Ten years ago, Dungeon World kicked Powered by the Apocalypse into the mainstream by tying the system back to Dungeons and Dragons, the hobby’s most popular game. Now, Powered by the Apocalypse (or PbtA) is the newest rules system entrant into the world of licensed RPGs, thanks to Magpie Games,. While Root: The Roleplaying Game might not be the very first licensed PbtA game it is certainly the biggest one to date, using the look, feel, and logo of Leder Games’ critically acclaimed board game to catapult it to a $600,000 Kickstarter success. It also quite likely opened the gate for Magpie’s upcoming Avatar game, which leapfrogged the Kickstarter success of Root more than tenfold.
So now that Root is available not only to backers but to the world at large, what does a game by the largest PbtA publisher look like these days? Magpie Games has built their business on PbtA, scoring hits with the innovative Urban Shadows, Masks, and Bluebeard’s Bride, among others. Given their long track record it’s no surprise that the company has sought out opportunities for licensing like they found with Root. From the outside, though, there are questions about Magpie’s product strategy. Root’s final PDF was delivered to backers over a year late, and Urban Shadows second edition, currently in process, will likely be almost as late as that (original ETA for delivery was September of 2021 for PDFs). While the pandemic and other exogenous factors are clearly part of this, having multiple high-profile Kickstarters in fulfillment at once (Urban Shadows, Root, and Avatar: The Last Airbender were all concurrent prior to Root’s fulfillment) seems to be stretching the team thin.
With that in mind, I look at Root. Root is a solid game at the baseline, incorporating both themes and mechanical elements from the board game into a ruleset that does everything I’d want a woodland fantasy RPG to do. Looking at the board game, though, starts to show where maybe schedules or budgets interfered a bit too much with maximizing the game. On the layout side, walls of text and an utter dearth of Kyle Ferrin’s art make readers scratch their chins. On the mechanics side, the surprising headliner is significant mechanical complexity. While a few of these rules choices call back to the board game, like the faction mechanics, many others, like tracking weapon wear and a significantly expanded combat system, seem to come from somewhere else entirely.
Root: The Roleplaying Game is based on Root: The Board Game in terms of its setup. In the board game, there are three factions which each follow their own mechanics: The Marquise de Cat, the Eyrie, and the Woodland Alliance. There is also a fourth non-faction, called the Vagabond, and the player of the Vagabond has their own agenda among those of the factions. The role-playing game casts its characters as the Vagabond, or rather a group of Vagabonds. Your vagabonds are various woodland creatures, traveling the forest between twelve Clearings which are either held by one of the three factions or an unaligned Clearing of woodland denizens who just want to go about their lives.
At its core, Root is straightforward PbtA. There are 9 Basic Moves, five of them essentially copy-pasted from earlier games and familiar, and a couple others fairly self-explanatory. Trust Fate was one I found interesting, not so much because of the Move but because of what it implies about the rest of the game. Trust Fate is Root’s version of Do Something Under Fire from Apocalypse World or Defy Danger from Dungeon World. Both of these have been criticized in design circles as being ‘catch-all’ moves, weakening the strong framing of the mechanics by giving a ‘miscellaneous’ category (Dungeon World caught more flak for this because Defy Danger lets you roll with any stat). Trust Fate opposes this idea by stating that using the ‘catch-all’ move at all always comes with a cost. In essence, if you have no other move to use, there is a negative consequence. Though the criticisms of a move like Do Something Under Fire are valid, Trust Fate is stating that there is enough mechanical differentiation built into Root that you should almost always be able to do something specific. Well, it turns out that is more true than in many PbtA games, and listing nine Basic Moves belies the true mechanical density of this game.
Another Basic Move worth talking about is Attempt a Roguish Feat. Cool Move, right? The problem, really, is that it’s not a Move like you’ve seen in other games, it’s a framework for describing eight different Moves which sound a lot like thief skills from early D&D. The eight Roguish Feats are Acrobatics, Blindside, Counterfeit, Disable Device, Hide, Pick Lock, Pickpocket, Sleight of Hand, and Sneak. This does produce some differentiation, as each character only starts with a couple of these Feats, and it does provide some focus as well. As all player characters are vagabonds, adventurers from within the forest, making them all rogue-adjacent is a fitting choice. The same detail, though, was lavished on hurting people, which doesn’t achieve the same goal. Weapons have three of their own Basic Moves (including the notable decision to insert grappling rules) and then ten special moves which describe (again, very D&D-like) assorted weapon techniques: Cleave, Vicious Strike, Parry, and others are on the list, each coming with a full description. In total this means that each character is going to start with one to three of the Roguish Feats, a weapon technique, and then their playbook’s moves as well.
While there are a few more options in character creation given the weapon techniques and Roguish Feats, Character creation is not terribly front-loaded and mostly looks like what you’d expect from a PbtA game. Drives and Nature are two neat character-defining features, and they’re effective because they have huge rules leverage; a character’s Nature allows them to clear their Exhaustion track (an additional Harm track, more below), and a character’s Drives are the only advancement system in the game. While Drives appeared for the Beacon in Masks, the version seen here in Root is a bit bigger, rewarding characters for things they’d likely do over the course of an adventure. Both forms of Drives remind me quite a lot of Milestones from Cortex Prime, though the Masks version would be a 1-XP Milestone and the Root version would be a 10-XP Milestone. You can further see Brendan Conway’s pen on the character sheet in the form of Connections. Connections are much like Relationships in Masks, though Connections have more mechanical grounding and are written out more.
I think the character sheet for Root does a pretty good job of splitting the difference between being an all-inclusive Playbook and being cleanly laid out and easy to read and reference. Some of those references, though, start to show you where Root really doesn’t look like a PbtA game. There are the Roguish Feats and Weapon Skills, yes, but there are also three Harm tracks, labeled Injury, Exhaustion, and Depletion; these represent damage, stamina, and supplies, respectively. And if you look closely at the Equipment segment, you’ll see the game’s Encumbrance rules written out for your reference. And then there’s the doozy at the bottom of the first page: Reputation.
I have my questions about the design philosophy of the Root mechanics, but there isn’t anything about them that’s poorly done. Except the Reputation tracker. The Reputation mechanic I rather like, but the tracker on the character sheet sucks. Sorry, it does. The basic idea is that you have a Reputation with each faction, going from -3 to 3. If you gain Notoriety it drives your reputation down, and if you gain Prestige it goes up. What the tracker is trying to show is that it takes five points of Prestige to make your reputation go up, but only three points of Notoriety to make it go down. Cool, easier to burn bridges than build them, I’m on board. The tracker, though, shows three boxes between all the negative tiers, and five boxes between all the positive tiers. If you raise your reputation from -2 to -1, it takes five Prestige. There are three boxes there. Hmm. If your reputation decreases from 3 to 2, that’s three Notoriety. There are five boxes there. Huh. When you read the explanation of the tracker in the Root core rulebook, you’ll likely come away with the same conclusion I did: The designers know it sucks, that’s why they spent over a page with illustrations of every possible example trying to make a tortured explanation of their bad tracker. It would have been easier to have a circle with two rows of boxes next to it, one with three labeled ‘Notoriety’ and one with five labeled ‘Prestige’.
In many other reviews, something like the reputation tracker would get one sentence, and to be clear it’s not a dealbreaker here. That said, when you read the explanation in the book, the clearest conclusion you come to, at least as a reviewer, is that at some point someone said “we don’t have the [time, money, freelancers] to redesign this pile, so just write however much you need to give a player a snowball’s chance in hell of using it correctly.” Is that the worst thing in the world for just one graphic on a character sheet? Well, no. But I think the underlying thinking was present in a lot of the game’s design, even if the QA was better. With one exception, the Root license doesn’t really show itself as necessary here; this is the Magpie team designing a fantasy RPG, the characters happen to be woodland creatures. The choice to cast the characters as the Vagabond is an interesting and cool linkage but I can’t help but notice that it’s the easiest way to not have to engage with the setting mechanically. And while the game creation elements are that one exception where the board game linkages come through, it becomes even clearer that the factions and other setting elements are divorced from the player-facing mechanics. There is in fact already an expansion released with four additional factions, so perhaps the RPG is more closely tied with the board game as a vehicle for selling expansions rather than anything particular with the setting.
It ultimately served the Magpie team well that the licensed material was so loose because there’s very little in how this game was designed that makes me think of woodland creatures or an area control board game. Playtesters have described the game as OSR-like, and that makes sense when you look at the travel mechanics, wear harm for every item, encumbrance tracking, separate injury and exhaustion tracks, and of course the focus on combat and thief skills that often take their name from earlier editions of D&D. To be honest I like the mechanical focus, but I keep asking myself why a PbtA game makes the most sense here. The game is too mechanically tied down for OSR-style play, but at the same time all the focus on mechanics and tracking dilutes the experience vis a vis Powered by the Apocalypse. The ‘Inflict Harm’ GM move has been expanded to include all of the various tracks, making inflicting Depletion, Exhaustion, and Harm the soft, medium, and hard version of the Move. It’s an easy fallback, and one I fear would become a crutch to novice GMs.
Detail itself is not a bad thing, and many of the added rules are pretty good. I like travel rules in pretty much anything, and the Reputation Moves are great. There are Moves which are gated behind Reputation scores, letting you, for example, request resources from factions you have a positive Reputation with or intimidate someone from a faction you have a negative Reputation with. I personally think that this sort of system works better than Influence/Strings/Obligation because meta-currencies often encourage hoarding. The game creation mechanics I alluded to earlier are great too, the GM creates 12 Clearings and then runs through some quick setup rolls to see which faction has which Clearing at the beginning. I don’t know if this 12 Clearing setup would also make it possible to play a version of the board game in your setup, but it would be even cooler if this were true. Within the game are all the considerations and hallmarks of the designers that make Magpie Games so successful. The question I have trouble answering is why.
There’s a lot going on in Root, and while I don’t think any of the mechanics are badly done I don’t really understand what sort of game this is supposed to feel like. From what I’ve read all the interesting ideas in Root’s worldbuilding are locked up in the factions, which the PCs are deliberately not a part of. Meanwhile, the classic woodland creatures fantasy subgenre is barely touched ruleswise; beyond the list of animals your character could be there is nothing making the game about the species of its characters. You do have the factions and a few animals mentioned in the introductory chapters, but there are 9 pages of setting, versus 21 pages on the Weapon Moves alone.
Page count comparisons may not always be fair, but this is a text heavy book. It’s worthwhile to look at what the text is trying to do, as well as what the text looks like.
The easiest place to illustrate the problems with Root’s layout and document design is Chapter 3: Fundamentals. Chapter 3 includes the description of what a PbtA game looks like, how people play a PbtA game, and why one would play Root in particular. What Chapter 3 does is attempt to teach the norms of a PbtA game, in terms of framing the game as a conversation, what Moves are, how the dice work, and how play progresses. The text? The text works, though it’s long. There’s two problems. First, that long text is pretty much all there is; it is broken up with headings and examples of play, but it is almost all text. The second problem is that it starts 25 pages into the game, and is probably the first thing that a person who has played an RPG before but not a PbtA game should read.
Now, whether I think the mechanics are effective or not, they were definitely designed at least in part to make Root more accessible to traditional gamers, to people already playing games like D&D and Pathfinder. I know this because increasing specificity is a direct response to the most common criticisms of PbtA by traditional gamers: Either the game is too narrow because the Moves provide too little mechanical support, or the game is too broad because the Moves don’t specify enough about what can be done or what can happen. Making a game like Root to attract traditional gamers makes a ton of sense because you’re still teaching the PbtA mode of play, you’re just doing it with more of the mechanical hallmarks that traditional gamers recognize and already know how to interact with.
If you want to attract traditional gamers, though, you need to do it on first pickup, and calling the chapter that explains how this game works differently ‘Fundamentals’ and not keying to it on page 1 is a huge mistake. In Apocalypse World, by the way, those pieces of information are the first thing you read in the book, and they’re way more concise. If I could change one thing about this book it would be giving it a conciseness pass; there is so much text here and a lot of space could be saved if sections were written more thoughtfully.
Let me give an example. Consider Chapter 3 again. This would be the chapter where someone new to PbtA starts to get an idea of how it works. You want to keep it concise but also have it be interesting to look at, right?
That’s a lot of text, and most of the book looks like that. There are two different things going on here, besides conciseness or lack thereof. First, everything is explained in a lot of detail. Take, for example, the Move Read a Tense Situation. Read a Tense Situation is one of the Basic Moves and it is ported almost directly from Apocalypse World, from the Move Read a Sitch. In Apocalypse World 2nd Edition, the description of Read a Sitch (before examples) is 225 words. In Root, the description of Read a Tense Situation, mechanically the exact same Move, clocks in at 780 words. That tripling of length is to go into detail about every single option, what they mean, and how they should be adjudicated. If you’re going to tell me that’s intended for an audience other than those unfamiliar with PbtA games, I don’t believe you.
The problem here is that a wall of text isn’t the best way to introduce new concepts! Beyond the lack of callouts and examples which are just walls of text in themselves, the actual, physical layout looks like a wall of text. Here is a page of Root, compared to a page of a much more complicated RPG:
Isn’t the Burning Wheel page much easier on the eyes? It really comes down to margins. First, look at Root’s bulleted list. That looks like the margins I used as a junior consultant when I couldn’t get all my text to fit on one slide. The Burning Wheel page has more whitespace, larger margins, even more line spacing. It’s just easier to read. And this gets at something that really irks me: there’s so little art in Root. The Core Rules chapter is 68 pages long and there are 8 pieces of art. The Burning Wheel Hub and Spokes, which is also pretty text dense mind you, has about double that for roughly the same page count. Kyle Ferrin’s art is gorgeous, arguably a selling point for the board game as a whole. Root: The Roleplaying Game barely uses it.
Root is an interesting game but I don’t know who it’s for. PbtA boosters are generally going to want games with more interesting narrative decision points, and Moves and mechanics which enable those. Masks is a great example; the Conditions system, Influence, shifting Labels, all the complexity of the game works to help you tell the story of the characters. More traditional gamers are going to want the specificity of more detailed rulesets, and more information about who their character is and why they’re potent and interesting. D&D lives and dies by its races, classes, and levels because they tell the players who their characters are in a way that directly translates ingame. Root is an attempt to bridge the gap, and the designers do so in two ways. The first way, the way that intrigues me and makes me want to play this game, is through mechanics. There’s a lot going on in Root, but it’s more internally consistent than, say, Dungeon World and it offers some cool mechanics around elements like travel and faction relationships; while these mechanics aren’t brand new I’d say the versions in Root offer refinement and improvement over what existed before. The second way, the way which I think they didn’t do well enough and question if it works at all, is by adding text. The core of this book is textual explanations of every Move, every Move option, and every mechanic. While the text could be more concise it is written well enough to do its job…except the book’s layout doesn’t support that sort of reading. Apocalypse World had a ludicrously long table of contents, but said table of contents let you find the text for any Move very quickly. Root has a much lighter table of contents and a one page index, so searching this book is a waste of time.
Beyond the text design, the layout hurts to read. The margins are too small, the line spacing too tight. This is honestly where the lack of conciseness hurts the most, because these margins almost certainly exist due to page count and budgetary constraints. If there was another editing pass, the text wouldn’t have had to be so crowded. Of course, we could ask why this game, which raised $600,000 on Kickstarter, had such a tight print budget that the layout designer literally made it harder to read to keep the page count down. I just opened my copy of Twilight:2000, a game which raised roughly the same amount on Kickstarter; it has a two-column layout, but still has more whitespace and better line spacing than Root.
This review likely sounds critical, and it is. It’s worth saying, though, that Root is overall a solidly executed game, at least by virtue of the mechanics. I don’t give Magpie a pass for ‘solidly executed game’ when a) they’re the largest PbtA game design studio ever and b) the document design is certainly not solidly executed. It’s hard to separate the rules from the book, especially when you’re paying for both as a complete package. That said, I can give them separate evaluations. I’d play Root, I’m interested to see how well the mechanics come together. I still don’t know who it’s for, and I have my doubts that such a dense game rules-wise will really shine narratively like some PbtA games do. Considering how well Dungeon World sold, though, that might not be a problem.
I’m disappointed in this book as a document, though. Half the reason I thought the license was interesting was Kyle Ferrin’s art, and indeed it helps make the board game. I wasn’t expecting the book to be like the board game, but I was expecting more than what we got. I know someone’s going to cry foul over the pandemic or the paper shortage or art and supply chain costs, but…sorry, I don’t buy it. I’m a rabid crowdfunder in the RPG space. I’ve received several games in this past year, almost all of which made less money in crowdfunding than Root. They also all look better and are easier to read. Twilight:2000 shipped at almost the same time as Root, funded almost the same amount as Root. Why does it look so much better, the logistics prowess of PostNord?
Here’s the thing when you get big: You can afford to do more, and you can afford to take more risks. If you don’t take the right risks, you don’t stay big. In game development, the right risks are those which help you put out a unique and desirable product, a product which gamers want to buy. We know what makes products unique and desirable, but we also know that gamers forgive a lot. After some of the utter crap that came out in the 80s, after the appalling layout of even good games from that time period, some people will give designers a pass if it’s the game they wanted; crowdfunders are even more likely to do that since they already spent money on a product and have a psychological need to defend their purchase. It’s a bad habit, though. I’ve seen some incredible games come out over the last decade, and Magpie Games has made some of them. But this industry, existing as it does in the shadow of Hasbro, has no room for anyone to rest on their laurels. If you want to be in the big leagues, you can’t skimp, and you can’t rely on cheap tricks like cutting your page margins to keep your print bill down. Welcome to the big leagues, Magpie Games. Don’t strike out.
Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can follow me @LevelOneWonk on Twitter for RPG commentary, relevant retweets, and maybe some rambling. You can also find our Discord channel and drop in to chat with our authors and get every new post as it comes out. You can travel to DriveThruRPG through one of our fine and elegantly-crafted links, which generates credit that lets us get more games to work with (which is exactly what happened with Root)! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!