Deep Dive: Stonetop

We just wrapped up a nice long campaign of Stonetop, Jeremy Strandberg’s Iron Age community RPG being published by Lampblack & Brimstone…someday. It’s been a work-in-progress for a lot of years now. It’s getting close!

Stonetop is available as a preorder on Backerkit. You get immediate access to the PDFs.

I have a lot to say about Stonetop but the tl;dr for those with short attention spans is: This is a hecking great game. It could be your forever game, maybe the first candidate in the Powered by the Apocalypse universe.

Let’s get into it.

Some History

To begin: I have played a lot, and I mean a lot, of Powered by the Apocalypse games. What I haven’t played a lot of is Dungeon World. Or the games that grew out of it.

Way, way back in the beginning, after Apocalypse World showed up, there weren’t a lot of hacks to it. My favorite-favorite PbtA game, Sagas of the Icelanders, came out of that early experimentation. So did the mega-hit Monsterhearts. And so did Dungeon World.

I haven’t done any serious taxonomical work on this but I propose, a decade-and-some into these games, that the Monsterhearts and Dungeon World arms have evolved into their own distinct and recognizable branches. Monsterhearts spawned the branch of PbtA games that are concerned with constrained, evocative moves with a strong editorial voice. Dungeon World, conceived as a reverse-engineering of Dungeons & Dragons style play, is concerned with efficiently resolving tasks, boiling down the activity to its core essence.

There have been, of course, many other branches since then. Every new game borrows and iterates and innovates on what came before. This isn’t comprehensive or even especially tight – no need to feel defensive about your favorite game not neatly fitting into one of these buckets. They’re not buckets, they’re origin stories. To my mind, most PbtA games today stand on the shoulders of those two giants.

While I’ve played lots of games down the Monsterhearts branch, the Dungeon World branch hasn’t been as interesting to me. I’ve played in a half dozen DW convention one-shots and, you know, they’re fine! I like, but don’t love, D&D-style adventures. They just don’t move me to keep playing that way (hence this whole website). The best Dungeon World experience of my life was an astonishing campaign of Johnstone Metzger’s Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, a psychedelic space opera that sits atop Dungeon World’s basic and extended move set. I’ve also had Magpie Games’ Chaos Worlds campaign settings for Dungeon World on my shelf since they came out a decade ago.

My ignorance of the Dungeon World side of the PbtA family has been a huge blind spot. What I didn’t realize was that Lampblack and Brimstone, the game publishing front end of noted comic creator Jason Lutes, had been slaving away in the Dungeon World mines this entire time.

Stumbling into the L&B library was like that story of the guy who discovers an entire underground city behind a wall in his basement. There are the Perilous books – Deeps, Wilds, Almanacs – as well as Funnel World and various other direct Dungeon World supplements (Book of Beasts, Folio of Followers). If you love Dungeon World, L&B stuff will keep you rolling pretty much forever.

L&B’s work on original Dungeon World-inspired games themselves have resulted in two branches. One is Lutes’ Freebooters on the Frontier, a post-Dungeon World wandering-adventurers fantasy game. The other is Strandberg’s Stonetop.

An Overview

In Stonetop, you play members of an Iron Age community called Stonetop. Your characters are well liked in the community, have responsibilities to it, and want it to thrive. The village faces numerous evolving threats outside its walls, opportunities to grow and improve, and supernatural evil rooted in the setting’s deep history. And what a strange history the game world has! You start out thinking, you know, Celt-flavored European fantasy. Spears instead of swords, cloth instead of plate armor, low magic, pre-feudal society. And all that’s true! But just below the surface, the world is so much weirder.

The player-facing map of your village. You doodle notes directly on it.

Two distinctive things jumped out at me about Stonetop, major divergences from its Dungeon World origins. The first is that the village of Stonetop is its own character. The players share ownership of it, it has its own reference sheet, you can advance your village by giving it improvements, it has its own stats. Stonetop will have its own cast of characters, a complex relationship map between NPCs and the PCs, shared resources you might need to borrow but you risk doing harm to the village if you lose them. This feels fundamentally different from the town you come back to in Freebooters on the Frontier or your town phase options in Torchbearer or Goblinville. It’s the single most prominent feature of the game – even moreso than the PC playbooks themselves.

The other distinctive element of the game is the setting book. Strandberg, Stonetop’s designer, has created a sprawling setting that gets its own book. To be clear: Stonetop is not a generic fantasy game. The playbook set is strange and specific to this world, and the world itself is essential and specific to understanding the playbooks. There’s a fallen-future element to the setting, which turns out is only very lightly Iron Age-tinged once the game starts. The old world featured four advanced civilizations called the Makers, and they left behind what seems like magitech stuff. To Strandberg’s credit, though, rather than offering canonical answers to anything about his world – other than a map with locations – what you get instead are lists of options for the “truth” behind elements of your own version of the game.

We played a sprawling 10-session campaign of Stonetop using the playtest rules currently available. I’ll post my writeup of that campaign over the coming weeks, and I encourage you to read them.

The Best Stuff

The Playbooks

First up, the playbooks are super interesting. They’re tied firmly to this game and this setting; you won’t see a generic fighter, cleric or thief. You will see hints of all those things, but with a layer of specificity. The Lightbearer, for example, is a cleric. But it’s a cleric of Helior, the light god, and all their Invocations (spells) are light/heat/cleansing themed. And the Heavy is a fighter, ish, but it’s not about their job. They’re violent people, if you get the difference. All the playbooks are refactored this way: the Fox is a criminal with a conscience (who might, yes, be a thief); the Blessed is another flavor of cleric but they might have a flock of NPCs. They all hit a really nice balance between specific and iconic.

Maybe my favorite playbook is the Would-Be Hero, a try-hard character who really wants to be in the thick of the action but is fundamentally just not on the same level as the “real” badasses in town. And yet our Would-Be Hero in our campaign was frequently the center of the action anyway.

The Holding Environment/Premise

The holding environment of the game – that is, the structural reasons why this group of characters are pushed together – is excellent. The premise of belonging to a beloved community is so simple, and so tight. It’s a bit claustrophobic, in fact, when you’re first setting up the town’s relationship map and introducing additional NPCs. But this is all to the good! It means nobody’s a misunderstood outsider, no matter how badly the players want that.

Three of our four characters started as fish out of water (it’s a very easy strategy I think many players fall back on), but after a few questions they were tied into the community. If they had come in from the outside, either they had been here a long time, or had left briefly to see the world and returned later.

The Setting

Finally, the setting of the game itself is just terrific. I mentioned above that there’s a low-key fallen-future vibe to the setting, and ancient super-beings left behind remnants of their civilization that looks an awful lot like technology. Some of that is on me, though, because Strandberg has done a good job of providing several ideas and through-lines about the actual facts of the setting. I think getting to the “this is all advanced tech” answer is an easy and prominently supported way to go – even the art backs this up – but you can definitely go weirder and more mystical than that.

The Layout

The information layout deserves a mention here. Book 2, The Wider World and Other Wonder, is outstanding in how easy it is to find things, read quickly, refer to at the table, find quick answers on pick-lists, everything. Super well laid out information design, and I think it’ll set the standard for big setting books in the future. Given how interwoven the setting is, there’s a lot of forward- and backward-referencing throughout, and that’s a little hard to manage on a tablet at the table (it’s only in PDF for now). But I have high hopes that the physical book will be a better experience.

Besides the books, the reference sheets are terrific. Not once did I stumble into a situation where I didn’t have a reference close at hand that could answer my questions. Probably the most notable of all the reference sheets is a “If you want to…” page just for the players. Stonetop has a lot of moving parts and can be a little intimidating for players who aren’t sure how to approach their goals, like improving your steading’s stats or finding new Arcana.

The Interesting Stuff

I’ve already talked about the best – to me! – bits of Stonetop. But there are many other small, but consequential, bits I think are worth mentioning.

Setup

At the end of picking playbooks and describing your character and making your starting choices, there’s one more step. Setup asks everyone to answer “what excites you, the player, about playing this game?”

What a great question. I wish I had thought to ask it in other games. I’ll be adding that going forward because I can’t think of any game that wouldn’t benefit from it. The biggest outcome at our table was that this is a way to discuss tone but from a bottom-up, so to speak, perspective. Rather than the GM saying “this is going to be grim and realistic,” I had players say things like “I want my character to be the voice of reason, the moral center of the community.” That sort of statement was more effective communicating expectations to the other players than I expected.

This was also useful for calibrating my extensive list of NPCs in the village, of course.

Play Guidance

The book is absolutely packed with guidance. It’s an extremely thorough “how to play” text at (almost) every level. But see below, in the “fruitful void” bit. Where there isn’t a big purposeful gap, though, you’ll get a lot of useful, practical advice on how to run this game.

Just flipping through the text, there’s good stuff on literally every page. I’ve even found cogent, clear explanations of things I’ve always understood but never seen someone’s definition of. For example, a really solid explanation of “fictional positioning.” If you’re reading this you probably are already in the know. But if they’re going to sell this game to the trad crowd, this is such important material to include.

Steading Improvements

The Stonetop improvement minigame is just terrific. I love that there are so many improvements, and the players can shop right on the steading playsheet. It gives them a lot of ideas of what they might focus their efforts on, which the GM can then exploit for adventures. They’re quite varied as well, with varying difficulty (additional housing is pretty straightforward while heroic reputation means thinking long and hard about how they’ll approach it – although earning a heroic reputation can be done kind of passively) and duration (standing watch is just a thing you can do by talking to NPCs, while building a market means cultivating a peaceful location for four seasons).

The really interesting steading improvements, though, are in the setting book. As the GM shops locations during prep, you’ll run into sidebars with new improvement opportunities you can spring on the players once they arrive. Like trade with Barrier Pass once you’ve actually made the trip, or a permanent logging camp out in the Foothills near town. There’s nothing stopping the GM from providing the a-ha moment to a player, either: hey you know you’re working on some palisades, you know where there’s a lot of trees?

I could see entire campaigns built around stealing improvements.

The Arcana

The Major Arcana are extensive, every one of them a ready-made session or or three as you pursue their (typically elaborate) requirements to unlock. When you end up with, say, the Red Scepter, you’ll have some immediate use for it. But if you go through the Scepter’s to-do list, you’ll unlock additional goodies. I encouraged the players to read the back of their Major Arcana to motivate them, and it totally worked. I didn’t see a single boring to-do list in the whole batch. And there are, as of this writing, 18 of them. Some come attached to the playbooks, even.

The Minor Arcana are similar, but smaller in scope. Some have just one or two somewhat difficult things to manage, while others have four or five. Same deal, they’re all situation-generating tools, but easier to put your hands on. Every location in the setting book has a list of arcana that are likely to be found there.

But even beyond the Major and Minor, the setting book has even more magic stuff. In most cases I’m not totally sure why they’re not considered “arcana,” other than the fact there’s no to-do list associated with them.

The Moves

The Moves list is still largely Dungeon World with some important twists.

If you know Dungeon World you’ll see some old favorites: Clash (called Hack and Slash in Dungeon World) is similar but slightly refined, there’s good old Defy Danger, Know Things, Seek Insight, all that. But there are also some important innovations in the basic moves. For example, Death’s Door (the move you roll when you zero out your HPs) is expanded a bit to accommodate several new modes of post-death experience. Dungeon World’s Parley now has two separate Persuade moves, one each for PCs and NPCs. Lots of little quality of life tweaks that have had a decade to evolve.

More interesting is the expansion of moves into different modes of play. There is a complete set of Expedition moves, some of which are similar to Dungeon World’s Special Moves list (set camp, take watch, and so on) with some new variations. We enjoyed Forage, a move that takes advantage of the tight provisions economy the game demands, as well as Keep Company, an explicit invitation for the characters to talk about stuff during downtime.

The Homestead move sheet is all about what you do when you’re in Stonetop. They help keep the focus on more montage-type scenes, stuff where less happens and you don’t have to track the action blow-by-blow. Like when something bad happens to the village, you Meet With Disaster. When everyone works on a major project, they Pull Together. And so on. Good stuff.

One Last Bit

There’s a bit at the end of the End of Session move, after you’ve handed out XPs, that’s a formal Stars and Wishes ritual.

I’ll be honest: For the first five or so sessions, I just skipped over this. It feels a little touchy-feely, and it made me a little emotionally uncomfortable to go through with it. I do Stars and Wishes at conventions, with stranger, all the time, mind you. But with my closest friends…I dunno!

But you know what? It was transformative. Everyone was very enthusiastic to share stars, and it gave me a chance to share wishes with players when I felt like they were a little lost in the moves, or the fiction. I can think of literally no reason at all not to do this in every game forever. This was especially powerful in the sessions where we experienced big emotional gut-punches. Debriefing and disentangling from the fiction is sound larp practice, and I run an emotionally involving game most times. But my own middle aged masc-socialization hangups kept me from seeing that. Don’t be like me.

Fruitful Voids

Wrapping up our campaign, there were a few items that left me thinking “I wonder how I could do this better next time.” I’m not convinced they’re problems. They’re not pain points. Think of them instead as places to focus on to optimize your own play. The fruitful voids.

Going Home vs Adventuring

There’s a purposeful, and unaddressed, gap in the game: Nobody is telling you when to go out, and nobody’s telling you when to come back. It’s a fundamentally different structure than what you see in a lot of Forged in the Dark games. You have to figure out the balance between time on the homefront and time adventuring on your own.

There are lots of pushes and pulls – for example, you’re far more likely to gain XP and be able to level up when you leave town – but a big part of this is going to come down to the GM’s personal preferences. This is fine and good!

You can also play homefront as a string of low-narrative seasonal rolls and jump into action whenever a situation catches someone’s interest. Like, you may decide on an improvement, but completing it will require folks leaving town to secure a resource, scavenge up a missing bit of a major arcana, negotiate trade, and so on.

The Arcana

A major, notable source of excitement, drama, adventure seeds and brewing trouble is all the magic stuff: the Arcana, both minor and major. There are entire decks of both waiting to be deployed. I printed a full deck for my own use. It felt like wasted effort, but only because Stonetop can’t be our forever game.

How much and how often to seed the Arcana in the game is another unaddressed question. There are precious few rules around when and how they appear outside of initial character creation. In retrospect, I felt like I didn’t put enough arcana into play in our campaign. But if I had put any more Arcana into play I feared it might be too much, or it might destabilize play somehow.

Major Arcana are, mostly, scenario prompts: you need to work through a tough list to actually fully activate a Major. The Minors are easier, stuff you can slip in here and there while you’re doing something else.

Arts and crafts day prepping to run this game took a long, long time.

Some of this is on me: there are so many Arcana cards that I felt some urgency to see more of it actually hit the table. Kind of a FOMO feeling if I wasn’t using everything I had bought.

A Better Version of DW Harm

“Harm” could be explained a little better. It’s a really flexible concept in Stonetop.

Damage in Stonetop has evolved beyond Dungeon World’s hit points scheme to include conditions that grant disadvantage to rolls made with pairs of stats, and “problematic injuries” that provide fictional positioning going forward and require treatment. It can also include things like disarming someone, putting them into a particular tactical disadvantage, destroying items, and so on.

That said, the classic case of Clash’s “trade harm” is meant to be read more broadly than “exchange HP damage.” If you intended to disarm your opponent, well, that’s what you did rather than leaving them with HP damage and a condition or problematic injury. It feels loose to me, so I just stuck with the basics. A bit more guidance as to what all “harm” can entail, and how that interlocks with “both sides inflict harm,” per the classic Clash move, would be useful I think.

The FOMO is real

If I had a for-real complaint about Stonetop, it’s that I feel like I’ll never see everything the game has to offer.

Stonetop is built for (very) long term play. Go on the Stonetop Discord and you’ll read about campaigns that have gone more than 60 sessions. Lots of things in the game simply don’t happen fast enough or often enough to really see the payoff in fewer than a dozen sessions. It’s a much, much longer-scale game than any other PbtA game I’ve ever played. Where I feel like most Apocalypse World (for example) games wrap up very nicely around 8-10 sessions, I felt like our campaign was just getting started at the 10th session. The lead up was terrific, but oh the hooks. The hooks were really deep by then, with plenty of room to continue.

The playbooks all have an astonishing number of moves; you won’t max your character out like you sometimes see in other PbtA games. In Impulse Drive, for example, there’s a cap as to how much advancement you can get and it’s not that high.

Stonetop’s village improvement opportunities are also vast – and there are new improvements hidden in the world book for the players to stumble into. You’re not constrained to just those on the Stonetop playbook. And there’s all the arcana cards. There’s so much content you could dig into for a hundred sessions.

Who plays a game for a hundred sessions any more? I could absolutely see that being possible and really rewarding in Stonetop.

I encourage you to seek out Stonetop and get your hands on their (very playable) drafts. I have no idea when the books will appear. Don’t wait for them.

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