I’m kind of thinking “out loud” in this post, so please just bear with me…
Like a lot of gamers my age (perhaps most of them), AD&D was my introduction to RPGs. My friends had been playing for about a year before I got interested. It has always been hard to break through the mental barrier my skateboarding addiction has created, so I was a slow adapter to the RPG cult.
There were, of course, things we didn’t like about the system. Mostly the combat system. As teenage boys, I think we wanted greater detail in the combat. There were a lot of competing systems that we tried. The Fantasy Trip (soon to become GURPS), the Hero System, the RuneQuest system, etc, etc. All were really better combat systems. Much better.
But when I think back on it, it seems like what we gained in combat realism, we lost in over the top heroics.
And that’s where D&D got it right. All that stuff about gaining experience levels, hit points, becoming harder and harder to kill. All that contributed to that great “Conan swam across the Eastern Sea with an ox under one arm, came out, cooked and ate the ox, and then single-handedly defeated an army of ghouls” feeling.
The system didn’t work (nor was it intended to work) well for unarmed combat, armies, or combat purists who wanted specific fighting moves. To me it was kind of a middle of the road system. It offered some detail, but not enough to get bogged down.
Some players just don’t want to get so wrapped up in game mechanics, and are willing to give the GM a little more latitude to flesh things out on the fly. They are into the story and the roleplaying, and don’t want to spend 2 hours on one fight.
Now, all these years later, I also think the Experience Point/Levels system was a good thing for D&D. Most other RPGs don’t really have levels. They let you add points to your character and improve your characteristics and skills, which is great and I tended to gravitate toward those systems. But there was some real utility to knowing the difference between a 1st level fighter and 10th level fighter. In retrospect, I don’t see it so much as a “dumbed down” system, but rather one that is conducive to a particular kind of role playing, meeting particular needs.
So why do I think the more realistic systems lost the super heroics of D&D? Simple. In most of those, there is still a chance that a very minor pest (kobold, etc), could score a lucky hit and just KILL a player character dead. That is realistic, but for a lot of gamers it isn’t fun.
I haven’t had a chance to delve back into the 2nd Edition rules, yet, but I seem to remember from the game I ran in the mid 1990s that those rules had improved the combat system a bit. I’ll have to check them out this week, but it seems like they offered a little bit more realism/options during combat without turning the game into simply a game of combat simulation.
I suppose this is all just today that what I thought sucked (AD&D) as I gained experience as a gamer did not, in fact, suck, but was actually pretty damned good for a particular kind of game.