I’ve spent a lot of time this pandemic being deeply obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons. I started watching a ton of D&D shows like critical role, Oxventureand Rating 20, and I joined a D&D group to play the game myself. We meet every Tuesday, my terrible wizard is only 30 hit points, and it’s 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 whatever work you do, and taking a long rest from time to time. And, in the 80s, you could add romance to that wish list.
Dungeons & Dragons is enjoying a resurgence in popularity right now and it’s easy to forget the true age of the game. Created in 1974 by Gary Gygax, the game has gone through many different iterations in pop culture. It’s been misunderstood, reviled as satanic, despised as the haven of basement goons, and caricatured for cheap comedic points in sitcoms and movies. At various points in its history, D&D has attempted to shed these stereotypes to show that tabletop RPGs can be for everyone. This resulted in a focus on publishing fantasy fiction from the 1980s, leading to the launch of the Dragonlance novels and the creation of other memorable settings and characters like the drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden and the wizard/adventurer Volothamp Geddarm.
Looking for a way to involve more young women in the role play (despite the fact that girls have been playing from the start, but that’s a whole different story), Dungeons & Dragons also branched out and commissioned a series of Choose Your Own Adventure-style romance novels. Since you probably haven’t heard of them, you can fairly assume that they didn’t set the publishing world on fire, but they are fascinating relics, especially for D&D fans and/or fans. or romance novels from the 80s. Personally, I had never heard of these books either, until I came across an amazing Twitter thread from 2019 in which Rebecca B (@arkhamlibrarian) shared the details of the first four novels, which completely blew my mind…
The first thing that came to mind was that in taking this approach to reaching a new audience, D&D clearly recognized a reality that many others tend to overlook: romance novels are widely read, widely shared and often very lucrative for the publisher. For too long, the romance 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) hugely popular and commercially successful. It’s perhaps no surprise that the folks behind D&D, very used to being fired for similar short-sighted reasons, were willing to give it a shot.
Called “HeartQuest Books,” the first set of six novels were written by novelists under pseudonyms. Each book took a character class from D&D (druid, wizard, rogue, etc.) and cast a young female protagonist in that role, discovering her magic and worth in a dangerous fantasy world while facing trials and tribulations. tribulations of falling into loving. Each book was illustrated by Larry Elmore, well known for his fantastic illustrations, including his illustrations and concept art for other D&D projects and materials. His paintings gave the books a more classic fantasy lineage and gave them a signature style similar to D&D gamebooks of the time.
The stories in the books themselves feel slightly overworked, like all the best classic 80s romance novels, and yet genuinely 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 magical gems. The book is written in the second person, with the reader assuming the role of Chandelle as she faces various choices. At your side are the handsome knight Coren and the mischievous fighter Sir Torbeck, who compete for your affection while helping you pull off this most daring rescue. Call me crazy, but I want to read this right now. Chandelle’s Adventures looks action-packed and dramatic in the best way, suitable for a lazy afternoon of reading (or as a jumping-off 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 and a cunning mage. Since they’re written in the Choose Your Own Adventure style, the books offer readers the feeling of participating in a D&D campaign and determining your own destiny (no dice necessary!), with the added benefit of a immediate replay as you try to find the best ending for these characters. Honestly, it’s such a great idea that I almost want D&D to try again. The books kind of evoke the same fantastic female-centric vibes that Garth Nix did. Sabriel or Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books – and even now we can always use more of them in the fantasy genre.
Alas, the early HeartQuest 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 looks like they were really onto something here. Branching out 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 introduce romance into your D&D campaigns and it’s become an interesting game mechanic to try out. Romance is no longer just for bards seducing dragons!
So maybe it’s time to give it another shot. 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 hit points could really use some help.
Originally published November 2021.
Meghan Ball is a writer, editor and goth disaster. She enjoys playing guitar, cross-stitching, and spending too much time on Twitter. You can find it there at @EldritchGirl. His work has been published in Uncanny Magazine, Tor Nightfire and the 3,2,1…Action! series of role-playing games. She currently lives in a weird part of New Jersey.