(The ultimate expression of this is probably the Mythic RPG, a great little game that can be used to build rules, a setting, and adventures, without even a GM, out of dice rolls and questions. Definitely worth checking out if you enjoy casting your fate to the dice.)
But hand-in-hand with the joys of random dice come some perils. Once you embrace the chaos, you have to toss most notions of fairness right out the window. Random stats, save-or-die, wandering monsters that are far above the combat abilities of the PCs, dungeons in which your character’s special schtick is never allowed to take center stage. All of these things are possible, and many are probable. Heck, even the improbable can be an issue. I remember sitting there and watching my younger brother roll five 18s in a row with straight 3d6 for stats. The final roll was a 12. You think that character shined a bit more than others?
And that doesn’t take into account that he played an elf.
A lot of ink was spilled back in the day, including by Gygax himself, about the importance of “balance” in the game, but honestly, most of it was a crock of poop. Yeah, I know, that sounds kinda harsh, but seriously, there were reasons why most parties before 3rd edition were a bunch of elves and maybe a token human. Elves in 1st edition AD&D had infravision, +1 to hit and damage with longbows and long swords (arguably two of the best weapons in the game), 90% resistance to charm spells, immunity to ghoul paralyzation, and the ability to multi-class. Thousand-year lifespans meant they could enjoy the benefits of nearly countless Haste spells without fear of premature aging. And all of this at 1st level.
And the cost for all these wonderful benefits? They were limited in what classes they could take, and the highest level they could advance in those classes. Which, when you got down to it, really were not limitations at all. First, if you didn’t want to play a class that wasn’t allowed to your preferred race, it really wasn’t any sort of restriction at all. Second, the lowest level-limit from race was, I think, 9th. Since very few campaigns lasted past 10th level, that wasn’t much of a threat either. The “sweet spot” of 1st edition AD&D was generally considered to be between 4th and 9th level. So maybe your elf or dwarf of halfling missed out on going up a level or two, but little more than that, which hardly balanced out all the bonus goodies they got. Even worse, in tournament play, where you’d expect issues of balance to be the most important, all of these drawbacks vanished. You were unlikely to go up more than a level or two, and you played with pre-generated characters. There was no reason not to snatch up that elf character if you had the chance, and the dwarf or gnome was still likely to be more useful (and give you more opportunities for points) than the poor human schlub.
D&D, especially as it grew to include thieves and rangers and stat bonuses and more races, left any semblance of “fairness” in the dust. There were “optimal builds” even back in the Moldvay/Cook days, though it was far less important than with D&D 3.5. In truth, the randomness of the game worked to smooth out those rough spots a bit, throwing an awful lot of the game to chance.
Now I’m not saying the games sucked. Far from it. I had a hell of a lot of fun running my brother’s elf through dungeons and later claiming a bit of wilderness for elven civilization. As Mr. Maliszewski made clear in the above-linked post, a lot of the fun depended heavily on the DM and players. We played around the unfairness, and some players took it as a challenge to work with sub-optimal characters, inspired by characters like Elric and Raistlin who clearly had a few low stats among their rolls. But whether we admitted it or not, we know that D&D in all of its incarnations was nothing like a finely tuned and perfectly balanced engine-o’-fun. You had to bring a lot of the fun yourself, and houserule the game to handle the issues you and your group thought were important. Maybe that explains the strong do-it-yourself ethos of those who started playing back then?