These blanket condemnations of pulp writers for sexism display a disappointing lack of empathy and perspective. REH did not include scantily clad women in his first few Conan stories; they came later… when he really needed the sales. He knew what his editors would pay for and that stuff was not what he would have written were money no object. And A. Merritt knew darn well what would sell in his time… because ERB’s Princess of Mars was so wildly popular, you’d be crazy not to follow and develop on the exact same model. You can’t act like these guys were just arbitrarily sexist, as if their attitudes spontaneously emerged from nowhere. Editors and readers had a great deal influence on their work. They grew up in a world without birth control, without safe/easy abortion, with relatively primitive medicine, and with frighteningly high maternal mortality rates. That had a tremendous impact on peoples’ notions of romance, love, and marriage. Yes… the culture was different. And no, these guys do not need warning labels attached to their works or apologies made on their behalf any more than Mark Twain or Jane Austen do. And people that like old books do not need to engage in ritualized self-abasement if they enjoy them. They are valuable and compelling precisely because they are so different from books written today and they preserve glimpses of a past we too often assume we have evolved beyond. Human nature hasn’t changed as much as most people think it has; that’s why the classics aren’t going to become obsolete anytime soon.
If not for the “regrettable debates” between the Old School and 4e, I would never have taken classic D&D seriously or treated it as the masterpiece of game design that it actually is. There are incredibly fascinating things involved in its impetus and that derive spontaneously from its execution that are not explicitly stated in the rules. A big problem with these debates is that there is a large group of extremely loud people that do not know that they don’t know about this.
Let me explain this diagram from Rob Donoghue. In “real” role-playing games, the scenario is not necessarily “balanced” and the abilities of the characters are not necessarily “balanced” and the players have agency to go and do as they please. Once everyone gets settled in and the group dynamics have been sorted out and people suddenly stop making Monty Python jokes and suddenly start caring a great deal about the outcome of each and every die roll, sometimes the whole table can end up screaming in either glee or despair with each and every outcome. The “push your luck” element to the game combined with the concept of distinct dungeon levels serve to facilitate this happening. The scenario does not have to be balanced as long as the players have the option to dip into the sweet spot where they have a chance to get either epic loot or horrifying consequences if they just venture temporarily into a region that they know is just a bit too much for them. D&D is popular because this is a very complex premise for a game that is surprisingly accessible in this format. A lot of the people attempting to one-up D&D have no clue about how this works.
The key to good game mastering is allowing the players to find these sweet spots. To do that, there has to be a range of difficulty on the map and the players have to have the latitude to go where they want and even to be stupid. (The process looks very much like Rob’s diagram, because when you sit down to run the game, you have no idea where things are going to “click.”) You have to be willing to let them face the consequences of their choices. Lewis Pulsipher says you don’t have to kill player characters, they just have to believe that they are in life threatening situations. Well that’s fine, but the quickest way to make them believe is by letting a few of them die early on.
High mortality rates, variable difficulties of challenges available, player autonomy, and referee neutrality make for a powerful combination. It forces the players to think and to cooperate. It’s consistently dramatic, surprising, and the outcomes are delightfully varied. The rapid shifts from glory to outright terror is completely addictive. It’s a different kind of game and not one that tends to emerge in either computer gaming or from people that think they know what they want– people that know in advance that they’ll, for instance, reframe everything on the fly in order to artificially ensure that every character gets an equal share of “spotlight” time. Why put yourself in a position where you’re personally responsible for each player’s fun? Why not fade into the woodwork and put the players in charge of the game?
One of the thing I like about B/X over 5e is how with it taking more than a couple of sessions to level up usually, it forces you to really pull off several heists. You have to master the game. With everyone generally leveling up once a session in 5e, you completely lose the sense of relief and accomplishment that a “real” graduation used to effect.
Something like 3 to 5 sessions on average to level up (with lotsa death) is brilliant design if you ask me. It was also normal at one time. Even Car Wars followed that same approach. The thing about it: it makes you focus on playing over everything else, you don’t need a large amount of complex rules and splat books to support it, and you don’t need an endless stream of other people’s modules to keep it going. The fun emerges from the game rather than being something the game master has to baby along.