Stonetop AP Episode II: On The Road

This is part 2 of our 10-part text AP of Stonetop. We posted part 1 last week. 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!

Had to start a little later than usual because my kid’s in the school musical and my fellow parents will know this is a big commitment all around. But we got 2.5ish hours in as our heroes continued south to meet with the Hillfolk and get their help treating with the gwead spirit that’s decided it’s time The Flats swallow their town under waves of grass.

The last session had left off with our greedy Seeker getting curious about the broken Maker’s Road bits visible at the Crossroads just a few hours out of Stonetop. The Road points directly at the Ruined Tower, a destination out of history and legend way deep in The Flats. The Seeker’s player has honed in on a nicely obsessive vibe for the character, and the game does a nice job of paying you for your bad decisions (like a low-key Burning Wheel). Meanwhile, the young Would-Be Hero has seen things moving in the tall grasses and kept quiet, not wanting the older guys to laugh at him. It wasn’t a surprise, not really, when the Pack Drakes attacked.

Notable Divergences

The Pack Drake (kind of a grassland hyena) writeup in Book 2 says they show up in groups of six to “a couple dozen.” So holy yikes there. I threw 4d6 to randomize just how big a pack had been following our hapless travelers. Looks like 20 or so? Huge pack.

I took a little time to talk about what was about to happen, since this was our first Dungeon World style fight anyone at the table had been in in years. Since Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, actually, although the player running the Fox had run DW at some point and was probably fresher than the rest of us on the vibe.

One thing that jumped out at me, reviewing everything in the book the other day, is how notably different harm is in Stonetop! There are hit points, yes, but there is no “inflict hp damage” type move. Nor is there an “inflict a debility.” On my first read I thought this was not very important but it turns out to be vitally, centrally important. The GM move “do harm” never means just ticking off hit points. It’s always HP and a debility and/or a problematic wound — that is, an injury with actual fictional positioning you need to pay attention to.

So with that explanation in mind, we proceeded with the Pack Drake attack.

The Trap Is Sprung

I decided, since the critters’ tags include things like stealthy and organized and cautious, that they wouldn’t just piranha him straight out of the grass. But in Stonetop fashion, I started asking questions about these critters and used those answers to shape the rest of the fight. I adore this application of player-driven world building!

We learned, by asking questions around the table, that pack drakes:

  • set ambushes for their prey, because individually they’re too small to do much to you.
  • are afraid of large groups, which is why the hillfolk always travel in groups of three or more on The Flats (which would come up later as well)

I rolled a single d6 to see how many of the critters actually took a first swing at our Seeker. One! One lone evil critter jumped out and sprinted at the guy. The rest rustled around in the grass, slowly encircling his position. The would-be hero is also a shepherd on The Flats for his family back at home, so he and his dog (named Dog) add one more detail about pack drakes:

  • they rustle the grass to drive their prey into the actual ambush, which lies deadly still until they can spring the trap

Given our new understanding of harm in Stonetop, I expected the whole fight to be far fewer but more consequential moments. Also a vibe I like a lot more than smashing the hit button over and over until the toon blows up. The Seeker has moment to react in the face of this little furry buzzsaw…and has a move called Work With What You’ve Got. He quickly Seeks Insight around him — he’s just a few yards off the Road — and sees some small standing stones, a couple old hanging trees, stuff in the terrain he could use. WWWYG plays into the Seeker’s scholarly character type and lets him buy some time. So he gets behind one of the stones — they’re more like gravestones, really — and pushes it over onto the incoming critter. They’re tiny and he crushes it outright. And all hell breaks loose.

The rest of the fight is a matter of going around the circle to figure out how folks are Aiding the Seeker in getting out of the quickly closing trap of buzzsaw teeth. The kid and his dog run directly toward the Seeker — because pack drakes are scared of crowds, and Seeker + kid + dog make three. So rather than granting advantage (which the Seeker already got from WWWYG), I expand what’s possible with his upcoming Defy Danger to get away from the animals: rather than simply escaping to the road, the crowd will, if he succeeds, actually repel the pack entirely.

The moves really do lock together really nicely in moments like this. DW’s underlying framework is doing a bit of work here, as is our own mastery of when and how to apply the moves. But also the Follower moves are so good and simple and clean! And the dog is a Follower per the rules. So that was fun.

Anyway, it works. Oh I forgot about what else the kid saw when he used Dog to Seek Insight before trying to help: “who’s really in control here” is…three Hillfolk up on a ridge, watching the pack carry out its attack. And when the heroes chase the pack away, the Hillfolk fall off. The rustling of the grass seems to be headed right toward the ridge. Hmm!

Did You Pack Something Warm?

The rest of the session was driven by some random results, giving our characters opportunities to chew scenery en route to the end of their actual trip. Starting with waking up in snow, quickly turning into sleet as the sun rose.

This compelled everyone to check off “cloak” in their equipment list so they could be warm (a tag), an easy way to Defy the Danger of getting really fucking cold. So rather than dealing with problematic wounds — illness and frostbite most likely — they all end up wet and miserable (a debility that dings CON and CHA). I might have played that a little wrong since the Roads themselves help deflect poor weather. Oh well!

But I very much liked the interplay of tags, the inventory system, and random events. Like our Fox? He went light! So holy cats, he’s almost out of stuff he brought! He’s got a bow and iron arrows, and now a cloak, and he’s down to his last undeclared spot. I like that pressure very much. The tags also feel like they matter more here. Maybe it’s that I’ve finally, after many years, fully embraced the fictional positioning-ness of them.

Greed, And The Application of Such

There’s an inter-character argument about whether to hunker down at a nearby Wayside — a wide spot in the Road with lean-tos — until the weather cleared, versus pushing through and sticking to their schedule. Arguing while you’re miserable is a treat! Because the person most interested in pushing through made the roll and missed. So I turned the whole thing around and now everyone has decided to hunker down instead. They’re looking at their supplies and it’s not great! They’ve allowed for zero days of slack: two days to get to Titan Bones and treat with the Hillfolk, and two days to get home. They’re gonna have to go out (in a group of three or more!) onto The Flats and hunt. That’s a tomorrow problem.

The Wayside has one other party present, also waiting out the weather. (This is a roll I made, totally off the cuff.) They’re grizzled old treasure-hunters, sketchy dirtbags all, very secretive about what they’re up to despite a stack of picks and shovels and ropes tucked in there with them. The Seeker knows his people! So, being greedy and selfish, goes over to chat them up, hoping to extract useful information.

He misses his Seek Insight. But rather than making it a painful miss, I look over my GM moves for inspiration (I still do this sometimes!) and come up with a better plan.

They offer to take him out digging at their secret spot.

Intelligent Rocks

Offer an opportunity? Separate them? Reveal an unwelcome truth about just how singleminded and greedy this guy is? I’m really proud of this move, tbh.

The Seeker is, of course, intrigued. But he wants to know what’s possible to find out here. So he tries to Know Things. Despite having advantage (roll 3d, take the highest two) toward all this stuff — no playbook is better suited for exactly this! — he rolls a miss.

This troublemaker, ugh.

The Mindgem, a major arcana he started with, is in a satchel by his side. He’s been communing with it during this trip — at one point he actually froze solid while it gripped his mind, and everyone else noticed — and … it seems like it wants to be found. By someone willing to take it out and see things, not by a cautious, grasping Seeker who doesn’t want to share his toys. The Mindgem seems to reveal itself to one of the treasure hunters as they discuss going out on the Flats to dig. Like…the flap of the satchel flips open. Did the Seeker himself flip open the satchel? Did it use mind control or just magick it open itself? Who knows. But treasure hunters know a major arcana when they see one. One of them makes to grab it out of the bag.

Violence? In This Economy?

The thing about the Maker Roads is that they’re enchanted against violence. Folks generally feel safe on the Roads because it takes a real act of will to overcome that magic. Like when the Seeker whips his knife up into the treasure hunter’s face to stop him from taking it.

There’s a move and everything! On a 10+, which the Seeker gets, you still have to take 1d4 HP and do your violence at disadvantage. Good thing the Fox is right there at his side providing Aid and bringing the roll back to neutral. Our first real combat!

The Seeker rolls Clash, of course. Gets a 7-9. He’s got a knife and the other guy’s just got his fist, so trading damage (and debilities and/or problematic wounds) is pretty straightforward. It also forces everyone to take a step back because, hurray, violence is really ugly in this game. There are no mooks, this is not a videogame.

The Lightbearer intercedes in the fight to save the Seeker. While the treasure hunter’s cheek is cut open with the knife, the Lightbearer takes a fist square in the face for some HP and is dazed.

The treasure hunters carefully back off, and the PCs carefully back off and start repacking to continue down the road after all. The folks who had failed the Persuade earlier are not so secretly grateful to be back on track.

On their way out, one of the treasure hunters is consulting what appears to be a minor arcana. It flashes and glows and they say “the weather will break in a couple hours, we can proceed.” I have no idea if this sort of thing is an existing minor arcana but … now of course the Seeker is desperate for it.

As they head down the road toward Titan Bones, the Seeker and Fox have another quiet chat. The Seeker makes an excellent argument that Stonetop’s fortunes could be greatly improved if they knew what weather was coming — he wants the Fox to go back and steal this device from the treasure hunters! He only rolls a 7-9 to Persuade because everyone’s still Miserable. But also? The weather indeed broke right on schedule. The widget is the real deal.

What Could Go Wrong?

Final scene! And I didn’t realize my short session was gonna produce so much storytime so thanks for reading if you made it this far.

The Fox is genuinely torn about going. He consulted with the Seeker at some point about this magical key he’s got and thought, heck, let’s fiddle with it and see what happens. What happened is that he’s down to 3 HP and is dazed by his exposure to it. And its hooks are now in his brain and he’s experiencing occasional blinding migraines. But that sweet sweet XP carrot is right there. And he’s eager to be seen as helpful by these folks, since he’s currently viewed as somewhere between charming dirtbag and…the regular kind of dirtbag.

He steals their horse that night to make time on the treasure hunters. The would-be hero’s player was super hoping he’d fail his Defy Danger (of being caught) so the kid could follow. Alas, the Fox is actually very good at this stuff. Even at 3HP.

Lots of Defy Dangers. After slipping away in the night, since he took a horse to make good time I’m not going to make him roll at disadvantage to Defy the Danger that he can’t find them before daybreak. Then one more Defy, looking down on their camp from a quiet dark ridge, to slip in and steal the widget right out from under their nose.

To prep — and hopefully get advantage on the Defy — he Seeks Insight on the treasure hunter’s camp way out on the Flats. Of course he asks “what should I be on the lookout for?” And it’s not the treasure hunters! It’s nosgalau.

I’ve been looking forward to introducing this thing. They’re will-o-the-wisps out on The Flats that lure travelers away. And on this night, he can see their tiny lights in the distance here and there like fireflies.

Okay! So he’s at advantage to Defy the Danger of being caught by the treasure hunters. He’s at +2 DEX and not suffering any debilities. And the Fox gets a 7-9 anyway.

The consequence of succeeding at grabbing the weather widget? He hears the call of the nosgalau (it’s a move). It sounds like the girl he left behind back at Stonetop that he’s been pining for.

He follows her voice out into the gwead.

And that’s the end of the sesh.

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