Originally released in 1977, The Wilderlands of High Fantasy is one of oldest published settings for use with Dungeons & Dragons. Nowadays, the release of a new campaign setting is often met with disinterest and even eye rolls, in part, I suspect, because campaign settings have become a very common product in the years since this was released. In 1977, though, this wasn't the case and one sometimes gets the impression that there was some skepticism among even their creators that gamers would have any interest in such a thing. Consider, for example, that the credits to The Wilderlands includes the following disclaimer:
All within are merely inspiration for the active and pontifical judges of the guild. Please alter, illuminate, expand, modify, extrapolate, interpolate, shrink, and further manipulate all contained to suit the tenor of your campaign.I really like that quote and it nicely highlights one of the continually fascinating things about the Wilderlands setting: it's very flexible, even protean. Every time I have ever encountered or heard of a referee using it for their home campaign, I've been struck by just how different his home campaign is, not only from the "official" Wilderlands as published by Judges Guild but also from every other Wilderlands campaign run by other referees.
A big part of why this is the case is that The Wilderlands of High Fantasy, despite focusing on five of the sixteen regions of the overall Wilderlands setting, nevertheless devotes a lot of its 32 pages to collections of random tables and new rules. Thus, there are tables for ruins, caves, and lairs, in addition to rules for hirelings, prospecting, and income, among other topics. These tables and rules are clearly designed to facilitate campaigns where the characters wander about the world, exploring it hex by 1056-foot hex, in search of fame and fortune according to their own lights rather than any overarching plan concocted by the referee beforehand.
Another big part of why Wilderlands campaigns differ so much from one another is the sketchy nature of the setting information The Wilderlands of High Fantasy presents. A typical settlement is given a name, a population, a racial "type," general alignment, the name and characteristics of its ruler, and its primary resource. Hexes containing features of interest get a single line of description, such as "The crystallized skeleton of a dragon turtle is buried on the sandy beach. The skull houses a giant leech." There are no game stats or explanation here, just a very basic idea for the referee to read and, it is hoped, to be inspired by.
As a younger person, the Wilderlands didn't thrill me much and the presentation of the setting in products like The Wilderlands of High Fantasy was the main reason why. From my youthful perspective, I felt that authors Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen hadn't done "enough work" for me. Sure there were maps, including player's maps that didn't have complete information about settlements and geographic features, but what I really wanted was a lengthy historical overview of the setting and more detailed information about its peoples and locales. The Wilderlands of High Fantasy gave me none of that, instead expecting that I'd fill in those blanks myself, using the vague details, random tables, and new rules as raw materials from which to craft my own setting. After all, that's what being a referee is all about, isn't it?