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Root RPG Preview

by on September 25, 2019

Root RPG Preview

The cats crept through the woods, pulling their robes close. If anyone saw them, they could easily be mistaken for missionaries. The supplied they carried would help rebuild Clutcher’s Creek’s forge and reinforce the Marquis de Cat’s stronghold. A bush rustled and two of the cats went for their swords. The captain shook his head and they calmed down.

The wagon rumbled slowly and carefully over a bridge over a small chasm, knocking dirt into the darkness.

Sir, up ahead!” one of the cats shouted. There was an opossum grinning at them, sword drawn.

Behind them, a small mouse prepared to ignite a large pile of leaves. A raccoon dropped from a tree, stealthily landing on the captain, slitting his throat and hiding the body before anyone could notice.

Wh—where’d the captain go?” one of the cats said, looking at the newly empty wagon.

Then the fire began…

The Book

Root is a great board game about tiny animals killing each other for control of the woodland. It uses different mechanics for each faction, from the sprawling Marquis de Cat to the lone vagabond. It’s adorable and I’m terrible at it, but I still enjoy the game nonetheless. It’s up there with Lords of Waterdeep in the place of ‘I don’t have the brain for it, but love the interfaces and style’.

But this isn’t a review of Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right. This is the Root RPG. It’s a Magpie Games joint, and specifically a Powered by the Apocalypse game, which already tick a lot of boxes for me. It’s by Brendan Conway who made Masks  and a number of other Magpie writers. For the uninitiated, Magpie make Urban Shadows, Masks, Bluebeards Bride and the upcoming Cartel. Powered by the Apocalypse games are their bread and butter, a fiction-first style of game where characters have thematically-appropriate ‘moves’ instead of skills and levels of success or failure which all build the momentum of the story.

Combining the look and style of the Root board game with the Root RPG was going to be great, and deadly for my wallet. Kyle Ferrin’s art is ever-present and essential to evoking the style of the game. Given the board game is about a war between different animal factions, Magpie had the tricky task of working out where the story is and what the players do in the RPG. The solution was perfect.

In Root, you all play vagabonds living in a warring woodland and trying to get by there. The characters are all roguish mercenaries, travelling between settlements and carrying out missions for the different factions from the board game.

The playbooks are:

Arbiter – A stalwart defender, bringing justice in this chaotic time

Ranger – Someone comfortable with travelling the woodlands

Scoundrel – A destroyer of things, often through fire

Tinker – A crafty builder and repairer of technology

Vagrant – A charming trickster and a drunk mess

Each playbook has some questions about their origins, connections with one another, a choice of a couple of natures, two out of four drives and some playbook-specific moves. The natures show how you can clear exhaustion, such as the Kleptomaniac Thief who refreshed when they selfishly steal something. Drives trigger character progression with things like Freedom, which lets you advance when you free someone from oppression.

The playbooks and the basic moves really set the tone of the kind of characters you are. You’re mischievous and violent. Literally the basic moves have things like, ‘Attempt Roguish Feats’ and ‘Wreck Something’. Specifically though, there are no real fighting moves on the menu of basic moves. They’re exiled elsewhere. Like the vagabond in Root, you have a focus on equipment and how it works. I’m not normally a fan of inventory management, but like Blades in the Dark, this game makes it interesting by mechanising your inventory.

There are weapon moves which you can do in a fight. Everyone can ‘Engage Sword to Sword’ in melee, ‘Grapple an Enemy’ when unarmed or ‘Target Someone’ with a ranged weapon. Then there are special moves which you can use if you have the skill and a weapon has the tag. An example of this is ‘Parry’, which tires you out to block someone’s attack. If you have a parrying weapon and are trained then it works. This is… fine. It was a little bit awkward to explain at first. I had to remind folks that they could do the universal weapon moves I listed above, as they didn’t always hit the condition on say, the ‘Murder’ move which targets vulnerable NPCs. The crossbow was the biggest culprit for this, as you can degrade the weapon in order to ‘Murder’ at close range instead of intimate range. This contradicts the ‘Murder’ move and is fine, but it gets a little tricky trying to explain that by default you ‘Target Someone’ with the crossbow and then ‘Murder’ at range but only twice. With time and possibly with the equipment cards listed on the Kickstarter it’ll get easier.

While we’re on gear, I’ll bring up the health bars characters have. There’s Injury, which is exactly what you expect it to be. There’s Exhaustion which is marked when you’re wandering paths a lot or for some moves. Then there’s Decay, which are your general supplies, but also the health tracks of all of your named equipment. If you wander into the forest you collectively damage it to reflect the wear & tear. One of my group had some complaints born more from his hatred of video game weapon degradation. In practice it works fine and getting to pick what runs out when you enter the forest is great. Maybe it’s rations, maybe it’s your boots or some rope. Our other equipment-based confusion was about whether you can degrade armour to absorb damage, which I decided was the case. I’m sure in the main book it’ll be mentioned, but the 40-page quickstart omitted whether or not that was the case.

The GM section of the book is small but fantastic, just like the heroes we create in the game. There’s a map of the woodland (or you can use the board game board, like I did) and you determine who controls each clearing (village, town, etc). This is an active warzone between the Eyrie Dynasty and the Marquis de Cat (and in the core game, The Woodland Alliance). There are random tables for the names, landmarks and starting situations in each village. You also have a table to show how the war has affected the town. When our group entered Patchwood, they could see a damaged fort which looked like the cats and birds had several bloody battles for it, ultimately neither side could hold it and everyone left with any resources the town had which were of any use.

There’s an initial situation generator which I used for the test game I ran. I rolled it ahead of time, as world creation looked like it would be time consuming (it was, but was good fun). I rolled up a mission where the group were working for a would-be usurper to a nearby clearing, having to raid a group and steal forge equipment. There were threats of watchful eyes and a deceptive leader. I kept my notes that sparse and figured it would be a mission to fight cats pretending to be missionaries who were actually real missionaries, as part of a frame-job. As the night went on, I realised there wouldn’t be enough time to convey that, so I abandoned that concept mid-game.

The Game

I laid out the board, handed out playbooks and let the players revel in the lovely art. Vinnie made “Fleetwood MacSomething”, an opossum vagabond (drunk) who left his home after having fallen in love with his best friend’s spouse. Mark made “Nail”, a mouse scoundrel (arsonist) who fled his hometown after burning a building which accidentally had a person in it. Wade played “Raddion Raccoon”, a raccoon thief (kleptomaniac) from the forest who was seeking a better life and ended up making enemies of the denizens of the woodland.

We opened on Clutcher’s Creek, a small village recently taken over by the cats. They deposed the mayor, turned the storehouse into a barracks and started rebuilding. The old rabbit who used to run the town, Orry, heard they were smuggling forge equipment to Clutcher’s Creek under guise of missionaries in order to avoid conflict. He wanted the group to intercept the wagon and make sure the equipment was never found.

Raddion stole some cat army uniforms from some rabbits who were doing laundry, Nail stared creepily at the burnt down blacksmiths until local bullies got in his way and Fleetwood tried schmoozing with guards at the local inn, only to get too much attention from a captain. The trio all fled through the village and gathered together at the edge, realising they didn’t know where the ‘missionaries’ were coming from. I had made notes that it was in the southeast woods, so when they travelled to the southwest clearing, I figured we could play with some other encounters. This was near Eyrie territory on our map, so they bumped into some birds who threw a rock at one of the group and almost started a fight. They managed to trade the cat uniforms for information about reports of missionaries staying in nearby Patchwood and free passage. Their favour with the birds was the least bad out of everyone else in the woods, so it was easy enough to chat with them.

There are Travel moves, which do what I mentioned earlier about using up Exhaustion (for travelling on paths) and Decay (for travelling into the forest). The group failed their move for travelling into the forest, I made a note and told them everything was fine… for now. When the group left the woods to go to Patchwood, they brought an interloper with them in the form of a bear. The locals fled under a big rock they had as a monument, the players started trying to work out what they could do. Fleetwood dived between the legs of the bear and it started circling to grab him. She ended up accidentally sitting on Fleetwood before the others managed to startle her and lead her away from the village. In return, Patchwood’s librarian let most of the group stay at her place for the night, the library being one of the only places untouched by recent skirmishes. Nail was not allowed in, given he was likely to burn the library. Instead, Fleetwood got him a blanket so he could sleep outside. We cut away to a nice night in Patchwood and took a break.

When we returned, the group set out with the guidance of Mint, the rabbit librarian. She knew where the Corvid Conspiracy used a small chasm as a path to move unseen through the woods. The group would be able to use it to race ahead and intercept the cat missionaries, given they’d spent enough time on the wrong trail originally.

The group made their way to a point where the missionaries would have to cross a small bridge across the chasm and started to prepare their trap. Nail set up zones of leaves to set on fire. Fleetwood stood visible and ready to confront the cats, delaying them long enough for the others to strike. Sure enough they startled the cats and Raddion straight up Assassin’s Creeded their leader. The ‘Murder’ move is nicely brutal in triggering specifically when an NPC is vulnerable. Even on a partial hit you straight up kill the NPC, but then you might leave evidence or yourself as an open target. Raddion was too good, hiding himself and the body so quickly the rest of the group were startled. One of the side guards was quickly taken down and Nail’s fire caused so much smoke that it made the whole group vulnerable. The players ripped their way through the cats, then tossed the wagon down the chasm, taking any forge equipment they could carry back to Patchwood to help the locals rebuild.

It was a great session and the tone goes back and forth between adorably picturesque and roguishly violent. The tone feels entirely like the board game, but drilled down to a level where next time I play the board game I could totally see Patchwood and Clutcher’s Creek as they were in the RPG.

Just to read, the quickstart looks nice and evokes the Root board game. The Kickstarter has a core book and a large expansion supplement, both of which promise even more artwork and a ton of flavour. I can imagine these would be a beautiful part of a collection, even if you don’t get it to the table. To play, I loved having the board game pieces to help represent everything, although printing out a map you can draw on might be better for conveying a sense of ownership. I took a picture from the PDF and scribbled on it on my iPad just to keep track of the local areas.

If you like the Root board game and want to try out an RPG, definitely get this. Just $20 gets both books and a ton of content constantly being updated. Brendan and Magpie have a great track record with their Masks Kickstarter which feels comparable in all the things being released. If you want to enjoy playing or running games where the group are a bunch of ne’er do wells in a natural, lovely world, then Root is your best bet.

Root is currently on Kickstarter and can be found here:

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