Thursday, December 7, 2023

Wizards and Magic Items ... in the ROOT RPG!?

 I am excited to begin a new campaign again soon - this time using ROOT (affiliate link), a PbtA RPG of scheming woodland creatures (think Mouse Guard meets the shenanigans from Blades in the Dark). I'm planning a “normal” ROOT campaign of critters and (home-brew) factions, but I have been intrigued by online suggestions that ROOT could be a good PbtA ruleset for fantasy PbtA gaming with a bit more heft and crunch (I have long experience with Dungeon World, and with some of its hacks, and I do see some ways that ROOT might add nicely to that field of contenders — even if reskinned for humans and peer adventurers). 

Now, let me note that I haven’t actually run ROOT yet, so this is all wildly premature spitballing of some ideas. But I wanted to jot down early ideas about how I might run magic-users in a fantasy ROOT, especially in a setting that allows mysterious magic while hewing more to a Low Fantasy than High Fantasy aesthetic. I definitely am including some magical elements in this first campaign, including magical foes and probably some simple magic items for the party - and a sorta-wizard, if anybody wants to play it. 

Here’s how. 


Experimentally, I am already planning to use the T+O (Travelers and Outsiders - another affiliate link) supplement's list of “Masteries” for magic item abilities. Masteries are cool perks you can gain through advancement that just make your occasional 12+ results on select Moves much more effective and powerful. For example, here’s the Persuade an NPC Mastery:

On a 12+, in addition to the results of the 10+, you may mark exhaustion to treat this move as a 12+ on the sway an NPC Reputation move, even if you don’t have a high enough Reputation with their faction to normally sway the NPC in question. 

So you are good enough at an ability that you can squeeze more out of it than can the common Mouse - but you’re not SO good that this will destabilize the normal flow of play. That strikes me as possibly a great way to handle magic items in a Low Fantasy campaign. Imagine wearing a brooch, for example, that can cloud the mind or guide your own speech (“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for!”) when it counts, but using that power is a bit draining. 

The T+O guide has 17 of these masteries. Many are for Special Weapon Moves, which means they’d make great ways to distinguish special magic weapons found as loot.

So, I’m giving the players a list of Species moves, but I will be saving these Masteries to spice up equipment they find, and to flavor it magically - without breaking the game. 


In the Travelers and Outsiders supplement, the CHRONICLER playbook’s Move, The Worth of a Book, is very similar to “magic ritual” moves used in various fantasy PbtA games/hacks for Wizard characters. It offers a way to integrate slower-moving but potentially very powerful effects in game (note that even in the zero-magic ROOT, possible applications include “curing a deadly disease” or “ending a drought.”  

The Worth of a Book 

When you study your tomes and scrolls to discover old techniques or methods to solve an intractable problem—curing a deadly disease, ending a drought, legally unseating a leader, etc—decide what you want to accomplish and tell the GM. The GM will give you between 1 to 4 conditions you must fulfill to discover a path forward, including time taken, additional information needed, mentors or translators needed, facilities/tools needed, or the limits of your solution. When you fulfill the conditions, you gain whatever knowledge you were seeking—it’s up to you to put to use. 

For comparison, here is the move “Ritual” from the Wizard playbook in Dungeon World: 

When you draw on a place of power to create a magical effect, tell the GM what you’re trying to achieve. Ritual effects are always possible, but the GM will give you one to four of the following conditions:
It’s going to take days/weeks/months
First you must ____
You’ll need help from ____
It will require a lot of money
The best you can do is a lesser version, unreliable and limited
You and your allies will risk danger from ____
You’ll have to disenchant ____ to do it

And here, with a few subtle differences, is the same move from the DW hack, Homebrew World:

When you wish to weave magic, say what you’re after and how you plan to do it. The GM will say “Of course, but...” and 1-4 of the following. Perform the ritual and the magic takes effect.
You must draw on a place of power (like __)
You must do it at an auspicious time (like __)
It’s going to take hours/days/weeks
First you must __
You’ll need help from __
It’ll require the sacrifice of __
The best you can do is __
You/your allies will risk danger from __

Some observations: the core idea is the same in each case, though ROOT’s version doesn’t explicitly include magical/miraculous effects. However, they differ slightly in their restrictions and context, too. The ROOT move, The Worth of a Book, is used to get information about how one might do XYZ. Completing the move’s conditions just gives you information, and then “it’s up to you to put it to use.” (This could require further moves or even whole sessions of effort). The DW and HBW moves end with the thing you’re trying to do actually happening (the key difference between those two versions is that DW assumes you’ve found a place of power for your ritual; HBW notes this as one possible stipulation). 

Simply by allowing miraculous and supernatural effects within the realm of the “possible,” the Referee can use the Chronicler’s move to allow a Gandalf-like character (which fits really, really well with the Chronicler's other abilities), or even more spectacular magic-users. In edge cases where learning how to do something vs. actually getting it done matters, you could lean in the direction of either Worth of a Book or Ritual (there’s probably a cleaner way to integrate them into one move, I’m just not thinking it through at the moment). 

This stuff means that you can (potentially) teleport the party into the Tower of Thrukul-Gar, turn the evil Baron’s legs to lead, or extinguish The Helldrake’s inner flames - from miles away (if you can keep its agents at bay long enough). But you won’t be doing instant-action things like throwing fireballs around routinely. 

I do think that having just a bit more routine magic would be nice for a Wizard, without wrecking the overall Low Fantasy vibe. You know what could help with that?

The Species Ability system. 


The Travellers and Outsiders expansion offers a really fun mini-system for different species abilities (I prefer this to the other sub-system that offers separate Moves for different species). Here’s one way to set up a wizard on top of the Chronicler playbook (I would suggest combining them for max effect):

WIZARD as Background/Ancestry…
Mark exhaustion to activate an ability:
+ Lash out with pure magical force to inflict 1-Harm up to Far range
+ Detect the presence and location of active magic up to Far range
+ Initiate a magical duel as a magic-user within Far range casts a spell/activates a magical ability. Not counting the Exhaustion you just spent to activate this ability, bid an amount of Exhaustion (up to your remaining total). The target magic-user must either:

  • mark the same number of Harm (either to Injury or Exhaustion) and carry out their spell/ability as intended. If they choose this option, you now suffer the amount of Harm you bid. 
  • take no Harm, but stop casting the targeted spell/ability. If they choose this option, you do not pay the amount of Harm you bid, either. 
Instinct Move: Once per session, clear exhaustion when you take an hour to meditate upon the mystical flow of the world. 

Perhaps that magical duel thing is a bit OP; well, I guess you won’t be doing it more than once without healing up your Exhaustion, so it might work well. 

I am uncertain whether to hand this set of Abilities to a  Wizard character for free; whether to say that their magical studies have so consumed them that they don’t get their biological species’ (mechanical) abilities, and get these instead; or say that they get BOTH, but add a caveat that anytime they use a Wizard background ability, any magical creature or user in the area senses what they’re up to and roughly where they are. 

Anyway. Looking forward to digging into this new PbtA experience and seeing how it goes. 

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