In the comments to my last post many people made the point that D&D is never played RAW, and each group will come to a consensus together on how the game should be played. My post was about PC mortality, and Rob Barret even went so far as to state,
"In all the years we played Moldvay, Mentzer, and AD&D, I don't think we ever had a character die. Ever. Same for 2nd edition and 3rd edition for that matter."
To me, that suggests either some serious houseruling to reduce the lethality of these games or some serious dice fudging or both. Houseruling I totally understand, being a big proponent of this myself. The urge to tinker with the rules runs strong within me, and sometimes I have to consciously hold myself back from making unnecessary changes just because a particular mechanic seems a little wonky to me. Lately, I have been satisfying this urge by just writing my own rulesets, and that has been a ton of fun.
Dice fudging is a little more alien to me, on either side of the screen. As a DM, if I am not comfortable with the idea of PCs dying, what am I doing running a game that has an abstract combat system like D&D where the falling dice determine success or failure with very little room for player skill to influence the outcome? I think a lot of DMs roll their dice behind the screen, so no one would ever be the wiser anyway. As a player, sure I can understand the desire to roll well, but half the fun to me is when you get that awesome critical hit in after a long string of pathetic rolls. Still, I guess a lot of people out there do practice dice fudging. Heck, I was reading a thread on rpg.net the other day about how one of the top sellers on an online RPG store were the loaded d20's!
I would hazard a guess that both houseruling D&D to decrease lethality and fudging dice rolls are a product of the desire to make D&D more of a storytelling game. Them may be fightin' words in some circles, but I feel that the desire to play out a storyline involving the PCs as the Heroes of the story precludes the PCs dying from being a very real possibility. Many people don't want to play a game of D&D that involves their characters dying.
More power to 'em, I say. People should play the game they want to play. I guess what has been bugging me when I think about this is the nagging feeling that this isn't really D&D. I keep going back and forth about this; the rational side of me knows that houserules have been mentioned and encouraged in every edition of the game (as Kevin reminded me in the comments to my last post), but my gut reaction just keeps being that a game with no chance of death just isn't the game that I call D&D. It may be as simple as that - there is no monolothic D&D, and what each person thinks of as D&D is really a unique creation of how she interprets the rules and how she has bent them to her own ends.
But let me conduct a little thought experiment: surely there must be some point past which you cannot push D&D and still have it be recognized as D&D. Let us imagine a hypothetical gaming group. This group has decided that they like D&D, they like the races and classes and character creation, but they don't like the way combat is resolved, they don't like the non-combat skill system and they don't like the magic system. So they make a houserule - each player simply narrates what her character does, and the DM narrates what the NPCs do. If there is a conflict between these narratives, the group as a whole must come to a consensus as to what happened before play can continue.
Is that still D&D? Or is it a group storytelling session with some elements of D&D thrown in?
Where would you draw the line? Give me some examples of what, in your opinion, would push a game beyond "D&D" into the territory of something else entirely.