About a week or so ago, with so many folks having issues going into quarentine quietly and needing relief, I started organizing some online play. There are about 50 people in the group now and thankfully other folks are stepping up to run, lol. Most of them will be familiar with D&D 5E or somethign equivalent, so I threw together a map on Inkarnate of a region with some trees, a river or two, and some settlements. Also a few ruins. Last Friday (US time) I ran the first session for a group of four. Games are first come and first serve and kept to four players.
VTT: Roll20 with Discord audio - the reason for this is that D&D 5E lends itself to the grid. I am not saying its good or bad, I like tactical play and some don't, but this system it works. Dare say it is mandatory.
Setting: I am calling it a Chaos Marches game but it is modeled on the West Marches style of game, just with less structure even than that. (If you do not know what West Marches is, Matt C explains it pretty well.). The setting is a region known as Grey Raven. Why Grey Raven? Because hawk and its variations have already been done to death.
The armies of chaos had invaded the year before. Invaded from where? No idea. Who are they? Well each is led by someone on a dragon. A little Dragonlance and Young Kingdoms mashup. That gives me someplace to work from.
Characters: Elf Rogue, Dragonborn Cleric, Aasimar Celestial Warlock, Warforged Druid.
How it went. I let the grroup choose from three locations. I only had maps for the locations on Roll20; I had no story, villain, denizens, or other tidbits. They chose Ruined Temple. No one in a tavern offered them money; I just said the ruler of the town of Grey Raven needed folsk to check out things in the area. Here, expectations helped to propel the call to action. It took all of 30 seconds and we were at the Ruined Temple. Very much like a con game might go.
And I met those expectations. They asked about details, I let them roll and made up details on the spot/ I would note down some more details on my notes, fleshing it out slightly, but I realize I only need as much fine detail as the players know. I do not really need a grand plan. I need enough to conjure now! And then I make sure I keep those details, which frankly may or may not be true. But they are true now. Facts can be inviolate, but truth can be flexible.
The temple turns out to be a temple to Odin. Who is Odin? Well the cult (thanks Runqequest) of Odin is one of many in a pantheon of many pantheons. Some invaders, I do not think I used the word barbarians, brought Odin worship a few hundred years ago. This is pretty basic stuff really, all pulled from my own experience as a GM over the years. And as a reader and consumer of ideas.
The temple has a graveyard, which they asked about. I told them it was consistent with what they knew about the cult of Odin. That establishes Odin having its own death rites. But there were no undead. That broke expectations a bit, which is fine. They did fight some goblins. They fought some bullywugs. There was a locked door. Later on there will be a poisoned needle trap on a treasure box. Mainly because I like the idea of Black Dougal (or some thief) failing a save and gasping "poison".
They did discover that members of the Red Dragon army are in the ruined temple. Why? Even I do not know yet. The session ended with the group resting in a deep room under the ruined temple.
Conclusions & Thoughts
1. Setting As You Go. Setting and Backdrop have been on my mind of late. Part of that is through discussions on Empire of the Dragon-Lotus and stuff discussed here on this site. And with a group of 50 people, some of whom are new players and some who don't give two craps about Greyhawk or Krynn or Eberoon or Glorantha and so are not here for that. What they need from setting is to create a framework, a backdrop, upon which their improv show plays out.
2. Conjure Now! Conjuring ideas on the spot works in this kind of environment. The Druid had remarked that he was looking for one of the other players to have been his creator. Turns out the warlock is that creator or her warlock master was. But I threw in a quick idea that means something to me but not to the others. The druid is going to focus on shape changing, so I said the druid was "Cauldron Born". I took this from Welsh mythology and just dropped it into the game. They are not entirely sure what it means, and frankly neither am I. But both players now have some myth to play with.
The same with the cult of Odin. I am defining it as we go, as religion in D&D is not as front and center. In many ways the cleric has been made generic again. Gods are less important now. The cleric of the group follows Paladine, a Krynn reference. But as a dragonborn, his Paladine will be more like Apsu (Apzu and other spellings), who was Tiamat's consort in Near Eastern mythology. At least sometimes.
3. Expectations & Experience. This is where the zeitgeist prepares everyone for play. Some will (understandably) push back against all the pop culture references that RPGs, and D&D in particular, that invade a given game. But there is a time and place for that invasion to be relevant. In the right circumsatnces it can propel play and short cut around tedious processes. We are here to have an adventure and so can rely on that other memory. It would not work as well for say, Forbidden Lands or Symbaroum or Coriolis. It would work for Dungeon Crawl Classics and may or may not work for something like Rolemaster. The point is sometimes a familiarity with what the D&D zeitgeist entails can support good play.
..And the next group to play won't get the choice to go to the Ruined Temple. Because the Ruined Temple is being played at the moment. As groups progress across the land, each location will gain details. Until then I won't worry much about what is there.