Understanding classic D&D requires understanding that any area created for the game milieu is to be used multiple times, with multiple groups of players, over weeks, months, and years of play. However, something happened with DragonLance that changed the course of Dungeons & Dragons – the introduction of the strong adventure path model.
By way of analogy, classic D&D sought to create the experience of being a character within a fantasy world, whereas the strong adventure path model seeks to create the experience of being a protagonists in a fantasy novel. That may seem like a minor distinction, but further thought will show that it is not.
Protagonists in a fantasy novel can expect to survive, or to have meaningful deaths. Characters within a fantasy world cannot.
Protagonists in a fantasy novel are automatically special. Characters within a fantasy world are not necessarily special – only what actually occurs in play determines how special you are. The difference between Conan and an Aesir he kills early in his career are as much a difference of luck as of skill in the “fantasy world” model – at first, Conan is only important because he survives. In the fantasy novel model, Conan is important before he does anything, simply because he is Conan.
A fantasy novel purports to tell a specific story; a fantasy world is a place where things happen, and then people tell stories about them after the fact.
If you hop back to my comments about Choice, Context, and Consequence, you should easily see where this is going. In order to ensure that PCs are meaningful protagonists, and in order to ensure that there is a specific story, the GM must mitigate the consequences of player choices. He must ensure that player choices do not take the characters away from the story, by death, by other interests, or even by resolving problems “too early”.
Now, I am going to reiterate my mantra: Play whatever games you like, in whatever way you like. You don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks. You certainly don’t have to worry about what I think.
But I will point this out: OD&D and 1st Edition AD&D were both devised to support the iceberg/fantasy world model. Both experienced explosive growth, and both have a strong following of fans/players to this day. 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons attempted to follow this same model, and it is arguable that 3rd Edition – especially at lower-level play, or using lower-level variants like E6 – is the only version of the game that rivals (or has ever rivaled) the classic editions.
On the other hand, 2nd Edition AD&D, despite all of its options, bought very much into the fantasy novel model (which was most evident in its adventures and advice to DMs), and TSR went bankrupt. The unwieldiness of higher-level play in 3rd Edition likewise brought back a strong “adventure path” mentality (you need prep less if you can guarantee what encounters your players will have) – and removing this unwieldiness was one of the major selling points of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Like 2nd Edition before it, 4th Edition seems to have a strong fantasy novel element…although this might be better described as a “computer game” element in terms of its modules at least, which are composed largely of set-piece combats linked by what may almost be “cut scenes” between fights. Even the skill challenge mechanic, as presented in modules, is largely filler between the main events.
(And, yes, obviously people need not play this way. Equally obviously, there are some interesting variants being devised to play in more of an iceberg/fantasy world style than in a fantasy novel/computer game style. Different people play different games in different ways….ultimately, though, sales seem to be based on how the owners market what they’ve created.)
The problem here is not that “fantasy novel” games are bad. The problem is that the fantasy novel experience is done just as well (or better) at less cost an effort by fantasy novels, film, and computer games. Fantasy world/iceberg games are done better by….well, tabletop games do them the best. Nothing else is even in the same ball park.
Yes, I do think iceberg games are better…..both for actual play, and for the industry. But, if you like something else, don’t worry about my opinion.
Play whatever games you like, in whatever way you like!