The PCs can go wherever they want and do whatever they want, but they're going to have random encounters, right?
As Black Vulmea points out here, random encounters don't have to mean the story thus generated is random.
If you think of these two stories, who are the Hobbits and Lannisters randomly encountering as they try to get from here to there? Not loose bears and trolls, mostly, but other people. Forces on patrol, emanations of various political entities.
By constantly encountering all these interested parties, the opportunity to take part in the big drama is there and it forms part of the atmosphere even if what the PCs mostly do is ignore it. The events of the setting and powers in it become part of it in a way where they're not just waiting for the PCs to come near them.
Right now the campaign I'm running has a war going on, and the PC stuff happens sort of "underneath" it. The game is all between the raindrops of the war.
So this is my idea for the Warbox (or...Politicrawl?) basically: map an area and its encounters not in the classic AD&D way in terms of climate--winter wolves in the north, tigers in the plains, etc--but in terms of the distance the PCs are from the power centers.
This can work on any scale, so long as you want the PCs encounters to be mostly with intelligent species with motives.
I drew up this slightly abstracted map of my campaign's important places...
|click to enlarge|
The dark blue is a river or sea between continents, it's not to scale.
Each concentric color around the center represents an encounter related to that power center, like so:
Like if we're mapping epiphenomena of the Goblin Empire it might be a few mutant pigs from the goblin alchemists running free or a crashed goblin juggernaut. If we're talking about epiphenomena of a small barbarian tribe we might say it's a looted caravan or a cairn proclaiming the awesomeness of said tribe.
This is a quick list I made for Nornrik, the white elf city, though it occurs to me with only a little tweak it could apply to most of the powers on this map:
|click to enlarge|
See where there's that block labelled 1-9?
So wherever the PCs are on the big map at the top, you draw or just imagine a little square around it with 9 blocks like that. Imagine it labelled like a phone dial.
Roll a d10 if encounters are common, d12 if they're less common, roll a d20 if they only happen about half the time.
On a result of 1-9, there's an encounter. Which encounter?
Well it says, right there on the map. In the case of the example above with the square on the upper right edge there 1-3 is no color it's a wilderness encounter, 4-6 and 9 are blue so it's an encounter with an epiphenomenon, if it's 7 or 8 that's green so it's a citizen or servant encounter, if it's above that there's no encounter.
The next day (or however often you're checking) you move the PCs one square closer to their goal, imagine the box redrawn around their current position and roll again. The encounters come right off the map.
The concentric circles don't represent where stuff actually is, they're just a handy way of charting what kind of encounters are likely where. As you get closer to the power centers, encounters with more powerful NPCs become more likely. You skirt the edges, you don't have to worry so much.
Another nice thing is this method of charting/mapping means you can place a likelihood of an encounter on the map without placing an actual encounter or writing a new chart.
Like: let's say the goblins of Gaxen Kane moved their army over to the river. You just draw a yellow line parallel to the river somewhere. Now every time the PCs are in that area, there's a 1 in 3 chance of running into the goblin army--but you didn't have to calculate percentages or add any notes or deicde their precise location, just get out a highlighter...
You could also do this:
You collapse all the tables like this for a more mixed population.
5 Citizen elf
6 Servant elf
7 Fighter elf
8 Ranger elf
9 Wizard elf
10 Cleric elf
11 Castle servant/aristocrat elf
12 Boss elf/Frost Giant Queen
And so basically blue squares roll a d4 on this chart, green roll a d6 on this chart, yellow roll a d8, orange roll a d10, red roll a d12.