picaresque; it seems to be more about action than about dialogue, more about plot than about theme. Picaresque might actually be a variant on romance with a more sardonic attitude.

London NW is not a typical RPG. even for me. The ones I run normally, and the ones Bill talks about running, aren’t typical either. If I’m talking about RPGs in general, I try to bear in mind that D&D is still, as far as anyone can tell, 90%+ of RPG play, and non-D&D dungeon-bashing fantasy takes up a fair share of the rest.

Also, a Thing I Always Say is that the telenovela format has a lot to offer RPGs - a game longer than a single session, but with a set end-point, perhaps the equivalent of 2-3 seasons of TV (shorter episodes broadcast more often, so it’s hard to be exact). Bill’s games strike me as good examples of this.

They are certainly mostly intended to be so, and most of the exceptions have been shorter series lasting half a dozen sessions. My current campaign, Tapestry, is the longest I’ve run in many years. I generally find that a couple of dozen sessions are enough to explore a campaign’s theme and build up to a final confrontation.

Just don’t make the mistake of supposing that we are so smart and know so many things that we don’t need to listen to a podcast!

There was a perfectly good Ruritanian movie released in cinemas just this year. It had the partly-mountainous kingdom, mysteriously obscure to the rest of the world but not entirely cut off; it had the monarchical government, with the prince returning to take the throne after the sudden death of his father; it had duels for the throne fought with archaic weapons, one against the noble but old-fashioned lord of an outlying province, two against a foreign would-be usurper; and it had a non-local point of view character who proved his own heroism in the end. Being modern, it also had a couple of female characters with important plot roles.

And I had the impression that everyone had seen it…

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For my taste, once you slather superhero all over everything, that washes out any other genre flavour you might have had. But (perhaps fortunately) not everyone is of my opinion.

Possibly — though, aside from the intermittent super-powers and the rather less intermittent super-science, Black Panther was actually quite light on the traditional superheroic tropes. What was interesting about it was how many other genres it managed to squeeze in, including Bond-esque espionage and dynastic conflict.

But that does leave an open question or three: Does a “Ruritanian” story have to be set in Europe? Does it need some kind of minimum set of quasi-Victorian conventions? Do the characters have to wear a specific sort of uniform? And why are melee weapons mandatory, when they were pretty useless by Hope’s time?

I’ll answer the last one because it’s easy: melee weapons are personal. You face your foe over the blades and look him in the eye. It’s an acceptable and even sporting way for a hero to kill someone, as opposed to plain old assassination.

(One might argue that James Bond’s card games are a later parallel.)

To me one key to a Ruritanian story is the proto-cold-war feeling, that the place is an archaism in an age of bigger powers, which survives because if either side moved in openly it would trigger a conflict with the other… so they have to be sneaky about it. That obviously ties in with the enthusiasm for royalty, who can simply say “this country is now aligned with Britain”.

So could you set it in, say, Tonga in the 1930s? I suspect the innate racism of pulp would say no, but if you handled it honestly it ought to be entirely possible: there’s plenty of ancient tradition and royalty there. If you try it in Finland in the 1960s it’s more explicitly a spy story.

For those who don’t read my blog:

once you slather superhero all over everything, that washes out any other genre flavour

I’m of an opinion somewhat in between yours and Phil’s, I think. To me, BP had a very strong flavor of something other than superhero, but it wasn’t Ruritanian; it was classic opera, the sort of opera set in a distant foreign country. All the tropes Phil names also fit beautifully into that kind of opera. And there was a lot of music, though not enough for an actual opera.

(The last superhero film I saw that had an operatic flavor for me was the third film in the series that started with Batman Begins.)

Fair enough, but I don’t recall the possible influence of foreign powers as being a big feature of The Prisoner of Zenda (though it’s a very long time since I read the book or saw any of the films), and it makes the definition of the thing very restrictive and historically confined.

Honestly, I think that what most people mean by “Ruritanian” is “guys in nineteenth century army uniforms having sword fights in castles, with generic Mitteleuropan scenery”. (And yes, the small (imaginary) countries facilitate that by allowing small groups of heroes plausibly to influence the destinies of nations.) Which is also quite a restrictive model, and makes it easy enough to explain the decline of the form – on the one hand, the World Wars make the whole business seem a bit futile as well as dated, and on the other, there’s the tendency to be a little bit more democratic in our view of heroism, whereas the assumptions of Ruritanian fiction tend to the snobbish.

Castle Falkenstein enabled small groups of heroes to influence the destinies of nations by making them RPG protagonists with magic and fancy technology and stuff, and took place in an alternative history in the 19th century, so it had the uniforms and the swords. (Though it wasn’t entirely immune to the “Why don’t they just shoot him?” problem.) And incidentally, I seem to recall that it canonically squeezed The Prisoner of Zenda itself into its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink setting notes as just another thing that happened in Europe, though it never did anything with that.


To what degree can Latveria be considered a Ruritania?

Not to any useful extent, in my opinion.

Well, it comes from the same Anglo-Saxon habit of thinking of the political map of eastern Europe as incomprehensibly complicated and ridiculous, and stuffed full of funny little statelets that can be conquered by anyone with sufficient determination to grab the mountain-top royal castle. (See also Dracula, except that Stoker paid slightly more attention to real-world geopolitics than Hope or Marvel did.) But Latveria generally lacks the Victorian-style military uniforms and the sword fighting, and more to the point, Doctor Doom usually has the throne firmly nailed down, so any plucky band of underdog heroes with ideas about restoring the rightful king is likely to get a robot army and a few energy beams in the face shortly after they cross the border.

I suppose one could describe Latveria as the anti-Ruritania; it’s what happens when Ruritania falls into the hands of someone evil and competent. It doesn’t fall out again. It might be fun to set up a time travel story in which Latveria turns out to have been much more of a Ruritania in the 19th century. Bonus points if the peasants were all dying of dysentery in their hovels at the time, creating a cultural mindset that makes Doom much, much preferable to all those grotesque squabbling nobles. Blow red hair, make sure that they all have Hapsburg jaws.

Conversely, one could make Ruritania the personal holding of a Doom-esque arch-villain in a present-day superhero or Bond-esque story. Also, I seem to recall that Ruritania canonically exists in the Marvel Universe, following a story in which Chris Claremont made a self-aware joke about his own penchant for redheads.


That could be a period story, just as readily, if Marvel did more period stories (I remember a series about masked adventurers in the 1930s that I thought was unusually good).