One of the things I love about Stonetop is its anti-canon nature, procedurally generating situations, which players are then encouraged to help flesh out. There’s lore, but much of the lore is player generated, meaning it will differ from table to table and that players rarely have to worry about contradicting established canon. Instead of tales from a book think of it as tales told around a fire, changing with each telling.

The Ustrina Beneath Gordin’s Delve

Here’s a good example of the power of this approach. One session my players were exploring Gordin’s Delve for the first time, trying to find and rescue the wife of their miller. About a half hour before the session, I used Book II to roll up some highlights of what they might find. I rolled up a chance encounter with a prospector, who turned out be Ustrina. Unfortunately, its disposition was rolled as “Planning treachery or betrayal.” Heading over to the Ustrina section, I randomly rolled for its name and got “The Sibonio,” then rolled-up a trade mission for it to offer 3 sapphires in exchange for “A strange and difficult task (like slaying some horror in the Labyrinth).” Which led me to Jeremy’s notes on the Labyrinth, which led me to Perilous Almanacs, which gave me a whole setting for the session!

At this point, the players had never encountered Ustrina: “mask-wearing people…trading finely worked goods, wonders, and the odd bit of orichalcum.” This is where the anti-canon options kick in, to be decided at the table. Jeremy writes:

The Ustrina never remove their masks, robes, or gloves. Rumors abound, of course, but if anyone reliable knows what they truly look like, they aren’t telling. The true nature of the Ustrina is up to you and your group to decide, but possibilities include:

• Flesh and blood, much like us, but with elaborate traditions of privacy and decorum

• Mutant scavengers of the Forge Lords’ ruins, horrible to behold, disguised when they deal with humanity

• Naught but elemental spirits (page 182), animating a simple skeleton of bronze

• Constructs of impossibly intricate clockwork, animated by glowing soul-gems

• Ancient servants of the Forge Lords who have slowly replaced flesh with clockwork

• A bunch of smaller creatures animating an elaborate puppet.

But my PCs still had to get to the Labyrinth, so back to the Delve’s tables I went. I rolled a Discovery: “Signs of violence/disaster,” which turned out to be “One or more dead bodies.” After about five hours of exploring (in the fictional world, not IRL!), I let the Ranger use Expert Tracker (though the trail was very old): he came across fresh, soot-covered footprints. The party argued over whether to follow the tracks where they came from (down) or where they were going to (up) and to my delight split the party. Downwards they found 6 burnt bodies (“burnt” because the baddie is a fire cultist from Perilous Almanacs) and upwards that group finds The Sibonio.

As an aside, the advice for roleplaying the Ustrina was also excellent—“Tips: speak formally and proceed all proper nouns with ‘the’ (‘the Rhianna,’ ‘the Gordin’s Delves’); talk into an empty soda can (or at least with your hand in front of your mouth).” I did a lot of talking through the soda can!

Other Sessions

After a few sessions where I rolled these encounters during play, I decided I personally prefer to roll them right before the session: mainly to have less downtime during play, but also I’ve found the added bit of time thinking about them makes it easier to make soft moves that foreshadow hard moves. (For instance, in the example above, the bodies discovered were burnt, because I’d ended up with the fire cultists.)

I had not really leaned into procedural generation before Stonetop, but I really enjoy it. In fact, I wish there were even more of it. For instance, the Great Wood has random tables for Terrain and Discoveries (with subtables) but just a lists of monsters. A wandering monster table would be great. More tables for the Great Wood would have made sense, as it is the closest source of adventure for residents of Stonetop, which is perched on a cliff overlooking the Great Wood.

Players as Sources of Anti Canon

In our campaign, the Blessed was the narrative authority on the god Helior, and the Lightbearer on the goddess Danu. They told us what worship was like, and what some of their beliefs were. Different players were narrative authorities on the region their PC is from or knew best: in my case, the Lightbearer was from Marshedge, the Fox has spent time beyond the Barrier Pass, and the Ranger was the authority on the Great Wood (and therefore on the monsters common to the forest). In different games, with different playbooks in use, this differs. As Jeremy points out:

In a game with no Judge, who has authority over [the god] Aratis? In our first long-running game, it was split between the Would Be Hero (because she established that the Hillfolk worshipped Aratis and she was Hillfolk) and the Seeker from down south who worshipped a different form of Aratis. Every instantiation of Stonetop is going to have a different mix of classes, backgrounds origins and just stories.

Most locations in Book II have lists of questions for the GM to ask any or all the players, to help them flesh out the setting. For instance, here’s the list of questions from the Great Wood:

• Who in your family used to ply the Wood? How did they lose their nerve?

• What did you see deep in the Wood that you’ve never told to another?

• Who did you lose to the Wood? How?

• Of all the stories you’ve heard of the Wood, which one scares you most?

Rarely did my players bump up against “canon.” Once the Fox was talking about the Hillfolk and their smithy, not realizing that “The Hillfolk view mining metal ores as sacrilege.” In retrospect I could have played that differently; there are many bands of Hillfolk, and perhaps the band she had spent time with was fine with smithing but not mining.

Play to Find Out

What’s great about anti-canon games is that they provide a detailed setting, but by randomizing it, they relieve the burden of needing to know the lore in detail.

I find that Stonetop actually encourages co-creation of the setting far more than Dungeon World itself did. And its procedural nature means you really are playing to find out.

See also—

Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash.