Roll for Romance: The Forgotten Romantic D&D Novels of 1983
I have spent much of my time deeply obsessed with this pandemic Dungeons & Dragons. I started watching a ton of D&D shows like critical role, Oxventure, and Rating 20, and I joined a D&D group to play the game myself. We meet every Tuesday, my terrible wizard only has 30 hit points, and this is the highlight of my week. D&D lets you live out some of your most deeply desired fantasies; having a group of friends to hang out with, earning an appropriate amount of money for any work you do, and taking a long rest every now and then. And, in the 80s, you could add romance to that wishlist.
Dungeons & Dragons Currently enjoying increasing popularity and it’s easy to forget the actual age of the game. Created in 1974 by Gary Gygax, the game has gone through many different iterations in pop culture. He’s been misunderstood, vilified as satanic, despised as the refuge of basement dweebs, and caricatured for scoring cheap comedic points in sitcoms and movies. At various points in its history, D&D has tried to shake off these stereotypes to show that tabletop RPGs can be for everyone. This resulted in a focus on publishing fantasy fiction from the 1980s onwards, leading to the launch of the Dragonspeak novels and the creation of other memorable sets and characters like ranger drow Drizzt Do’Urden and the Sorcerer / adventurer Volothamp Geddarm.
Seeking a way to get more young women involved in the role play (despite the girls playing from the start, but that’s a whole different story), Dungeons & Dragons has also expanded its business and commissioned a series of Choose Your Own Adventure style romance novels. Since you probably haven’t heard of them, you can correctly assume that they didn’t set the publishing world on fire, but they are fascinating relics, especially for D&D fans and / or romance novels from the 80s. Personally, I had never heard of these books either, until I stumbled upon an amazing Twitter thread from 2019 in which Rebecca B (@arkhamlibrarian) shared the details of the first four novels, completely blowing me away …
The first thing that came to my mind was that in taking this approach to reaching a new audience, D&D clearly recognized a reality that many others tend to dismiss: romance novels are widely read, widely shared and often very lucrative for the publisher. For too long, the romantic genre has been denigrated or dismissed as silly or worthless for reasons firmly rooted in sexism and misogyny, despite the fact that the genre is (and has long been) extremely popular and commercially successful. It is perhaps not surprising that the people behind D&D, very accustomed to being fired for similar short-sighted reasons, were willing to give it a go.
Called “HeartQuest Books,” the initial series of six novels were written by romance novelists under pseudonyms. Each book took a D&D character class (druid, wizard, thief, etc.) love. Each book was illustrated by Larry Elmore, well known for his fantastic artwork, including illustrations and concept art for other D&D projects and materials. His paintings lent the books a more classic fantasy lineage and gave them a signature style similar to D&D playbooks of the time.
The stories in the books themselves seem slightly exaggerated, like all of the best classic romance novels of the ’80s, and yet also very fun and exciting. The first novel in the series, Ruby Dragon Ring by Jeannie Black, is the story of Chandelle, a young woman who must save her kidnapped jeweler father from a great evil with a bag of magic gems. The book is written in the second person, with the reader playing the role of Chandelle faced with various choices. By your side are the handsome knight Coren and the mischievous fighter Sir Torbeck, who vie for your affection while helping you achieve this most daring rescue. Call me crazy, but I want to read this now. Chandelle’s adventures sound action-packed and dramatic in the best possible way, perfect for a lazy afternoon of reading (or as a starting point for a hilarious D&D session with friends).
The other books are apparently just as fantastic, presenting you as a Druid Priestess falling in love with a charismatic and secretive bard, or as a Lady Knight torn between a noble thief or a cunning mage. Being written in the Choose Your Own Adventure style, the books give readers the feeling of participating in a D&D campaign and determining your own fate (no dice needed!), With the added bonus of immediate re-reading while you try to find the best ending for these characters. Honestly this is such a great idea, I almost want D&D to try this again. The books sort of conjure up the same fantastic female-centric vibes of Garth Nix. Sabriel or Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books – and even now we can always use more of them in the fantasy genre.
Sadly, HeartQuest’s first books did not sell as well as the publisher had expected and the series was canceled after six volumes. Paperbacks are hard to come by now and considered expensive rarities if you manage to nab one. It’s a shame, it feels like they were really into something here. Getting into the romance genre was a new strategy for D&D in the ’80s and it didn’t seem to fit as well as they would have hoped back then – it’s not like today, where popular D&D romances like critical roleCaleb Widogast and Essek Thelyss rack up thousands and thousands of hits on Twitter and Archive of Our Own. There are tons of guides online on how to bring romance into your D&D campaigns and it has become an interesting game mechanic to try out. Romance is no longer just for bards who seduce dragons!
So maybe it’s time to give it another chance. What do you say, Wizards of the Coast? It’s time to give D&D romance novels a second chance and make it work this time… I’ll be the first to pre-order a set! My terrible wizard with 30 health could really use the aid.
Meghan Ball is a writer, editor and goth disaster. She enjoys playing guitar, cross stitching, and spending way too much time on Twitter. You can find it on @EldritchGirl. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Tor Nightfire and 3,2,1… Action! series of role-playing games. She currently lives in a strange part of New Jersey.