Stonetop AP Session 7: The Heart of Corruption

This is part 7 of our 10-part text AP of Stonetop. We posted part 6 a few weeks back, 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!

Content warning for self-harm in this episode.

We played this session in mid-November. When we were circling the holiday season, it got hard to hit our weekly sessions consistently. It had been, I think, three weeks since we last played? Before we started the session I was at about a 30% chance of just shrugging and letting it slide, start on the next bit of shininess on my shelves. But we stuck it out, folks remembered where we had left off, and I’m so glad we got back into it! 

Let’s settle in for a little Stonetop storytime.

When we last saw our heroes, they had scattered throughout an ancient Maker ruined underground facility. Some sort of … hangar, a garage perhaps, for the Stone Lords’ vast stone automata that still stomp around the Steplands. They had gotten a little shot up by the Blue Hand Band, a group of try-hard hillfolk who had hoped to bring our heroes’ heads to the big clan moot forming up at Blackwater Lake. The Lightbearer had put the whammy on them, scared off the young warriors. But not before young Madoc and his dog (Dog) scurried deep into the ruins to hide. 

Everyone started the session just beat to hell. Carwyn, the Fox, has an arrow in his leg. Macsen, the Seeker, got grazed by another arrow and is generally shook up. The Lightbearer got his bell rung earlier in the day after dealing with the stone automaton they’d followed to the hangar, and they’d been moving nonstop such that he’d never had time to catch his breath. The old man is struggling to keep up with the young kids, and the young kids are getting shredded due to a combination of poor preparation and bad luck.

Getting the ball rolling

Turns out it was good to start the session after a long break in situ, with a lot of urgency and problems to deal with. I think one problem with long breaks is that it’s hard to get up momentum to start a new thing, but if you’re in the middle of something, a lot of decision-making is taken out of your hands. You can focus on the doing, not the thinking about doing.

The kid, Madoc, is completely lost in the ruins with his dog. Just crying out for help, hears slithering wet things moving in the dark. Carwyn is limping through the ruins trying to find the kid, calling out for him but not too loud because he can’t tell what’s in here. The space Carwyn is moving through sounds big and echo-y, but he can barely see anything at all. 

Hafiz, the Lightbearer, whispers fire into some brush from outside and sets up something of a camp inside one of the inlets into this bigger hangar area. Macsen is being the worst possible Seeker – they really are the asshole playbook – and is excitedly exploring the hangar. He also needs to figure out how to extract his Mindgem from the innards of the big automaton that has returned and plugged itself into the facility.

So we basically have two parallel threads: Macsen messing with the machinery, and everyone else trying to get out of trouble in the ruins.

The heart of corruption

The interior of this Maker space is just completely corrupted by a Thing Below. There’s a big shimmering pool in the center of the hangar. Unwholesome red crystals are jutting out everywhere and the old space has obviously fallen apart over time and whatever other pressures the Thing Below has put it through. Dim blue glyphs appear and disappear throughout the space, some long-lost communication between the hangar and the rest of the automatons out scuttling around the steplands. Each bay displays flickering glyphs reflecting value judgements about their missing automata: tired, scared, hungry and returning home (fuckin’ yikes), hurt and lonely. The glyph from the golem they followed is triumphant

A voice inside the Seeker’s head, almost but not quite like the one the Mindgem uses, tells him to “make his mark.” Is it the hangar communicating with him? He touches the wall. The voice says “harder,” and he scratches his name in the stone with his dagger. The voice urges him to mark himself with that dagger. Hafiz sees Macsen about to carve into himself, but the Seeker stops at the last moment, breaking his dagger on the wall. Something about this place wants him to hurt himself.

Meanwhile the boy and his dog have been grabbed by tentacles emerging from another shimmering pool. This pool, though, sits vertically against a wall. Like a mirror. After a lot of struggle and back-and-forth, Madoc gets free of the tentacle…but the dog gets pulled into the pool, bloop, just gone. The adults try to talk sense into the boy but he runs into the pool to get Dog back. Carwyn follows.

The Things Below go hard

So this whole corrupted space is pretty gross and creepy. My tags or themes or whatever, can’t remember the term of art for this, are mutilation and confusion. The place urges everyone, in turn, to hurt themselves. Once they go “into” these pools they find themselves surrounded by dozens of reflecting pools, more like mercury than water, with a vast writhing mass at the center of it. Dog is getting dragged into the mass!

Back in the hangar, Macsen has coaxed the automaton into barfing up the Mindgem, but in the course of working with the machine realizes the red crystals have corrupted it. The machine bursts into the hangar and starts chasing him around! The result is some comic relief as Macsen consistently Defies Danger but drops the Mindgem, then recovers the Mindgem but has to face the machine again, and on and on. Eventually he uses a Seeker move that lets him put his environment to use, cool move! He tricks the machine into charging into the big pool, but it’s too big to fit. Until a bunch of tentacles reach up, grab the huge automaton, and drags it in. Along with, sigh, ye olde Mindgem. 

At this point the Seeker is seriously starting to question his obsession with this thing. Which is great, perfect, I was hoping he’d start questioning his obsessions. 

You got a li’l corruption on your chin there

This was a high-action sequence and it’s not worth a blow-by-blow. The net result of the various shenanigans is that the falling automaton crushes the writhing tentacles, which each break free and go either wriggling through the various portals or try to grab the characters. There are two big consequences of this.

The first is that the boy Madoc gets splashed with horrid black ichor from one of the torn tentacles. It soaks into him and does something to…well, his soul. A Thing Below has corrupted him! And Dog, being a good dog, goes to lick it off him. So Dog gets corrupted as well.

Great advice

I have to call out a really interesting bit of advice from Strandberg in Book 2 about how to deal with corruption and PCs. This is an approach my tired old trad-trained brain would have never considered, but it was so good and so smart.

Rather than imposing some awful thing on the character (and therefore the player), I asked the player directly: how do you want to deal with this corruption? There are, basically, three options.

  • One is to hand him the Thrall insert, an additional sheet of rules you get, normally, when you fail the Death’s Door move at 0 HP. It means you’re now a thrall to the Things Below, very straightforward.
  • Second option is to treat his corruption as a threat in-game, a growing problem in-game he’s going to need to deal with.
  • Third option is to treat “corrupted” as a problematic wound, address it via the Recover move, and just get on with it.

How big a deal do you want this to be? What a great question to ask the player.

He goes for the second option: Turn it into a threat.

Wildly problematic

I roll a d12 on each the “gift” and “mark” tables in the Things Below chapter to color up what’s going to happen. Oh man we get some interesting, troubling, wildly problematic outcomes. Combining the gift roll with what I know about how I set up this corrupted space, Madoc now has the power, ability, privilege, I’m not sure what to call it, to introduce “self harm” into his Persuade rolls. Just like what the cavern did to these characters, he can now do to other people. Gross.

We actually spent some time talking about that, and nobody X-carded. But we definitely took a good long check-in to make sure this was someplace we wanted to go (also being mindful that this is a threat and it’s something to be addressed before it gets worse, not a kewl new thing he can do to NPCs or whatever). The “mark” roll came up 1: his corruption – and Dog’s! – is contagious. He’s about to become Patient Zero in a self-mutilation plague?! 

Madoc also ended up pocketing an “obsidian pendant” he grabbed off the corpse of a Blue Hand warrior they found deep inside the ruins, an apparent suicide victim. The obsidian pendant, when worn, gives you perfect dark vision. It also gives you a new Instinct for the session: Callous. What a great way to provoke play. Just brilliant. So now this kid, normally so happy go lucky and innocent, is turning sullen and dangerous. Filled with pure evil or just a teenager, who can tell?

Standing at Death’s door

The other consequence of the fight with the tentacles is that Carwyn finally had to pay the piper for his insistence on preparing so very poorly. He just doesn’t have anything on hand that can help him in the fight and eventually the tentacles get him down to 0HP. We had our very first Death’s Door roll for reals! 

Anyone who has played Dungeon World knows that all the possible outcomes are rad as hell. In Stonetop the outcomes are “back in action at 1HP,” “you’re out of action but not dead,” and “now you’re a ghost or thrall,” thrall being so very appropriate when a Thing Below has crushed the life out of you. Carwyn rolled the 7-9 and has to be nursed back to health back at camp, while everyone recovers from their multiple close brushes with death or worse.

Hello, we’d like to not die please

The session ended with one quick group Defy Danger, an Expedition move called Struggle as One. Basically the party has to agree to how they’re all going to deal with the problem, i.e. pick the stat that’s least-bad across all the characters. The danger they’re defying is that they’ll arrive to the moot too late, their fates already sealed. So they settle on Dex, just absolutely haul ass across the Steplands for three days in a quick travel montage. The fast folks help the slow folks, it’s all good, they burn through their supplies, heal up their various HP and debilities and problematic injuries, and finally arrive at the gathering.

It’s about a thousand Hillfolk, all gathered on a vast old Stone Lord agora on the shore of Blackwater Lake, surrounded by broken pillars hundreds of feet high, bigger than any tree at their base. And now our heroes get to argue and plead for their lives and the future of Stonetop.

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