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.
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.
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.
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]