There are wandering monsters, of course, and many old wandering encounter tables add rival adventuring parties to the menu. Not all those who wander are lost (the good Professor reminds us), but where are they going?
Well, why don't we have itinerant circuit adventurers?
In U.S. history, circuit preachers were clergy who rode around from congregation to congregation, preaching at various stops, because there weren't enough clergy for each community to host one permanently. Similarly, circuit courts and circuit judges' titles evoke (in part) times when the voice of the law made its rounds from place to place.
I've recently been tinkering with some sandbox setting construction that would emphasize faction situations over unknown locations (as hinted at here), with ample room for interesting little warbands (detachments, if you favor EB/Into the Odd-speak). But I'd also like to include a few small dungeons - while keeping things easy to prep.
So then I started thinking about restocking dungeons after they've been explored...and I started thinking about plausible and enjoyable reasons for itinerant circuit adventurers to want to visit the same few dungeons, over and over again.
For this to make sense, I really think you'd need to integrate it into the setting's logic. I'm thinking about a culture with several ancestral sacred sites - dungeons - but there is a strong taboo (or maybe even an actual geas) that prevents most of the People from visiting these sacred sites. A minority are born/come of age/etc. with a special mark or vocation to tend these sites - which means that you have a small class of ready-made adventurers, whose society supports what they're doing. And the PCs' job is to travel from shrine to shrine, clearing out all the nasty sacrilegious things that don't give a rip about taboos, like monsters, brigands, etc. (You can't just let the goblins defile Balin's tomb!). And because it's a good ol' points-of-light setting, there are many more nasty things than heroes in the wilds between settlements.
A recurring game-play might look something like this:
+ leave base
+ travel overland to the next shrine - the route would be known, so the challenge isn't exploration of an unknown as much as facing the challenges of getting there (think of Aragorn leading the Hobbits from Bree to Rivendell - that sort of challenge)
+ reach a shrine and deal with whatever is the latest challenge there - this might require combat, diplomacy, or - sometimes! - nothing at all.
+ continue the cycle and repeat, but increasingly have to deal with factions that complicate travel, block/permit access to select routes, or get entangled in broader "domain" play issues.
I haven't tried this, but I'm intrigued by the concept. It would make the dungeons not a "dark mythic underworld that hates you," but rather "something precious and beautiful but quite dangerous, a place that constantly must be returned to order." It would enable dungeoneers who are less "rapacious freebooters on society's outskirts" and more "essential specialists who help preserve their People's cultural identity."
Sort of like an anti-Symbaroum premise, maybe?
You could even hack Into the Odd's dirt-simple leveling-up scheme, but change "expeditions completed" either to "shrines cleared" or "full shrine circuits completed."
As I keep tweaking sandbox ideas (mainly for fun in the background while I work on a real-life big writing project), this is one of the ideas I keep coming back to. We'll see whether it sticks.
Any analogous systems or games that have taken this approach, that I've overlooked?
Happy gaming - G