Way back in the day Gary warned us we might all die. And we pretty much obliged him over and over again. At least I did; or more properly my characters did. 0e was a deadly game and AD&D wasn't anything to sneeze at if you played it RAW. 'Course there were always power gamers and Monty Haul DMs too, but D&D as a game was designed to be pretty dangerous. Just think about your average 10th level fighter: around 48 hit points. Cleric = 38. Mage = 20. And the party thief was doing alright if he had around 30. But think about who these guys were fighting! Pit Fiends, Fire and Frost Giants, Liches, Ancient Red Dragons. Any of these nasties can deal out on average 15 points of damage per hit, some of them get two or more attacks per round, most have as much or more spell use as the party does and they have between 44 and 88 hit points. The point is combat was dangerous.
But even so, I always felt like it should be a little more so. Call me a sadist, but I like my fantasy served cold, dark, gritty and hard. D&D HP has always been abstract and I could live with that most of the time. But some things bothered me. The relatively quick heal times, the fact that you could get "hit" several times and really not be badly cut, bruised or bleeding. I always preferred and used criticals and fumbles, the more ornate and hideously deforming the better. I like hit location rules, played with parry rules and active defenses, but never really settled on a single system that seemed to offer everything in one package.
The problem with detailed combat rules is that they can begin to bog down the game. They need to be intuitive and make sense. And many was the time that I considered the need to change D&D combat at its core. But I certainly didn't feel up to the task. So I deferred technical excellence for colorful description. Which was great as far as it went, but it certainly didn't make the combat feel anymore realistic, just more dramatic.
I suppose deadly combat in RPGs is a matter of personal taste. Some people really don't like playing in a game where the threat of death is an ever-present danger. Some games cater to cinematic action, where the hero might get knocked down, even bloodied, but is seldom in danger of actually dying. These kinds of games pay a considerable amount of attention to game balance, constructing fair encounters and building in mechanics to keep characters alive as long as possible. This action movie type of game may be satisfying to some who want to play at being movie heroes, but I've never quite understood this myself. Perhaps because I take my fantasy with a healthy dose of reality.
Allow me to explain; let's say we are positing a fantasy world. This world is usually medieval in type. Life for many is hard and short. Disease is common and families struggle to make a living off of the land under a feudal system of usually stiff taxes. But magic works. Eldritch power is somewhat uncommon, and certainly powerful magic is very rare. Few are those who can master it at high levels of ability. Strange creatures prowl the night and fae beings hold their unearthly courts at the edges of civilization. The bloodthirsty demihuman races put our modern gangs to shame as they prowl ever closer to village boundaries and city walls. Skulking the night shadows hunting the stray farm animal, or unaccompanied child for an easy meal and more evil purposes. Men who would as soon cut your throat as shake your hand are as common as the peasants who work the fields. And in short the world is a very dangerous and deadly place. The average man stays close to home and hearth, surrounded by friends, family and the protection of the hamlet's fold. But occasionally a man thirsts for adventure, learns some skill at arms, or apprentices himself to the local wizard, takes the vows of the local Gods or earns his living the hard way by pilfering what he can. The greater glory promised in raiding an abandoned mine or perhaps collecting a bounty on goblin heads is just appealing enough to send the brave soul out into the world to meet that danger. They aren't Conan, they aren't Bruce Willis, or Val Kilmer. They're average joes looking for some adventure and maybe seeking a higher purpose in life. They have a few skills but that's about it.
The first battle they enter is likely to be a fierce, short, scary as hell experience. A sound and fury that will leave their loins weak, their stomach filled with sour bile, and their chest heaving in panic as much as exertion. The first sword that bites into their flesh, the first spear that pierces thigh, the first explosion of atomic fireball generated heat washing over their sizzling flesh and boiling blood will likely leave them on the ground in shock, bleeding and helpless likely screaming in pain. And if their comrades still standing don't think quick and protect him, some foul goblin, or furry scaled kobold will scurry up to bury its rust encrusted dagger into his ribs. And with a twist will finish his short life of adventure before it even began.
Ask a cop, or a soldier or any old timer from out west that still recalls the days when everyone still carried a six shooter on his hip. There are still a few of those around where I live. They'll all tell you. Battle is a scary, ugly and often brutally short for far too many. I personally have practiced martial arts, fencing, sword fighting (mostly Sigmund Ringneck Sword & Buckler) and know that most fights are very short. It is simply put very easy to get killed. And this fantasy world we imagine doesn't come with an automatic power boost for all the humans around. Are we to expect that all of a sudden everyone is a massively muscled, genius warrior with the agility of an olympic gymnast? Uh, nope. I think not. And even if you look to the elite forces of today's armed services you would find men of average strength, average dexterity above average intelligence and constitution and good leadership capability. They will look more like cross country runners than bodybuilders. And they can die as easy as any other soldier in combat. They are heroes because they have practiced what they do and they have a savvy about their approach to strategy. They fight smart not just hard.
Why should our fantasy world be any different? I suppose if you want to play a superhero game that's okay if it's what you like. But me? I like the thrill of danger to be ever present in my games. The thrill of possibly dying, of not knowing what's coming next, of having to carefully weigh your decisions makes the game more exciting. It also makes you work for being a hero. What's a hero that has no fear of dying? Superman a hero? Only when he's facing kryptonite. A hero requires danger, he feeds off of it, it brings out the best in him. And the best in his team. A group that expects to make it anywhere in such a world will have to work together; go it solo and you die--plain and simple.
So give me a game where the blood is blood and death is constantly perched on the bare tree on the horizon, waiting, just waiting. When I strap on my sword, pull on my helm and take up my shield I know I am walking into the valley of death. I will have to utilize every ounce of my energy and wits and luck to make through to the other side. And if I do I will have some small amount of gold, perhaps a slice of glory and if the fates smile upon me, some may even call me hero.