I’ve noticed a difference in common play style between D&D in the TSR era and D&D in the WOTC era. While it is tempting to call this another “old school”/”new school” issue, I’m not sure that it is. The difference is in the types of player behavior that groups seem to find acceptable.
More often than not in the TSR era, groups found the following player behaviors at least somewhat objectionable. Many groups I played with or knew about made players with one or more of the following behaviors unwelcome. In the WOTc era, I see these same behaviors have become fairly acceptable, even expected.
Min-Maxing/Munchkinism: In the TSR era, players who tried to optimize their characters mechanically (too much) through weird rules combinations and strange combinations of magic items and spells were often considered poor players and were unwelcome in many groups. Such players were often referred with derogatory term “munchkin”. In the WOTC era, groups seem far more tolerant of min-maxing even where it breaks the game or causes huge differences in character power between players who min-max and other players at the table who aren’t interested in doing so. Min-maxing seems to have become so accepted that the game rules are considered broken (in instead of the player’s behavior considered broken) by many players if min-maxing players can break the game with outrageous combinations like “pun-pun”.
Rules Lawyering In the TSR era, most GMs and player groups had little tolerance for players who had seemingly memorized the most trivial details of the rules from every rule book ever printed and were ready to waste lots of play time arguing with the GM over rules minutia. Oddly, they never seemed to argue with the GM if his rules interpretation may have been technically wrong but helped their character. Many TSR era GMs simply told rules lawyers to shut up so they and the rest of the players could enjoy the game. In the WOTC era, rules lawyers seem much more acceptable, at least to judge by the number of long rules discussions I’ve seen in many groups using WOTC editions of D&D. Part of this probably has something to do with the new school “cult of the RAW” where many players seem to see the rule books as some type of “holy writ” instead of as guidelines for the GM. However, I suspect much of it is just that the huge mass of rules in WOTC editions means that rules discussions in the middle of games have become more likely — which gives rules lawyers more scope to do their thing without being as noticeable.
Rollplaying: While I don’t really like this term, it’s the only short way to label this behavior that I know of. In the TSR era, players usually described what their character was doing and allowed the GM to decide what roll – if any – was needed (especially in non-combat situations). Players who consistently tried to avoid describing what they were doing by simply saying something like “I’ll make a X roll (usually a Non-Weapon Proficiency in AD&D or a Skill roll in BECMI) to do Y” were considered poor players. In the WOTC era, I see a larger number of groups where “I make a diplomacy roll to try to get the NPC to do X” is all that the GM or the group requires. The player never has to say what the character is actually offering the NPC, how he is approaching the NPC, or the like. The entire interaction is “I try to make a skill roll.”
I don’t really know why these behaviors have apparently become more acceptable in the 21st century than they were in the 20th century, but they have. I believe these differences in what is likely to be considered acceptable play are one of the non-mechanical things that can make the play experience today seem so different to long time D&D players. Note that while I personally prefer the TSR era style, there is nothing intrinsically better or worse about either style. They are just very different and led to very different expectations about play.