Reading some of noism's musings on mimics and the comments that followed sorted something out in my head recently.
Though I love Adventurer Conqueror King System as a system, as an implied setting it is very strongly "classicist" in noism's two-fantasies nomenclature. I do love me some simulationist fantasy, but I find it doesn't work very well for the kind of West Marches–inspired sandbox that I've been wanting to run. (My first go at using ACKS was a sandbox, but horrendously over-detailed using its domain system, and I very much lacked for enough "wild" land to provoke my imagination.)
In Non-Banal D&D, he wrote:
There must be a way, then, of making D&D somehow more fantastical, mysterious and romanticist while retaining the elements which make it a game. How? This is the question that is occupying my thoughts at the moment.
To which Beedo replied:
The moment you decide that goblins hatch from pumpkins blessed on Halloween night by the Goblin King, that Bugbears slip into the world from the Nightmare Realm in order to hide in closets and terrorize people, you put that sense of wonder and mystery back into the myriad monsters out there, and take a big step away from "Classicism".
So that's where I'd start - whimsical monster origins, origins that are unknown or barely imagined by human folk.
All of which suddenly clicked with my own thoughts about the three-fold alignment system (law-neutral-chaos) and the nature of the sandbox I'm currently running, which isn't well-served by the limited and arguably banal and limited wilderness encounter tables of ACKS (as inherited from B/X D&D's limited monster selection, to be fair).
Chaos, when people get fundamental about the origins of alignment, is usually considered to be a metaphysical force, but one that is impersonal and cosmic, happening "out there somewhere" in a cosmic struggle, with mundane goblins and humans duking it out "down here" in a pale echo of that struggle. But what if it wasn't remote?
ACKS presents such a classicist view of lawful and chaotic alignments, defining them in the context of PC alignments as how much you hew to or reject civilisation and its structures.
But in a romanticist conception, Chaos is where pumpkin-goblins and bugbears congealed from the nightmares of the World Dreamer come from.
Why not both? As an method of injecting romantic fantasy into this sandbox, to un-banal its wilderness, why not make the lost, ruined provinces the literal provinces of Chaos? Why not make the settled lands metaphysically Lawful, not just philosophically? Human settlement brings not only order and law, but also Order and Law, a aura that permeates the land and air in a deep, mystical sense. Fundamentally, settles lands are boring (as is done in a West Marches style of sandbox to make them out-of-bounds), precisely because Law rules there.
Meanwhile, Chaos breeds in the ruins and wilds of the playing region of the sandbox. Literally, breeds. The fall and retreat of civilisation from these lands hundreds of years ago hasn't merely allowed humanoid tribes and decay to move in, but also tangible Chaos to take hold of the land and air.
Why are there dragons in dungeon rooms with exits they can't fit through? The wyrm slithered out of the darkness itself. Rather than trying to figure out how such a dragon feeds itself (how does a many-tonned creatures feed itself even when flying free?!) enough to grow so large, fuel dragonfire, and be able to sustain a metabolism that lets it launch that massive bulk into flight – it doesn't. It is a creature of Chaos, bred from the darkness that rules where civilisation dares not go, and its non-rational existence is sustained by the very lack of orderly rules about how flesh and blood should operate.
Dragons are magic.
Goblinoid plages sweep down on humanity, not when population pressure forces them to migrate and violently colonise human-settled lands, but when a long autumn results in a bumper crop of pumpkins. Why not?
I have a rope tied to the top of this slippery slope
There is a danger in getting so chaotic that nothing makes sense and the players have no handles to grip this setting by. That's a slippery slope that I'm sure some of you will be freaking out about right now. If so, great! That's an important slippery slope to avoid for you.
I'm not actually worried about that for myself, because my tendency is to be overly classicist and try to explain everything. Even my weird Chaos creations will end up having some kind of explanation and method to the madness. More importantly, thinking of this sandbox's lost Western provinces as the breeding grounds of Chaos will help me resist the urge to overly-classify things to the point of making them banal and boring for my players. That is my actual danger and slippery slope, so permission to be weird is the antidote. Your mileage will most certainly vary, depending on your own narrative and world-building habits and crutches.
Carving a domain from Chaos
There is a beautiful synergy available, then, too. In high-level ACKS play, the players carve out a domain from the wilderness for themselves. They clear of it monsters, yes, but they also "clear" it in the sense that videogames sometimes use: they actually disable the ability for the settled domain to breed new monsters, because it is now an island of Law in the Chaos-ruled wilds.
ACKS explains the weirdness of dungeons (in a classicist way) by saying that wizards stock them for the monster parts, for use as reagents in rituals and magic item creation. The classicist in me likes that, but wonders: how do they get in? Is there an interview at the dungeon door? Do I have to add in unknown entrances and tunnels, to allow monsters to infiltrate and fill in the dungeon? What do they eat?
Saying that ruins become monster-infested because they are enabled by or spring directly from the fabric of Chaos itself solves the problem, as in the previous example of dragons. This also gives an extra weird dimension to being a wizard: you are civilising an area for your tower and researches, but you also have to invite in a bit of Chaos for your dungeon to stock... and maybe, Chaos is where magic comes from in the first place? It's a nice tension for a high-level wizard to manage, and fits with the image of a wizard-ruled domain being a place that, though settled, is still uncanny and unsettling.