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Cards with original art by Kyle Ferrin detail denizens of the woodland.
A deck of denizens ($19.99) includes dozens of new characters to add to your game. Each one is a starting point, rather than a fully-developed non-player character.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

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Root: The Roleplaying Game is a delightfully blank slate, ready for adventure

Oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally, golly, what a game

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It’s been a big year for fans of anthropomorphic animals. Not only is the video gaming world abuzz with the latest update for Animal Crossing: New Horizons, but tabletop gaming is having its moment as well.

A role-playing game called Wanderhome kicked things off in the spring, forcing open the door to the dungeon with a brand-new breed of introspective, emotionally charged comfort food. Wednesday also brings the start of physical pre-orders and digital fulfillment for Root: The Roleplaying Game. On the surface, Magpie Games’ latest effort appears to be more of the same — more cuddly animals, and more characters bound by pre-made playbooks instead of traditional character sheets. But inside the covers of this pint-sized, lavishly illustrated Core Book, I found something very different.

Whereas Wanderhome is an almost meditative experience, Root is something far more exciting and action-packed. It’s a tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) full of swashbuckling adventure, but one specially made for folks more interested in the journey than the destination. It’s also remarkably true to its source material, the popular strategy board game (which has a stellar video game adaptation of its own). The result is a storytelling experience set against the backdrop of high-stakes political theater. There are opportunities for revolutionaries of every stripe wrapped in this charming package.

A group of woodland denizens surrounds a band of Vagabonds on top of the original Root game board.
Perhaps the best accessory for Root: The Roleplaying Game is the original board game, which includes these charming pawns.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Root: A Game of Woodland Might And Right was designed and published by Leder Games, with illustrations by Kyle Ferrin. It’s an asymmetrical strategy game that pits two fairly conventional factions — the Marquise de Cat and the Eyrie Dynasties — against a third, the upstart Woodland Alliance. Running around the map in between the growing conflict is the Vagabond, a powerful character that can throw in his lot with any of the competing factions.

Root: The Roleplaying Game asks players to create an entire party of Vagabonds, each one a variation on the roguish theme. The most basic type is the charismatic Adventurer, who gets by on his wits and affable personality. There is also a forest-savvy Ranger, a risk-taking Scoundrel, a technically-competent Tinker, and the fleet-footed Harrier. In all there are nine different templates — called playbooks — to choose from, with 10 more available in a supplementary book.

While creating a character for a game of Dungeons & Dragons can take hours, making a character in Root is a much more straightforward process. Playbooks help to narrow the focus for each player early on, cutting down on the extra work by limiting the choices you can make within a given template. But, rather than a burdensome limitation, I found the playbooks to be inspirational. They force you to make a choice between, say, one of two different natures, or two of four different kinds of drives. But the expression of that nature and those drives, combined with the other choices and connections you’ve selected, allow you to take a given character in any direction you’d like. It’s a kind of narrative funnel that drops half a dozen roguish archetypes in one end and deposits six very different Han Solos out the other.

The Core Book ($39.99) and Traveler’s and Outsiders ($39.99) are sold together in a deluxe, faux leather version that includes a slipcase ($99.99).

Character creation in Root is also an act of world creation. Not only are you marking connections between the Vagabonds, but between the Vagabonds and the non-player characters and factions around them. Perhaps they’ve added a new path to the forest or destroyed an old one. Maybe they changed the ownership of a clearing, or defended one from attack by a rival faction. There are a few different options, all of which give the party — called a band — some kind of boon. Perhaps a powerful artifact, or prestige with a given faction.

Beyond this initial process of creation, there’s very little backstory for game masters to draw from. Just like the board game that inspired it, there’s no grand plan for how things are supposed to unfold. Instead, bands of Vagabonds play the game to find out what happens.

Here, Root relies heavily on the sophisticated philosophies of the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) system, a creation of designers Meguey Baker and Vincent Baker. There are a number of key concepts, but chief among them is the role of game master as facilitator. Preparation, in the form of prescribed story beats and set-piece events, is actively discouraged. Instead, the tone and timbre of the experience is entirely driven by the players. Unlike other TTRPGs, you won’t be rolling dice to find out if something happens or not. Instead, you’ll be rolling the dice to determine how that thing happens.

A snowy and a wet, swampy map join a wooded map and a plains map. Colorful dice dot the landscape.
The full-featured product line includes a set of custom dice ($24.99) and a set of four laminated maps ($14.99).
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Players are building and expanding the fiction of Root as they go, using the tools available in their playbooks to establish more facts about the world along the way. As uncertainty is encountered, player actions and their dice roles are what determines a shared history. This makes gameplay a continuous advance from one uncertainty to another, some of them accidentally discovered and others actively sought out by the emerging narrative goals of the player characters.

The Core Book comes with a brief introductory setting, a small clearing called Gelilah’s Grove. There’s also a Clearing Booklet available at launch, with four more locations that can be integrated into your game in any way you see fit. But, compared to some other role-playing games, it’s not a lot to go on.

It could be easy to take the lack of lore in Root: The Roleplaying Game as a failure, but instead it’s a very conscious decision by the designers at Magpie. What they’ve created is a game only slightly less opaque than its source material, something that is, in its own way, the perfect match for the sandbox structure of the PbtA framework.

If your role-playing group is looking for a change of pace, and hoping to come together in a world without any baggage or preconceptions of what it should become, I highly recommend Root: The Roleplaying Game.

Root: The Roleplaying Game - Core Book and various accessories go up for pre-order Dec. 15. The game was reviewed with a pre-release copy of the physical books provided by Magpie Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.