I have a friend who likes all the wrong things in fantasy. He prefers the Lord of the Rings movies to the books. He likes third edition D&D way more than the earlier editions. He likes fast-paced escapist fantasy much more than slow meditative worldbuilding. Whenever we talk about it, there's always an element of tension in the air. Yet, a few days ago I hit upon a revelation about why he likes the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons even though he's old enough to remember AD&D. This is a story of that revelation.
I've been valiantly trying to catalog the differences between older editions of D&D and newer ones for years. It's a never ending conversation that I have with the entire world, posing the questions to everyone I speak with at one point or another. There may be interruptions for other things (such as actual playing) but the question is always there. Why don't I like third and fourth edition? What makes them so fundamentally different from that which came before? In addition to all the things I've discovered through reasoned use of logic, there is this fact that has escaped me again and again. It took looking at the game through someone else's eyes to really understand it.
So what am I talking about? I'm referring to character creation. I've noticed that creating a character has become a bigger and more important part of playing D&D as the editions have ticked over to WotC and Hasbro. I never really took much account of it other than to laugh and dismiss it as simple wish-fulfillment on the part of the players. But it was pointed out to me that 3rd edition was just as deadly as the previous editions when you factor all possible characters into the equation. It may seem less deadly because people learn to play within the limits of the system.
That last bit confused me. How is the game as deadly if, structurally, many of the characters who would normally die are never even created? Because the focus of the game changed drastically between the second and third editions of Dungeons and Dragons, as did the entire notion of what it meant to play D&D. It just happened in such a way as to elude many people. The focus of the game has shifted to character creation. It is in the decisions of which feats to choose that life-or-death is decided. It is in the way you set your attributes. Building your character is a game in and of itself, not just because it takes so much time but because so much of the outcome of any individual fight rests on how competently you assembled your adventurer.
The thing that my friend disliked about earlier editions of D&D is that they weren't mathematically predictable. You could die because your DM rolled a dragon on an encounter chart. You could die because of a series of bad rolls. For him, this was not an element of the game that he enjoyed. For me and the group that I play with, we relish those moments where an entire encounter turn sideways or when something happens to be wandering around that could annihilate the entire party; that's when judicious use of flight or, if the players are feeling brave, planning can help to turn the tide of an otherwise deadly TPK into at least survival or, gods forbid, victory.
For him, that element of chance in the very lifeblood of the game was a detriment. I looked over 3.x again to figure out how that could possibly have been worked out of the game while leaving death in as an option. The way 3.x plays is more similar to a war game or a CCG than it is to earlier editions of D&D. How so, you ask?
In both war games and CCGs you assemble your army or your deck before hand. A good portion of victory lies in the way you select the pieces that you are going to play with. That is not true of older editions of D&D. You can have bad stats and make it to level 20 or great stats and die out of the gate. You don't really "build" your character beforehand, you simply allow them to aggregate new experiences organically. I've never seen anyone plan out an AD&D character for fifteen levels; what they do is take new proficiencies as people become available to teach them, or train themselves in new weapons as they find interesting magical items that they want to master.
That is not the way you build a 3.x character. In order to have optimal synergy of your skills, you need to have a game plan when you come into the game. It's a mental exercise similar to Robot Wars; you build your man and then you take him out into the wild to see his build in action. It doesn't stop there, though. You need a gameplan to take your man from level one to level thirty so you have no flab or useless skills. This is where character death and difficulty come in; plan wrong, and your character will be more likely to perish during the course of the game. Plan right, and you shouldn't have to worry too much about dying unless you are facing overwhelming odds.
This may be a simplification, but it's how I instantly understood where my friend was coming from. 3.x of whatever stripe doesn't remove the danger, it transplants it. It maneuvers it from the field (play wisely and use tactics or die) to character creation (build wisely and use a plan or die). THAT is a game that I don't particularly relish playing. I like the threat of violence and death around every corner. I like the danger of perhaps randomly losing your character for no reason. It's like life. That's why I play.