I first found out about the Wilderlands my freshman or sophomore year of college. I was not sure what to run for my college group so on a whim I looked up the wikipedia page for fantasy RPG settings. I saw the name The Wilderlands of High Fantasy and thought it was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard. It was so dumb I had to know why someone would name something that. In reasearching it, I found out there was a 3e version of the setting, and since that was the main RPG I ran at the time (it's the one I started with) I looked into it more.
What I found was a lot of people talking about how it was more Swords & Sorcery than a modern D&D setting. It hearkened back to the Old Days, when fantasy and science fiction were not so separate. The days of pulp magazines and bronze age four color fantasy. The days of pulp fantasy. Now at the time I actually had fairly limited experience with the actual texts involved in these statements. I was familiar with pulp sci fi and horror through my love of spaceships, the works of H P Lovecraft, and the book the Art of Imagination, which I was given for Christmas once in high school. I still treasure that book.
I was also familiar with the successors of these forms of adventure fiction, though I wouldn't have recognized the connection at the time: 1950s sci fi and mid-century adventure films. The idea of a setting that felt like that and the appeals to a nostalgia for a past that I never lived in set my mind afire. I was also intrigued by the type of gameplay it promoted that the OSR now calls the "hexcrawl," because it matched the video games I actually liked to play but I had only experienced and run fairly linear storyline stuff before this time.
So I bought the 3e box set. I also bought some of the fiction people said it resembled - most notably the Conan stories of Robert E Howard (specifically the collection with illustrations by Mark Schultz, whose art still defines the Hyborian Age to me). I also picked up the Conan movie because people said it was good, and while I found them very different I enjoyed both immensely.
The box set took some time coming in so for a long while I relied on the free Lenap chapter that was hosted online. Its jungle climate with barren hills and volcanic islands reminded me of Infant Island from Mothra, which made me love it all the more and makes it still one of my favorite areas of the Wilderlands. In fact, it is the basis for a large part of Yavana. However, this campaign ended in a TPK and by then I had gotten a hold of the box set and moved the action to the City State of the Invincible Overlord (with a brief excursion into Tarsh).
An important thing to note, then, is that the Wilderlands was in many ways my introduction to pulp fantasy, though reading Grognardia a few years later would greatly increase the amount I read. It was easier for me to deal with the fact there were weird D&D races that wouldn't normally be in Swords & Sorcery fiction because I didn't yet have a developed enough taste to recognize it. My primary science fantasy D&D alike exposure was the Might & Magic series, and that had elves and dwarves and even minotaurs and vampires in some games and you ended most of them by shooting the boss with rayguns. Heck, in some of the games the elves were even blue, which made it easier to understand the funny colored wilderpeople.
Another thing to note is that I started running the Wilderlands during my college career, where I majored in history and minored in classics (and eventually went on to get an MA in Premodern History). To the Retro Stupid Wilderlands setting I added a great deal of Pretension. The difference between the Skandiks of Croy and Ossary became many of the differences between Vikings and Saxons. The armies of the City State became late Roman in character. I knew enough about Persia to make the connections to the magic archers and name of Viridistan.
A mock cover created by Trey Causey that I think gets the tone Exactly Right
My history with the Wilderlands certainly makes it my most maximalist setting. It is a jambalaya of influences that developed as I ran the setting. My interest in "precious shithole hellscapes" developed after finding Huge Ruined Scott's original Wilderlands OD&D blog and through that the rest of the OSR. That blog is why this blog exists. The tastes I developed through reading OSR blogs led me to trying to decide from the ground up why OD&Disms would be the way they are, based on my own proclivities, which is what led to Nightwick Abbey. I don't design settings the way I did for the relatively blank slate of the Wilderlands material anymore, and I would never put elves in a Swords & Sorcery setting now.
But the Wilderlands is enough part of my D&D DNA now that I can run it without chaffing too much at its contradictions. Things are sometimes the way they are because that's the way they are in the Wilderlands. Elves and Hobbits go steal the jewel from the Tower of the Elephant.
Anyway I mentioned an Appendix N at the beginning so I should probably do one of those. This represents both what I was reading for the original campaign and what I've read since that has been incorporated into my imaginings.
Geary, Patrick - Before France and Germany
Howerd, Robert E. - Almuric, Conan Series***
Jordanes - History of the Goths
Leiber, Fritz - The Sword Series***
Lovecraft, H. P. - "The Mound," At the Mountains of Madness, and other Cthulhu mythos stories.
Smith, Clark Ashton - The Hyperborean and Zothique Cycles*, "The Abominations of Yondo," "The Maze of the Enchanter"*
Moore, C. L. - Jirel of Joiry Series, Northwest of Earth Series
Tolkien, J. R. R. - The Hobbit*
Atlantis: The Lost Continent
Conan the Barbarian
Deathstalker 2 (and some of the visuals from 1 but man does 1 have too much rape).
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad*
Hawk the Slayer
Hercules in the Haunted World
Jason and the Argonauts
The Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad***
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger**
Conan and Savage Sword of Conan by Marvel
Conan by Dark Horse
ElfQuest (currently by Dark Horse)
ElfQuest (currently by Dark Horse)
Godzilla by Dark Horse
Elder Scrolls - Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim
Heroes of Might and Magic 2
Might & Magic 1 - 8**
Legend of Zelda - Link to the Past, Link's Awakening, Ocarina of Time
Sid Meier's Pirates
Special Mentions: Basil Paledouris's soundtrack for Coanan the Barbarian, which I listened to while both prepping and running, and My Barbarian's "Unicorns LA" which gives me some of the same weird Nostalgia for Past Times of D&D feels.