The Root Pre-Post-Mortem

As we wrap up the events in Tonnery, I believe I can see the end of the game on the horizon (perhaps around the May/June time frame) so I wanted to talk about the game a little bit: the things I liked, the things I didn’t like, and some things I think fell flat.

The Good

The setting was fun and interesting, and that helped us to create some interesting characters. It was also great to see you guys easily latch onto certain factions (Tomo being the enemy of the Marquisate, Cid wanting to bring down the Eyrie, etc) and it made me want to keep bringing those factions to the forefront.

The scope and theme of the game–the Player Character being an ambitious band of traveling mercenaries–was good and I think it helped feed into the overall feel of the setting.

Attempt a Roguish Feat is an interesting design for a move, with how it allows you to buy into it and use it for different applications. I think it was a fun mechanic… for the most part.

Trust Fate was also an interesting mechanic: it always having a drawback to using it in place of another skill meant Luck wasn’t the end-all-be-all for stats, but it was sometimes difficult to figure out what the downside was in some cases. It also fit the feel of the game where the PCs sometimes couldn’t control everything and need to leave things to chance.

The Time Passes moves were fun and helped make the setting feel a bit more alive. Whenever I got to do them, it always helped ease me into doing my GM prep for the week. I was worried that some of the events might invalidate some of your plans, but I had enough control over the results to keep that from happening in a way that hurt the game’s narrative. I think some of the events were a bit removed from the game, but the two “Time Passes” move results helped set the stage for the events at Tonnery: other factions would try to move into the clearing and then instantly get swatted down before the end of the round. It made the place feel oppressive to outsiders in a way no other clearing was, which helped me develop the story of the place. 10/10 Would definitely play another game with a mechanic like this.

The Bad

Root probably has one of the densest mechanical systems for a PbtA game I’ve ever seen and by a wide margin. The multiple harm tracks are fine, but then you add individual harm tracks for gear, gear having tags that influence your mechanics, the Rogue Feats, the Weapon Skills, the fact that you need to know the Weapon Skills and have a weapon that enables the use of the Weapon Skill in order to use the skill… A few of these would have been fine, but all together they made for a bit of a mess. I knew this going in and the hope was that all these gears would work together to create a wonderful machine, but instead we got a bit of a clunker.

One thing that you folks only got to see a bit of was the mechanics for foes that you could face in combat. All of the issues with multiple tracks are multiplied with them. Each one has multiple tracks (Injury, Exhaustion, Wear, and Morale) and the first time we played, it quickly dawned on me how none of these tracks affected one another. Tomo was inflicting Morale damage, Alvin was inflicting Exhaustion, Slayer and Cid were inflicting Injury (that their foes could take as Wear instead because they had armor) and it just made any situation with combat drag on.

In my opinion, a game where combat is not the main focus should have the bad guys show up, down one or two interesting things, and then the fight be over. Looking over what the mechanics tell us, this is a game about combat because so much of the rules dive into it, but the themes of the game tell us it is not. You are bandits and rogues, pulling heists. This is not a game that should have in-depth combat systems, it should have very basic combat moves where you either win and continue the heist or fighting puts you into a difficult situation. Don’t know how much of this comes down to Magpie wanting a game with more flowing combat or how much of it came down to the license holder dictating what Magpie needed to include in the game, but I think it definitely made things fall flat.

Speaking of falling flat…

Attempt a Roguish Feat is great… except it makes Finesse the most important stat in the game. While Finesse certainly makes sense with some applications (Hide, Pickpocket, etc) it certainly is an odder fit with others. Giving orders to NPCs? Finesse (Mastermind Roguish Feat). Tracking someone through the woods? Finesse (Tracking Roguish Feat). Making a fake copy of a document? Finesse (Counterfeit Roguish Feat). On top of that, the list felt a bit too granular in places. (Pickpocket and Sleight of Hand? What is this? D&D 3E with Hide and Move Silently?) It has merit, but it carried a bit too much weight in this game.

The Messy

This next topic doesn’t lay with Root but with PbtA games as a whole: sometimes the amount of responsibility the game system relies on me to be awful to the characters doesn’t feel good. Let me unpack that.

Let us say that we are playing Dungeons and Dragons and I introduce a Roper monster into the game. When the characters encounter the Roper and it grabs and squeezes your character, I can distance myself from the outcome a little bit. I did put the Roper into the game, but the Monster Manual tells me what the Roper wants to do and how much damage it should do. I’ll feel bad if the Roper hurts your character, but I don’t feel personally responsible.

Now let’s say we’re playing Root and I have to come up with some dangerous warrior foe that you folks have to face off against. First I need to come up with some GM moves for this character. I want them to be dangerous, but how dangerous? Disarm their foes or something more general like strike them where they are weakest? We’ll go with the second one. Now we’re playing and, after a failed roll I look at the GM sheet and see the move. What does that mean? A stab to the chest? It certainly could, but now I’m heming about this because it feels like it’s too much. I like (as an example) Cid and don’t want to see them on the ground gasping for their life. It was so much more impersonal when it was “you take 14 damage” but now I’m the one who made the foe, gave them the move, and am inflicting it Cid. Logically I know Bill the Player is probably okay with this, but I still feel like a shitheel because I can’t distance myself from everything that led to this moment. So I pull the punch a little. No one else will know, but I will.

For another example, I am running another game on the weekends with a different group of friends. It is a brutal military-focused RPG where the PCs are soldiers carrying out dangerous missions. In that game, when I put the PCs against another squad of soldiers and one of those enemy soldiers has an Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher (a deadly weapon in that system that could easily kill 1 or 2 PCs in a single go) I don’t feel that same level of closeness with the consequences of that NPC soldier firing their weapon at the PCs. Despite also having made the enemy squad (from a list of options from the game book) and given one of their members the RPG (something they would logically have as a hunter-killer team intended to takedown enemy armored vehicles), I still feel a comfortable distance from the consequences that I don’t feel when I run a highly narrative game like many PbtA games.

How do I deal with this? No idea, but it is something I think about a little.

The Conclusion

Root is not a game I feel like I would want to revisit in the future. The setting is great, but the systems cause a bit too much friction for my liking.

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Future Allie, complete with eyepatch, leather armor, and purple glowing serrated sword, would eventually take revenge for Cid so I’m good.

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So my question here is, do folks want more combat-focused games? Do folks want to stay on PBTA as an engine?

Dave has been making noises about Apocalypse Keys, which is both PBTA and has pretty heavy impact on characters. I haven’t looked at my PDF yet (and the book just arrived today) so I’m low on specifics. But if he’s not planning to run that, I’m interested in what people do want to try next.

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Spot-on observation.

Absolutely. But then it diffuses all of that by forcing you to choose one from a laundry list of individual proficiencies, which, as you note, get weirdly granular.

The specialized weapon skills are much the same way, but differently awkward because there are basic combat skills anyone can do (engage in melee, grapple), and what makes those fundamentally different from the other fiddly weapon bits.

That’s an aspect (mechanically) that’s had me shy away a bit from running a PbtA game vs, say, the straightforward mechanics of D&D 5e. There may be (are) times behind the screen when I feel that the risk needs to be amped down (or up), because while I don’t want to kill any of the characters, I also want them to feel that sense of danger that they could be killed. But aside from that, the system largely walks me through the mechanics of what the opposition does.

But that’s because 5e is a combat simulator (speaking roughly). PbtA is a character simulator; goals and advancement are usually based on the personal, not on the body count produced. Encounters are just as easily handled with non-combat moves as swordplay. It’s one of the things that I find very attractive about PbtA games, but, yes, it puts the GM is in a much more direct role of judging the simulation and creating good or bad outcomes, and those can be physical, emotional, spiritual, or whatever the bents of the particular PbtA game is.

(It also puts a bit more pressure on the players to come up with stuff – “I step forward ten feet and swing my sword for the next few rounds until the orc is dead” is much simpler than “I am seeking to overwhelm my foe to the point of surrender with a grim mien and relentless pounding of my sword, so I’m going to use my ‘I am Death’ move”)

Taking a step back, I feel like Root is a game I could imagine revisiting, but not without adapting some other more fitting set of mechanics to the overarching setting and the mechanics that it produces.

But that also sounds like a lot of work, and I’m sure there are other possibilities out there.

I have had a lot of fun with Alvin – his easy-going attitude, his empathy for the common Joe, his remarkable trash panda roguery. I’ve also grown more comfortable with the system a bit and what I can do in it – my player kink is that I tend to edit myself pretty severely with what I, as a writer, would find plausible, rather than letting myself go into what the system makes possible, but with time I’ve allowed myself to be a bit more crazy with Alvin’s hi-jinx (as a person who does not go crazy or engage in hi-jinx himself).

I’d love to see a wrap on the Roots campaign where we’re able to start something that leads to the Denizens becoming, if not the predominant faction in the forest, then a faction to be contended with rather than being exploited by the others. That would make Alvin happy and let him feel good about a future life of good food, good drink, and occasional change of yellow scarves.

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There is a great novel out there of Allie and all the lessons she learned from her “uncles” back in the day, leading her to be the revolutionary leader who takes back the forest for the common folk.

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I mean, I don’t mind combat-focused games. I don’t think PbtA is the best platform for such because so much of its mechanics are (or work best when) narrative, and combat works best (as Mike notes) when the mechanics are, well, mechanical.

We’ve definitely been leaning in this group toward narrative/character types of systems. As it stands, I’m getting my combat simulation mechanic itch scratched by the D&D game I’m running (and the game Margie is soloing me in), so I don’t necessarily need it. But I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, either, if someone had a strong suggestion in that vein.

So two things here:

  1. AK sounds like a very interesting character-driven story setting that could be either chewy fun and/or possibly, too dark for some folk. The concept sounded fascinating, but I’ve not read through the materials I’ve gotten (PDFs only, at this point), so I could be speaking prematurely.

  2. I very sincerely offered to run something last time out. Given how my office workload has spun up to something much heavier, I’m not sure I’m ready to risk running a second active game, if only out of fear I’d not do it justice whilst grinding my teeth over office shenanigans. If nobody else could or would, I’d step up (because I enjoy this group and the games we’ve played together), but I would be more comfortable with someone else behind the GM screen for the moment.

As to what else to try next … the other possibility recently mooted is also PbtA, the new Avatar (AtLAB) game, but Mike made some comments last evening about how some of the design directions in Root also seem to be showing up there, and not necessarily the good ones.

After the first battle – in some ways, even before the first battle – I realized I was not going to be focusing on battle stuff for Alvin. He has one weapon skill – Parry – and got his Parkour move specifically to avoid combat. :slight_smile:

Though this bit from the copyright/indicia page is promising:


While I will eventually do a refresh of our usual “games I want to play/run” thread that usually happens when we are deciding what game to play next, I figured I would give some early previews of games I’m excited about.

First is MEGALOS, which recently made the jump from Early Preview to Full Release. It is a game with a crunchier combat system that most of the PbtA games we’ve played recently, but with what I think is less overall complexity of Root. That said if we did play this game with its implied setting, there is no way I could run this game any less bombast than this fight. (It probably makes no sense without context. but it also makes the same amount of sense with context: a dimension traveling ronin and his green pet chicken challenge you and seven of your best-est friends to a fight on a bridge where he turns you into frogs to be eaten by said chicken. This is because a gentleman detective… you know what, we don’t have time for all that.)

GLAIVE is a game made by the artist of Atomic Robo whose core premise is “what if we made D&D sleek?” It is a dungeon crawler at its core, though I have got an early copy of his expansion for the game, HOME, which gives your adventurers a home base that grows as your characters do. (Your player characters don’t necessarily run the town, but as you grow stronger by removing the threats that surround the town, the town grows and prospers due to the removal of so many threats to it.) It is very basic, but I don’t say that as a bad thing.

You might notice that both these games have a core premise of heroes roaming the countryside doing good and removing dangers. As I said in the Pre-Post-Mortem, that was the part of Root that worked the best and while that theme is found in a lot of games, I don’t think we’ve done that a lot. (Except Dungeon World, Fellowship, Starforged [for certain definitions of “countryside”], and Root. So like 4/10 of the games we’ve played as a group.)

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I think you would make Matty very happy if MEGALOS ran, and I could give my online tool a whirl

Either sound fine to me. The GLAIVE option, just from the description, sounds fun.

G’KAR: By G’Quon I can’t recall the last time I was in a fight like that! No moral ambiguity, no hopeless battle against ancient and overwhelming forces. They were the bad guys, as you say, and we were the good guys! And they made a very satisfying thump when they hit the floor!

J. Michael (Joe) Straczynski (b. 1954) American screenwriter, producer, author [a/k/a “JMS”]
Babylon 5, 3×13 “A Late Delivery from Avalon” (22 Apr 1996)

And that said, either sound like they could be fun, given that common theme.

But that said, I need to watch that video, I need to read the links, and I need to noodge the other players.

One more note, then I will be quiet until others get a chance to chime in.

  1. GLAIVE is just as described: a neatly sleeked D&D. Looks like it would be quick to pick up and would provide plenty of play through the D&D trope list. It just requires someone to actually noodle out the non-random encounter bits. Even most of those could be handled through a variety of relatively simple means. (I’ve sprung the massive $5 for a copy.)

  2. MEGALOS sounds really interesting, and I like some of the ideas behind it. It also looks pretty darned complex, which is mildly daunting. That’s my impression after going through a few dozen pages of the 200 page (!) free text rules.

The author can be pretty wordy (you know how authors are), but the actual mechanics of dice are pretty straightforward. Roll some d20s, anything above (difficulty) hits, you need (resistance) hits to succeed. Character creation is “pick an overall role: fighter, caster, other caster, then pick a job within that role, pick some cool moves”. A lot of the text is expounding on stuff like the metaphysics of the setting.

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I knew that tool existed, which is part of why I was interested in running the game: at least one player is already invested in the system enough that they are creating their own tools to support it.

That said, part of the draw is also an excuse to draw awesome end boss art and drop it down on the zone map like this is Phantasy Star 4 and Dark Falz just showed up. Or introduce this person as the newest NPC your group has met, a traveling merchant but a giant sea serpent is decimating the fish population that he would normal buy from fishermen in this region and he is offering you folks money to save his business and this local community’s food supply.

I would say that the video is optional at best. The knowledge I recently gained that Gilgamesh appears in FF14 (one of the MMO versions of the game in the series) and the appearance is canon with all his other appearances across the series is my latest brain bug. Also the fact that a giant ronin warrior curses you to be a frog so his pet chicken can eat you is just amazingly weird.

This was definitely my biggest issue with the text, and I would probably write out my own slimmed down version of the rules (or at least annotate what does exist for ease of reading) if I were to run it. But at its core “roll a given number of the dice and try to roll a certain number of them over a target number” is a mechanic I think a lot of us are at least passingly familiar with.


Okay, just ran across this SMBC which reminds me of this idea. “Sorry about that Roper killing you, but it wasn’t me … it was the Monster Manual that said its bite did so much damage, so it must be okay.”


On further reflection on this topic, I wonder if part of this is that with how PbtA games are structured: that I as the master-of-ceremonies/gamemaster/whatever-other-term-you-want-to-give-it am only performing moves when the players collectively look to me to see what happens next or (and this is the important part) you fail a roll. I think the “kicking them when their down” mentality of this amplifies the effect in these sort of games. You already feel bad because you did not achieve your goals and then I am obligated by the rules of the game to pile on further.

Since we have some time before our current game of Root runs down, I am considering doing a pair of current threads where I walk through some basic tasks in these two systems: build a character, run that character through a simple social or exploration challenge, have that character fight a simple enemy, and then may go through something that one system handles uniquely in comparison to the other. This isn’t to lock us into one game or another, but to familiarize myself and others with the systems and see if I can identify any trouble spots before we start playing.

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FWIW, when PbtA is firing on all cylinders, Failure is Fun. That takes away a lot of the sting, and encourages risk-taking and not worrying about it.* That was true for Masks, and Wulin. It feels less so with Root, and I’m not sure why. Maybe the stakes feel higher, or we feel weaker, or I dunno.

(*Not that I ever don’t worry about taking risks. Though when I briefly do, I have more fun. But that’s a different tale.)

What? Approach selecting the next game in a methodical, analytical fashion, rather than going through meandering conversations that abruptly coalesce into generating characters for a game (and reading all the rules) for a Session 0 next week? Madness! :crazy_face: