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Gen Con 2018 — Wooden pawns from Root, each with adorable printed facial features. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

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The board game Root would never have worked as a D&D campaign

Why Magpie Games’ Root: The Roleplaying Game chose to be Powered by the Apocalypse

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Dungeons & Dragons is hot right now, experiencing a surge in popularity brought on by the game’s 5th edition as well as actual play experiences like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone. Even former video game developers are getting in on the action, building “5e compatible” campaigns and raising millions on Kickstarter. But while the d20-based system that powers D&D may be a big deal in mainstream circles — that even includes the National Football League — it’s not the best pick for every scenario.

Independently produced role-playing games are also flourishing, giving designers plenty of choices for how to repurpose their own mechanical systems for new creations. That’s helped one publisher, Magpie Games, to do something unusual. It’s turning the popular board game Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right into an RPG, aptly named Root: The Roleplaying Game, and it won’t be based on the 5th edition rules that underpin D&D. Instead it will be Powered by the Apocalypse.

A collection of woodland creatures armed to the ... well, to the teeth. Yeah. Image: Kyle Ferrin/Magpie Games

The original Root board game, released in 2018, is a weird one. It’s an asymmetrical wargame where cuddly creatures fight for control of a fantastical woodland. But while artist Kyle Ferrin’s work makes the complex wargame appear like something from Target’s toy aisle, the game itself has more in common with much headier wargames. In fact, its mechanics are loosely based on the counter-insurgency (COIN) games pioneered by former Central Intelligence Agency instructor Volko Ruhnke.

There are four main factions in Root — the Eyrie Dynasties, the Woodland Alliance, the Marquise de Cat, and the Vagabond — and they all work very differently from one another. The Woodland Alliance is essentially a nationalist group of revolutionaries fighting against an occupying force, the Marquise de Cat, which has come from outside the woods to impose its own rules on its native inhabitants. The Eyrie Dynasty, on the other hand, is a monarchic regime trying to return to past glories. Meanwhile, the Vagabond is literally just this one powerful racoon running around in the background having adventures, fully able to cast in his lot with any or none of the other factions on the board.

Written out like that, it’s easy to see the parallels to the real-world wars in Afghanistan, Columbia, and Cuba — all settings for other, more niche COIN games. But Root has won widespread acclaim by very purposefully filing off the serial numbers found on historical international conflicts.

According to Ferrin, that was a very intentional choice.

The cover of Root: The Roleplaying Game Image: Magpie Games

“We were always very careful at the very beginning not to make any sort of cultural or racial equivalents,” Ferrin told Polygon. “So it’s not like, ‘Oh, the birds are England.’ Nothing like that. [...] The example I always use when we talk [with fans at conventions] is the Woodland Alliance. When you’re playing as a Woodland Alliance you can feel like Robin Hood, but for everyone else playing against them, they should feel like al-Qaida. It should feel like the worst kind of thing to deal with.”

As a result of this very conscious effort to avoid any parallels to our real world, Root is almost entirely devoid of backstory. The game itself contains almost no “fluff,” or elaborate narrative content to set up its conflict. It’s a game without a history.

When Magpie Games co-founder Mark Diaz Truman first encountered Root, he was blown away. As a fan of existing COIN games like A Distant Plain, he was intimately familiar with the mechanics. But he resonated in particular with the Vagabond, the solitary figure moving in the background and something altogether new in the COIN genre.

“I was going around doing quests and stuff,” Truman said, “and I had one of those moments that was just like, ‘This would be a really freaking cool RPG. [...] There’s a whole world here, and the fable part of it makes it not so grim and dark!’ Because we’re not big fans of just endless grim, dark, grim-darkness.”

The rules behind D&D would have been a great choice, given their popularity. The trouble is that the framework that underpins the original role-playing game is deterministic. Every role of the die determines whether or not players succeed or fail in their attempts to impact the world. Does your Vagabond hit the Eyrie bird with the sword? Roll a d20 to find out. Then check yes or no.

What Magpie Games needed instead was a system that allowed players to roll dice in an effort to add depth and color to the world itself, to build on the innocuous setting created for the original board game and impose a storyline of their own on top of it. That’s the game, and that’s why Magpie settled on Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), a design framework created by Meguey Baker and Vincent Baker.

“The reason you roll dice in Powered by the Apocalypse is not to decide if you succeed or fail,” Truman said, “but to decide the momentum of narrative uncertainty.”

In Root: The Roleplaying Game, players will play their characters from what’s called a Playbook. It’s not a pre-generated character in the traditional sense, but more of a character type. A short, pamphlet-style document details a few key stats, including Charm, Cunning, Finesse, Luck, and Might. But a Playbook mostly details the nature of a character’s personality, what drives and motivates them, and any connections they have to the world around them. It also details their “moves,” which are the feats players will use to impact the in-game world around them. Truman calls moves the basic building block of the entire game.

“There is a move [...] that will say something like, ‘When you try to trick an NPC,’” Truman said, giving an example from the Vagabond playbook. “And the stakes of that move are all written into the move. [...] When the move goes off — when you roll the dice — it’s going to take us in different directions. It’s not just succeed or fail. It might succeed but at a cost, or fail but with this opportunity. Or it might be a miss, in which case the GM just says what happens.”

Instead of showing up in a dungeon and dealing with the monsters inside by whatever means necessary, players in Root will essentially be laying down the dungeon and its denizens while they play the game. By engaging with a given quest, which is only loosely outlined by the game master, the actions that the characters take — the results of their die rolls — are what will actually create the story and give the world’s factions their true motivations. And just like the original source material, all of the character templates — all of the Playbooks — have different powers.

Ultimately, it’s the PbtA system that allows Root: The Roleplaying Game to be every bit as asymmetrical as the wargame that it was based on.

Cover art for Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game’s quickstart guide. Image: Magpie Games

“It’s not about whether you have skill points, or whether you have a plus five or a plus three,” Truman said. “It’s about whether your character is positioned in the world to be a pickpocket. If you’re a pickpocket, you roll [a particular move]. If you’re not a pickpocket, you are pushing your luck. You’re taking a giant chance. You’re tempting fate.

“That whole idea of Powered by the Apocalypse is being not a set of binary interactions,” Truman continued, “but instead of a set of narrative moments that spiral off into new narrative moments. For stories like Root, [...] binary success or failure, I don’t think, is a good mode of play. I think a great mode of play is to find spaces in which uncertainty begets momentum, and that momentum then gives the adventure choices that really, truly matter. Like, do we put the cats in charge or the birds in charge? One or the other.”

An early version of Root: The Roleplaying Game is available now for free on the Magpie Games website. The final game goes up for sale as a PDF on Dec. 15. Pre-orders of physical products, including the Core Book and additional supplementary materials, also begins on Dec 15. Retail availability is expected on Jan. 26.


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