One example of this is the concept of a sandbox in old school RPGs. A sandbox represents an area in the game world where the players may freely interact with the environment. The GM creates a locale with many areas keyed for possible encounters. This is less story-focused than most games today. Players would wander about and trigger an encounter if they went to the right place.
In this approach, there is nothing that requires the GM to only put 1st level encounters surrounding the starting point for the campaign. Now some new players (especially if they have any experience with MMORPGs) may be asking why would you do that? Why put a potentially Total-Party-Killing encounter right outside the characters' front door? I used to wonder that too, until I got schooled by a true Grognard.
I had the privilege of playing in Hank's campaign during my last two years in college. Hank lived on my floor in the dorm and I quickly learned that he and others on the floor played AD&D, so we started a group. Hank was a frustrating player because he had an idedic memory and could quote from Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters' Guide and all Monster Manuals. I had to resort to creating a lot of new material to keep him guessing, but that is a story for another time.
Hank invite me and a few of the players from our group to play in his original fantasy world. We were nomads who were trying to escape the desert. Every year the nomads send a small party of adventurers beyond the mountains surrounding the desert to find a way to open the portal blocking the only overland passage in or out of the dessert.
His world was not a 1st level world; he even warned us of that. Before we were 5th level (the highest level we ever reached before dying in the Battle of the Gate) we were negotiating with shadow demons, devils, high level magic-users and all manner of potentially party-killing encounters. But we survived (for the most part). We learned to play by our wits. We negotiated, bargained and worked out all manner of deals to prepare for the battle at the gate. We planned and prepared spells and tactics. We made alliances and hunted for magic items to use in the upcoming battle. And though we failed to achieve our ultimate goal, we created a great story in the process.
Yes, story. All that wandering around, encountering, dealing and adventuring became our story. While we set out and interacted with encounters on the map we were able to create a really cool story in the process. James over at Grognardia says it better than I can so check out his post to see what I'm talking about.
Finally I'd like to thank Hank for running some of the best adventures I had the pleasure of playing in. Hats off to a true Grognard.
Follow Your Bliss,