Back in the day, as they say, when I started playing RPGs, there were certain things that were just understood. What the GM said was law. When you rolled up a new character, you rolled a spare just in case, because you knew that not all the player characters were coming back alive from their first adventure. When you met the monsters, you were not guaranteed to be at your best… and there was no guarantee you could defeat them, either.
Looking back, I can see when it began to change. It started in small ways. New character classes and races resulted in a form of what is called “feature creep” in the programming world. More detail added to the player characters made creating one take longer. A new focus on “story” led to some players writing extensive background for their characters, well beyond “he’s a barbarian from the hill country looking for adventure.” All that effort spent creating a character meant that, before play even began, the player was already emotionally invested in the character.
When you have an investment in a character, you sure don’t want to see him (or her, or it) die right away. Traditional games tended to mitigate lethality for higher level characters with spells like Raise Dead, which were generally not available to beginning characters; so the rules were changed to make it harder to kill the character in a permanent fashion.
There is surely a balance to be struck here, a balance we’ve tried hard to find in Basic Fantasy RPG. Modern games ignore the balance, as creating a character takes so long and involves so much work that no one wants to risk (character) death.
But even in a modern game, there has to be some semblance of failure. To make the game “better” for the players, even that risk required mitigation. The designers of the new school made the idea of game balance into a virtual religion… each encounter was carefully analyzed to confirm whether it was a proper challenge for an “average” party. As far as I can figure, this means “make the PCs work up a sweat while killing the monsters.” It specifically doesn’t mean “the monsters might kill you all.”
Players who learned in the new school will tell the GM he’s doing it wrong if he causes them to face monsters more powerful that “game balance” allows. Players trained in the old school know that monsters prefer to prey upon the weak.
Let me give you an example of the old school at work:
In my current campaign, the player characters, all around 3rd level, were traveling through the wilderness; I rolled a random encounter, and a green dragon was indicated. The dragon did not leap directly into battle; rather, it positioned itself across their path, and told them it could smell their gold. “Give me half, and I’ll let you live.” So they did. This sort of exchange has actually happened several times, even one time involving a red dragon (though he wanted more than half).
In the new school, I’d have been shouted down as soon as I announced the monster. How dare I use a monster the party couldn’t defeat?
Bah. The real world doesn’t work like that. Bad guys don’t pick on you because you represent a fair challenge… they pick on you because they believe they will win. They believe you are weaker, one way or another. Why in the world should the game be any different? Is this world we’re imagining designed by Disney or what?