I posted this initially as a comment over at Zak’s blog, but thought I’d put it here too.
There is a common view, I think, amongst role-players of all stripes, that later and newer editions of role-playing games encourage more “story-based” gaming than older ones, or that people who prefer to play later edition games are more likely to be “story-based” gamers. I don’t think that this is a result of system changes encouraging the development of story-based gaming, but a lot of people believe it is due to a kind of gamers’ version of the anthropic principle. When the game started it drew from wargaming, and story wasn’t a big part of it. As it developed over the following 10 years, particularly with the magazine-based theorising (in Dungeon, etc.) story-based gaming became more common. At the same time the systems developed, new ones were released, and obviously products were also released to cater to the wider range of gaming styles available. I think that this diversification, and particularly the interest in story-based gaming and character development, came with the increased maturity of the systems, and the development of the teenage audience into young adults looking for more meaningful social interactions than could be provided by gaming in which each player had 5 or 6 characters that died rapidly (again, I recommend this book as an insight into how the early games were played).
So, when the OSR decided to turn their backs on the later editions, they associated them with this “story” problem. But really the two developed side-by-side. I was doing story-based games with AD&D 1st edition in the 80s, and my reasons for switching to Rolemaster had nothing to do with story – neither did my reasons for switching back to D&D3.5 in the early noughties. I’m pretty confident I’m not unusual in this development process, I’m pretty confident as well that most people who switched away from AD&D 2nd edition did so because it was pretty complex, and more interesting (but often less playable) systems were coming out at that time. We grew up with the game and we diversified with the game.
Similarly this idea that OD&D is associated with regular PC death is also representative of the style of play at the time, not the system. Back when it was a wargaming spinoff, death was all the rage (e.g. the 5 or 6 PCs at a time phenomenon). As the gameplay styles diversified, DMs learnt to balance adventures to match the frequency of death they thought players would bear. It’s perfectly easy to play a D&D3.5 adventure and kill your PCs by the minute. But again, when the OSR decided to return to their 80s roots, they also returned (partially) to that wargaming style, and they associate (probably in some cases blame) the other styles with later game editions – not with, as is probably more likely, the maturation and diversification of a gaming crowd that was largely teenage when the hobby first developed.
Also I think when modern DMs dip into OD&D gaming, they often do so to experience that wargaming style of play, so when people sample OD&D, they often sample it with a particular historically fixed style of play. This doesn’t mean OD&D has to be played that way, or has to be representative of that punishing style of gaming. Compared to pure Rolemaster, OD&D is quite soft, for example. It is exactly the uncompromising harshness of RM which taught me to fudge dice rolls, something the OD&D crowd are very down on. Playing OD&D or AD&D, you can afford to be down on DM fudging (although the AD&D rulebooks are very supportive of this). Playing Rolemaster, not so much…
Anyway the point is that these two phenomena – story based play and the TPK – are not system-specific so much as era-specific. But, because the systems developed with the eras, they two are easily confused.