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Saturday 16 December 2023

[Free RPG Day 2023] Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart

Now in its sixteenth year, Free RPG Day for 2023 took place on Saturday, June 24th. As per usual, Free RPG Day consisted of an array of new and interesting little releases, which are traditionally tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Thanks to the generosity of David Salisbury of Fan Boy 3, Fil Baldowski at All Rolled Up, and others, Reviews from R’lyeh was able to get hold of many of the titles released for Free RPG Day, both in the USA and elsewhere.


Published by Magpie Games, Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game is a roleplaying game based on the award-winning Root: A Game of Woodland Might & Right board game, about conflict and power, featuring struggles between cats, birds, mice, and more. The Woodland consists of dense forest interspersed by ‘Clearings’ where its many inhabitants—dominated by foxes, mice, rabbits, and birds live, work, and trade from their villages. Birds can also be found spread out in the canopy throughout the forest. Recently, the Woodland was thrown into chaos when the ruling Eyrie Dynasties tore themselves apart in a civil war and left power vacuums throughout the Woodland. With no single governing power, the many Clearings of the Woodland have coped as best they can—or not at all, but many fell under the sway or the occupation of the forces of the Marquise de Cat, leader of an industrious empire from far away. More recently, the civil war between the Eyrie Dynasties has ended and is regroupings its forces to retake its ancestral domains, whilst other denizens of the Woodland, wanting to be free of both the Marquisate and the Eyrie Dynasties, have formed the Woodland Alliance and secretly foment for independence.

Between the Clearings and the Paths which connect them, creatures, individuals, and bands live in the dense, often dangerous forest. Amongst these are the Vagabonds—exiles, outcasts, strangers, oddities, idealists, rebels, criminals, freethinkers. They are hardened to the toughness of life in the forest, but whilst some turn to crime and banditry, others come to Clearings to trade, work, and sometimes take jobs that no other upstanding citizens of any Clearing would do—or have the skill to undertake. Of course, in Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game, Vagabonds are the Player Characters.

Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game is ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’, the mechanics based on the award-winning post-apocalyptic roleplaying game, Apocalypse World, published by Lumpley Games in 2010. At the heart of these mechanics are Playbooks and their sets of Moves. Now, Playbooks are really Player Characters and their character sheets, and Moves are actions, skills, and knowledges, and every Playbook is a collection of Moves. Some of these Moves are generic in nature, such as ‘Persuade an NPC’ or ‘Attempt a Roguish Feat’, and every Player Character or Vagabond can attempt them. Others are particular to a Playbook, for example, ‘Silent Paws’ for a Ranger Vagabond or ‘Arsonist’ for the Scoundrel Vagabond.

To undertake an action or Move in a ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ roleplaying game—or Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game, a character’s player rolls two six-sided dice and adds the value of an attribute such as Charm, Cunning, Finesse, Luck, or Might, or Reputation, to the result. A full success is achieved on a result of ten or more; a partial success is achieved with a cost, complication, or consequence on a result of seven, eight, or nine; and a failure is scored on a result of six or less. Essentially, this generates results of ‘yes’, ‘yes, but…’ with consequences, and ‘no’. Notably though, the Game Master does not roll in ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ roleplaying game—or Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game.

So for example, if a Player Character wants to ‘Read a Tense Situation’, his player is rolling to have his character learn the answers to questions such as ‘What’s my best way out/in/through?’, ‘Who or what is the biggest threat?’, ‘Who or what is most vulnerable to me?’, ‘What should I be on the lookout for?’, or ‘Who is in control here?’. To make the Move, the player rolls the dice and his character’s Cunning to the result. On a result of ten or more, the player can ask three of these questions, whilst on a result of seven, eight, or nine, he only gets to ask one.

Moves particular to a Playbook can add to an attribute, such as ‘Master Thief’, which adds one to a character’s Finesse or allow another attribute to be substituted for a particular Move, for example, ‘Threatening Visage’, which enables a Player Character to use his Might instead of Charm when using open threats or naked steel on attempts to ‘Persuade an NPC’. Others are fully detailed Moves, such as ‘Grab and Smash’. When a Player Character wants to smash through some scenery to reach someone or something, his player rolls the character’s Might in a test. The Move enables the character to reach the target on a hit. However, this is not without its consequences. This can the character hurting himself and the player marking an injury, break an important part of his surroundings, or damage or leave behind a piece of gear. One a roll of 10+, the character suffers one of these consequences; on a roll of 7-9, he suffers two; and on a miss, he smashes but is left totally vulnerable on the other side.

Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart is the Free RPG Day 2023 from Magpie Games for Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game. It includes an explanation of the core rules, six pregenerated Player Characters or Vagabonds and their Playbooks, and a complete setting or Clearing for them to explore. From the overview of the game and an explanation of the characters to playing the game and its many Moves, the introduction to the Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game in Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart is well-written. It is notable that all of the Vagabonds are essentially roguish in nature, so in addition to the Basic Moves, such as ‘Figure Someone Out’, ‘Persuade an NPC’, ‘Trick an NPC’, ‘Trust Fate’, and ‘Wreck Something’, they can ‘Attempt a Roguish Feat’. This covers Acrobatics, Blindside, Counterfeit, Disable Device, Hide, Pick Lock, Pick Pocket, Sleight of Hand, and Sneak. Each of these requires an associated Feat to attempt, and each of the six pregenerated Vagabonds has one, two, or more of the Feats depending just how roguish they are. Otherwise, a Vagabond’s player rolls the ‘Trust to Fate’ Move.

The six pre-generated Vagabonds include Laeliana the Arbiter, an experienced Mole mercenary who is looking for the right battles to fight; Jexri the Champion, a Lizard who is devout follower of the Great Wyrm and defender of those who need it; Yates the Envoy, a Toad envoy who works as a diplomat for hire; Mint the Prince, a young Fox trying to live up to the reputation of her mother; Rackham the Thief, a bird thief who has returned to Hacksaw Dell to show off their expertise as a burglar; and Knohadd the Vagrant, a Possum ex-Riverfolk Company captain, who comes with plenty of baggage. All six of these Vagabonds have links to the given Clearing and its NPCs in Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart, and all six are complete with Natures and Drives, stats, backgrounds, Moves, Feats, and equipment. All a player has to do is decide on a couple of connections and each Playbook is ready to play.

As its title suggests, the given Clearing in Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart is Hacksaw Dell. Its description comes with an overarching issue and conflicts within the Clearing, important NPCs, places to go, and more. The situation in Hacksaw Dell is different to that of most Clearings. Until recently, the Marquisate operated a lumbermill in the Clearing, but this was targeted by the Woodland Alliance and burnt down, only a month ago. An Assembly of Citizens has been established to create a charter to govern the newly freed Clearing, but progress is not fast enough for some. This is includes the Woodland Alliance provocateurs who liberated the Clearing, some of whom want to repeat the action they took in liberating the Clearing and many other citizens who have found succour in the Lizard Cult. Others want to install a prince like they had in the days when the Eyrie Dynasties ruled the Clearing. These four Conflicts make up the plots to be explored and developed in the Clearing and each is fully detailed and includes notes on what happens if the vagabonds do not get involved and leave the Conflict to develop on its own. For the Game Master there is a good overview of the Clearing and notes of where to begin when running the Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart and getting the Vagabonds involved. There suggestions also as to how escalate the situation for each of the Vagabonds to draw them further into the ongoing events in Hacksaw Dell.

Physically, Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart is a fantastic looking booklet, done in full colour and printed on heavy paper stock. It is well written and the artwork, taken from or inspired by the Root: A Game of Woodland Might & Right board game, is bright and breezy, and really attractive. Even cute. Simply, just as Root: The Pellenicky Glade Quickstart was for Free RPG Day 2020, Root: The Bertram’s Cove Quickstart was for Free RPG Day 2021, and Root: Talon Hill Quickstart for Free RPG 2022, so too Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart is physically the most impressive of all the releases for Free RPG Day 2023.

If there is an issue with Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart it is that it looks busy and it looks complex—something that often besets ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ roleplaying games. Not only do players need their Vagabond’s Playbooks, but also reference sheets for all of the game’s Basic Moves and Weapon Moves—and that is a lot of information. However, it means that a player has all of the information he needs to play his Vagabond to hand, he does not need to refer to the rules for explanations of the rules or his Vagabond’s Moves. That also means that there is some preparation required to make sure that each player has the lists of Moves his Vagabond needs. Another issue is that the relative complexity and the density of the information in Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart means that it is not a beginner’s game and the Game Master will need a bit of experience to run Hacksaw Dell and its conflicts.

Ultimately, the Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart comes with everything necessary to play and keep the attention of a playing group for probably three or four sessions, possibly more. Although it needs a careful read through and preparation by the Game Master, Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart is a very good introduction to the rules, the setting, and conflicts in Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game—and it looks damned good too. For the Game Master who is already running a Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game campaign, the Root: Hacksaw Dell Quickstart provides another Clearing that she can add to her campaign with the others available in the proper quick-start for the roleplaying game as well as releases for previous Free RPG Days.

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