It seems the closest we've ever had to this was B2 the Keep on the Borderlands. This gives a pretty clear run down on a home base where players can buy supplies and rest and heal safely. It provides one major pocket of adventure and several small encounters scattered through the wilderness.
I know people have said they used T1 The Village of Hommlet as a home base. That does a good job of fleshing out some npcs and buildings in the town but doesn't even have an overland map to get to the local adventure area.
There are Sample Dungeons
It may be that this was never provided because the assumption is that every DM would create their own and it wasn't needed. But this isn't the assumption made for dungeons, which I consider the much easier problem to crack.
Starting with the original D&D you get examples of what a dungeon looks like. You get an even more fleshed out one in Holmes and a smaller but still helpful one in Moldvay basic. Module B1 is actually set up to help a DM learn to stock a dungeon.
It seems that the place to look for a similar helpful approach to wilderness adventuring would be the Marsh and Cook Expert book. And we are given a map with 6 mile hexes and an example gnome lair. But that's it. I'm not even sure where the map maker is assuming characters would start, Specularum? The information given seems more appropriate to a geography text book than an adventure setting.
Wilderness as Gazeteer
I've never owned the Forgotten Realms (I've seen its map and have played in the Realms under other DMs) but I did own the World of Greyhawk boxed set. I remember reading that set so closely and puzzling about what I was supposed to do with the information on how many thousands of demi-humans lived in different areas. Was it about army formation? Was this necessary if players get into the endgame and have to raise an army of gnomes?
This is the same approach the Expert sample world takes; some of the most prominent information is how many thousands of troops the Duke can raise.
What these products seem to want to do is give you a whole fantasy continent complete with history and the current political situation. These seem to be trying to fashion their own Middle Earth, more than setting up a place you can run your players through. Because you are being given a whole world, the information is presented as a gazeteer.
As I said, I don't own Forgotten Realms so maybe I'm mistaken about it. Does it give a starting area? Does it give any guidance on where you might start play? Another product that might be relevant is the Wilderness of High Fantasy. It's one of the few roleplaying standards I'd never heard of until joining the OSR. But the way it is talked about it sounds to be set up in a similar way. Does it give a starting area? Does it give any guidance on where you might start play?
I suppose one thing these products might be trying to do is allow DMs to set up a starting point for a campaign in many different areas. Allowing choice and possibilities. But I kind of doubt that's what's going on. It's like these kinds of setting products are based on the assumption that by the time you need a setting map the players will be high enough level that they'll be interacting with armies and whole populations-- that up until that point various dungeons are enough.
Wilderness as Infinite Hexes
Another way of dealing with wilderness, possibly the result of how little use you get from the gazeteer-style continent overview, is to treat each hex as a dungeon room. Each hex has one thing in it and I assume the idea is the party will encounter that thing no matter how many square miles the hex is. What is in the hexes seems to be just a more detailed encounter.
Coming up with encounters is not difficult for me.
I remember early on in my blogging career someone on the Swords & Wizardry forums saying that they treated the wilderness like a big-ceilinged dungeon. Which is the clearest surrender on trying to make wilderness play work I've ever heard.
What Would a Beginner Sandbox Look Like?
You might be thinking, well, what is it you actually want Telecanter? I've done a few posts about this. How about a sandbox:
- peppered with locations that allow for different and traditional types of adventure.
- with interesting geographical chokepoints.
- with landmarks that help players navigate.
- with sophisticated thought put into how the players can travel to different locations and what choices will be involved.
- Or, even, a starting area that has different travel choices, chokepoints, and encounters depending on the season.
- And on top of all that, somehow adds geographic variety while keeping it within reasonable travelling distance.