Returning to the RPGs of my youth has been interesting in a lot of ways. I've already mentioned how creative collaboration is much better with my 30-something players than we ever had it when I was a kid. Players create interesting backstories for their characters that help the campaign, rather than trying to squeeze more power into their characters. Also, the extra 20+ years of poring over graphic novels, watching movies, reading literature, etc. has meant even more cool ideas bouncing around than we had at age 12. Some aspects, therefore, are changes for the better. The only change for the worse, at least that I can see, is the fact that we can only pull off about 1 session a week, max. Jobs and wives are much more time-consuming than water-polo practice and pre-algebra.
After all these years, however, some things seem to stay just the same. When we first starting playing back in May, I made a small dungeon: two levels, about twelve rooms total. There was a bare-bones town that served only to equip the characters, and we paid little attention to the wilderness trip to the dungeon. Over time, however, and without consciously changing focus, we've naturally progressed through what I think might be the standard stages of fantasy role-playing.
Megadungeons: After the first few adventures, the characters discovered the location of a much larger dungeon, and many subsequent adventures have taken place within it. These adventures never focus on "clearing" the dungeon, but rather involve exploring parts of it, finding an item, rescuing an old friend imprisoned there, etc. There's an unspoken understanding that this dungeon has no "bottom floor" really, and there are all manner of monstrous entities and secrets hidden "down deep".
Town/City: After enjoying the megadungeon for awhile (and without discarding it), the players started to feel a little claustraphobic. They sought out adventure in the towns and cities, and I had to flesh those places out to provide for the greater interest in them. Much more interaction with NPCs began to occur.
Wilderness: The stage we find ourselves in now is one of wilderness exploration. As the Labyrinth Lord, I find myself enjoying the creation of wilderness locales and small "mini-dungeons" (great inspirations here) for the characters to find as they wander the forests and jungles.
Now, I'll throw out some disclaimers out right away. This progression has nothing to do with depth of play or "sophistication". True, our initial adventures were more shallow, but that had nothing to do with the setting. It had everything to do with me being, essentially, a brand new DM again. I was learning how to dungeon master again after a 20-year hiatus. These settings are phases only insofar as they appear to be the natural progression of discovery. After bumping around in dungeons for a long time you want to start exploring the wilderness, or a town. They are not phases in respect to growing out of one and into another. Each new setting adds richness to the play experience, as far as I can tell. I can see our campaign encompassing all these elements now, and allowing me flexibility to offer wilderness, dungeon, and city/town adventures to my players, and they have the flexibility to choose whatever they feel like at the time. Additionally, I'd be willing to bet there are several other settings and styles of adventures that I haven't discovered yet. I'm still quite green, no doubt.
It's interesting to see that this progression, with the same order, seems to be the norm. At least, if you look at B/X or read about the styles of play in the original Greyhawk or Blackmoor campaigns. Is this a common experience, I wonder, or do some groups pass through wildly different phases during the RPG learning process?