Preview: Root – The Tabletop RPG

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover nor an RPG by its art direction, but there’s no denying that I was first drawn to Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game by its beautiful design. With the Kickstarter campaign just around the corner I though it an ideal time to see if the substance holds up to the style.

The Kickstarter itself is a few days from launch, but the Quickstart Guide for Root RPG is already live and clocks in at an entirely reasonable 40 pages. Indeed, there’s enough on display in the slim little PDF to get a pretty decent game going already, and after a couple read-throughs it’s left me quietly excited for the finished product.

Partially this is because the rules look solid and entertaining, but a decent part of it is because the art and setting are incredibly appealing.

Putting Down Roots

Based on the boardgame of the same name, Root is set in a fantasy world of surprisingly well-armed woodland critters that should spark warm fuzzy memories in anyone who spent their youth buried in the Redwall novels of stories of NIMH. The cast of heroes are vagabonds – outsiders free of any binding ties to the world’s major factions – wandering the twisting paths of a deep, dark forest gripped by war.

Rather than dwarves or elves, your typical Root party is likely to be made up of foxes and badgers clutching broadswords, or mice and squirrels tossing daggers and firing arrows from the branches. It’s a sweet take on your traditional fantasy tropes and is supported by some truly lovely art. For all its cutesy presentation, however, Root has a sliver of cold steel running right through its core.

Violence and war are ever-present themes and the sneakier characters get access to a special move called “murder,” which does exactly what you think it does. The forest leaves are spattered with the blood of innocent animals and the major conflicts of the setting are intentionally left morally grey and confusing, with no single side able to claim the role of either good guys or moustache-twirling villains.

While this makes for a fascinating setting, it does raise a few questions about what your typical adventuring party is actually going to do, however. Ambiguity can be a great tool for storytelling, but Root RPG is explicitly designed around the idea of thrilling adventures and the two concepts don’t always mesh wonderfully.

A Simple Life

The core mechanics of Root RPG use the Powered by the Apocalypse system, which has been used in countless story-driven games over the past few years. This reliable set of rules is reasonably simple and straightforward, with virtually every dice roll the players make – the GM doesn’t need to touch the dice at all – being linked to maybe a dozen or so neatly-defined ‘moves’ they have access to.

The entire system is nice and slick, with plenty of little tools to encourage a philosophy of failing forward – rolls always moving the story on, even if they aren’t successful – and embracing success at a cost. The combat system is lightweight but offers a decent array of options for adventurers looking to get stuck in to battle.

Combat seems likely to be fairly commonplace thing in the battle-torn world of Root RPG and the rulebook is wonderfully upfront about the game’s base assumptions. Vagabonds – which is to say, the PCs – are almost always strong and skilled adventurers, able to take on a handful of nameless enemy minions on without too much hassle, and this is reflected in the rules. These factors all weave together to create a fun, adventurous feel to the system, which fits in beautifully with the art style and cheery writing.

If there’s a problem with the game as it stands, it’s that the current rules are rather imprecise in places and some elements seem to be written assuming the reader already has a good understanding of the base Powered by the Apocalypse system. Many moves talk about ‘harm’ but the term isn’t really defined anywhere, for example. However, it’s not too hard to forgive details like that in an early taster like this.

From its quickstart alone the Root RPG looks really rather promising. The core ideas are a delightful mix of the adorable and the deadly, the rules are easy to grasp and the art is absolutely stunning. Here’s hoping the finished product meets the lofty expectations we now hold!

The Kickstarter campaign for Root: The Tabletop RPG is set to launch on 17 September, 2019.

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