If you’ve read many forums or blogs where D&D is discussed over that past 8-10 years, you have probably heard many players complaining about wizards ruining encounters with spells like sleep or fire ball that take out large numbers of the opposition. While I expect to hear GMs (especially GMs who run more linear and/or more pre-plotted adventures) complaining about players who manage to quickly defeat or defuse a situation they have set up and planned out in detail using some power or ability (or just a good idea) they had not “planned for”, the idea that players would object to winning an encounter quickly generally seems alien to me.
I’ve been playing and running D&D and D&D-like games since 1975 and I can’t remember any complaints from players about how wizards ruin encounters by taking out the opposition with a sleep spell or a fireball or other magic. Occasionally players would get upset with a wizard who did this if they slagged the treasure in the process, if they killed someone on the opposing side that needed to be kept alive for some reason, or for some similar campaign/adventure related reason. However, I can’t remember a single pre-3.x game session where any player complained that a wizard ending a combat before it really could get started was somehow ruining the encounter simply by quickly taking out the opposition. I’ve only seen this in WOTC editions of the game — although I suspect I might have heard it if I had ever played 2e with all the Player’s Option books.
Why is were such complaints very rare in TSR editions, but seem much more common in WOTC editions? To be honest, I’m not sure — but I have a hypothesis. These complains are more common in WOTC editions because the place of combat in the game changed greatly with the WOTC editions. (Note: the change really came with the Player’s Option books, but the change there was entirely optional and the Player’s Option stuff really wasn’t that widely used.)
Combat in TSR editions (pre-Player’s Option books) was designed to be relatively abstract and very fast to play out. A single combat encounter seldom took long to play and was seldom seen by players as the main activity in the game — even among players who played just to fight things. Players who enjoyed combat got their enjoyment from having lots of combat encounters in a session — not from any single encounter. Wizards were unlikely to be able to pack enough combat-ending spells to end many combats during a game session so it was generally a non-issue even for players who were “combat monsters”.
Combat in WOTC editions is very tactical (and really needs minis and battlemats from 3.5 on) and each combat consumes a lot of a session’s play time. Detailed combat encounters therefore became the main focus of (and source of “fun” in) the game for many players: they enjoyed the tactical feel of combat and looked forward to spending 30 to 90 minutes of real time in each combat encounter.
Given the above, I can understand why players of WOTC editions are more likely to see a wizard ending a combat with a spell early as a problem while players of TSR editions are more likely to not care. Players of WOTC editions are more likely to be playing because they want a detailed tactical combat that takes a major chunk of time to play through; therefore they are more likely to see a spell or two ending combat quickly as bad because it cuts the part of the game they enjoy most out. Players of older versions of D&D are more likely to thank the wizard who put the goblins to sleep as they administer the coup-de-grace, check them for treasure and move on, thankful that they were spared the risk to their limited hit points.
Is the fact that many players today object to wizards using magic to quickly end a combat encounter wrong or silly? Of course not, but it does highlight one of the major difference between older editions of D&D and newer editions of D&D and show why some people are going to clearly prefer newer editions to older editions and vice-versa. There are major differences between older and newer editions that can’t be swept under the rug as some try to do by saying “the game plays the same.” It simply doesn’t play the same.