All three of these works have several things in common. Note that they are all dungeon crawls. They are all special adventures originally designed for tournament play. This lent their use as one shot, all in one, "self-contained" adventures. Such was the play in much of the early days of D&D. And note as well, they reside in that special place of AD&D before 1981 when the lines between AD&D and Original D&D were blurred. They are all extremely deadly, surprising, puzzle oriented, trap heavy and gonzo to one degree or another. And as of 2004 all three in the top ten.
I consider such work to be the epitome of AD&D, the game at it's height, for me, and indicative of the type of game we generally played. It was also indicative of the kind of adventures which we wrote and ran. I start this way in a post titled Why Writing 1e AD&D Adventures is Easier (for me) to perhaps give the reason with adequate explanation. Is this background what makes writing these kinds of adventures so much more approachable for me?
If we look at the time span I played games it might also help: I played
- 1e from 1981 to 1989 or 8 years
- 1989 to 1995 I read 2e stuff sometimes, but never liked it and mostly didn't play--these were my college years and I think I played less than three times.
- from 1995 to 2004 I took off from gaming and had sold all of my gaming stuff.
- from 2004 to 2006 I played 3.5 with a club at the school I taught in.
- from 2006 to 2008 I played Castles & Crusades and some OSRIC with the same club and in my home group from time to time.
- from 2008 to 2010 I played 4e with my school club.
- from 2009 to 2012 I played Pathfinder/3.5
- from 2012 to 2015 I mostly read OSR stuff but wasn't gaming very much
- from 2015 to present I play in a 5e game at my home.
So, 8 years with 1e (10 if you count OSRIC and C&C), 5 years with 3.5/Pathfinder, 2 years-ish with 4e, and now 5 years with 5e. That could certainly account for some bias. but truthfully stacked to 1e for 10 years, I have been playing d20 based higher powered versions for a total of 12+ years.
However, I was talking to a good gaming friend the other day, who has played since like 1990-ish and is now playing 5e about why I might feel this way. I thought his response very interesting and helpful. Says he, "I would say it's gotta be old school gaming ethos. But hear me out ...
"OSG was rooted in the idea that adventurers were regular people trying to survive in a deadly environment, but newer editions of D&D promote the idea that adventurers are heroic at level 1 and superheroic at level 9 (when wizards start casting 5th level spells). It's an idea that permeates the core rules of the game and makes a DM feel like s/he needs to write an adventure endorsing this belief."
"But whatever the root cause, comfort with a campaign setting and fluency with game mechanics / rules are the two main factors that influence my personal confidence when I am writing an adventure."
"The third reason my creativity can feel stifled, is when I feel like I am going to be challenged in-game by other players. I don't know if that helps explain what you're feeling, but in my case, all of the guys I play with have been playing longer than I have. My players have both challenged me in the past and disrupted the game. It's usually because they feel like I'm being too harsh or unfair, but it really takes the wind out of my sails."
"I prefer a truly deadly game and none of my players are like that."
"One player feels like a character should be developed over many levels and I feel like that should be earned not given. But in his defense he spends lots of time on his characters and doesn't want them chewed up and spit out in some Gygaxian dungeon. It's not that he feels his characters should be super powerful, he just doesn't want to open a secret door and have his face blown off by a kobold trap just because he rolls a 1 on his save and I roll max damage. Which is totally fair."
"In his mind, adventurers really are regular people trying to survive in a deadly environment. And that accepting the chance of death makes them heroic. And he's not wrong; no right minded adventurer would EVER walk into a dungeon in which survival was not at least 50-50. He believes in making plans and contingencies. He wants all the information and to be able to prepare as much as possible for success before walking into a deadly situation."
So, I am quite convinced now, that much of my problem is born out of what my friend calls the Old School Gaming Ethos. Even though I could say I know the rules RAW in 5e better than I do 1e RAW, I am more comfortable designing for the old school ethos than with the new school assumptions. I struggle because of exactly what he is talking about here. In fact it is the reason I am still playing 5e. I am too afraid of players complaining, or not wanting to play, or feeling shafted because playing adventures like S1, 2 or 3 with standard AD&D characters was an exceedingly risky proposition. I would be hard pressed to give any 10th through 14th level PC a 50/50 chance of surviving in ToH. 60/40 maybe if they were 14th level with high magic potential, but still ...