Review of Root TTRPG

I’ve been waiting a long time to tell you folks about this one, but finally the Root Tabletop Roleplaying Game is available to the public! I’ve never played the Root board game and only know about it generally, but I hopped on the Root RPG Kickstarter based on the design team and critter-centered theme. It was a very good move.

The Woodland

The setting for this game is the aptly-named Woodland, a forest realm of clearings and dense forests which is developed anew for your particular game. Taking its cue from the Root board game, there are three factions that vie for control of the Woodland. The two powerful ones are the Eyrie Dynasties, noble families of birds who ruled for Woodland for generations, and the armies of the Marquise de Cat who took over after the Eyrie was wracked by civil war and wasn’t strong enough to repel the foreign cat armies. While the Eyrie tries to take back power and the Marquise trying to hold onto her power, a Woodlands Alliance is forming of downtrodden animals who see their chance to finally have some say in their homeland. There are denizens of the Woodland who aren’t in any of these factions but by and large the landscape of the forest is shaped by the war between these three.

Image © Magpie Games

But that’s not you’re business. You are playing a vagabond, a wandering animal without a home for some reason who is trying to get by amid the clashing armies of all these folks. Maybe you want to secretly help one of the factions but by and large you’re going between clearing-towns looking for work and trying not to outstay your welcome. When the game starts there’s a process for creating your own version of the Woodland which is similar to how the landscape of the boardgame is assembled (more about that process later) but the basic idea is that there are clearings full of small communities, paths between those clearings, and dense forest outside of that which you can traverse at your own risk. It’s a great setting for sandbox-style play but also constrained enough that MCs can plan a story out.

Core Moves

As a Powered by the Apocalypse game, Root features playbooks and moves which fill narrative elements to story creation. Each move has a 2d6 roll (with modifiers, usually) and getting 6 or less is a failure, 10 or higher is a success, and 7-9 is a success with some drawbacks. There are several different types of moves in the game depending on what you’re doing: basic moves (used all the time), weapon moves (for physical combat), reputation moves (for dealing with factions), travel moves (for headed around the Woodland), and session moves (as an capstone to a night’s session). These moves all create outcomes and feed into other moves with held “points” to spend for specific results, forward bonuses that improve the next roll, and ongoing bonuses that affect rolls into the future.

So that’s the design, but what can you actually do? Well for basic moves you can attempt a roguish feat (doing thieving stuff like backstabbing or pickpocketing), figure someone out (reading intentions and seeing through lies), persuade an NPC (just what it says, though also threatening), read a tense situation (get clues on how to best get out of something serious), trick an NPC (something underhanded, not just lying), trust fate (a desperate last-ditch effort), wreck something (an object, not a character), help or interfere (helping an ally or messing with an NPC), and plead with a PC (asking for cooperation with a mechanical bonus to sweeten it).

Image © Magpie Games

That’s a whole bunch, now let’s look at the weapon moves. You can use the basic moves in combat (helping a friend’s attack with help or interfere, for example, or get an edge in the fight with read a tense situation) but weapon moves are specifically about using your weapons. You have to be skilled with the weapon (from your playbook, discussed below) and have it on you and there are range bands from intimate (all up ons) to close (speaking distance) and far (across a field). With these considerations you have engage in melee (attack with a weapon at intimate or close range), grapple an enemy (frantic scrambling at intimate range), and target someone (make a ranged attack at far range).

Those are what everyone can do, there are also special moves you have to get from your playbook: cleave (crash through defenses), confuse senses (disorient the enemy), disarm (what it says), harry a group (scattershot arrows at a bunch of targets), improvise a weapon (self-explanatory), parry (use your weapon as defense), quick shot (hit a close enemy out of nowhere), storm a group (charge through the middle of a crowd), trick shot (bounce an arrow off a rock, cut through a rope, or something), and vicious strike (hit a weak spot).

These are all familiar sorts of things for most roleplayers, but now we’re getting to the thematic stuff that makes Root different. The reputation moves are a way to interact with the factions of the Woodland, i.e. how to involve the boardgame that this RPG is based on. You have a Reputation with each faction that depends on your actions and it is this value that applies to all the reputation moves. You can ask for a favor (get some aid from the faction), or meet someone important (making a good first impression). If you have a negative reputation then you can draw attention (for negative reputations, trying to goad them into action) or make a pointed threat (scare someone affiliated with the faction) while a positive reputation lets you sway an NPC (win someone over), command resources (get even better stuff). The factions are only half of the boardgame, though, there’s also the Woodland itself. That’s where travel moves come in: travel through the forest (head between clearings through the woods) or travel along the path (head between clearings down the road).

Image © Magpie Games

After this, there are the “session moves” which are less moves and more bookkeeping for advancement. Players read the drives from their playbooks and discuss whether they’ve been used. If they did then they can advance and improve their playbook to better abilities. The second “move” is a chance to change things up in the playbook, picking something different than they chose originally. In this way, the end-of-session stuff lets players move their characters forward and also shift them laterally, constantly changing their characters as the story progresses.

Playbooks

Your character is determined by a playbook (a familiar concept if you played another PbtA game like Turn or City of Mist) and your abilities and options all stem from there. Playbooks share a few commonalities, though, which helps everyone feel like they’re still playing the same game. First there are five stats for each playbook (Charm, Cunning, Finesse, Luck, and Might) which are rated -1 to +2 and get added to your roll for moves. You also get Roguish Feats (the sneaky things you can do), Weapon Skills, Equipment, and damage tracked as Harm which is separate four-box tracks for depletion of supplies, exhaustion of your energy, and injury to your body (also wear for items and morale for NPCs but those don’t factor in here). Playbooks also each have two different natures which are like subclasses for the particular type of character you want to be and background questions to deepen the character.

The Adventurer playbook is a charismatic sort of vagabond who strives to make the Woodland stronger and more connected. You can choose to be an Extrovert who is out to make friends or a Peacemaker who seeks nonviolence between factions and communities. The Arbiter is a strong and mighty warrior, often in the service of one of the Woodland’s factions. There are Defender arbiters who protect people and Punisher arbiters who deal out justice. The Harrier is a fast-moving and quick-witted vagabond who might be criminal, courier, or mischief-maker. You can choose Dutiful to be on the move for someone else or Competitive to be on the move to mess with someone else.

The Ranger is just like the D&D class of the same name, a woodland survivalist who lives away from society. They might be a Loner who prefers the hermit life or a Cynic who is fed up with society. The Ronin is another lone-wolf type and is the classic masterless samurai trope (although it doesn’t have to channel the problematic “Far East” fantasy nonsense, thankfully). You can pick a Survivor if you stand against overwhelming odds or a Pilgrim if your looking for meaning. The Scoundrel is pure criminal with lots of descriptors that indicate it’s intended to be nothing but bad news. Their natures are Arsonist and Combative so my heart goes out to GMs who have to deal with the blank check many players will take with this one…

Image © Magpie Games

The Thief might be better termed “Cat Burglar” (or is that offensive in the Woodland?) as they’re all about stealth and swiping. They can be a Kleptomaniac who steals out of greed or a Rebellious who steals to overturn the status quo. The Tinker is a wandering repair-animal, out to mend what’s needed in a community and then move on. Their natures are Perfectionist who’s in it for love of the game and Radical who gives out political hot takes on the factions-that-be along with repairs. Lastly, the Vagrant is just in love with life on the road and lives off their wits and the opportunities they find along the way. You can choose to be a Glutton who wants the easy life of no strings or a Hustler who cons folk to get by.

Your important drives establish your roleplaying and also your advancement: every session you engage a drive you get an advancement. For each advancement you can add to a stat, take a new move (from your playbook or up to two from another), take new weapon skills or roguish feats, add to a harm track, or take new conditions.

Running the Woodland at War

So that’s all about characters, what sort of stories do you tell in Root? Well, the PCs are vagabonds who are focused on their own thing but also there’s this wider world out there to set stories against. There are preexisting maps offered (including the detailed clearing of Gelilah’s Grove) or you can make your own. By default, the Woodland is divided between the Marquisate and the Eyrie with the Woodland Alliance trying to make a difference and the common denizens always just trying to get by. Using random tables and a few d6s you can determine what the dominant species is in your first clearing and the paths leading from it, as well as a name. At the end of one of those paths you draw the next clearing and repeat. When you have a dozen clearings (and not more than four for each species) you’re done laying out clearings.

Next you pick a corner of the Woodland where Marquise de Cat’s stronghold is and then use dice rolls to see which connected clearings are under her control (the chance diminishes the farther you get from the stronghold). For the Eyrie, you pick the opposite corner of the Woodland to be their bastion with a Roost and follow a similar rolling pattern for placing Roosts (or just noting their control if they don’t have a Roost there). Sometimes this overrules Marquisate control of the clearing, indicating that the cats did control it but now the birds have taken it back. After this, go through the clearings and roll to see which of the clearings (controlled by the cats or birds, or up for grabs) have sympathies for the Woodland Alliance and then which sympathetic clearings have active Alliance uprisings. Finally, there’s a chance for each clearing to just rest in the hands of the denizens as one of the factions has retreated from it or the local forces have gone rogue.

Image © Magpie Games

To flesh out each clearing, there are additional tables for coming up with Important Inhabitants, Important Buildings, and Problems randomly as well as a request generator for making instant stories for your vagabonds. The War is also ongoing so you can randomly determine how scarred and broken this clearing is by the conflict (depends on who controls the neighboring clearings) and each faction also gets a chance to advance its objectives. Their chances are better if the PCs haven’t been working against them and hits give them boons (on a 10+ they get two or a major boon) so that the factions might build new strongholds, capture important enemies, or take control of new clearings as well as faction-specific boons. It’s also worth mentioning that these are the default factions, but you can make up your own through the same process (or use some new ones detailed below) with your choice of two to three factions.

Aside from being a wonderful mini-game for the MC to engage in, this is a really fantastic model for running a conflict in the background of a game especially for a PbtA game. In my experience, generating a Woodland takes between a half hour and an hour (depending on how detailed you want to make individual clearings) but after you have your Woodland set up it’s a matter of a few minutes to establish the tides of the War between sessions.

Travelers & Outsiders

There’s already a great supplement for Root, an expansion of the factions and playbooks in the core rulebook. Firstly, four new factions are laid out: the Riverfolk Company (cut-throat merchants), the Lizard Cult (a mystery religion for the downtrodden), the Grand Duchy (an underground empire), and the Corvid Conspiracy (a revolutionary network of disenfranchised birds). These are more than just extra setting information, you can replace the Marquisate, Eyrie, Woodland Alliance, or any combination with these ones and the whole tenor of the game changes (there’s a new step for each new faction). This means that having two to three of these factions there are fifty-six(!) different political landscapes, and that’s not even counting all the permutations of clearings, control, and your own faction ideas. These factions can also enter your story in minor ways or replace an existing faction if the War completely crushes one of them and creates a vacuum. There are also two new clearings (Heartwood and Sundew Bend) to throw into your Woodland.

Travelers & Outsiders also has rules for New Weapons Skill, New Roguish Feats, and New Reputation Moves to take control of armies. You can endorse a new leader for a faction, vilify a leader to undermine their power, and lead troops in battle or intimidate enemy troops as part of a large battle option. There are also faction-specific reputation moves so that you can plan a new project specifically for the Marquisate, wield bureaucracy with the Eyrie, incite revolt for the Woodland Alliance, preach to the choir to lead the Lizard Cult, conduct sanctioned trade on behalf of the Riverfolk Company, tap criminal networks for the Corvid Conspiracy, or requisition permits to make use of the Grand Duchy’s tunnels. There are Species Moves to mix in with your playbook moves, a buffet of special moves indicative of animal types to change things up. There’s also an option for Masteries that you can pick with advancements to give you special results on 12+ for various other moves.

Image © Magpie Games

New Equipment gives you some other player options but the real new options are the ten new playbooks! The Champion is warrior and leader together, the Chronicler is a scholar extraordinaire, the Exile has been cast out from a powerful faction, the Envoy is a respected representative of a faction (or several!), and the Heretic is still committed to a faction’s goals but they’ve rejected the Heretic’s beliefs. Taking a left turn, the Pirate is a rogue boat captain, the Prince is a monarch-in-exile, the Raconteur is traveling storyteller, the Raider is a dangerous bandit or folk hero, and the Seeker is looking for new discoveries and mysteries. A fantastic list of new playbook options.

Conclusion

This is a detailed Powered by the Apocalypse game with a lot of options and mechanics for shaping your game. It’s crunchy but also very supportive of free storytelling and it supports a range of story options from wartime stories (including leading armies with Travelers & Outsiders) and wandering adventurers to community-building and cute animal stories. If you like totally freeform gaming then this might feel a little overwhelming but every one of the mechanics feels well-crafted and fully supportive of the story.

The game is also very flexible and I think you could tell all sorts of different stories with it. A reskin could turn this from clearings and paths to planets and hyperlanes or realms and mystic channels. The playbooks are adaptable enough but also the faction-generation and area-shaping mechanics are awesome and can be ported over to any PbtA game very easily. Bottom line, I’d heartily recommend this game for anyone interested in good stories and excellent game design.

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