Stonetop AP Episode 6: Into the Steplands

This is part 6 of our 10-part text AP of Stonetop. We posted  part 5 last week, and if you want to start from the beginning here’s part 1. If you want to see what all the fuss is about, here’s the deep dive on Stonetop I posted a few weeks ago. Enjoy!

This session’s theme: I’ll take imperfect, messy, emergent play over clever clockwork precision play any day. 

Finally our guys got out of Stonetop. They headed to the Steplands ostensibly to broker a peace with the angry Hillfolk bands but also to go rooting around in the ruins of the Stone Lords. The Hillfolk were once the slaves of the Stone Lords and threw in with the Things Below to break their slavery, so there’s a lot of fraught history and seriously fucked-up old stuff scattered across the karst.

They’ve heard that the Hillfolk are gathering in a moot at a place called Blackwater Lake. It’s way off the Highway, the Maker Road that cuts across the setting, nestled at the base of the high, snowy Huffel Peaks. Macsen, the Seeker, knows Blackwater Lake used to be a Stone Lord city. During the dark era of the cataclysm that brought the Makers low, the city was annihilated and the lake took its place. Filled in the crater, perhaps. He’s never been there but he’s monomaniacal about exploring it.

Revisiting Old Territory

This was the first time the characters have gone back through locations they’ve seen before. That’s interesting from a practical play perspective: how do you make old stuff interesting? Well, you don’t try. But you do try to fill that time with interesting events.

The characters go through the Crossroads and, yeah, they remember the haunting and the rumors that you can summon spirits there under certain circumstances. They go past the Titan Bones off in the distance, and remember why they need to go to this moot in the first place. The main thing driving activity now? The fact that Dog, the dog, is one mouth too many to feed even with the mess kit. Their provisions split four ways and Dog is mouth #5. It’s such a funny, irritating, wrinkle. So Madoc, the Would-Be Hero and Dog’s master, sends him off to forage.

Foraging is pretty much an invitation to please screw up our plans. The first time he does it, Madoc sends the dog off ahead into the gwead to forage. But the rule of thumb is: groups of three keep the drakes away! So Madoc and Hafiz, the Lightbearer, follow along mostly to chat while Dog dredges up whatever he needs to feed himself.

That Forage roll is a 7-9. The result choices are: provisions with X uses, or more provisions than that, or you find something interesting, or you don’t deal with danger. It’s the best worst outcome, yeah? Because like…do you even bother with the provisions at that point? Do you avoid a threat or find something interesting? Dog finds something interesting…and has to deal with a threat. 

Bugs! Armadillos! Ruins!

As they’re walking across the Flats, this swarm of fist-sized beetles comes rustling through the grasses. Oh weird, gross! But they’re not gonna swarm our heroes. No, they’re running from something even bigger.

Madoc and Hafiz look ahead and see the big termite-nest style dirt pile the beetles are running from, just as it’s being knocked over by this giant armadillo looking thing called a beznpol, that’s busily hunting the beetles. Darned thing is gigantic, horse sized at least and the characters just don’t know how it’s going to react. So Hafiz and Madoc each defy danger in their own way. Hafiz slips away, putting bushes and anything else between himself and the monster. As Madoc carefully backs off he trips and rips his leg open on a huge chunk of broken makerglass sticking out of the ground, like it fell from the sky. And indeed it has: it’s half of a gigantic glass door, and the other half is laying nearby. Something jettisoned from the Ruined Tower, a day’s ride away. 

It’s getting late as Hafiz catches up and bandages the kid up. As the sun goes down they see the door is glowing a bit. And Maker glyphs appear. They have no idea what’s up with that so they run off to get the seeker. He’s busy setting camp at a waypoint on the Maker Road, while Carwyn, the Fox, tells tall tales and is basically useless. Carwyn has stridently refused to travel with anything other than his bow. Wants to move fast and light. Carwyn is a fool, because the late-summer weather is known to get inclement. And sure enough, the clouds are gathering overhead. 

Macsen and Carwyn follow the others back out to the broken glass door. They haul it back to the road where it’ll be easier to investigate. The Seeker knows Maker writing, and interprets the glyph on the door as the second half of a glyph that appears on the small standing stone at the center of every waypoint along the Maker Road. The waypoints say something approximating “to make an offering.” This door says something like “to receive distant offerings.” 

Oh! And as a result of rolling snake eyes on Knowing Things, Macsen also realizes this door? It’ll react to his blood offering just like his fertility stone slab he’s got back at home. If he’s willing to bleed himself nearly to death something will happen. He thinks about it! Instead, the characters put the glass slab back out where they found it and make a mark on the map to swing back later.

Late Summer Weather

That night it rains and rains. They keep the fire going and those who haven’t insisted on traveling light tolerate the weather. But Carwyn? He has to defy danger to avoid being miserable (a debility that hits your STR and CON). He rolls a 7-9 so instead he gets a problematic injury: the sniffles. He’s got the sniffles, which for a high-speed low-drag operative badass is just the worst. Possibly worse than the actual debility!

It’s a four day trip to the Steplands and I’m still feeling out how much activity to pack into the journey. They’re still in familiar territory so I have them skip over a day of just trudging along on the road. Carwyn still has to deal with not packing right, so he gets another 7-9 that night and I escalate his problematic injury: now he’s got the sniffles and a wet cough. My dude what are you doing? It’s so good.

At the base of the Steplands, Madoc, Dog and Carwyn go foraging again. This time they get the provisions! But have to deal with danger again. Madoc’s player lays the whole thing out for me and it’s very good: they find a beehive, just absolutely packed with honey and edible honeycomb. And bees. Madoc and Dog run and run with the hive, and Carwyn fails to defy the danger…because he’s wracked with coughing the moment he tries to exert himself. So now he’s miserable, sick, and absolutely covered in bee stings. He’s so swollen up he can barely see. 

That night, Hafiz finally takes care of him. The cost to Hafiz is that he has to defy the danger of being exhausted because he’s up all night and not in his bedroll. The cost to Carwyn is that he needs to get a big dose of fatherly advice from the old Lygosi mystic. But a balm of honeycomb and herbs, hot tea with honey, dry clothes and a night sleeping in an actual bedroll, and Carwyn clears his various debilities and problematic injuries. Has he learned? Maybe! But they’ve still got a week and a half, the late-summer storms are still looming, and the Steplands are quite a lot higher and colder.

Finally the Steplands

On the fourth day they get up to the Steplands! It’s rugged, with occasional lush stream crossings with big heavy trees overhead. The weather clears up a bit, which also means it’s gonna be colder at night because the cloud cover isn’t keeping the heat in. And the characters are trying to figure out how to find Blackwater Lake. Time for lots of Knowing Things!

Hafiz’s old books include maps with the old Maker cities, and he finds the ancient city of Delenn (which is what was destroyed to make Blackwater Lake, it is known). Cool, interesting. Macsen, in turn, knows that these cities that were destroyed? Their centers got nuked, but there were still many many miles of ruins left behind all around them. Follow signs of the ruins and you’ll find Blackwater Lake.

They are, unfortunately, now deep into Hillfolk territory. They knew that freelance bands might come upon them and decide to mete out justice for the murder of the Grassfoot Band’s spirit-talker. And sure enough, on the first attempt to seek insight about their surroundings, there’s a little five-person hunting party from the Blue Hand band on horseback on a ridge above them. They all know the Hillfolk are practically magicians when they’re on horseback, real Phrygian energy here – are they people or are they centaurs? Just because the riders are up on a ridge doesn’t mean they can’t get down here lickety-split.

The Real Problem

Carwyn decides to try and take up a hidden position, because he’s terrific when he’s hidden (but also has this smooth-talker thing going so has to decide: do I take point on this or do I snipe?). The horses come down and the riders look like they’re ready for blood. 

Then, behind Carywn’s hidey spot, he feels a subsonic thump through his entire body cavity. Something truly massive is on the move behind him.

Everyone looks, and it’s 20 tons of animated stone in the shape of a multi-legged bug storming toward them.

The Stone Lords’ Roomba

The Hillfolk riders know what’s what, and they scatter immediately. Macsen consults his Mindgem for some quick insight into whatever this servitor is about: will the magic of the Maker roads protect us? Oh hell no son! The same makers who made this defensive bot made the roads, and it’ll carry out its orders in the most efficient way possible. They have no idea what its orders might be, but it’s interesting that it has orders at all. He also knows these things have a limited power supply, less than a day’s worth of activity before they have to get recharged somehow. Probably a location. They start making a plan.

So a giant stone robot? Turns out it hits really hard. Everyone tries to defy danger by running around and/or outmaneuvering it. Madoc is scared stiff (because he gets XP when someone has to save him, a brilliantly designed move) and can’t move at all, so Carwyn grabs him and runs, but they get hammered by the thing and knocked senseless. Hafiz runs and hides behind a rock, and when the monster hits the stone it’s so deafening he’s left dazed by it. The seeker tries to out-clever it and provide a chance for everyone else to escape, which sort of works but now he’s the only guy left behind. Hoping to pinch the thing between two narrow rocks, the robot simply claws the stone away. But it’s huge, and it’s not fast, so Macsen runs like the wind.

In his haste, or possibly because it has done this before, the Mindgem gets left behind. Did it fall out of his bag? Did the Mindgem subtly control his hand to remove it? Who knows? But he looks back to see the enormous stone monster daintily pluck the glowing red stone from the ground in its beak, swallow it, and turn and scamper up a scree slope.

The Blue Hand

Now that the stone servitor appears to be retreating, or at least has fulfilled some aspect of its orders, our heroes regroup and decide to follow it. It’s probably going to a facility, and they need to find old facilities to find Blackwater Lake, and Macsen needs his Major Arcana back! So the play is obvious. They scamper up the loose rocks, follow it back down into a box canyon, and find where it’s going.

The box canyon is carved with dozens of big holes obviously designed to accommodate one of these things. How many of these things were there? A lot. This is the only one here though. As it nestles, head first, into the chamber, glowing sigils appear around the opening, lighting up and going away and changing. At first they think the markings are carved into the stone, but it’s just pure light.

Everyone quietly approaches until they’re satisfied the critter isn’t going to pop back out. Hafiz lights a torch and consecrates it just in case. Carwyn and Madoc start investigating the other openings and find there’s a whole network of passages behind the big openings! And many of them have soot and other markings indicating that Hillfolk have camped here. 

And, sure enough, as Macsen tries to decipher the flickering glyphs, the Blue Hand hunters clop-clop-clop up the box canyon. There’s an interesting bit of language gap I wanted to lean on here, inspired somewhat by how language is handled in Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall, in which you are either totally fluent, marginally fluent and awkward, or utterly not fluent. Macsen’s got a great ear for language and speaks the language of the Hillfolk. Hafiz and Carwyn have picked up a few words in their travels. Madoc doesn’t know anything! This is so much farther from home than he’s ever been!

Macsen strikes up a conversation as the riders approach.

Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

It…doesn’t go well. Actually it goes great at first! He rolls boxcars (nothing but boxcars and snake eyes all night) and convinces the hunters to take them straight to the moot. The hunters really want to murder them outright so this is an improvement! But of course if they really wanted to murder the Stonetoppers they’d have done it at night as they slept.

Hunters consider this. Macsen says they’ll look like heroes! Fair point. They’ll take the Stonetoppers to the moot but as prisoners. We tie your hands so it’s clear we captured you.

Macsen’s hubris (his instinct!) gets the better of him. “No, absolutely not, we’ll just walk in with you.” 

“Then how are we to look like heroes if you’re walking with us as equals?” And they try to stab Macsen.

First guy rolls 1 HP and grazes Macsen’s shoulder – a warning. “Last chance!” the hunter says. “We can bring you in as prisoners, or we can bring your heads.”

All hell breaks loose. Madoc has run deep into the tunnels and is hiding with Dog. Carwyn dives into the tunnels, looking for the kid. Hafiz tries to invoke Terrible As the Dawn, a fear-inducing thing the lightbearer can do, misses, as takes an arrow in the shoulder for his trouble. Now he’s dazed by pain and things are looking awfully fuckin’ grim. Macsen realizes the negotiations are truly over and runs into the caves. The lightbearer tries one more time, even dazed, and pulls off the invocation. The Blue Hand hunters recoil from the blinding light, are filled with terror, and jump on their horses and are gone. 

Meanwhile the other three characters find themselves lost and separated in the dark caves. And…do they hear slithering in the dark?

To Recap

I want to circle back to what I said in the beginning. This was the first session where I went through and did all the prep recommended in the text. I thought through the Hillfolk bands and wrote a bunch of them up. Statted up the stone automaton, as well as some notes on what the terrain itself might do (d6HP at disadvantage, mostly nicks and scrapes but a small chance of worse), thought through the big-picture threat and updated their various bits and bobs. But the best parts of the game are where I specifically did not try to account for anyone’s particular instinct, or cool move they haven’t used in a while, or particular stat strengths or weaknesses.

Like the bit where Macsen knocks his persuade roll out of the park? He had it all! He absolutely succeeded! And threw it all away because Macsen is such an arrogant jerk. Or the bit where Carwyn just absolutely refuses to pack right and suffers the consequences? Honestly I had forgotten the player had made that choice.

I used to, deep in my trad years, try so hard to engineer these powerful moments, these hard choices. And like…sure, they happened. They even happened pretty often, because of course when you’re a clockwork god you have total control over the tempo of revelations and framing up big set pieces so they play out just so. But man is it rewarding to just wind up the toys and set them loose to do whatever they’re gonna do. 

The trick of course is to have toys with lots of productive affordances.

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