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The State of the Woodland: Root RPG review part 3

I believe we are currently living through the onset of a golden age of the RPG hobby.

It is really not many years ago that tabletop roleplaying games were fragmented in their design philosophies. Trad games, Indie games, Old School Renaissance, Nordic Larp, Danish Fastaval scenarios, were all pretty much their own thing – players might intersect several of these (I know I sure did), but 10 years ago there was almost no design intersection between them. Someone can probably find some great examples of early games that drew from differing design traditions (and feel free to comment!), but as a generalization Forge games were Forge games, larp was larp, and trad was trad.

Now, with a mixture of design evolution, diverse internet communities, and more ways of funding, these design spaces are being equally diversified. As GNS died a slow death, indie games started focusing on being good games in addition to being good in theory, borrowing from whatever tradition they needed. OSR principles are starting to spread beyond their previously insular communities, queer and minority voices are breathing fresh air into the hobby, Danish convention scenarios are becoming even more of a hodgepodge, and is in turn starting to plant seeds in America. And from an artistic standpoint, this makes good sense. To quote a friend (who runs the blog Augury Ignored), “playing story games make you better at playing OSR games, and playing OSR games make you better at playing story games”, a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. I personally find great liberty in having one leg in story games, one leg in OSR, and one leg in the Danish convention scene. I think the best is yet to come.

Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a Root review?

In part 1 and 2 I took a pretty conventional reviewer approach to the new Root roleplaying game, first going through what I loved about the game, and then something I felt the game lacked. I just ran my first session of the game, and I love it in play. However, something interesting happened in my prep and during the session.

I knew that in Tonnery, where the Vagabonds started out, there was a tomb of the Goshowk family, which used to rule this part of the woodland. Now, as I noted in part two, there is almost no material on what a ruin is like. So as I prepped, I instinctively took out The Perilous Wilds, and started rolling on some of its tables, wondering at first whether Ironsworn: Delve would be a better fit, until I had a pretty good view of what it should be about. During play I had the notion that maybe it would work better as a 5 Room Dungeon.

And so I realized I was prepping a story game, with one foot in OSR thought.

The intermediate game

Root the board game is not, I would say, an entry-level game. It requires a bunch of plays before you even begin realize how the various faction dynamics intersect, and as such is not something I would bring to a table of people who’d only ever played whatever game you usually think of as the only game people in general ever played (Monopoly for me). It is also both nasty and brutish (and short, but that’s not really a barrier).

In many ways, it feels like the Root RPG really wants to be beginner-friendly. The unified dice mechanic, the playbooks and even the GM instructions are really trying to hammer home the point that this can be played and run by anyone. And they almost get there. But the source material and, I’d argue, the style of the game doesn’t lend itself to that.

I noted in part two of my review the ‘horrid’ thought that the Root RPG could have been more successful as a product, if it were a D&D 5e setting. The reason I entertained this thought comes from the responses I’ve seen from some backers that are surprised at the size of the books, which took me aback – the books are the size of Acid Death fantasy, a gorgeous book I have on my desk right now, and I’m pretty sure they’re slightly bigger than Apocalypse World. And then I figured that if you’re used to big, chunky D&D books, then this could be disappointing. So my thinking is, if Root was a 5E supplement, you could probably fit the content of both books into one tome, and fit in a lot more material since most of the rules are covered in the core books. Additionally, I’m thinking that the overlap between Magpie Games’ fans and Root board game players is pretty small, whereas the D&D and Root overlap is probably bigger by virtue of D&D being a lot more well-known.

The reason I figured the thought horrid, is that I don’t like D&D at all, and I really think the PbtA framework works a lot better for what the game is trying to achieve. D&D is probably pretty good if you’re into that sort of thing, but I do have one opinion (which I hope is informed), namely that D&D 5E is also not a game for beginners. It requires a lot of extraneous skill to run, and hinges on the GM being able to make it dynamic, suiting individual group needs. It relies on loads of material both official, unofficial, and scattered across the web, and quite frankly the default setting has a bunch of internal assumptions baked into the rules that are unlike any piece of media you can refer to. D&D 5E is not like Conan, it is not like Tolkien, it is like D&D.

I’d argue that the very style of this kind of game, is intermediate. Root has a bunch of assumptions that make sense if you’ve played the board game, but brings with it its own take on the whole thing. The GM has to juggle large-scale politics, a very wide cast of NPCs, potentially 12 different clearings, a host of smaller locations, and also has to make up ruins for the vagabonds to explore. And honestly, I think the tools that facilitate this are great, but it is not something I would ever recommend a rookie GM to run.

So my finishing thought is that perhaps Root could have become more successful as a unified product, if it leaned into the fact that running it is an acquired skill, it can be difficult and messy, and you might need to bring inspiration from outside of the game into it. I know for a fact that I am going to have a blast running this campaign, and would like to see more asymmetric faction play in RPGs going forward.

If I were to recommend something as a beginner RPG, I’d probably recommend something much more contained than a typical system. One shot games like Fiasco, Temple of the Tides (ironically, a 5E based scenario), Trophy Dark or the like could give a really good taste of the hobby, while something like Mothership + a module , or even Ironsworn could be a good introduction to campaign play.

Root is however, excellent as someone’s first intermediate game – you’ve run some Trophy, tried your hand at Ironsworn, and have gotten a good grasp of how an old-school Dungeon is run, and now want something with more faction-politics.

2 thoughts on “The State of the Woodland: Root RPG review part 3

  1. Great perspective, thanks! To me, the core of Root RPG is a strong contender as an exemplar of PbtA Best Practices. But it does get a bit more muddled with the Faction game.

    I think the Danish tradition for writing scenarios could offer a huge contribution to international trends if we would share more on, preferably as stand-alone/oneshot games (similar to Bluebeard’s Bride), rather than ‘convention games’. It’s still a bit more insular than it needs to be, imo.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve considered the following model myself, where a scenario is developed for and premiers at Fastaval, has that version uploaded to Alexandria, and then a touched up version released on Itch, instead of the dream where you release an edited version to Alexandria. If this became common practice for most Fastaval writers (I’ve noticed a few of the internationals do this), it *might* spread a little further.

      Liked by 1 person

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