02 March 2022
If You Go Down to the Woods Today…
As with the boardgame that inspired it, Root : The RPG hides sharp teeth beneath its cutesy trappings. It uses a simple ruleset to weave sandbox-ey stories of woodland warfare that blend heroism and despair, where wandering vagabonds clash and cooperate with powerful factions.
The starting premise of the RPG is identical to that of the strategy-focused boardgame. Both are set in the Woodland - a randomly rolled stretch of forest inhabited by humanoid animals. Think Disney’s Robin Hood mixed with the Redwall books. Or, possibly, a heavily armed branch of the Sylvanean Families.
In any case, not all is well in the Woodland. Several factions, including the birds of the Eyrie Dynasties and the armies of the Marquise de Cat, are looking to seize control of the forest. On-and-off battles rage in clearings and trails, while revolution ferments in twee little settlements. Nobody is happy, and – at the start of the campaign, anyway – nobody is sure what’s going to happen next.
Into this mess of factions and violence stride the Vagabonds. A band of wanderers and misfits, rogues and criminals that don’t owe allegiance to anybody in particular. In other words, ideal vessels for players.
Over the course of the campaign, these Vagabonds – who lose their player character status if they leave the wandering life behind – explore the Woodland as they look to make a living on the fringes of the war. Some groups might look to forge some sliver of heroism and hope amidst the messy politics. Others might just look out for themselves, and buddy up to whichever party is looking to come out on top.
The blend of grey morality and primary colour cuteness can be a bit of a hurdle to overcome at first, but once you get into the groove it works well. If the bubbling war was being fought between starkly realistic humans and the rulebook was painted in greys, browns, and crimsons, it would be a very different game. The ever-present art style allows groups to explore some deeply murky stories without anything ever seeming too nasty.
A focus on storytelling lies at the core of the game. This is reflected by Magpie Games’ decision to base Root: The RPG’s rulest upon the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) system, used in dozens of story-led titles including Monster of the Week to Dungeon World.
Broadly, this means that it’s a system that looks to place narrative at the heart of the gameplay. Characters have loosely-defined “moves” rather than skill tests, and every possible roll of the dice pushes the story forward. It’s towards the more complex end of the PbtA scale, with plenty of moves to use in combat and little boxes for tracking armour damage. However, it’s still comparatively easy to play.
On the player-facing side of things, this is helped by the use of playbooks rather than standard character sheets. Rather than making their wandering badger, fox or hedgehog from scratch, they piece together a Vagabond by picking choices from a broad archetype.
Players might choose to make a crafty tinker, who can fix up gear and rig traps, for example. Or, they could pick a heavily-armed ronin – a warrior who’s abandoned their former master for mysterious reasons.
The simple rules make it easy to get the mechanics of a character out of the way nice and quickly, and instead focus on fleshing out their personality and past. One of the joys of Root: The RPG is turning up at the table with a new character and getting to know the rest of the party.
Running the game as a GM is slightly more complex. There’s a reasonably detailed set of rules for things like traveling and handling reputation with the myriad factions. However, the deeply open-ended, free-form nature of the stories you weave makes it a delight to helm.
As you might expect from a game with heroes are called ‘Vagabonds’, Root: The RPG lends itself to wandering rather than tightly plotted adventures. Its stories are founded upon random encounters and quaint little towns in need of aid. The whim of the dice can see the Woodland’s war shift in a matter of moments and with it the story.
This makes it an ideal game for groups looking to explore a freeform sort of RPG without having to worry about all the behind-the-scenes plotting needed to make it work in a more traditional fantasy game.
PLAY IT? YES
Story-driven sandbox adventures that muddy politics with bright, cutesy trappings.
It’s an obvious pick, but if you enjoyed the politics and backstabbing of the board game, you’ll dig the RPG too
Designer: Brendan Conway & Mark Diaz Truman
Publisher: Magpie Games
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