Roots Part 1: What Are Roots?
Roots are the type of content that we ground in when we embody a character. Being explicit about it can help us find more focus, collaborate and contribute to the plot in a more coordinated way, and avoid potential creative drama.
I’m going to focus on larp examples because that’s my experience area, but some of this ought to also apply to tabletop.
The Root of a character is the aspect(s) of the fiction that a player holds on to in order to count as successfully embodying their character.
Because we are necessarily not entirely our characters and the fiction is not as complete as the real world, we need to know which parts we are bothering to fictionalize in depth.
Below are some classic example Roots and some larp styles / philosophies in which they might be commonly seen:
example: “I am the dowager queen who led the last war”
at stake: “how am I affected?”
common larp styles: secrets & powers, parlor-style
common philosophies: play to lose, engage with everyone
example: “I am here to win love and seize the prize”
at stake: “do I succeed?”
common larp styles: political, strategic, s&p, blockbuster
common philosophies: play to win, don’t metagame, cleverness is fun
example: “I am a steampunk photographer in 1950 Saigon”
at stake: “how do I behave?”
common larp styles: theater, blockbuster, freeform, boffer, varied
common philosophies: we’re here to have a chill good time, don’t get caught up on details, share the spotlight, play to lose
example: “We are married but talk past each other”
at stake: “how do we feel about each other?”
common larp styles: any
example: “I oppose artificial intelligence and drug use”
at stake: “how do I react?”
common larp styles: anything under the wider s&p umbrella
example: “I am filled with a simmering, uneasy guilt”
at stake: “how does it evolve?”
common larp styles: parlor-style, freeform, multi-day-nordic
example: “I am an elder woman of my tribe”
at stake: “how do I behave?”
common larp styles: multi-day nordic, freeform
This is by no means an exclusive list, especially once you get into more boutique and freeform games. It’s also includes a lot of subjectivity. However, I would say that maybe 90% of the games I’ve seen use one or a combination of these Roots.
Roots & Games
Roots are sort of like a language-of-reality that characterizes the types of stakes for a given character that are supported by the game. They basically work by being a content domain where, if a player adds/responds to/modifies it in the course of play, there’s meat there.
Because Roots are a connection for a character to interface with plot and/or designed experience, the space between identifying a Root for a specific character vs for the game as a whole is somewhat ambiguous depending on the structure of plot. Smaller, more boutique games will often be designed around all characters having the same Root, whereas larger games may support a variety of Roots across different characters. Very large games might support a range of Roots within a single character.
Support for a Root can also be lighter or denser: In a huge game, a character may be able to do a wide range of things, but each one is less likely to “stick” by having a significant impact on the rest of the game. In a smaller game, characters may be limited to one Root, but gameplay is highly responsive to most contributions they make.
Because of all this geometry, it’s important to note that Roots are not a taxonomy for game types, though it’s good to use them to highlight expectations from gameplay. Structurally, they are more like a tag than a category.
For the purposes of this post, I will sometimes refer to a game having Roots as a shorthand generalization for a game whose experience predominantly supports characters of a particular Root. However, this is a simplification: greater precision takes getting into much more complex design philosophy breakdowns.
The overall experience of the game will be highly colored by the Roots it employs.
For example, let’s say I invite you to a game about, “People in love across two warring space colonies.” Here are some ways the experience can differ based on Roots:
- Relationships: The focus is on how relationships evolve as the war threatens to tear them apart. At the end, each relationship is established, but the outcome of the war may or may not be determined. There are many nuanced social scenes, and details of what happens in them will then affect subsequent social scenes in an equally nuanced way.
- Goals: The focus is on what actually happens in the war, and the relationships are a complicating factor in plans and motivations that must be taken into account. At the end, the political and military outcome is resolved, and relationships are processed as fallout. Alternatively, if the goals are primarily social goals, everyone uses the war as a way of getting into the relationships they want and the military situation is subject to sudden and extreme shifts as a result of this.
- Emotions: The focus is on how people come to terms with having to fight their loved ones and crucial tough decisions. Relationship evolution may be simplistic to enable more processing of reactions, and the progress of the war is more affected by important personal choices than strategy. Climax comes with catharsis, not necessarily situational stability.
- Style: the focus is on the space colony experience, what it’s like to live in outer space, the cultures and peoples there, what sorts of things people do at the edge of the world, how people talk and relate to one another. Characters have very openly expressed personalities. There may be very heavy and labor-intensive costuming Both relationships and military content serve as inspiration for the improvised expression of life in this setting.
- Culture: the focus is on the detailed traditions and practice of each colony, how they influence each other or conflict, and how they come into dialogue and involve over the course of the two lovers interacting with each other. The game ends when the political situation reaches equilibrium, at which point both sides’ cultures, which have been transforming over the course of the war and love story, are also able to reach equilibrium.
How Roots Work In Detail
Here’s some more detail on how a Root will typically behave:
1) Roots are where all the nuance lives. The Root is the juicy part of the game that has been developed out, so players will get the most interaction and responsiveness out of engaging with it. (Eg, expecting to pursue Goals at a Style experience may leave you with not a lot to do.)
2) Root content is continuous, accretive, and persistent. The content will usually evolve over time (that’s the point), but it will maintain a level of consistency. (Eg, in a Goals game about finding the McGuffin, different people may have it, but it will never jump around for no reason. In an Situations game about politics, the Queen might be dethroned, but she’ll never be dethroned randomly.)
3) Meaning arises from the evolution or expression of Root content. The bulk of the significant player work of the game goes into either evolving or expressing Roots. Different games (and Roots) will favor more evolution or more expression. (Eg, in an Emotional game, major plot can happen from characters sitting still and changing their feelings about something, while nothing significant takes place in the visible sphere.)
4) Investing in Roots will pay off. A game is a complex dynamic system in which players contribute content in, and they themselves (and others) get engagement back. (Eg, in a political Situations game, taking political action will usually be meaningful. To be prosocial, react to being in an interesting political situation by putting other characters in one.)
5) Investing in an unsupported Root may not pay off. (Eg, if you put a lot of work into expressing your Emotions in a Goals game, others may not react to it and you may never get a satisfying climax.)
6) Failure to invest in the Root may break the game or reduce the quality of the experience for other players. Many games count on a minimum level of player contribution toward its Root. (Eg, if one party in a Relationships game never pursues their relationship, another player may not have a lot to do.)
7) The density of a Root affects the likelihood and rate of return on the payoff. (Eg, in a dense Emotional game, one person saying a cruel word to another may trigger a cascade of reactions. In a dense Situations game, the situation is constantly shifting in response to player actions.) See Pattern Language in Larp Design for some techniques to increase density.
8) Plot is independent of Root. Root is just the language plot is written in.
9) Quality is independent of Root. Games can still do a better or worse job at giving a satisfying experience of the Root content.
10) Every game has Roots. Unless it’s very avant-garde or something. Often, they are simply unstated assumptions.
11) Most games will only have a small number of Roots, usually around 1–3. (Trying to include more of that will lead to a sharp drop-off in density due to the limits that live representation currently impose on attention and granularity. Someday, a massive amount of AI could change this.)
In some cases, it may be quite obvious what the Root of your game is. In others, it takes some thinking.
In order to identify a Root, consider these questions:
- What would be a quintessential awesome interaction to happen in this game or with this character? What type of thing was changed in that interaction? Try this with a few more and see if you can find a pattern.
- What are some ways you’d like players to spend their time in the game? What type of content are they processing through when they do that?
- What are some things you don’t want players to do during the game? What type of content does that represent?
- Let’s say a number of inexperienced players joined, and it turned out that they contributed enormously to everyone else’s experience and had a blast. Other than being nice people, what type of thing were they doing the whole time that worked out so well?
- Let’s say that all the players had an especially great experience and gushed to you about the game. Other than feeling welcomed, supported, and entertained, what types of compliments on the experience would you be most pleased by? What type of content is represented in those experiences?
- If you find yourself in the position of, “Well, the Root is sort of like Psychology…” think about which aspect of psychology is most important. Is it a sense of personal identity? Is it worldview / interpretation of the world? Is it Emotions? Is it Beliefs about specific past events?
Still having trouble? Not all Roots are actually easily to express with precision, and that’s totally fine. Sometimes refinement comes over time with more play. Even if it takes a paragraph to describe the approximate space that players should be grounding in, and that’s still incredibly helpful to know.
For practical uses and more on how players interact with Roots, see Roots Part 2: Players & Compatibility.