Root is a Role-Playing Game

I’ve been playing “Root: a Game of Woodland Might and Right”, a delightfully brutal asymmetric game about cute woodland creatures at war with each other. No, not the PbtA published by Magpie Games. I’m referencing the one that is currently marketed as a boardgame, but that I have started thinking more and more as a role-playing game.

First: the fictional content is incredibly rich with character and potential, while being rooted in reality. There are four factions in the base game, with six more in expansion boxes, and each of them has a clear political philosophy and “ethnical” makeup, represented by the faction’s asymmetric rules and its animal species. We have industrial-capitalist cats, aristocratic birds, revolutionary terrorist mice, mercenary otters, religious zealot lizards, pillaging horde rats.  Even the meeples (see picture) are wonderfully evocative while simple enough for the player to fill in their own details.

The power of using cute animals for the factions is that they give us license to assume brutal, identitarian, tribal behaviors — that is, things that people do in war —  without having to contend at first glance with the moral implications. We did end up doing that, but only upon reflection. I can’t confirm this, but I’ve heard that the factions may be inspired by some actual real-world conflict, like the Soviet-Afghan war, and it would make sense since the creator is a historian.

Second: after playing through many games, I’ve started to identify Root as a story-engine rather than a wargame. The systems are chaotic enough that a small decision can have a big effect in later turns, in ways that are difficult to predict or plan around, but that are definitely identifiable as a consequence of player choices. The various factions interact differently based on how they’re played and on which are present in a game. I find constantly trying to win, but not playing to win — the satisfaction is in seeing how it pans out. Every turn is a choice that says something about the faction, what it values, and what are the developing relationships with the other factions.

This feels much more like a roleplaying game than the dull “official” PbtA based on Root. Yes, the “characters” are not individuals, but the various factions are. When you reflect of the game, you think “the eagles were about to reclaim their ancestral land, but their leadership collapsed and the Woodland Alliance rose up to liberate the oppressed”, or “the otters played every faction against each other, finally having every corner of the woodland in their pocket” I think the moment that cemented this for me is when I saw players naturally engaging with the developing fiction at the table, making choices not based on victory conditions but on actual grudges and relationships with the other factions developed at the table.

It’s a lovely game that keeps surprising me the more I play.

4 responses to “Root is a Role-Playing Game”

  1. Thematic Engagement vs. Strategic Engagement

    You know, I've been thinking a lot about board games that definitely connect with me as role-player. Most of my board game collection is what I call "Too Lazy To Roleplay Games".  What I mean by that is that they have a lot of trappings of role-playing games: characters, scenarios, adventuous objectives. However, not all of them invoke that shift from "I'm playing this tactical/strategic game that happens to have a lot of cool themeing" to "I actually care about what's happening here and am addressing the theme in my play."

    One game in my collection that does invoke that shift is Touch of Evil. It's a monster hunting game that's set sometime in the late 18th Century and was clearly inspired by the Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow. It is the only horror themed board game in my collection where I genuinely feel fear and desperation while playing it.

    I frequentlly fill in all the ficitonal details of the creepy cards and monster fights. It even has a LOT of NPCs with very distinct personaltiies if you pay close enough attention to the cards that feature of them. During the early months of the pandemic while I was shut up in my appartment alone I actually did some solo-mode play throughs where I photographed every turn and wrote up a little narration for each move. I posted on twitter as I went along.  Later I was able to download the threads.  You can see them here:

    The Thrilling Tale of Inspector Cooke

    Victor Danforth's Last Play

    So, I often wonder about other board games that evoke that shift in people. Some of my friends really like the game John's Company, a game about the British East India Trading Company. One of my friends said that the reason they liked it was that you don't even really need to know the rules. You can just make decisions based on your ruthless desires based on your position in the company. That certainly sounds like they're just playing the part of that company role with authenticity.

    • Very interesting post!

      Very interesting post!

      I had the same experience with Diplomacy. Really great game!

      Played some 3 years ago with "friends-like-brothers".

      We had to interrupt play cause we almost were going to kill each other out of pure ate.

      Family men on holyday constantly trying to hide from wife and children to simulate with smartphnone the effect of the next moves and counter moves on imaginary Europe landscape and than calling the French player desperately seeking to persuade him to defend Austria "for shared history, culture and purpose of civilization".

      It was a Story, not a boardgame. The decisions we were making were driven by pure agency I think.

      Never thought of Austro-Hungarian Empire in the same way from then.

    • Those narrated playthroughs

      Those narrated playthroughs are delightful, Jesse! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Totally agree

    Root's great for that. It's not alone, either.
    I can think of all sorts of times when my friends justified and personified a bad die roll or card draw during a board game in purely narrative terms, for example. And that’s in games with no ‘characters’ in them at all, let alone games with direct conflict and negotiation. Roleplaying just has a habit of creeping in, moment to moment but especially with repeated plays over time.

    Perhaps oddly, this topic particularly makes me think of a classic old one-player game I’m fond of called “B-17: Queen of the Skies”.

    For anyone who doesn’t know it, this was a boardgame published by Avalon Hill back in the 80s and involves flying a B-17 bomber on missions over Europe during WWII.

    In many ways it’s hardly a game at all.

    There’s a board showing the top-down view of your aircraft, with spaces for your crew markers to sit in. There are counters for incoming enemy fighter planes and ammunition and suchlike. There’s a little map of Europe to track your flight path on. And there are … I want to say eight pages of tables?

    The tables themselves are very dry and straightforward.
    Bomb a factory in Amiens … Two Me109s from 12 o’clock high … Hit to the starboard wing root … Weather good and light flak over the target …
    They’re strictly business. No flash, no colour.  Just the facts.

    Gameplay involves nothing much more than rolling one or two dice and looking up the results on these tables over and over again in sequence for as long as you want to keep going.

    I can’t emphasise enough how few decisions you get to make and how little agency exists in the entire thing. You sometimes have to choose which enemy planes to shoot at with which of your defensive guns … and actually that’s about it.

    Except there is one decision that you make right at the start before you begin playing.
    You get to choose the names of your ten crew members.

    The instant you get your pencil out and write down the names of your friends or family or work colleagues into the slots on the mission log – as  the engineer or the port waist gunner or the pilot or whoever – the whole thing absolutely comes alive. 

    For such a “nothing” game, B-17 manages to be effortlessly thrilling, tense, agonising, stressful, tragic … and it catches me off guard all the time. Every once in while a series of rolls comes up and although it might look like I’m just being led by the nose through a dumb flowchart made of random rolls and tables, I’m suddenly in the middle of an actual story unfolding about real-feeling people flying their vulnerable, fragile aircraft into enemy territory and desperately hoping they’ll make it back home alive.

    So I think B-17 really highlights some bits and bobs around the roleplaying-adjacent stuff to do with narrative-making.

    • A story, I’m saying, is the act of telling someone (even yourself) about some things that happened, in retrospect (even it was just a moment ago). Those events might be entirely arbitrary die rolls cross-referenced on a table, but it can still make for a great story – because it’s not the events themselves that do the story-ing.
    • No-one bothers lending a narrative to things they don’t care about – but what makes us care about something can be seemingly really, really simple, like the act and process of choosing a name. There is also a feedback loop happening in conjunction with events. We very quickly and instinctively turn “a name that things have happened to”, into “a person”.

    Those aren’t new or radical ideas at all, obviously, but B-17 does particularly make me notice them.

    I’d say Root certainly does all of both of those things and adds in “above the table”, meta-game relationships between players with a memory. In fact a friend who has played waaaay more Root than I have asserts that the entire game is really and only about the meta – the grudges, the spite, the karmic payback – that develops spontaneously over time.

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