Let’s try an interesting thought experiment.
Have you ever played the Star Trek computer game, Starfleet Command? It’s a real-time strategy version of the old Starfleet Battles table-top wargame, where you take command of starships from the Star Trek universe and duke it out with one another. It’s a fun game. Part of the game is earning prestige. You can spend prestige on improving your ship, or upgrading to a larger ship, or getting more experienced crew assigned to the ships in your squadron.
Now, obviously, Star Fleet officers don’t actually accrue any such currency, nor do they “buy” ships and crew. The prestige system is an abstraction of the sort of politicking that goes on in a naval force. The more victories you win, the more clout you can bring to bear on getting things done. You can bend the ears of admirals and cut through red tape.
But the game’s not about high-powered cocktail parties or mentoring promising young cadets as they make their way through the ranks. It’s about maneuvering into the Klingon’s six and putting a few photon torpedoes up his tailpipe. And so all of that political and personal and personnel stuff is abstracted. Victories and promotions earn you prestige points. You “buy” the things you want by spending those points. It’s quick, easy, and a fun way to enjoy the rewards of success on the battlefield.
Now, imagine you’re making a NASCAR racing game for the computer. The fun part of NASCAR is, of course, the racing. You’ll have controls to steer, accelerate, and brake. This is central to the game, of course, but these are fairly simple activities. They might take up only a single page in the instruction manual, even though most of the game will be driving your car around the track, squeezing into the inside past the other cars and trying to block them from doing the same to you.
But you might want other aspects of the NASCAR experience in your game as well. Pit crews are a vital part of the game. But you don’t want to bother the player with trying to change the tires or filling up the tank. That all happens at once, and doesn’t really lend itself to a mini-game (though I guess you could do something like how fast you mash a pair of buttons dictates how fast your guys get your car back in the race). There’s too much going on. So you abstract it. Maybe you do the button-mash mini-game, or maybe prestige can buy more experienced crews, like in Starfleet Command. And you could do something similar for the patron decals on your car, so that as you win bigger and bigger races, you get more prestigious advertising on your car.
But again, the core of the game is driving. And while more pages in the instruction manual might be given to things like “buying” pit crew or attracting sponsors, you spend most of your playing time maneuvering past the opposition as you floor it through the straight-aways.
You see where I’m going with this? Ok, then, let’s cut to the chase.
Suppose you’re making a fairly complex game, like an RPG. The game is about taking on a larger-than-life role. You don’t worry about rules for interaction or role-playing. That sort of thing just happens, right? And then there’s the central focus of the game. You might not spill a lot of ink about it, but it’s there, and you give it the information it needs, then get out of the way so it can be enjoyed.
However, there are these other, tangential aspects of the game that need to be addressed. So you slap together some abstractions for adjudicating them, throw in some random elements, and move on.
In D&D, one of these tangential aspects is combat.
No, seriously think about it. Yes, there are tons of rules for combat. But the system is extremely abstract. A single die roll covers either 10 seconds of combat (an eternity, as anyone who has ever practiced a martial art will tell you) or as much as an entire minute of thrusts, parries, attacks, blocks, and dodges. While the games include long lists of weapons, the rules do little to differentiate between them. Whether you’re wielding a hand axe, a fauchard, a horseman’s mace, or a short sword, in 2e you’re doing 1d6 damage. And the effects of combat, fatigue, pain, and bleeding, are further abstracted as hit points, the loss of which has no effect on your character’s abilities until the point of death (or unconsciousness, if you used popular houserules).
So where was the focus of the game? Exploration. Yes, you could earn XP from slaying monsters. But you were more likely to earn more XP from gathering treasure. So it made sense that gathering treasure without risking combat was the best way to play the game. The earliest players strove for the maximum return for minimum risk.
Don’t believe me? Let’s see what Mr. Gygax had to say on the matter. First, notice why the adventurers are heading into the dreaded dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk:
This same magic-user now commanded a party of four bent on despoiling the wicked dwellers of the underworld beneath the castle of some goodly treasure.
Not to slay, but to pillage. Not to root out the evil of the place, or rescue a princess, or to slay the boss monster. Their chief aim was to find treasure. Notice how they avoid combat whenever possible, and only fight when absolutely forced to. And notice that, when they do secure some treasure, they do so without combat.
That’s how Mr. Gygax and his crew played the game. You think they might have known something about the intended playstyle of D&D in its original form?