[4E] Metrocalypse: Oxford 1605 -- bullywug passion play

edited September 2009 in Actual Play
I ran my third installment of my Metrocalypse setting for D&D 4E. In case you haven't heard me talking about it before, Metrocalypse is an original setting that takes a real-world city from some place and time on Earth (in my case, Oxford 1605) and teleports it magically into a harsh D&D world (in this case, an endless jungle). Jungle quickly chokes the streets. Monsters quickly overrun the citizens, kill most of them, and loot everything. It's an urban nightmare. A small handful of special citizens begin change (into things like eladrin, dwarves, shifters, goliath, and halflings) and exhibit strange, new powers (like those of a D&D fighter, wizard, rogue, warden, etc.).

In the game before last night's, a group of five PCs went to investigate an infestation of giant ants. The adventure was mainly two large combat encounters with a fair amount of intra-party role-play going on all the while. They fought two groups of giant ants. At the end of that adventure, they followed an ant trail back to a 50-foot-tall ant mound constructed out of pieces of the city that the ants were tearing apart, stone by stone. The mound was crawling with dozens of ants.

So last night, only two of the original five players were present (Bryant and Susan), and they were joined by a player who hadn't been at the last game (Daniel). On the table was the option to continue with the giant ant adventure or do something else. They wanted to see how far they could get with the ants, even with a small party. Daniel retooled his warden character as a fighter so that we didn't have a party of two controllers and one striker. I let them play fast and loose with rebuilds, as long as some semblance of character continuity is there.

The cast:
Bryant played ROBERT, an orc rogue. He had been a down-on-his-luck stage performer before the metrocalypse event. He tends to live in a world of denial. He sees the changes to the city as his chance to start up the first theater in post-metrocalyptic Oxford. He is a devout Anglican.

Susan played CECILY, an eladrin wizard. (Or some kind of spellcasting controller with illusion spells.) She was a minor noble and went from her father's hand to her husband's hand. After the metrocalypse, with her husband presumed dead, Cecily is learning to be self-reliant, but still tends to follow strong male leader types. She is a devout Anglican.

Daniel played MARY, a human fighter. She was a peasant farmer. When the metrocalypse changed everything, she watched her family get picked off one at a time by horrible monsters and she buried her children in a small graveyard by her farm house.

Beginnings

I started where the last group had left off: staring at the giant ant mound. There was player confusion about who knew whom, so we stopped for a minute and I recommended we flash back to when Mary met one of the other two. Daniel set a scene where Mary was in her farm house, mourning her children. Susan described Cecily finding the graves and praying over them. This was largely metagame discussion (and they kept looking to me to see if that was okay, which it was). Eventually, they had storyboarded (ha) the scene and role-played out the conclusion a bit. There was a brief confrontation, as Mary didn't understand Cecily's intent, but it was quickly resolved and Mary determined then to leave her farm and go into the city with Cecily. There was nothing left there for her, she said.

Storyboarding was a great tool for a flashback scene where you basically know what has to happen. You know that no one is gonna die because it's in the past. Storyboarding helped them solve basic problems with 80% of how the characters met, then play out the remaining 20%.

Best laid plans...

Back to "today." They're at the ant mound. The players don't really seem to know what to do next. They don't want to assault the ant mound head-on, because that'd be suicide. They had options like scouting for entrances, doing Nature checks to understand ant behavior, and so on, but they hadn't thought of them yet. I probably should have suggested some, but instead, I moved toward one of my planned encounters.

I had planned out a skill challenge wherein the PCs met a potentially friendly, humanoid warrior tribe and maybe got them to help fight the ants. As in all good role-playing, my GM plans got turned on end and beaten soundly by player creativity, which was awesome. The challenge was "supposed" to go like this: 1) Players meet humanoids (I hadn't chosen what kind). 2) Players realize humanoids can help with ants. 3) Players work hard to win them over (skill challenge). 4) Players go fight the ants in the mound. It didn't go down that way exactly.

Frog Robert

What actually happened was much stranger.

So I nudge the players a bit by saying that they see a pair of green eyes blink at them from the dark jungle. A bullywug steps out, hides a dagger behind his back, and speaks to them in the Queen's English. He's a particularly intelligent bullywug (short frog humanoid), quite friendly, and very curious. He tries to convince Cecily that he's really an English Prince, and that she should kiss him to turn him back into a human. Cecily doesn't buy it, much to the little guy's regret.

Somewhere along the line, religion comes up. Frog guy admits that he's read their Bible and found it remarkably interesting. But he doesn't believe it all. There was a lot of gasping of characters then. Mary, being a peasant who never actually read the Bible herself but just listened to the Church of E's priesthood, argues the party line without much theology background that the frog somehow has. Cecily and Robert also get in on it, aghast at the sacrileges the little guy spouts.

Mary gets especially interested though when the frog mentions some kind of ritual to send the spirits of the dead on their way. He seems particularly curious how the Christians deal with undead if they just bury their dead and wait for them to go to heaven. She's thinking of her children lying in their graves, and wondering if they can be resurrected, or if she needs to do something special to make sure they don't become little zombies she has to smash.

There's a ton of freeform role-play here. A skill check now and then but mostly just chat. Winning his trust with a Diplomacy roll gains them 1 success in the tribe skill challenge though. I don't mention this to the group. The skill challenge is complexity 3, level 3, so they need 8 successes before 3 failures with DCs at 5/10/15 depending on difficulty. They also failed a Religion check at some point, and gained one failure from that.

It comes out that his name is Robert, which is the closest English name to his bullywug name, which really does sound like a croaked version of "Robert." I'd momentarily forgotten that Bryant's character was also named Robert, so it was pretty hilarious. They started referring to "Frog Robert" and "Nonfrog Robert" to distinguish them.

They managed to get Frog Robert to go visit one of their priests and talk about faith. Frog Robert's theological discussion caused the priest to turn red in the face and high-tail it out of there. The PCs refused to go talk to Frog Robert's shaman, though, thinking it heretical to contemplate other gods.

[next: Meeting the Bullywug Tribe]

Comments

  • Meeting the Bullywug Tribe

    Mary did want to speak to the shaman about resurrection rituals, though she kept this hidden from Cecily and (nonfrog) Robert as long as she could. They agreed to go with Frog Robert to the bullywug village, a nomad camp in a farm just outside the city.

    As they entered the camp, Frog Robert hastily advised them to be strong and not back down from other bullywugs, who weren't exactly like him in demeanor. Turns out they are a warrior race and Frog Robert is a bit of an exception. As they saw 50 or so warriors, the party got a bit nervous. They ate roasted giant ant with other bullywugs (tastes like pecans) and eventually met the shaman, who also spoke some English (none of the other bullywugs did).

    Bullywug Passion Play

    The group was set on converting the shaman ("Edward") to Christianity and got him to agree to let them put on a Passion Play in the bullywug language, using mostly bullywug actors. If they could "bring magic to his heart," Edward would concede that the Christian God was real and so on. As you can imagine, we laughed very hard at the idea of a bullywug passion play. The thing is, in-character, this was all very serious and made sense. Out of character, it was screamingly funny.

    The passion play was worth two successes towards winning over the tribe, I decided. It came down to a single Diplomacy roll for nonfrog Robert, who directed and acted the lead, but Cecily and Mary "aided another" to help. Mary used Athletics to quickly move around during rehearsal and keep errant bullywugs in line (they like to embellish and exaggerate and improvise too much). Cecily used her magical light to create stage effects and to reward behaving bullywugs with the spotlight. The +4 turned out to be necessary, as Robert rolled exactly the 15 (after all mods) that he needed to make the Difficult Diplomacy roll.

    The play was a smash hit with the 'wugs. The shaman was particularly moved and agreed to accept Christ and worship God before worshiping his own deities every morning. The PCs winced a bit but took that as a minor victory. But they'd earned 2 successes towards the skill challenge.

    More Skill Challenge

    By this time, they realized they were in a skill challenge. I made the terms explicit, explained their progress, etc. Mary dueled a bullywug to earn their respect as warriors and earned 1 success. I can't remember what the other rolls were, but at a certain point, they were at 2 failures and 7 successes, so the next roll would determine if they won the support of the entire tribe. They'd already gotten 10-20 warriors to agree to help distract the ants, but they needed everyone to make getting into the mound a done deal.

    The final roll came up short. They lost the challenge. They'd have to assault the mound with the smaller force.

    [next: ants, TPK]
  • Robert's actually the half-elf warlord; Theo is the shady half-orc rogue type. I swapped cause there was some concern about not having a healer. In practice I don't think it made much of a difference -- I only got off one heal, which did not save us. But Robert was the right character for putting on a Passion Play, so that worked out rather well.

    I am always interested in questions of competence and whether or not a game supports it in starting PCs, so it's worth noting that in order to fail the skill challenge I had to roll a 1 and two 2s; very low probability event, but that's part of what keeps the game fresh.
  • Assault on Ant Mountain

    So I draw up the ant mound on a huge (say 24"x36") piece of graph paper. It fills most of the paper. It's steep-sloped (difficult terrain) with a mostly flat top, about 50' high. There are some not-yet-destroyed buildings around it. I drop 8 ant workers (level 1 minions), 2 ant warriors (level 2 soldiers), and 2 ant drones (level 3 skirmishers) all over the "close side" of the mound. I didn't do the encounter math, but it turns out it was 800 XP of monsters, or about Encounter Level 6 for three 1st level characters. A suicide mission, basically. But they'd been warned.

    At one point, I left the table. When I came back, they were looking up the templates for bullywugs so they could make up bullywug PCs if they all died. They wanted to play Frog Robert, too.

    Anyway, I ask them what the plan is. At first it was "run into the mound" and I suggested that it was probably a sure death. The new plan seemed to be this: The squad of bullywugs will distract as many ants as they can (good). The PCs will hide behind a building, lure the rest of the ants over that way, and kill them (very dubious). Then they'll go into the mound. There was a little more to the strategy, as they thought they could channel the ants past the fighter/defender and let the controller and striker sit in the back and do their thing.

    They did not count on the ants having a climb speed of 6 or 8, depending on the ant. The giant ants climbed right over the building, making their "channeling" strategy moot. Also, the two drones have a fly speed of 8, plus a flyby attack that lets them move an additional 8 squares while avoiding most opportunity attacks. The PCs were swarmed.

    At first the battle seemed to be going their way. I set up an index card with the three types of ants and all of their defenses for player reference. The PCs eliminated the minions quickly, but those attacks meant they weren't hitting the drones and warriors, who pack a nasty one-two-combo. The drones have a sting attack that delivers 1d6+2 acid damage and 5 ongoing acid damage. The warriors have a normal bite that delivers 1d8+2 normal damage, but add +1d10 damage to anyone taking ongoing acid damage.

    Robert fell first. He was making all his death saves, but no one had time to help him. Mary fell next. Daniel wasn't concerned about how much damage she was taking because he wanted to activate her "when bloodied" powers, which include regeneration. He missed the rule (which we all stopped to reference) that said that he could not use that power unless he had at least 1 hit point. He fell to 0 hit points, then I realized he had ongoing acid damage, applied 3 more from the 1d10 roll, and he fell to -3. He was taking 5 more every round and would soon die, despite making all his death saves. Cecily tried to kill the drones but couldn't. She was down to 3 hit points, healed herself a little, but was going to fall any time now due to ongoing acid damage.

    Everyone hoped in vain for a natural 20 on their death saves: none came.

    Frogus ex Machina

    I offered them the chance to be rescued by the bullywug warriors. I told them that the bullywugs might never let them live it down. They chose to live anyway. There was some fun role-playing around that. Back in the duel between Mary and the 'wug-warrior, the defeated frogman had explained that bullywugs welcome defeat because they learn from it. Everyone now role-played that they had "learned much." The warriors thought that was awesome and cheered them.

    After they healed back up to full hit points and got their powers back, they went to fight the ants again. This time, they hatched a real plan. They made some Nature rolls, learned that ants "see" more through smells than vision, and secured some honey mead from Mayor Bryan (who happens to be a brewer). They used the mead to make a trail that would lure most of the ants away and used one of Cecily's powers to disguise their own smells as "antlike." I had them make +6 vs Will attacks on each ant. After that, I think one drone and three minions remained, and the PCs mopped them up easily.

    Next time we play, they'll head into the ant mound and try to find the queen. They hope that by killing the queen, the rest of the ant colony will leave the city. Also, they want to secure some royal jelly, which they've learned (through Arcana knowledge checks) can be used for magical healing.
  • Posted By: Adam Dray
    Robert fell first. He was making all his death saves, but no one had time to help him.
    The particularly sweet thing here: Mary had time to throw me a Heal check, but didn't because she was busy hulking out. I'm not sure it would have made much practical difference, but either way the prioritization of roleplay over tactics was very satisfying for me.
  • This sounds like a nice use of D&D 4e. Good work, guys.
  • Posted By: BryantPosted By: Adam Dray
    Robert fell first. He was making all his death saves, but no one had time to help him.
    The particularly sweet thing here: Mary had time to throw me a Heal check, but didn't because she was busy hulking out. I'm not sure it would have made much practical difference, but either way the prioritization of roleplay over tactics was very satisfying for me.

    Ironically, I'm the dude who yells at other people for doing this. Honestly, if I'd realized how critical a decision that was, I would have found a way to justify healing you. But I didn't know I'd go down so quickly (that +damage on ongoing damage the ants had was just insult to injury), and no one was on you, so I figured I had a round to revel in hulking out and then could do the responsible thing and heal you.

    Should've spent an action point, though. My bad.

    But anyway, yeah, I totally endorse the bullywug passion play thing. I felt like the 4E skill challenge rules gave us just enough "roll-playing" to avoid it being an endless go-nowhere scene, without really constraining us in the RP meaningfully. Without them (or something similar) I can imagine the conversation with the bullywug king about the evidence for Jesus (as I mentioned at the table, an argument I had with an old gf, but from the bullywug's side) could have devolved into endless circles (as the argument with the old gf did - I should have rolled Diplomacy!).
  • I'm glad I handled the TPK as I did. I didn't want to decide if you all lived or died. We'd played it out fairly and I didn't feel that I'd done anything in error as a DM for that encounter, so I was comfortable letting the deaths stand. At the same time, I had zero investment in you all being dead and making new characters. So I left it up to you guys.

    I know that Susan said, "I have lots of character ideas," earlier in the game, in reference to what would happen if her character died. I know that there was a lot of enthusiasm around the table for playing Frog Robert as a PC (and I was, like, "Sure!") or making up other bullywug PCs. It's all good to me.

    I'm curious what tipped you guys in favor of being saved by the 'wugs? Was it the investment in your current characters or that storyline or what?

    By the way, as Daniel pointed out to me in IM, I owe the group XP. I need to figure out if 4E awards XP for failed (you-all-died) encounters. I suspect it does but I want to be sure. If so, you'll get XP for that ant encounter twice. But you did face all of the ants twice, and you did kill most of them in the first encounter, so it seems fair to give you XP for it, too. It's an 800 XP encounter and we're doubling everything for leveling speed, so that's 1600 for the first ant encounter (TPK), 1600 for the second ant encounter, plus like 300x2 for the skill challenge + 200 Passion Play bonus. Divided three ways, that's like 4000/3 = 1333 XP for each character (even the ones who weren't there). It's probably enough to get to 2nd level. How close are you guys? If it isn't enough, I'll probably just say it is. ;)
  • edited September 2009
    I am both amazed at the awesomeness of this, and incredibly pissed that off I was not able to make the session.

    Come Hell or high water, I'll be there next time! :)
  • A Bullywug Passion play. Wow.

    I checked out your Metrocalypse setting a couple months ago, I think.

    I have nothing to add except I like the cut of your jib, sir.

    Thanks for posting all this.
  • edited September 2009
    Posted By: Adam Dray
    I know that Susan said, "I have lots of character ideas," earlier in the game, in reference to what would happen if her character died. I know that there was a lot of enthusiasm around the table for playing Frog Robert as a PC (and I was, like, "Sure!") or making up other bullywug PCs. It's all good to me.

    I'm curious what tipped you guys in favor of being saved by the 'wugs? Was it the investment in your current characters or that storyline or what?
    The storyline, for me. The "I have a lot of character ideas" quip was a holdover from games Bryant and I usually play, in which he takes great glee in possibly killing off all of us (though it never quite happens). But once we'd gone through the combat and my mind started turning about ways to actually approach the ant mound more systematically, I wanted to give it another go. Chalk up my earlier bullywug enthusiasm to how much fun it was to discuss religion with Frog Robert!
  • Posted By: SusanCBut once we'd gone through the combat and my mind started turning about ways to actually approach the ant mound more systematically, I wanted to give it another go.
    This is distilled, 200-proof awesome.

    It reminds me of that feeling you get after you get your ass handed to you while playing a video game and, after you pick up the joystick you threw across the room, you load your saved game and try it again with a new approach. Because you're gonna get those fuckers, dammit.

    I'm glad the TPK didn't ruin the fiction for you, in any case.
  • Posted By: Adam Dray
    I'm curious what tipped you guys in favor of being saved by the 'wugs? Was it the investment in your current characters or that storyline or what?
    For me, it was character investment. I've spent the last four(!) months in lonely fun puttering with different versions of Mary, waiting for the game to happen, and so would have been pretty disappointed to have her iced in her first actual outing.
Sign In or Register to comment.