The first time I ever saw Root: A Game of Woodland Right and Might, I was warned that the whimsical art style belied the complex nature of the board game. Despite the cartoony forest critters adorning the cover, Root is an intricate and challenging game. Root: A Game of Woodland Adventure, the RPG derived from the hit board game, is very different.
Leder Games is a company known for their asymmetrical, complex board games like Root, Vast, and Ahoy. For the uninitiated, an asymmetrical game is one in which every player experiences a completely different path to victory— almost as though you’re playing an entirely different game from the other participants. Take the Root board game for example: the cat faction acts as though it’s playing Risk, the bureaucratic Bird faction must program it’s moves well in advance, while the Vagabond faction wanders its way through the game making friends and promises on its path to victory.
And I gotta tell ya, the Root RPG is almost nothing like that.
While Leder Games is still emblazoned on the back of the tin, Magpie games is the primary developer of this game. They’re responsible for an Avatar: The Last Airbender RPG as well as Pasión de las Pasiones, an extremely high-concept telenovela game. Needless to say, the Magpie Games catalog is decidedly squishier than the Leder Games library. But I think it kinda works…
Thing is, for all the other Leder Games’ depth and complexity, the Root RPG is a fairly straightforward affair. You play as a group of itinerant heroes traversing a Wind in the Willows style fantasy landscape. Despite the heavy mechanical baggage of the Leder Games oeuvre, the Root RPG is nearly a rule-lite RPG. Like all the rest of the Leder Games output, I expected a complex asymmetrical RPG. And that’s not at all what I got.
I’m tempted to expound upon the dense lore present in the Root Boardgame, its expansions, and the various creative works spiraling out from this franchise, but honestly, I think you’re better served not knowing that. The core rulebook lays it out in the following way: there’s an eyrie of birds who used to run the roost, an aristocratic caste of cats that currently run the joint, and a rag-tag band of rebels that only agree on the fact that the previous two factions need to be ousted. On top of that conflict, you have settlements of woodland folk just trying to get by. Granted, that’s an oversimplification and there are more forest factions interested in shaping the future of the Woodlands, but that basic premise gets you into the world of Root: A Game of Woodland Adventure.
In Root: The Roleplaying Game you play as a member of the vagabonds I mentioned above. In the Root boardgame, the vagabond floats between factions currying favor, manipulating alliances, and plays a game of diplomacy to achieve ultimate victory. In the RPG, you do that, but in much greater detail. The Root RPG’s most obvious distinguishing mechanic is faction reputations. When you rob a stagecoach, clear out a tomb, or complete a fetch quest, who does it benefit and who does it hurt?
At the end of every session, the interactions the players had with every faction are tallied up and a reputation bonus or penalty is determined going forward. In other systems, I’ve often found myself feeling a bit disconnected to the factions in the world. Back when I played through Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, I remember always being a little foggy on where I stood with the multiple factions in the city. In the Root RPG, you know exactly how your actions have shaped the political dynamics of the area. You know if the Woodland Alliance would offer you significant aid, arrest you on sight, and everything in between.
The major settlements, fortresses, and important sites are located within clearings, and the clearings have defined paths between them. The core book has a wonderful chapter on how to craft the section of the forest your game takes place in. All the important denizens, faction control, and potential quest hooks are able to be generated fairly quickly and leave you with a very filled-in world without a terrible amount of effort. The section on creating the gameworld could almost be ported over to any other fantasy RPG and yield really interesting regions.
For as complex as the board game is, the Root RPG is fairly simple. It’s based on the Powered by the Apocalypse framework, so you may have come across other games with a similar core. For the purposes of this review, I’m going to attribute these mechanics to Root, but bear in mind many of the mechanics and character aspects are adapted from an existing open-source rules philosophy.
Root uses a 2d6 system. Success is pegged to specific dice ranges. On a roll of 7-9 you succeed at the main thing you wanted, but might incur some setback or complication. If you roll a 10 or greater, you succeed and usually get some added benefit. Rolls of 6 or less will usually incur a significant setback that ups the difficulty of whatever situation you started in.
Unlike many systems, combat is not a subsystem in Root. Fight scenes play out in basically the same way as general roleplaying. It seems like a simple design choice at first, but it has big impacts on the fluidity of battles. Since combat is treated the same as every other encounter, encounters flow much more organically than other systems. Unlike in a system like 5e, you don’t run into situations like, “You failed your stealth roll, your plan is ruined, so roll initiative!” In my experience, this system leads to more creative resolutions. If the thief player character is spotted trying to scale a rooftop, they’re much more likely to propose something outside of the box like “I frantically kick at a gargoyle attempting to knock it on to the guards,” than “Well, I guess I draw my crossbow because that’s what you do in combat.” It’s a subtle change, but not making fights their own separate thing really keeps sessions cohesive and immersive.
The Root RPG is mainly class based with classes being referred to as ‘playbooks.’ The playbooks offer 9 different archetypes to choose from. They mainly span a spectrum of warriors to sneaky characters. There are no mages as such in root, so don’t expect to be lobbing spells around. Each playbook has a set of abilities called ‘moves’ to select to customize your character. Additionally, you’ll select drives that inform your character’s broader goals and desires. Fulfilling your drives is also the way you progress your character.
While it might sound restrictive at first, you can swap around abilities from different playbooks as you level up. In general, Root allows you to change up your character quite a bit throughout your campaign. If you end up not liking your build, you have quite a few options to reshape it however you like.
Your species doesn’t play any significant mechanical role and the core book recommends choosing any woodland creature no larger than a wolf. Because it’s mainly for flavor, you have a pretty broad remit. If you’ve ever wanted to be a skunk swashbuckler, here’s your chance. However, don’t expect to receive a stink spray attack too.
The biggest shortcoming of the Root system is that many of the most distinctive features of the game are experienced over an entire campaign. While the underlying rules are solid, Root is not ideal for one shots. The game really shines as you see your impact on the woodlands and customize your character weaving across playbooks or drilling down into one. It’s supremely rewarding to return to a clearing after ousting the Cat Marquisate to cash in on your accrued reputation bonus. You just can’t get moments like the players discussing, “Remember when the birds controlled every town in the lower left of the map?” over a single session. I’d also imagine Root being challenging for long-term groups that play less frequently. It could definitely work, but a fair amount of note taking and recap would be warranted to remind everyone just how everything got to the state it’s in.
Another minor complaint is how much text the core book devotes to explaining what an RPG is. This is by no means unique to Root, but I don’t know why studios feel the need to include this information. Granted, Root does include some notes on the style of roleplaying they recommend, it still feels a little unnecessary.
I think Root really nails its setting and uses a reliable system of mechanics. This combo makes Root feel unique enough in its execution that it legitimately feels unlike most other TTRPGs I’ve played. The dice rolling stays out of the way enough to let the entangling, immersive forest shine through. Most often, the onus is entirely on the GM to make a gameworld feel alive. The Woodland Adventure system bakes a vibrant dynamic setting right into the game itself. It’s an awesome concept and one I’m likely to repurpose for other systems.
My recommendation though, would be to only bust it out if you’re fairly certain you can complete an entire campaign arc. I know for some groups that’s an extremely tough ask, but the payoff will be well-worth the investment.