Back on Sept. 8, 2004, Melan wrote the following, which is the single best description of the Wilderlands I've ever seen:
The following aren't neccessarily reflective of the way OD&D was played (and certainly not of how I played it, because I wasn't even born at the time ). They are more like how OD&D was sometimes - and how to recapture that for today's games. There was obviously a lot that was the same, or almost the same as today. No need to talk about that. I'd rather focus on the diferences here.
1) Literary influences. In the 70s, while Tolkien was very popular (and still on the rise), the dominant sub-genre of fantasy was classic sword&sorcery. There was a Robert E. Howard renaissance going on, and Leiber, Vance and others were very popular - not to mention others like Lin Carter, L.S. de Camp and so on. OD&D reflects these influences. By the time 1e came out and became mainstream (the early 80s), fantasy had changed. More Tolkienesque (well, not really, but that's how they were and are called), more foreign races, less short stories, larger books... This, in turn, influenced and changed D&D.
2) OD&D's implicite world was a sword and sorcery world with Tolkienesque trappings. Unlike 1e, it was not a "mediaeval" millieu - not even the way 1e is. Paralells with the ancient Mediterranean - in the age of Hellenism, probably - are much better at capturing the feel of the Wilderlands. Sure, the people of the City State often carry chainmail or use longswords, but there is a very distinct non-European feel.
3) Some oriental influences as well. In this case, oriental means djinns and woven carpets... Cities such as Samarkand, Bokhara and Byzantium... Not ninjas and samurai.
4) Also unlike 1e, the monster selection is much more conservative. Most 1e modules introduced at least four or five new creature types, sometimes superfluous ones. OD&D was before 1e's Monster Manual. Most JG modules use OD&D's repertoire or variations thereof. Mostly, appropriate monsters include: basic humanoids, undead, giant animals (particularly B movie and sword&sorcery favourites - snakes, spiders, slugs, frogs... all of these have that "Weird Tales" feel), golems and animated statues (a fantasy must), plus really offbeat weirdness. Evil clerics (EHPs!) and magic-users are also welcome. Dragons are a possibility, just don't forget that they are much weaker than in 3e.
5) Freeform adventuring at its best. By 1e, most adventures were about quests. Not so in OD&D. Sure, there may be those, but there should be a lot of adventuring for adventuring's sake. The Wilderlands faciliates this excellently: you can go off the beaten path and see what is there. There are dangers and wondrous things in the wilderness... Maybe a small dungeon, maybe a fallen statue... a god's grave or a fool's palace. Look at most JG adventures: they are places to explore, not stories to complete. Citadel of Fire and Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor are adventure locations, not adventures. You can ally with the Wizard Yrammag or kill him. You can use Badabaskor (a proto-Keep on the Borderlands, just cooler!) as a base of operations, or just conquer and loot it. The City State and the Wilderlands sets are huge environments to find adventure in. Every shop is a new possibility, each crooked street holding something mysterious. And you can uncover them all! Which brings us to...
6) Constructing adventures and challenges around fun. That's in 1e feel as well, but not as pronounced. OD&D is more whacked out insane stuff. So there is an underground inn beneath the Citadel of Fire. It is there because it is fun to find something like that under an evil M-U's tower. Woo hoo! And there is a fallen spaceship in Realm of the Slime God (an excellent Jaquays module found in the Dungeoneer's compendium). It is there because fallen spaceships are cool. This doesn't mean you can't have a logical setting and a rationale for these strange things. Far from it. You just make up the fun stuff first and compose the details later. Indeed, one of the most wondrous things is rolling up random insane stuff and thinking about what they might be there for. That's exactly the opposite of how people do it today. And you know what? You don't always need an explanation. Here are three examples from my campaign (new Idyllic Isles in and around Damkina Bay). They are rather long but, IMHO, illustrate the principle perfectly. That, plus I love to show off:
Isle of Ash (Barbarian Atlantis, 3514)
A smaller, barren islet of broken stone slabs and ash everywhere. On the southern end stand empty stone huts, with some broken clay vessels inside. One has a charred table with a skeleton nailed to it. On the slope of a minor stone outcropping are five broken and weather worn statues depicting kneeling men, grotesquely oversized palms in their laps, their large mouths leering emptily. Ash crumbles from the mouth of the centermost one periodically, as if it was breathing regularly.
Isle of the Dragonettes (Barbarian Atlantis, 3613)
A long island with the northern half raised and the southern submerged (one can see it continue miles underwater with sunken terraced gardens). A wide road covered with crushed rocks goes up this gentle slope to a minor plateau. There are several large boulders standing at this location, mostly piled atop each other. In the middle of a small "clearing", a huge stone carving (?) rises from a deep, narrow and broken crack in the earth: a human hand, three men high, with spread fingers. The worksmanship is absolutely perfect. This area is also inhabited by six very young copper dragons who attack without hesitation.
Isle of Nestorius (Barbarian Atlantis, 3513) [Should have been Nessus, but this sounds better.]
Thick forests and unpleasant, wet forests mark this isle. Fine, shimmering nets or webs hang from tree branches. These are poisonous on touch (Con save, d6/2d6 Hp) and fairly fire resistant. Towards the unstable rock spires of the west, adventurers can find an overgrown stone road winding its way between toppled obelisks.
The terminus of this road is a larger open space before the black basalt wall. A dangerous rock slide leads to an open cavern mouth. There are faded and old pictures on both sides (standing, running, curled up and kneeling men) and the following inscription: "The cavern of Nestorius. May fate be cursed that so many excellent men had perished so needlessly."
The mysterious veils are even more common inside the cavern. They are hard to remove, made even more perilous by the monsters: gaunt, blackened corpses entangled and covered in the webbings. There are ten of these. They are like zombies in all respects save their HD (4) and poison touch. They grab and grapple opponents.
Proceeding further, the adventurers arrive at the entrance of a narrow, damp hemispherical grotto. There is an inscription on the floor: "The crypt of Nestorius. Neither salve, nor tears, nor death can ease his nightmare." There is a simple black basalt sarcophagus in the middle of the grotto. Sounds of faint writhing movement emanate from within. The ebony black corpse is what remains of Nestorius, and his mere touch is poisonous! (Con save, d6/2d6 Con) He does not attack or communicate, just writhes. His body is completely impervious to sword or spell. He is wearing a nettle green cloak woven of some plantlike filament. This is a cloak of poisonousness. Once uncursed by Remove Curse, Exorcism or such spells, the curse is broken and the island is returned to normal.
(I guess I'll post these in another topic as well. )
7) High technology. It is a must for all school campaign worlds! So is slavery and drugs.
8 ) No 0 level humans. There are no 0 level humans in OD&D. There are "normal men", but they can and do fight. Most NPCs the players encounter will be low level classed types. Prostitutes are 2nd level thieves. Innkeepers are 4th level fighters with a +1 battle axe. That guy selling incense from his shop is a 7th level M-U and he has ten lizardmen to help him out! On the other hand, once you are 9th level, you are on the top of the heap. In very original D&D, there were no 6th level spells. Finger of Death (usable by EHPs only) was absolutely terrifying and aaawesome! (it still is) Greyhawk kinda changed this, but the ruling paradigm remained. And if there are high level NPCs, they usually don't bother to help you. They mostly help themselves, often to your belongings.
9) A "classical" (again, Hellenistic) approach towards religion. There are multiple pantheons with conflicting gods. There are more sea and death gods than you can shake a stick at! Also, weird cults. E.g. Tsathoggus the Demon God of Frogs, who animates his black idols to get sacrifices wandering into his abandoned temples. Hanuman the Accursed, worshipped by half man, half ape cultists. The goddess of beauty, whose priestesses take their own lives if they feel their own beauty slipping away. Karttekeza of India, demigod of war, who can summon the Peacock of Karttekeza - which is a huge peacock that has 120 hit points and does 6-36 damage on a successful hit. Also, regular favourites such as Zeus, Thor and Set. Or you can spice this up with a few Tkumel deities. That's OD&D as well (stealing shamelessly from everything that moves is very much in the spirit of the game)
10) Last but not least, extensive wilderness adventures. And huge dungeons, too.
Of course, OD&D is very adaptable. You can twist it and change it until it no longer resembles itself. But in the end, pure, shameless and insane fun is what the game is about.
Supplement V: CARCOSA for the original Dungeons & Dragons game
Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer (module)
Click here to order: http://carcosa-geoffrey.blogspot.com/