I take lots of notes during play and turn them into, hopefully, fun AP writeups for our Slack. This is the result of the Stonetop game I ran while working on last month’s deep dive. After I’ve had a chance to let them percolate a while and incorporate comments and questions, I’ll post them here as a series. We did the same thing for our big a|state campaign last year and I think folks enjoyed it! We’ll do one each week, and slip in regularly scheduled columns as well. Enjoy.
The Heroes Head Out Of Town
We played our first session of Stonetop! It was nice. A little mix of storytime and observations.
Chill start, plenty of time in town setting up relationships and feeling out what folks are interested in. The Fox had recently, like that day, arrived in town, at the start of spring mind you, low-key on the run from “trouble” but we (even the player) weren’t really sure what that was. It was bad enough that he trekked back to Stonetop sometime at the end of winter, for crying out loud! So it must be so, so bad. The Fox is dashing and adventurous, though, and charms our Would-Be Hero kid into staying in the hayloft of his family’s barn. Just for the night, you see, real low key. The hero-worship bit took off right away and it’s so good between the two of them.
Meanwhile, our old(ish) man Lightbearer and his little microcommunity of Helior-worshiping Lygos expats have a nice scene, but that darned Fox is trying to skulk around town unnoticed to, you know, get the lay of the land (and figure out just how mad his ex-girlfriend’s father still is at him a decade since he ran away). But the WBH’s dog, named Dog, is following and barking and generally making a nuisance of himself. Nobody in town cares, though, because a trader from Marshend has arrived and folks are excited. So the Lightbearer goes to investigate, knowing Dog is loyal to the kid so the kid must be in trouble, and runs across this sketchy dude he’d gotten out of trouble out in the Flats some years ago.
Finally we have our town publican, the Seeker, recovering quietly from bleeding himself nearly to death feeding his own blood to an etched stone that grants fertility to the nearby farmlands. But he’d screwed the ritual up somehow. The player didn’t know what the screw-up would entail. He’d rolled a 7-9 to use the stone and we’d rolled a 6- on the Spring Has Arrived roll. Everyone could feel the sword just hanging over them.
Let the Melodrama Begin
So, going forward, lots of scenes and pairings and major NPCs to really get the hooks in. Feels good where we landed! Some lowkey Sagas of the Icelanders vibes, the whole “isolated community with way too many secrets” thing is fruitful but, as creator Jeremy Strandberg points out, can quickly lead to bloodshed and badness in town before they even leave. It’s a solid piece of advice to get folks out of town before things turn sour, which they almost did.
Because the Fox? Yeah. The ex-girlfriend’s father is the blacksmith, an enormous bear of a man and a drunk to boot. Of course we had to see what happened when they saw each other! Which is to say: the blacksmith tried to beat the Fox to death with his great huge hammer.
The Lightbearer interceded with an Aid to the Fox’s Defy Danger and pivoted quickly to a Persuade to get the guy to back the heck off. Things progressed about as well as one might expect, which is to say: nobody died that day, but dad is Big Mad still and continues to be an unpredictable drunk.
The real meat of the first session of course is lining up the first Expedition. Because adventures are out there but consequences are back here. So time for an adventure. Let’s see what I cooked up with that 6-.
The Merchant of Marshend
The Marshend merchant draws a lot of attention when she’s in town, which is perfect cover for the Fox to get lots of unobserved catch-up time with the other PCs. Our publican, the Seeker, has an arrangement that he’ll provide her all the tradeable, bottled spirits she can carry if she brings back good metal from Gordin’s Delve…and any word she hears of Maker stuff. So, yeah, she’s got a lead on a curiously decorated and durable rug some Hillfolk chieftain is using to decorate his horse. Utterly unlike any Hillfolk textile she’s ever seen, and rumor has it some kids pulled it out of the Ruined Tower out on the Flats. Badabing, the Seeker is pretty excited to get his hands on that.
But the real pivot happens when a couple angry farmers demand to know why seeds she sold them last season have fouled their fields with gwead. Gwead, you see, is the unstoppable, unkillable mix of grasses and other weeds that dominate The Flats. They’ll choke out any other crop. And gwead never grows inside the Old Wall. The Seeker’s theory is that the big stone at the center of Stonetop keeps the gwead out and is what makes the town so fertile.
So gwead inside the Old Wall? That could be a death sentence for the town! No joke, gotta get on that.
That gave my players a chance to Know Things and Seek Insight, but more specifically it’s a chance for us all to calibrate just how much authorship the players can have about stuff. Which in DW-derived games comes from provocative questions, not moves. There was a tiny bit of friction there, and that’s fine and normal.
Knowing Things and Seeking Insight basically delivers a possible solution: gwead, like all living things, has a spirit out there somewhere. If gwead is now growing inside the wall, that means its spirit wills it. And the Hillfolk are very involved with the various spirits of the Flats, the Steplands, everywhere they go.
So that’s the Expedition: head out to find the Grassfoot Band, probably out somewhere near Titan Bones this time of year, and get their help in contacting the gwead spirit and figure out what’s changed and how to stop it. I mean the Seeker knows it’s because of his 7-9 on using his Maker stone. But he’s not sure what the triggering mechanism here was.
Hitting the Road
The Expedition made it about halfway to their intended destination. They traveled down the West Road to the Crossroads, experienced the spookiness of the Crossroads itself, the Seeker Knew Things about what happens at the Crossroads, lots of fun exploratory leads and hooks. There’s also signs of recently uncovered chunks of the Maker Road that once led straight to the Ruined Tower, which the idiot Seeker (instinct: Hubris) thought, you know…just step off the road a few feet to check it out. How bad could it be?
The Would-Be Hero kid had been seeing signs of things in the grasses pacing the party the whole time, but didn’t say anything because he wanted to be brave in front of his new hero. So the Seeker needed to Defy Danger to not draw the attention of the pack drakes (like hyenas) lurking in the grasses.
He rolled a 4. And we ended the session.
First Observations of Stonetop
So these are some observations from my first 3+ hours of direct contact with Stonetop:
There is a lot of interlocking material in the Wider World book, and on a PDF without bookmarks it’s really hard to bounce around between interrelated chapters. Like I had to bounce between The Flats, The Maker Roads, The Hillfolk and Stonetop chapters pretty quick. They’re very well done chapters! Probably more provocative questions than I can really deploy at once, but that’s fine because they’re gonna come in contact with these things again sooner or later.
I love discovering how moves touch my prep. It’s a top-5 experience for me when I play a PbtA game. It’s more fun when I don’t know what I might need to contend with than when I know what everyone’s special go-to effects are. Because, I think, I can’t prep toward/away from those things. One particularly neat moment was when the Fox rolled to know someone among the Hillfolk who could help with this spiritual quest thing! I had prepped some NPCs they were gonna have to scout around for, but bam, dude’s been a-wandering a long time and has friends everywhere. Love it.
Another cool thing about discovering player moves is that my moves feel pretty high stakes. Like at one point the kid does a cool Defy Danger to jump off a high spot on the Old Wall, and his (half?) brother decides to try and copy him. He’s trying to impress a girl, see. Anyway he makes to jump, the kid tries to Persuade him to stop, fails, and the brother falls and breaks his leg. That’s a big deal in an iron age farming community! The kid might have just written his own death sentence! The Lightbearer has some healing at hand…not the full-on “level 6 or higher” super-healing! But enough to keep the boy from bleeding to death. He’s still out of commission until, possibly, the fall. So now this whole storyline about the town’s most prosperous farmer now faced with one broken son and another who’s itching to leave town has appeared.
There’s also some fuzziness around when one uses a Basic Move versus a Homefront move. I think it’s mostly a function of focus. More beat-by-beat and Expedition action means basic moves, but like…montage scenes mean Homefront moves. So when the Seeker needed to recover from bleeding nearly to death to feed his magic stone, he can just Convalesce without needing to worry about spending materials or setting camp. Same with the Lightbearer, who needed to collect himself after facing down the drunkard blacksmith and taking a few HP loss as a result.
I really like the granularity of hit points vs debilities vs problematic wounds. It’s just about perfect. But it’s a lot to stay on top of. HP loss is mostly just to provide a timer for physical conflict, except the timer ends in your death! And debilities are really nice semi-diegetic semi-mechanical hits. And, well, problematic wounds being called out as fictionally important, that’s good stuff. I like all this.
Next session they continue their Expedition, which I feel like will be 3x sessions total. Everyone got 4-5 XP this session, so getting back to town they’ll have a ready level-up and be very close to a second one right away.