Stonetop AP Session 10: Thrall

This is part 10 of our 10-part text AP of Stonetop. We posted part 9 a couple weeks ago, 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: it’s our grand finale!

It had been another long, long break since our last session of Stonetop, about six weeks. I always forget that the holiday season is where campaigns go to die. And with a game with as much narrative going on as this one, it’s just so hard to keep the fizz in the bottle. I will say, though, that this was the first campaign I’ve run this century that has survived multiple multi-week breaks.

It had been six weeks of thinking it was time to wrap this game up. Maybe not forever! And in the end, everyone was eager to make sure we packaged things up so we could return to the game in the future. I ended up feeling a little guilty about bringing it to a close, but what an ending. 

c/w for animal and child endangerment.

A Bottomless Pit

We last left off with the four adventurers splitting off into two groups. After some heated negotiating around both making peace with the angry hillfolk of the steplands, and what to do with the (probably) demon-possessed kid in their charge, the groups parted ways. Macsen, the Seeker, and Carwyn, the Fox, headed back to meet with the hillfolk moot.

(NB to the folks who have been following this series: this is not how episode 9 left off! The six weeks off left players self-editing where they picked up, which was interesting and wanted to include. I wanted to mention that because, yeah, that cliffhanger last episode was really good! But not good enough to survive six weeks of waiting.)

The hillfolk had said they knew of a “bottomless pit” into which they could chuck the Red Scepter, a deeply cursed object that is the anchor into this word for Narust, a Thing Below. That’s a lot of proper nouns! But the bottom line was that they were going to explain to the hillfolk that everyone’s problems would be solved just as soon as they returned the Red Scepter to The Below. Let the accursed fallen gods have their toy, get out of our lives.

Oh, Dog.

Meanwhile, Hafiz, the Lightbearer, and Madoc, the Would-Be Hero, are ready to head home. Madoc wakes up, completely unaware of the fighting and haggling the three adults have been doing out of earshot. But it’s just the old man with him now, and they’re headed home. Although…where’s his dog?

Animal Endangerment Is Some Villain Shit

I’ve put an X card on the table in this campaign a few times when things get problematic but this table is pretty okay with walking right up to the edge of some very tough content. The dog going missing, though! I almost Xed myself.

So Hafiz is back at camp tearing down, and Madoc is off to find Dog (the dog). The standing problem of our heroes wandering in the Steplands is that several small bands have decided the Stonetoppers deserve to die. Stumbling into hillfolk out here might be a problem! Madoc rolls to defy that danger, and comes up short. He hears the strangled yelp of Dog and then … silence.

Those bastards!

He runs toward the sound and sees Dog has been strung up by his neck from a tree. They’re using Dog to lure the Stonetoppers out! And sure enough Madoc runs and runs. He ends up ambushed, surrounded by angry hillfolk ready to murder him. This is the cost of the party walking away from the moot with their situation unresolved. 

Kids, Seriously

Madoc is struggling mightily to keep Dog alive and not die himself when Hafiz finally tracks them down. He lays down his sun-god mojo and strikes fear into the Grassfoot Band who’s really eager to spear the kid.

Once he’s bought some time, Hafiz tries to negotiate with the Grassfoot: let us heal your wounded, we don’t intend to harm you. The Grassfoot leader, Juda, is among them though. It was his brother the Stonetoppers killed in the spring, and the entire reason they’re in the Steplands in the first place. But Hafiz is convincing, despite rolling at disadvantage. They agree to stop with the violence here-and-now if they’ll return to the moot and stand before The Five to plead their case.

Conflict of Interest

Meanwhile, Macsen and Carwyn have been making their way back to the moot on their own. They’ve never traveled together, just the two of them, so there’s some very amusing bickering about how to set camp, how to keep an eye out for wandering hillfolk, and so on. It’s much less action-packed than back at camp! But they’re slow because they’re on foot. By the time they get back to the moot, the place that had once had thousands of partying hillfolk is now nearly empty. It’s just The Five, without an entourage. And … Hafiz and Madoc, who were brought by horse.

The hillfolk leaders who had negotiated the side deal last time – cast Narust, the Thing Below, out of our world this year and we will hear your case next year – own up to the fact that it was a side deal. Shamed and contrite, they’ve given up the title of “First of the Five.” And guess who is now the First? That’s right, Juda. The very guy whose brother died. Conflict of interest, much?

Courtroom Drama

This bit of the session was interesting because it’s almost entirely freeform!

Hafiz goes rhetorically aggro on the entire Five and continues down that path. “Curious way to fend for your life, starting arguments with your judges,” Juda says, feeling clever.

“My life isn’t mine to defend, it’s Helior’s!” the Lightbearer answers. Chef’s kiss, holy shit. 

Anyway, the old man continues to push and push. He explains everything that happened, explains why Carwyn had to defend himself, presses that surely someone in the band noticed how unhappy the spirit talker was. It’s an impassioned Iron Age pseudo-courtroom drama, just marvelous. And it all came down to a single Persuade roll. They have to go all in on it so Carwyn, terribly contrite and mournful, Aids the roll.

They make the roll with flying colors! After the Five consult for a bit amongst themselves, Juda storms out, swearing eventual vengeance and removing himself from the proceedings. The remaining leaders explain that Juda just needs time to come to terms, and will come to agree with the vote if he wants his band to be welcomed to the next moot. All good stuff. Huge relief to have their case dismissed after so many months of facing this potential death sentence.

Which brings us to disposing of the Red Scepter.

The Deepest Water

The real reason Macsen and Carwyn had intended to return to the hillfolk was to find out where this fabled, alleged “bottomless hole” could possibly be. They honestly had thought their case was on hold for a year, I think. Having it be revealed that the side deal was not cool with the rest of the Five was, I thought, an interesting realpolitik wrinkle. Possibly frustrating to the players. It’s always a hard sell to get players on-side with ambiguity, you know? But I think everyone understood that they were dealing with flawed NPCs making flawed plans for their own flawed reasons. I run a pretty gray game when it comes to morality, right versus wrong, all that. 

The remaining hillfolk, headed out after disbanding The Five once and for all until next year’s moot, point out across Blackwater Lake. It’s a gorgeous, vast, reflective lake. Perfectly calm and flat. Waterfalls pour into it from the mountains beyond. And in the middle of the lake? A quiet whirlpool into which the lake perpetually drains. The hole in the world that destroyed the old Stone Lord city that goes straight down to The Below.

This is gonna be a problem. A big problem. There are endless taboos about deep water in Stonetop: it’s where the Things Below reside, and in this case it’s obviously, patently true. Hafiz’s player, high on his success in defending their actions as self-defense to The Five, suggests he’ll just swim out there and be a total badass. Ahhh…but you’ll be Defying Danger at disadvantage because literally nobody in this world knows how to swim. You’re all scared shitless of the water, yo!

How hard could it be?

They revise their plans and decide to figure out how to build some sort of raft. It’ll take days, they don’t really have the right tools, and they’ve never built a lake-worthy vessel before. But at least the roll won’t be at a disadvantage. 

Madoc, the would-be hero kid, has other plans.

The Thrall

Madoc,is a Thrall of Narust, the Thing Below that poisoned him when he got lost underground. And Narust is not at all happy with where things are going with the Red Scepter. If the heroes chuck it into the whirlpool, Narust’s anchor is broken and it is returned to The Below. 

Narust’s instinct is “to erode hope/faith/honor/self-image.” I lean really hard into that. Rather than making direct demands of Madoc, the Thing Below chips away at the boy’s hope and self-image. Narust’s first gambit: “They will die trying to discard that toy. It’s not even my only anchor! They’ll die, it’ll be your fault, and it will all be for nothing.”

I experiment with letting Madoc’s player decide how to take his dark master’s words. It works okay but each time, I think, the player is expecting me to give his character explicit marching orders. But I stick to it. He agrees with Narust! He has to stop his friends from killing themselves on this mad attempt to float across the deep water. 

This also gives him his fourth and final Favor. Favor is the economy a Thrall uses to gain Marks. Permanent changes granted by the master. 

There’s an interesting Mark you can gain as a Thrall of any Thing Below: Child of the Deep. Guess what it does? “You can breathe water and suffer no harm from cold or pressure. Your skin becomes squamous etc etc.


The kid waits for the adults to be fully engaged with their raft-building, sneaks to their packs, and quietly steals the Red Scepter. Realizing what Madoc intends to do at this point, Narust gives him one last order: NO. STOP.

Madoc simply says “fuck you, Narust” and invokes Iron-Willed (a WBH move). Instead of engaging with the impulse at all, he simply takes the damage – quite a lot actually – and makes a mad dash for the water.

Rolling in the Deep

The adults realize too late what the insane boy is doing. But is he insane? They can see he’s stripping off his clothes to reveal a slimy, scaling coating. Hafiz had been semi-convinced that Madoc wasn’t a thrall of a Thing Below, but realizes he was wrong. By the time they see what’s happening, it’s simply too late. The boy goes below the water and it’s just too far out for anyone to hope to survive. 

Lots of rolls happen at this point, and in typical PbtA fashion at the end of a long arc, you always get the results that make the most sense. It’s an emergent quality of a lot of these games, and it’s just so satisfying. 

Macsen, the Seeker, consults his own knowledge of Things Below to “remember” something about the scales and fish-person-ness he’s just seen. He remembers that Helior’s priesthood has been known to cure thralls of this condition! Can he be saved?

Hafiz, the Lightbearer, shrugs off sacrificing the boy as both inevitable and necessary. He had feared the boy was lost, but if he’s going to sacrifice himself, what better way than to save everyone from the Thing Below that had taken him in the first place?

Carwyn opens his third eye to reach out and psychically probe the boy as he goes deeper and deeper. He asks only one question, and a followup. “Are you being compelled?” He is not.

And then, “Are you okay with this?” And he is.

Meanwhile, Madoc is so very deep in the lake. He can’t swim, only walk, but his thrall nature allows him to do so. The whirlpool is so powerful down in the depths! He Defies Danger to chuck the evil Scepter into the whirlpool and not himself get sucked in, and he succeeds. But the moment the Scepter goes in, the anchor is broken. And Madoc is no longer a thrall. 

He’s now a boy at the bottom of a lake drowning. 

Fresh Baked Bread

There’s a chance Madoc might flail his way to the surface but the sun looks so dim from down here. He struggles and struggles, makes the Defy Danger roll, and it’s a miss. But he’s an Impetuous Youth! He can turn a miss into a 7-9 result but he has to pick a consequence. He picked “you get hurt” (take 2d4 damage and an actual injury). But he’d already taken a bit of damage from throwing Narust out of his mind. 

It’s real deep out there.

He rolls 4, twice. It’s exactly enough to zero him out. 

This brings us to Death’s Door, the “you’re not really out, maybe” move. His description of Death’s Door is the inviting doorway to his home back in Stonetop. The smell of fresh-baked bread. The sound of his mother’s voice, now the Lady of Crows, calling out to him to come home finally.

He rolls a 5. Madoc goes through the door.

Madoc also gets to “make one last move as if you rolled a 12+,” which is such a nice consolation prize. He orders Dog to always protect his hero and friend Carwyn, the man who needs protection and a friend most of all. 

And that was our session.


2 thoughts on “Stonetop AP Session 10: Thrall”

Leave a Reply