A while ago, my RPG group sat down and tried out Root: The RPG. While we had enjoyed the board game for which this TTRPG was adapted, the inherent appeal of being part of the tumultuous woodlands was a great opportunity. After our initial session 0 and our first proper dive into the world, our first impressions were positive, but contained a few bumps.
What Is The World Of Root All About?
For those not aware, the world of Root is in a fantastical forest setting similar to the Disney animated Robin Hood movie. Foxes, raccoons, badgers, and cats are all thinking, feeling individuals that live simple lives as bakers, blacksmiths, and tavern owners.
But don't let this whimsical aesthetic fool you. The big unique selling point of Root is its ongoing history as well as its surprisingly complex geopolitical climate between multiple organizations. The Woodland as it stands is in a state of war and unrest as these different organizations struggle for power and control. You have the antiquated but relatively stable appeal of the Eyrie Dynasties, aristocrats that ruled once before but were deposed in a civil war and now have diminished command. Then there are the Marquisate, an invading force which took advantage of the power vacuum left behind in this civil war. But while they did bring more militant restrictions such as new laws and taxes, they also brought in industrialization and all of the economic benefits that come with it. Finally, there is the Woodland Alliance, a populist movement of disparate anarchists that are pushing back against the tyranny of both the Marquisate and the Dynasties.
In Root: The Board Game, the agendas of these organizations lead to fantastic tactics and decisions. In many ways, it felt less like a cute animal board game with some simulation elements as it did a complex political grand strategy experience with a woodland critter appearance.
How Does Root: The RPG Incorporate The Themes Of The Board Game?
So how exactly does Root: The RPG make such a large scale board game work in a more personal context? The answer is simple. Magpie Games focused on the tumultuous nature of this war and how it affected people at ground level, using it as a venue for roleplaying drama. This is done by having all of the players be vagabonds, neutral swords for hire that travel from settlement to settlement just trying to find their way in a state of upheaval. While they may have had associations with the big players of the Woodland, ultimately disillusionment or discontent won out and they struck out on their own.
It's a surprisingly flexible set-up for Root: The RPG. It's a great vehicle for “scenarios of the week” stories as well as long-form campaigns. The book's rules as written mention that while these characters have moral compasses, they are still (mostly) neutral entities since their services are for sale. It's not the murky waters of grimdark moral relativism or gritty ambiguity, but – to borrow a phrase from the book itself – heroism with an edge.
These kinds of moral dilemmas were introduced as my group went into the quickstart settlement of Bertram's Cove. It's a port town near a large lake controlled by the Marquisate that is dealing with hit and run raids by pirates, an outbreak of some sort of nautical flu, and the rumblings of public dissent over various restrictions imposed. It started off simple with the group simply looking for a paycheck and were hired to sail to a restricted area and uncover a lost chest of gold for the Alliance. After some close scraps with the Marquisate, they got the chest back...only to discover the Alliance's plans to attack a hospital filled with sick Marquis soldiers and sailors. The hospital full of nautical flu victims that the Marquisate had on lockdown in service of the public trust. It was with this horrifying information that the group decided to hold on to the gold for themselves while trying to prevent this terrorist attack from going off.
It was a much more complex and complicated scenario than anyone was expecting. The players were wracking their brains over what to do next. Outside of stopping the immediately horrific idea of attacking a hospital, there was still the issue of what to do with the chest of gold or whether or not to support the Marquisate as they continued to inconvenience and oppress the people in response to these attacks, or the Alliance and their ever escalating radical operations.
If there were a few sour notes during this session it was mostly growing pains. While the Powered By The Apocalypse game system is great at being numbers-lite, focusing on accessibility and roleplaying, some of Root: The RPG's systems and resources took some getting used to. For example, there is a weapon crafting system where you can get different perks on your weapon as well as weaknesses to mitigate the cost. But, in addition to three different resource tracks: Injuries, Exhaustion, and Resources, the weapons themselves have a Wear track. Basically if you don't keep your weapons maintained, they can break and fall apart. It puts the game in a bit of crunch uncanny valley where things like stamina, money, and health are relatively abstract, but wear and tear on armor and weapons are on track as well.
What Is It Like To GM Root: The RPG?
Finally, being a GM in Root: The RPG leads to a lot of relearning conflict and conflict resolution. Much like other PbtA systems, the GM doesn't roll dice but introduces narrative and thematic complications for the players to respond to. This can either be done by just saying something new has moved the plot forward: a ticking clock, a character in distress, an enemy attack, etc., or by playing out complications and consequences by the players on dice rolls. 6 or less on 2d6 leads to a miss, meaning they fail and something bad happens. 7-9 is a hit where the player succeeds but something else happens in response. But on 10+, the player succeeds with no strings attached.
On paper, this is a solid system. But in my first session, it lead to frustration. This is because all of my players never rolled lower than a 10 in all of their skill checks thanks to their stats and good luck. It lead to a lot of gnashing of teeth where I had to maintain tension but couldn't undermine their success. The result was a lot of “and then” storytelling with complications and tensions popping up almost completely out of the blue.
What didn't exactly help my predicament is how the core rulebook and the Bertram's Cove quickstart rules had adventure hooks set up. Generally speaking, there are no main story threads, just a collection of story ideas, stat blocks and backstories for major characters, and a general overview of the settlement's major areas of conflict. This makes sense in a freeform character-centric system, but as a GM that was a little too used to having a concrete central story path to cling to when the dice helped trivialize otherwise tense, impactful moments, it left me scrambling.
As far as first impressions go, Root: The RPG has a lot of potential. It got my players to think a bit more about their actions as well as their characters' place in the world. It also feels like an appropriate companion to Root: The Board Game in several key ways. As for how well this RPG can maintain this intrigue long-term will take a bit more time.
A copy of Root: The RPG used in this preview was provided by Magpie Games.