I was watching a video recently that was listing several of the "iconic" D&D monsters like the Beholder and Gelatinous Cube. What was interesting about this video was the narrator mentioning running away from or avoiding these monsters. This got me thinking about some if the philosophy of "old school" gaming, modern game design, what folks want out of RPGs and many other things.
First, I'd like to say that I in no way claim to be an "old school" gamer. I didn't start table top gaming till the 90's. I think my first exposure to D&D would have been the Saturday morning cartoon, and the AD&D first edition DM guide that one of my older siblings had (but only played once that I recall). I use to thumb through that book looking at all the pictures and imagining games of adventure, but never really got a chance to play till years later.
Instead, I grew up on video games. From the Atari 2600, to the NES, to the SNES. And the first "role playing game" I played were JRPG video games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior. There was also a heap of action adventure games like The Legend of Zelda and Faxanadu. My first game of D&D was the "Rules Cyclopedia" basic game, so maybe that's still old school?
Anyway, bringing this back to modern day, I find it interesting that the last few editions of D&D, and many other games have had a strong focus on "balance". Every combat encounter is suppose to be "challenging but winnable". Now I for a long time I assumed that GMs that created "deathtrap dungeons" or were out to "win by killing the PCs" were just bad GMs or "doing it wrong."* Maybe this is part of the reason that modern games focus on balance?
But what if some of those "killer GMs" weren't really trying to kill the PCs at all? Looking at "old school" adventure modules, it seems like there wasn't really this idea that the PCs should be "clearing the dungeon". Some seem to imply that combat is something to be avoided. And sure the monsters are little more than a collection of combat stats, but those stats paint a dire picture. Maybe GMs were just trying to get players to think about what their characters can do other than be mindless killing machines.
The problem is that modern designs seems to focus on letting the PCs be exactly that. If every fight is suppose to be winnable, then there is no need to think if you should avoid the fight, how to trick the monster, or what other options exist. Only a bad GM would put a monster that the party can't defeat in the adventure, right?
Maybe this design change came about, not because of bad GMing, but bad playing? There was always "that one player" that did rush in and attack everything. They didn't want to think about tactics, deal with negotiation, and they never backed down or ran away. And maybe there were lots of players that way, and GMs that didn't want TPKs over and over. Those GMs might have "tweaked the numbers", and made that beholder weaker, that dragon slower, and overall let the players win. Because "winning" is what it's all about, right?
Or maybe this change was influenced by video game design? More on that later.
* I don't want to get into this too much, but I now believe that there is no bad-wrong-fun as long as everyone is on the same page and has the same expectations of the game.