This is a method I came up with for dealing with undeveloped areas of my campaign world. Not sure if this has been done before, so I wanted to share it in case it’s a new concept. 🙂
A little background info:
The players have just discovered the main campaign plot line: They need to track down 9 scrolls before a crazy magic user does (super-simplified version). This will send them all over the world map, eventually… but they may catch me off guard by pursuing a scroll in an area I’ve not fleshed out yet. The location of 4 scrolls is known. 5 were “lost to history” but their locations will be revealed/discovered later.
I wanted a way to deal with their travels, both in terms of settlements and encounters. I borrowed the idea of a satellite weather map showing degrees of intensity with color, and used that to establish “zones” on my map. This zoning process is used for encounters in this example, but it could also be used for population density in other regions.
Here is Mytar, a region in my campaign world that is torn by war:
(Liton, Lalder & Piquant are neighboring regions)
The 2 blue zones are areas held by humans and elves, who have formed an alliance against the (mostly) orcish invasion from the north.
The scroll the players are after is in the red area in the northeast corner.
Zoning like this allows me to develop appropriate random encounters of increasing difficulty fairly easily. I simply design a couple of encounters for each zone. Since Mytar is basically a huge battlefield, here’s what some encounters might look like:
As they leave a blue area, they enter into Zone 6. In zone 6 they could run across easy stuff like 3-4 orcs gathering recon or 5-6 goblins looting bodies from an earlier battle. As the players travel closer to Zone 1, things get harder and more chaotic, as battles are in full swing there. Zone 1 would have huge warbeasts and full battalions of soldiers battling it out. The players can freely move between the zones, and the zones determine the challenges they run into.
The beauty of this: The players can freely explore the war-torn land and all the difficulty is already established for me as a DM. Obviously, I don’t show them the zone map… but I CAN use the map for determining things like “You hear screams and the clanging of swords over the hill to the north” etc.
For Population Density (in other regions):
Same idea, but Zone 1 would be a large city. Zone 7 would be practically uninhabited. You could have generic villages and towns made up and introduce them as the players wander. This would basically be a system for saving the DM if the players decide to sandbox into undeveloped areas of the world.