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Saturday, 28 May 2022

Woodland in a Time of War

The Woodland is a vast stretch of thick, deep forest, rich with resources and cut with paths which connect the clearings scattered across its far reaches. Here are found the town, cities, and villages where the denizens of the Woodland live on the edge of the dangerous wilds that stretch deep into the forest. In recent times, the Woodland has been controlled by the Eyrie Dynasties, consecutive conservative regimes led by the birds of the region, but their power was disrupted by the Grand Civil War. This left the Woodland in ruins, but freed many of its denizens from the control of their avian overlords as much as it left much work to do in terms of rebuilding. However, this period, known as the Interbellum, left the Woodlands ripe for invasion, and it was a noble from the Le Monde de cat, the Marquise de Cat, who took advantage of its fractured state. First the Marquise de Cat’s forces helped restore the Woodlands and then industrialise it, building sawmills, workshops, and irrigation. Then it became occupation with the imposition of taxes and stationing cat soldiery. In response some denizens fled to the recovering Eyrie Dynasties, which returned to stop the invaders, but others joined the Woodland Alliance. This arose as hostilities broke out between the Eyrie Dynasties and the Marquisate of the Marquise de Cat, wanting to be free of either occupation. Even as war swirls back and forth through the Woodlands, other denizens slip from clearing to clearing, taking on the odd, dangerous job that inhabitants of the clearings will not do, serving one faction or another, sometimes doing good, other times, causing trouble. They are miscreants, outcasts, rebels, mercenaries, vigilantes, and more. All though are known as Vagabonds, regarded as occasionally useful, but all too often a nuisance.

This is the setting for Root: The Roleplaying Game. Published by Magpie Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign,it is based on Root: A Game of Woodland Might And Right, the anthropomorphic asymmetrical boardgame from Leder Games, lauded for both its design and its game play as well as its fantastic artwork. In the board game, the Eyrie Dynasties, Marquise de Cat, and the Woodland Alliance are the primary factions, whilst the fourth, the Vagabond, either disrupted or aided the efforts of the others. In the board game, there was just the one Vagabond, but in the roleplaying game there are many, and they are the Player Characters in Root: The Roleplaying Game. They may be diplomatic Adventurers, stalwart Arbiters, slippery Harriers, Woodland-wise Rangers, wilful Ronin, dangerous but lucky Scoundrels, cunning Thieves, clever Tinkers, and charming Vagrants, but all are Vagabonds. They have bonded together in a band, but for how long?

Root: The Roleplaying Game is not a traditional roleplaying game, since it employs the Powered by the Apocalypse framework, first see in2010’s Apocalypse World, around which its Player Character or Vagabond types, called Playbooks, and the Moves—or actions—they can undertake. Both Player Character types and Moves enforce both the setting and genre of Root: The Roleplaying Game, and the narratives or stories which can be told. In terms of Vagabond types and thus Playbooks, this is primarily done via a Vagabond’s Nature and Drives. Fulfilling either of the Nature and Drives rewards the player and his character, pushing the player to roleplay in particular ways. For example, with the Dutiful Nature, the Arbiter will clear his Exhaustion Track when he takes on a dangerous or difficult task for someone else, whilst he will gain an Advancement (the chance to improve the character) with the Discovery Dive when he encounters a new wonder or ruin in the forest. In terms of Moves, when the Harrier uses the ‘Smuggler’s Path’ Move, he will always find a secret path or door if the location should have one, but depending upon the roll made, he will not only find the secret path, but he will also find something useful to him along the path or even find it being used by someone else. This develops and pushes the narrative along, because throughout, a player is rolling the dice to determine what happens, rather than if it does or does not happen.

There are eight Basic Moves available to all Vagabonds—‘Attempt Roguish Feat’, ‘Figure Someone Out’, ’Persuade an NPC’, ‘Read a Tense Situation’, ‘Trick an NPC’, ‘Trust Fate’, Wreck Something’, and ‘Help or Interfere’. There are other types of Moves, such as Weapon Moves for combat and Session Moves for end of play actions, but for the most part, the Vagabonds will be making the Basic Moves. These are in the main, self-explanatory, but two stand out as different to the others. ‘Attempt a Roguish Feat’ actually consists of eight separate Feats, Acrobatics, Blindside, Counterfeit, Disable Device, Hide, Pick Lock, Pickpocket, Sleight of Hand, and Sneak. Typically, a Vagabond will have two of them, but again they roguish nature of the Vagabonds and thus the genre of Root: The Roleplaying Game. The other is ‘Trust Fate’, which covers anything a Vagabond might do when all else fails or he has no other option or the situation is just too desperate. However, this always comes at accost or complication because it is always a last resort, and ideally the player should be making one of the Basic Moves or one of their Vagabond’s in order to avoid that definite complication.

Mechanically, Root: The Roleplaying Game is designed to be player facing. When a player has his Vagabond make a Move, he selects a Move and rolls two six-sided dice, adding the appropriate stat to the result. If the player rolls seven or more, it is a ‘Hit’ and the Vagabond gets the desired result, but with a complication. If he rolls ten or more, it is a ‘strong hit ‘and the Vagabond gets everything he wants and potentially an extra bonus. However, if he rolls six or less, it is a ‘Miss’ and the Game Master instead gets to decide what happens. Some Moves add one-off bonuses to a Vagabond’s stats, whilst others generate continuing effects. For example, the Ronin’s ‘Well-Mannered ‘Move which is made when the Ronin enters a social situation where manners and etiquette matter, and generates points which a player can hold. Called Hold, these can be used to cover up a social faux pas made by the Vagabond or an ally, to call out someone else’s social faux, to charm someone, and to demonstrate his value. If the result is a Miss, the rules of etiquette are so different that you commit a grave breach of manners! All of these come with mechanical effects too. Any Move though, requires a trigger, essentially the player roleplaying his Vagabond’s actions or response, after which it happens.

The mechanics of Root: The Roleplaying Game handle the effects of danger and damage through Harm. Harm is divided into several tracks—Depletion, Exhaustion, Injury, Morale, and Wear—which are filled up as a Vagabond suffers Harm, ultimately leading to an unfortunate outcome if any of them are all filled in. Depletion represents a Vagabond’s general funds and assorted goods and supplies, and its track is filled in as a Vagabond pulls piece of useful equipment from one of his many pouches and pockets, which can be done retrospectively rather the player noting everything down that his Vagabond has on the sheet. In other words, Root: The Roleplaying Game is not a roleplaying game about shopping. Exhaustion represents a Vagabond’s energy and inner strength, and its track is filled in when he gets tired or he suffers a social slight. Depletion, Exhaustion, and Injury are the primary tracks a player will fill in for his Vagabond. Wear is a track for the durability of a piece of equipment and the equipment belonging to an NPC, whilst Morale is the track for an NPC’s commitment to his drives and beliefs.

A Vagabond also has another set of tracks. These are Reputation tracks, representing how well he is known by each of the factions in the Woodland, either his Notoriety or his Prestige. It is easier to gain Notoriety than it is Prestige, which works up to a point. However, its implementation is not clearly handled as the track really only tracks the positive gain when a Vagabond has Prestige and the negative loss when he has Notoriety, and effectively not when he loses either. This is made that little bit more complex because the Woodland has more than the four factions in the core rulebook. These are detailed in the supplement, Travelers & Outsiders, and if they come into play, they exacerbate the complexity of what the player has to keep track of, because this system is not intuitive.

Character or Vagabond creation in Root: The Roleplaying Game a matter of choosing one of its nine Playbooks. These are highly defined, in terms of species, demeanour, details, Nature, Drives, Connections, Weapons kills, and Background Questions. Species, demeanour, and details do not have any mechanical benefit whereas Drives and Nature, of which the Vagabond has to choose two and one respectively. When a Vagabond fulfils the terms of his Nature, he can clear his Exhaustion track, and gains an Advancement when he fulfils terms of his Drive. A Vagabond has a connection to a partner and a friend, both of which are with fellow Vagabonds, and five stats—Charm, Cunning, Finesse, Luck, and Might. These range in value between -1 and +3, but initially between -1 and +2. A Playbook has six Moves of which a player initially selects three. Each Playbook contains notes further explaining how the Moves work.

From the outset, the process of creating a Vagabond is intended to be collaborative. The players can only have one of each Playbook in play, that is, a band of Vagabonds cannot consist of two Rangers. The collaborative nature continues and is enforced with the players choosing the Connections between their Vagabonds. It continues in play as well, first and foremost because everyone—including the Game Master—is playing to find out what happens, and to facilitate this, the Game Master is advised not codify ahead of play. Instead, she creates Clearings with interesting NPC denizens and general conflicts and issues rather than ready-to-play plots. Root: The Roleplaying Game includes a set of tables to help her design her first set of twelve Clearings, including their denizens, the paths between the Clearings (which themselves can often be difficult and dangerous to travel), and which faction controls each Clearing. Since this is done randomly, the resulting Woodland will differ from that created by another Game Master and had there been a pre-written set of twelve Clearings proscribed by the authors of Root: The Roleplaying Game, it would have differed from that too. This also explains the general nature of the background given to the Woodland in Root: The Roleplaying Game—this is the Game Master’s Woodland, not the publisher’s, but it does come with an example Clearing called ‘Gelilah’s Grove’. This showcases the concept of the Clearing in practice and consists of a description, its conflicts and issues, and a few NPCs. Notably, at the end of the description for each conflict or issue, it states what happens if the Vagabonds do not get involved. So either way, if the Vagabonds get involved or not, the situation in Gelilah’s Grove will change, leading to a sense of things and events developing and changing across the Woodland.

For the Game Master, there is a fair amount to learn in order to run Root: The Roleplaying Game. Primarily, this consists of really learning how the game’s many Moves work. The likelihood is that on initial play, the Game Master will find herself flipping and forth to remind herself how each Move works as it comes upon play. Once past that, the advice for the Game Master is decent and the bookies rife with detailed and useful examples and explanations.

One of the moments of brilliance in Root: The Roleplaying Game is not necessarily the rules or the setting—though there is no denying that they are good, but the introduction to roleplaying. This eschews the traditional method which often has barely moved on from describing roleplaying as being like playing cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians when you were a kid, to instead talk about what it calls ‘The Fundamentals’. This takes right back to basics in describing it as a conversation between the players and the players and the Game Master before building on this. So framing scenes and answering that age old question of “What do you do?” to handling the roleplaying game’s Moves and the uncertainty that involves, and beyond to Root: The Roleplaying Game being a shared experience and explaining what to expect and focus on in play. It ends by giving multiple answers to the question, “Why Play?”. There is such a core simplicity to the advice and guidance that it puts just every other roleplaying game to shame. This is one of the clearest, most elegant introductions to roleplaying in almost fifty years of the hobby and not only should the authors be commended for it, but the publisher should also make a generic version available to everyone. Otherwise, ‘The Fundamentals’ chapter is particularly helpful for players of Root: A Game of Woodland Might And Right wanting to make the shift to roleplaying and continue exploring the Woodland.

Physically, Root: The Roleplaying Game is a charming digest-sized book illustrated with the bright autumnal colours seen in Root: A Game of Woodland Might And Right. The book is well written and an engaging read. The art is of course fantastic, although there is arguably not enough of it.

Root: The Roleplaying Game is not a roleplaying game about heroes in a time of war, although it could be. If not heroes though, the Vagabonds are still protagonists, mercenaries, ne’er-do-wells, rogues, and more (until they decide to leave the band and retire, becoming an NPC) who in slipping from one Clearing to another and between one faction and another, perhaps taking advantage of the chaos and uncertainty, have the opportunity to influence and change the Woodland. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. This mood and sense of uncertainty, as well as the less than heroic nature of the Vagabonds, very much makes Root: The Roleplaying Game feel different to the traditional and often twee and quaint anthropomorphic depiction of woodland creatures.

Root: The Roleplaying Game is an engaging and attractive book whose rules encourage strong collaborative storytelling and roleplaying, and to not only explore the Woodland, its dangers and its issues, but also to change it and make it something shared between the players and the Game Master.


Magpie Games will be at UK Games Expo which takes place from Friday, June 3rd to Sunday, June 5th, 2022.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent review of what appears to be a quality product. Thanks Pookie, this is helpful in determining purchase and pitching to prospective players.