|Art by Cristian Ibarra Santillan; used under CC license|
Your OSR setting is a deathworld. This may not seem obvious - indeed, many settings appear to have an expansive and relatively safe countryside - but an examination of the encounter tables and monster descriptions of popular Old School Revolution (OSR) games speaks otherwise.
A "deathworld" is a term popularized (or maybe coined) by the Warhammer 40K universe. It refers to a world which is inimical to Humanity, be that due to climate, atmosphere, or biosphere. Such worlds require a major effort to survive on, and, in Warhammer 40K, typically breed elite warriors forged by the world's overall hostility.
Encounter tables in various OSR games, if you examine their implications, depict a world not unlike these deathworlds. Even in the perfect fantasy environment, with a temperate climate and pleasant terrain, monsters abound. Not just wolves and goblins, but rather dragons, powerful undead, owlbears, and worse. A sea journey may even be interrupted by a dragon turtle or a kraken - monsters sometimes above the ability of even "Name Level" (level 9) characters to fight without specialized tactics, or even with them.
The encounter tables are laden with powerful monsters. In OSE, for example, on pp.218-222 of the Roles Tome, the encounter tables depict a frightening world. There is a 1-in-8 (!) chance, for example, to encounter a dragon in most biomes, always a tough encounter for characters of any level. While some dragons may be reasoned with, many of these regal beasts would demand tribute, or simply try to eat whomever they encounter. Lycanthropes are common, as are undead, including powerful mummies and vampires. In ACKS, tables are similar to those in OSE, with a 1-in-8 risk of a dragon and a major piracy risk (yarr!) in the high seas. In the Basic Fantasy RPG, 4th Edition, pp.180-181, dragons are a somewhat less common (only encountered on the results of 2 and 16 on 2d8), but still an extant threat in almost all biomes. Giants and rocs in the mountains and giant octopi in the sea are more common.
Note that neither ruleset has a "safe countryside" column. Even ACKS's "Inhabited" column has a dragon in it! It's either cities, with their own criminal and undead problems, or the deadly Wilderness!
Anything PCs can encounter, villagers and even sedentary villages will encounter often. Even if you reduce the encounter rate in "Civilized" areas to once a month, on the long run, dragons, giants, and other monsters will come to your village to raze it or demand tribute. Goblinoid tribes will raid villages on a frequent basis. It's a dangerous world out there! Not your idyllic fantasy countryside. Not the Lord of the Rings Shire, where danger is a rare occasion worthy of an epic saga. It's closer to Catachan of Warhammer 40K fame!
And add to that monsters outside the encounter tables, but present in your typical OSR ruleset's Monsters chapter, such as Cloud Giants in their flying castles.
The implications are numerous:
- The default setting, given the encounter tables and monster chapters, would be Points of Light. That is, most of the world is deadly, and Humanity huddles around the few safer spots - typically city-states as noted below. Outside these safer points - the world is out to get you.
- It is likely that the setting is post-apocalyptic, with a strong Gamma World vibe to it. Maybe the past was safer, with a mighty empire keeping the monsters at bay. Maybe even most monsters did not exist before the apocalyptic event.
- A dispersed population would be at much greater risk than a concentrated settlement pattern. Defending disparate villages is much harden than defending a walled city-state and its adjacent farmland. Thus, settlement pattern will be closer to that depicted in sword & sorcery literature, namely city-states rather than vast expanses of countryside.
- There is a reason Name Level - when characters can become "proper" lords - is at Level 9. Below that, the local lord would be hard pressed to defend his protection ra---- sorry, feudal domain - from roving monsters and humanoid hordes. But even then, remote villages ruled by high-level characters would still be at greater risk than the city-states, with their high concentration of name-level characters, strong walls, and the ability to raise large armies.
- Personal power would equal political power - the ability to defend one's turf against monsters and usurpers.
- Outside Civilized territory, monsters will form their own domains. A dragon may be worshiped as a protective deity, sometimes enjoying human sacrifices from its subjects. A powerful undead monster may be able to carve a domain of death or even construct a necropolis around it. Humanoid tribes are also affected by this - they will often be at the bottom of the monstrous food chain, giving tribute to more powerful monsters, and sometimes serving them as cannon fodder.