Sorry for the lame delay, work got busy again. My last post asked what we hope to find when we explore a sandbox. I've been doing some thinking for myself and hoping to come to some general principles that could help us generate stuff.
My main conclusion so far was that scale doesn't really work as a inducer of wonder in an imagined landscape. The grand canyon is awe inspiring in real life, probably impossible to convey in D&D. Of course, that doesn't mean you can't try. In my own game I had a huge hole in the ground based on the Cave of Swallows and I would show new players a video of someone parachuting into it to try and give them a sense of its size.
A couple other ideas related to scale. I think it is partially personal based on familiarity. If you know rivers and I tell you the dimensions of this fantasy river, its width, speed, depth-- that might have a potential to awe you. Likewise for anything, mountains, pine trees, particular animals. But in general, you wouldn't know as a DM who has enough knowledge to be amazed by the thing you made up.
Also, I noticed that my whole last post seemed to assume wilderness features. Can't wonders be found in a dungeon? I think so, sure, but the very dungeoness of dungeons, their constrained underground space, will make it harder to awe. So in this case scale does seem to matter. A room full of petrified trees is not as impressive as petrified trees as far as the eyes can see. And maybe the underground, being the mythic underworld, is expected to be weird, so something must be that much more impressive to invoke a sense of wonder.
Features of a wonder
Okay, so we have not relying on scale as a feature, what else? Here are some ideas I had:
Something that is a semi-permanent part of a landscape. A miniature city or a tree that has diamonds for fruit might be cool, but the fact you could dig them up and carry them off in a wagon detracts for me their wonder. The wonders we want will be locations players can return to again and again. (I guess, in a sense, this is another way that scale does matter).
That being said, it might be more of a draw in a game if players can take souvenirs-- bits of the landscape, vials of liquid-- that have value or strange properties from these sites.
Odd, but not deadly. Deadly can be awesome too, but I think it is much easier to evoke fear in someone then a sense of wonder and I'm shooting for the latter. So, we'll try to keep them survivable even if they are dangerous.
A toy to use or figure out. Either they have some pattern or system to them or they might have potential uses for players. This doesn't have much to do with wonders more with any building block of a game where players can make choices.
Let's start with the elements and go from there:
1. Walking rocks - A great flat plain filled with rocks of various sizes. Each night, they slide along at walking speed in one of the four cardinal directions. They range in size from pebble to huge boulders you could build a keep on. (sort of like sailing stones).
2. The Teeming Plains - Vast plains with many overlapping fossilized tracks. Apparently caused by some near-instant calamity in the ancient past. If you learn to distinguish the tracks you can follow those of mages, warriors, and angels to where they stop, dig there, and find caches of ancient magic left where they died.
3. Everburning Fire - In some far away hollow surrounded by wastelands is a fire that will never go out. It can catch fuels on fire and burn them up, but will remain, burning on the ground even when the fuel is burnt up. Burns in the rain. Burns in the snow. Smothering it might put it out. Have a sentient species of creatures covered in this fire (they just want to be friends) or obsidian trees that blossom with it ever spring.
4. Cold Fires - Found in a crater this fire can be spread by normal fuels - carried on a torch, in a brazier - but will never consume the fuels. It burns underwater. It burns eternally but is not hot.
5. The Great Mirage Lake - A huge, dry, sea. When a water craft is pushed into it water forms all around, lifting it up. This water might be collected in a container from inside the craft.
6. Lesser Mirage Lake - A beautiful blue lake in a dry land. The waters recede from any living thing. It might be possible to catch some with a suitably long pole. It might be possible to explore sunken cities hidden in its deepest parts.
7. The Blanched Moors - Low, wet lands covered with shallow, bitter pools. In these are the perfectly preserved bodies of creatures that have died here, all white. White stallions, white cocks, white apes, albino princesses. Perfect for those searching for material components or extinct beasts to revivify.
8. The Solid Fogs - At certain times of year the mists across some bays coalesce into solid clouds. These are a danger for ships. There are tales of mages gathering the stuff with shovels and saws to place in the air and build towers on.
9. Lethe Fogs - Said to rise from the ground in fell bogs. It smells faintly of over ripe apples and eats away at the memory (lose XP ever day you travel in it). If bottled could cause memory loss in targets elsewhere.
10. The Sweet Wind - A chance wind that arises on a certain lost plain. It smells faintly of vanilla. It clears the air and sharpens those that breathe it (extra XP for anything that grants it bonus chance for checks like casting spells to be successful).
11. The Crowding Grove - A forest of trees that press in on any living thing, becoming impassable. Cuttings and twigs taken will have similar properties.
12. The Shy Thickets - Thick brush that parts for anything living. Plantings can be taken. Might function as a good anti-undead defence.
Okay, some of those don't fulfill all of my own criteria, but hopefully they would be suitably interesting and trippy if encountered by your players. I have a few more ideas, including human-made wonders, for a later post.