Stonetop AP Session 8: The Moot

This is part 8 of our 10-part text AP of Stonetop. We posted part 7 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!

In November 2023, it had been really hard to get sequential sessions into this game. The holidays are where campaigns go to die, after all.

I was starting to sense the stress cracks of trying to keep this thing together over many months with long weeks of breaks here lately. The biggest problem has been the accretion of canonical details, as well as smaller arcs that feed into bigger arcs. It’s a lot to keep in everyone’s heads.

There’s an old(ish) bit of indie wisdom that you can just let player attention handle continuity editing. If they don’t care about a thing, you can change the thing, let the thing slide, drop the thing entirely if you want. And I still think that’s true! But I think it’s less applicable at a large table with varying player skill (and, frankly, age: our younger players hold stuff in their minds much better than the older ones) over long stretches of real-world time, and through-lines that depend on that continuity.

We’d been playing Stonetop since the end of August, and my goal was to play eight sessions. We just had our eighth session, and I think I’ve got one more in me to wrap up their adventures in the fall season. At this point I think I’ll pitch the game season-by-season, with every season taking maybe three or four sessions and then a session back home doing homefront things. 

So let’s talk about what happened this last session! It was political and fraught and weird and — in the immediate aftermath of the session — not super satisfying.

Time To Face Justice

The main thrust of this entire fall journey has been about our heroes seeking out the Hillfolk to plead their case about the death of the Grassfoot Band’s shaman. After some dangerous, weird underground shenanigans en route (see previous entries) our heroes finally got to the grand gathering of the bands. It’s like a thousand Hillfolk all gathered at the shore of Blackwater Lake, atop some old Stone Lord ruins. This was the first time I’ve had to really dig into how the Hillfolk operate among themselves. Good time for the characters to be fish out of water.

Since they’re the only non-Hillfolk on site, the characters stand out pretty easily. And word has spread among the bands that the Stonetoppers are expected to arrive, and why they’re coming. But we’ve also established that all attendees of the moot are under mutual protection. The Blue Hand Band had tried to keep the PCs from attending at all (by murdering them preemptively) but now that they’re here, they can’t be touched. According to moot rules.

Party City

The entire scene is a vast, chaotic rolling party. I borrowed a lot of imagery from other semi-anarchic gatherings I’ve attended in real life: music, cooking, dancing, showing off, courting, drinking. I also drove home how deeply rooted in the spirit world every Band is, with groups of dancers and musicians clearly doing spirit-walking variations of what the characters did back in the summer. I wanted to remind them of what this was all really about, and how semi-unrooted, immaterial I guess, the entire Hillfolk worldview is. Good tension with my modern world players, whose characters come from a generally western-understandable materialist community.

They have no idea where to start, which is perfect. I ask around about how fluent in any version of Hillfolk-speak each character is (a variation on how Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall handles language, which I adored): native, fluent but accented, pidgin, not fluent/maybe a few problematic phrases.

One thing I’ve really appreciated about how this table is playing is that everyone’s committed to real fidelity to the game’s truths, rather than committing to winning. I got a good mix, here: the Seeker is our most fluent (but still accented and clearly an outsider), our Lightbearer and Fox have some pidgin, the young Would-Be Hero has a couple swears he’s been taught, as a joke, by Hillfolk traders who have visited Stonetop. The upshot of all this is that the Fox has all their very powerful social moves, but he’s going to be at disadvantage whenever he’s dealing with Hillfolk who aren’t themselves fluent in Stonetop-ese. This was one place I think their desire to win the conflict was in real tension with their desire for principled play. The tension is good! I want that.

Finally, after hesitating for reasons I still can’t fathom, Carwyn the Fox’s player makes a Seek Insight roll to try and get the lay of the land, figure out how the place is organized so they can meet the leaders on strongest possible terms.

This is when the fail train pulled out of the station. It built up speed the entire session.

Moot Rules or are they more Moot Guidelines?

So yeah. Carwyn misses his Seek Insight. His playbook still gives him an answer even on a miss, but it’s still a fuckin’ miss. He’s not gonna get advantage on the information he gets. So he just holds his one question for a bit while I play out the miss.

He gets directed by various Hillfolk deeper into the moot, and the characters all follow him as he takes the lead. Carwyn knows a guy, after all! He’s got an NPC relationship with Juda, the leader of the Grassfoot Band (which happens to be the band whose shaman he killed, it’s real bad). After the second or third “go there, go there,” Carwyn gets greeted by a large, affable member of the Brown Stone Band. He gets swept into the crowd and a group of Brown Stone warriors step in behind their exit. It takes a few minutes for the other characters to realize Carwyn has gone missing.

There’s some interesting chit-chat among the other characters about how much they actually care that Carwyn has gone “missing,” and they talk about how everyone’s supposed to be safe at the moot. Is he really in trouble? Should we bother? The Lightbearer’s player is pretty focused on getting to the leaders (he’s the player most pulled by the winning/principled play tension), but it becomes one of those planning-fugue things and we fall out of the fiction. So I switch back to Carwyn. 

So Your Family Is a Blood Cult

The Brown Stone Band warrior finally walks him into his encampment. It is fucking weird. They’re an offshoot, Carwyn discovers, of the Upper Wolf Band. As he’s been walking he’s been picking up just how Hillfolk leadership is organized. Upper Wolf is one of The Five, a group of five bands who, each year, are chosen through a mix of games, votes, personal challenges, spirit quests and happenstance to lead all the bands (except those who decide to opt out of the moot). It looks like chaos from the outside. 

Anyway, the weirdness. At the center of the Upper Wolf encampment there’s a bedraggled girl, like 12 or so. She sits atop a pile of rugs and skins, like it’s an ad-hoc throne. A group of Brown Stone warriors lay prostrate at her feet. The Upper Wolf’s leader, Adm (the actual representative on The Five), stands behind her, deferential. Carwyn stumbles a bit over the leg of one of the prostrate warriors, looks down, sees this guy is dead dead dead. And his blood is flowing freely into a bowl, along with the others.

The girl is handed a cup of this blood. She downs it like she hasn’t consumed anything in weeks. Not a drop escapes. They bring her another cup. Adm steps forward to inspect Carwyn, looking in his eyes and ears like he’s livestock.

Maybe We Should Protect Our Own After All?

Right, so after this scene has taken place, the other players have changed their tune a bit about their plans. They decide they should be worried about Carwyn after all, and start making their own rolls to figure out what just happened and where he went off to. This is where we do some Know Things stuff about just how the Hillfolk self-organize.

They eventually figure out Carwyn got kidnapped out of the crowd, see the Brown Stone warriors giving them the evil eye, decide that a kidnapping means trouble (it’s a fine rationale to square the players’ new information).

Remember the thing about language? Funny thing is, the Seeker is their least charismatic character and is also the one stuck making the reasonable social moves. So the three of them walk up to the Brown Stone folk and ask to be taken into their camp. Nothing doing, they can’t be persuaded, no roll even happens. But young Madoc and his dog (Dog), the Would-Be Hero who doesn’t speak a lick of Hillfolk other than a few kid-swears, steps up and starts making kid-level demands. “Hey guys, let us in!” and all that.

The problem is, is that Madoc is Corrupted.

Dark Logical Consequences

Last session, Madoc and Dog both ended up corrupted by a Thing Below. We had talked about how he wanted to play it – take the Thrall playbook insert, accept a named problematic injury and some attendant new abilities/problems, or just recover from it in a future scene and leave it behind. He chose the second option. The mark he bears is that his corruption is contagious. The gift (“gift”) is that, like the corruption effect back in the ruins, he can induce folks to harm themselves (ie he can introduce that as a goal via the Persuade rules). Complicating all this is the fact he’s wearing an obsidian necklace that’s given him a new Instinct: Callousness.

I’m not regretting that he made this choice, but I’m recognizing now just how much bandwidth his Corruption is going to take in the game. It’s a new center of gravity in almost everything we do. It’s not bad but I need to incorporate that new gravity into my thinking throughout each session going forward.

Okay so Madoc, although he can’t really communicate with these guys, can induce them to hurt themselves and maybe create a distraction. So he makes the case for a wordless Persuade, which I buy because that’s basically how the Corruption worked back in the caves. He is callous after all. It’s every possible alibi to “play evil” but happily this is in the hands of the player most committed to principled play. He’s genuinely torn between submitting to the dark side and wanting to accomplish things!

He succeeds but only via a Would-Be Hero move (Impetuous Youth, his background choice) that allows him to turn 7-9s into 10+s. The cost of doing so is that the situation escalates. Okay! 

It’s time for that Corruption contagion to start spreading through the moot.

Fail Fail Fail

Well, the distraction does work in the short term. The warrior Madoc spoke to staggers off and smashes his own head into one of the oversized mega-pillars that jut up out of the ruins they’re camped in. And the other two Brown Stone warriors are fucking thrilled. They recognize something in him that “the girl” will want to see. They grab the boy to pull him into camp. 

Madoc tries to break free and Macsen, the Seeker, tries to help him get away by Aiding his Defy Danger roll. The fail train picks up speed! Rather than escaping, all hell breaks loose. 

Macsen gets shoved away from the boy and the camp by the two Brown Stone warriors. He can just feel the ass-kicking coming in, and this scrawny guy is not built for scrapping. So bad. 

Sweet Tween Romance

Meanwhile the weird girl in the camp senses Madoc, and Madoc senses her, with some lowkey horny-young-kid vibes strongly implied, and they’re drawn to each other. Carwyn, who had talked himself out of being turned over to the Upper Wolf shamaness for “spiritual preparation” (never got into what that could have been but it seemed terrible), is also on hand to try and get the kid out of trouble. But the kid really doesn’t seem to want to get out of trouble. In fact, in her presence, he just wants to give up.

This is actually a move I’ve made for this girl, the avatar of Narust, the Thing Below that’s been the overarching villain all game long. You need to defy danger or just give up. So he makes the roll and now the fail train is going full speed. He just completely misses and is dropping to his knees. But! Once again he pulls a move out of his ass, this time it’s Iron Willed, which lets him take some damage to throw off mind-control effects. It’s really perfect. The mix of a well-written playbook played by a strong player willing to really leverage the moves has made the Would-Be Hero the MVP at the table every session.

Some additional chaos ensues, but the net result is that the girl reveals herself to be something not-human at this point. She is the motherless! The all-consuming child! And she distends her mouth so far open that it’s physically larger than her head. And she chomps down on Madoc.

A Lesser Success, A Cost, or a Consequence

This finally seems to shake the Lightbearer out of his fugue state – I think if this player doesn’t have a specific move he can specifically apply to a situation, he doesn’t feel comfortable just “doing things” in the fiction (it’s an ongoing issue he has in PbtA games) – and he consecrates a nearby bonfire and lashes out with the power of Helior to Go Back to the Shadows. I need to use a little GM judgment here: is the girl possessed by a spirit of darkness? Is Madoc, for that matter? I decide the girl is but, again, I leave it to Madoc’s player to decide for himself just what his Corruption “means.” This is a good choice for this player! He decides that, yeah, he’s also possessed by a spirit of darkness. They both take 2d8 HP damage. 

The girl is reduced to 1 and Madoc is reduced to, like 3 or 4. But he’s obviously affected by the blast, and Hafiz the Lightbearer is so dismayed by this. Hafiz now realizes the kid he’s charged with protecting is a thing of darkness. And he has no idea how to cure him of it (yet!). We talk about the Make a Plan procedure you do during homefront time. 

The rest of the Upper Wolf and Brown Stone tribes fall in to protect the girl, everyone parts ways, and they play it cool now because the rest of the moot sees the whole “everyone is protected here” rule being blatantly violated. Kind of the thing where two kids fighting at school get caught and they cover for each other. Nobody’s in trouble but everyone’s still big mad.

Closing In On The End

So all that stuff was pretty good, a bit chaotic, and mostly revealed just how hard it’s going to be to plead for their lives, finally, when the time comes. One of those sitting in judgment leads the cult that’s protecting a Thing Below! And Juda, the Grassfoot chief with a connection with Carwyn, reveals that the shaman was his brother. That big reveal came as a result of another miss. I think the endless string of misses, along with the new Corruption situation, is what led to the session being a little frustrating to me! Not bad, but definitely not the romp they’d been having before.

The rest of the session involved lots of world building and canonical backfilling as Carwyn and Macsen traveled around to the other three tribes of The Five to get the lay of the land.

Very briefly, they find out that the rest of The Five do know about this girl who’s taken over Upper Wolf and formed a human sacrifice cult. That’s useful to the Stonetoppers! Hafiz had gotten a vision from his god Helior (via a love letter the last time we had a big break) of how to defeat Narust, and he knows that if Narust itself is banished, its various avatars and Corruptions will also be banished. Great! 

They make that offer: grant us a year to solve this problem that threatens all of us, and we will submit to your judgment at the next moot. The fail train pulls into the station, yeah. Even with advantage, they roll a 6. Macsen, the terribly uncharismatic Seeker who’s been stuck with all the talking, uses the Burn Brightly option (spend 2XP for a +1 – everyone’s got a lot of XP due to each season taking so many sessions to play through) and nudges his Persuade (an NPC) up to a 7.

The agreement is on. But only if they deal with the immediate threat of the strange girl. “Deal with” being code for, well, the thing Hafiz has been struggling to not do. He could have killed the thing inside the girl with his Lightbearer power, but that would have killed the girl as well. And now this is the only way forward. It might also kill Madoc in the process.

Last Thoughts

In retrospect, it actually was a good session. But it was a struggle the whole way, which is I think what I was feeling. The endless missed rolls are a big load for me, the GM, to fill! Once upon a time this was almost a dealbreaker for me and PbtA games, in fact. I’m well over that now, but the load is still there. Sometimes you just want events to progress to the next thing, you know? But misses snowball, and it takes so much intentionality to get stuff back on track. And not even in a railroad-y way, of course! Just back to a moment of stability where everyone can take stock in what’s going on, reorient, and pick a new path forward. It feels good to be proactive. It can feel good to be reactive as well! But in this case, it was all just so dire. 

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