A bit of OSR kool-aid I drank long ago and I now regurgitate regularly is the notion that old school D&D is more heavily focused on exploration, while recent editions of the game focus more on combat. I think I probably first picked this up from Grognardia, where James posted this wonderful little excerpt from the OSRIC rulebook:
OSRIC is a game of adventure, and the primary activity in adventures is exploration. Even though the rules for combat take up more space in this rulebook, play tends to focus more on exploration than combat. Whether the party is investigating an old ruined shrine, delving into an abandoned dwarfish mine, traversing an unknown wilderness, sailing uncharted waters, or venturing beyond the physical world into the planes of existence, exploration is central to adventure and thus to the game.
I think this struck a nerve for a lot of folks, myself included. It also explains a lot in the game for me – things like XP being more heavily based on treasure than killing monsters, and codified morale rules. This topic came up around the game table recently, and the group I’m playing with has been playing together literally for decades, so they’re well rooted in both old and new school. One interesting argument put forth by one of the players was that the primordial origins of D&D was in fact war games, games specifically entirely about combat. Combat, he argued, was baked into D&D’s DNA from the first, and has thus always been the primary focus of the game.
It is true that D&D grew up out of wargaming, heck the original printing refers the player to the war game Chainmail to adjudicate combat. One could argue that delegating such a large part of the mechanics of the game to another publication is perhaps itself evidence that it couldn’t be the primary focus, but we also know that Gygax never even used these rules in his own games (5th post here). It would seem that the inclusion of war game elements spoke more to the audience D&D was targeting, similar to the use of the wordy subtitle of the first printing: “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures.”
There’s a very nice discussion of this topic on rpg.stackexchange.com here, with this summary in the most highly voted answer:
…the history of D&D is inextricably linked with the history of RPGs as a concept, such that, in many ways, D&D can be seen as a “living fossil” of what the whole genre of “role-playing games” originally started from. If D&D today seems combat-heavy, it’s only because we’re looking at it from a modern perspective, and comparing it to the many other game systems which took the ideas pioneered by D&D and ran with them much faster and further than D&D itself ever did.
I like this concept of D&D being so linked to the history of RPGs in general that it’s difficult to pull apart the threads. I suspect given the evolutionary nature of D&D, that saying “design decision X was of primary concern” would simply never fly. Even the creators, were they still around to discuss it, might have trouble saying exactly what decisions were made when and why.
As we saw from Mearls’ posts, D&D means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and I think this has been true since 1974. Trying to pull a single thread out as being “primary” seems perhaps foolish, and any arguments in one direction or the other will always have unintended overtones of “you’re playing it wrong.” Perhaps it is better to say, “My games of D&D focus on exploration over combat, and I use the following rules to emphasize this.”
One interesting footnote, the above quoted post on rpg.stackexchange.com includes this one tantalizing comment from just a few months ago:
Rob Kuntz is about to publish a book that will render this answer (perhaps) obsolete. I have the “teaser” of four essays that he put out, and will comment further once I’ve read his book.
Is this true? Gosh I hope it is. Where can I get this book?