On a recent trip back to the UK, I retrieved certain cherished artifacts from my parents' house. The first edition Empire of the Petal Throne, the first edition Call of Cthulhu, the Chaosium Thieves World boxed set and, most impressive of all, the white box D&D little brown books, together with supplements 1-3 (I never bothered with Gods, Demigods & Heroes, for reasons that will be explained).
Now this got me to thinking. Why not design an OD&D sandbox based around the most important points of the white box rules, with a twist or two? So here goes.
First, I want humanity to be under pressure. This isn't an Arthurian world with other races and monsters hiding in the margins. Instead, it is a world where humanity is almost extinct, with monsters and other races wanting to finish them off. This is the backstory:
Once upon a time, mankind ruled the world. While other races were limited, mankind alone could reach dizzy heights of martial prowess and magical power. Moreover, mankind alone was granted divine favor. Man's fortresses and cities dotted the land. Graceful wizard's towers reached to the sky. Cathedrals, crypts and catacombs signified the favor of the divine Creator.
However, man's pride proved his downfall. Led by ancient dragons, the monsters attacked. Orcs, ogres, goblins, gnolls, hobgoblins and kobolds poured out of the caves and caverns where they had been preparing. This had happened before, but this time the dragons had an ally. Evil High Priests, servants of the Destroyer, enemy of the Creator, cursed their own race. From this day on, virtually all children born to human women were not humans, but hobbits. These weak creatures could not stand against the evil hordes, and human settlements slowly but surely fell to the opposing races. Dwarves and elves filled the gap in some places, but for the most part, the ancient towns, towers and sacred places were occupied by the rivals of man. Those humans who survive in what is now called Wilderness have become bandits, brigands or beserkers.
Save for one land, the Valley of Castles. In this place, man's divine favor still held true and women still bore human children. This valley contains three cities, one for each alignment, and each one dominated by a different class.
At the head of the valley, beneath a cliff-face and a towering waterfall, stands Dunnkkarganstad, the City of Chaos. Dominated by the most powerful wizards in the world, Dunnkkarganstad knows no law. There is no constabulary, no courts. Power projects from the towers of the wizards, and what order there is exists simply to keep people from bothering the wizards. Thus, around the base of the Tower of Aedward the Earth-Mover exists a fortress where his guards live, an inn where his guests can stay (and others so long as they don't bother him), a shop where his agents sells things he no longer needs and other small vestiges of civilization. Beyond these pockets, the city is a hell-hole, with people occupying what ruins they can or eking a living in slums. The cliff-face that looms above the city is dominated by a long, twisting staircase carved into the side of the cliff. The Long Stairs lead not just to the plateau above the city, but to dungeons carved into the cliff by successive powerful wizards to host their experiments and provide bolt-holes for when their towers were not strong enough. Some wizards still live in these dungeons, while others have been taken over by the creatures once imprisoned there or by other denizens. The Dungeons of Dunnkkargan, as they are known, are therefore fabled repositories of lost knowledge and great treasure.
The waterfall mentioned above falls into a lake from which flows the River Voana, whose waters are clear and drinkable despite the filth poured into it by the residents of Dunnkkarganstad. The valley around it is lush and green, with forests inhabited by friendly elves and villages of hobbit refugees. Then comes the great city of Turesme, centered on a tight bend in the river that forms an incised meander, with an easily defensible peninsula. On this spit of land is the Cathedral and Castle of Turesme, the seat of power of the Prince-Patriarch, who rules the Church of the Creator. This is a city of Law, ruled by the clergy. There is a law for virtually every form of behavior known to man and visitors must be careful to acquaint themselves with the law or they will find themselves in court for looking the wrong way on a one-way street (literally - on Brown Cow Street, which leads up to the Cathedral, all pedestrians must face the Cathedral at all times; those riding animals may face away as it is difficult to get animals to obey this particular law). Turesme is a bright, shining city, kept that way by force of law. Many goods are illegal and its economy is fragile, to say the least.
The river flows on until it reaches the sea at the port of Leutheria, a stunning natural harbor made stronger by fortified piers. Leutheria is a Neutral city, dominated by the Guild of Fighting Men, who hire out their services but also guarantee that the one law of the city - the rule of contract - is respected. All social interactions are contractual in some way in Leutheria, which leads to a thriving economy and a serious disrespect of cheats (they are driven out of the city to Durrkkarganstad or to throw themselves on the mercy of the Turesmic priesthood). The port maintains trading relations with dwarven, elfin and hobbit settlements that hold out against the Wilderness and its nominal leader, the Harbormaster, employs the Guild to man a significant navy that fights pirates and sea monsters alike.
The valley is called the Valley of Castles because it is a frontier. To north and south the forces of the Wilderness encroach on a regular basis. When fighting men, clerics and magic users reach enough power, they generally attempt to push back the wilderness a bit by building a castle of some sort on the frontier. Sometimes these castles thrive and become the centerpiece of a new settlement, but sometimes they fail and are ruined or, worse, become occupied by monsters. Only through the bravery of such adventurers can humanity hope to survive.
You'll note that the Valley has a simple, dualist religion. I've always thought D&D lost something when the idea of religion being pantheon-based got foisted on the game with Gods, Demigods & Heroes (even if that supplement seemed to provide just bigger, badder monsters to fight). That's not to say there aren't demons that Evil High Priests can worship or perhaps even summon, but to me it makes more sense of the cleric class if it is focused on one benign deity.
Anyway, there we are. This is a world in which people have a reason to go adventuring and fight monsters, a choice of three alignments and three classes, a choice of other races (including hobbit "should any player wish to be one") and the general hostility of everything else in the world. There's an initial megadungeon and any number of ruined castles providing small dungeons for one-off adventures. Now if only I had the Outdoor Survival map...