I may have finally put my finger on why later versions of D&D not only don't feel much like D&D to me but simply do not get me excited enough to want to play. Mike Mearls, one of the main designers of the upcoming 4th Edition of D&D ran a game of OD&D for some of his officemates earlier this year and posted some reports and comments on the game at the Original D&D Discussion board. A comment he made in this post about the difference between OD&D and current versions hit home as soon as I read it:
A lot of the fun parts of the session (the talking skull; the undead and their bargain) were possible under any edition of D&D. However, I think that OD&D's open nature makes the players more likely to accept things in the game as elements of fiction, rather than as game elements. The players reacted more by thinking "What's the logical thing for an adventurer to do?" rather than "What's the logical thing to do according to the rules?"
Pay special attention to that last sentence: "The players reacted more by thinking 'What's the logical thing for an adventurer to do?' rather than 'What's the logical thing to do according to the rules?'" I think this sums up my deepest problem with the WOTC editions of D&D. These editions encourage and reward being a "rules lawyer" -- a type of player that most of us who started playing long ago abhor even more than power-gaming munchkins. The type of player who has memorized every rule in every rulebook and loves to argue those rules (and their most obscure interactions and combinations) with the DM and other players in order to wring every possible rules advantage for his character out of the system he can.
If I wanted to play a game where memorizing rules and their interactions were the way to play, I'd just play something like chess where one's ability to win comes from having memorized the rules and thousands of standardized opening sequences and the like. When I play in or run D&D I want my fellow players to be thinking like adventurers, not like rules lawyers. If one needs to keep a dungeon door open, I want my fellow players to have their characters looking for rocks or spikes or the like -- what a person actually in that situation would be doing. I don't want them trying to think of what rules pulled from eight or nine rulebooks and supplements and combined will give them the best chance according to the rules of keeping the door open.
Sadly, I have come to believe that WOTC purposely designed the rules this way for a couple of reasons that have little or nothing to do with the good of those playing the game:
* To encourage more people to buy lots of rulebooks. In previous editions of the game, the DM was really the only person who needed a copy of multiple books. Players only needed a copy of the Player's Handbook. Worse, from the point of view of selling lots of books, one copy of the Player's Handbook could easily be shared between several players as there was little need for it except when creating characters, advancing a level, or selecting spells. Players did not really need to know the nitty-gritty details of the rules, let alone think in rules.
* To encourage the purchase of adventures and campaign settings over creating your own. Complex and very detailed rules make it harder for DMs to create their own campaigns and settings as it greatly increases the amount of work needed to do so at all, let alone do so well. When you repeatedly hear DMs talk about it taking several hours to prepare for each session of a pre-written, store-bought module, you can easily see why they don't have time to create their own adventures.
While lots of players seem to like later editions of D&D, please give me "Old School" games where players are expected to think like an adventurer instead of like a rules lawyer.