I think one of the biggest misconceptions that a lot of folks have about early tabletop RPGs is the assumption that high-level play is meant to look basically the same as low-level play, just with bigger numbers and different-coloured monsters.
If you look at the way they’re put together, however, that’s clearly not intended to be the case. Particularly among early versions of Dungeons & Dragons and its various imitators, there are clearly defined early, late and endgame phases, and in some cases, even a sort of postgame - though it’s often a challenge to tease out exactly what those phases are supposed took like; if there’s anything that early D&D and its contemporaries share, it’s being absolutely terrible at explaining how the rules are assuming the game is going to be played.
Take AD&D, for example - moreso the first edition than the second, though they both have similar ideas in mind. Folks often wonder what the deal is with high-level fighters spontaneously developing armies of followers. It’s kind of weird for them to just pop up out of nowhere as the rules suggest, and anyway, what good is a hundred first-level mooks in a high-level dungeon crawl? Wouldn’t they just die?
The answer is that, well, yes, they would be useless in high-level dungeon crawls, but the game is making a tacit assumption that dungeon crawling is no longer the primary focus of play at that level. Though it never actually comes out and explains it, the game has a baked-in progression whereby levels 9 through 11 mark a transitional phase away from dungeon crawling and toward domain management: fighters claim fiefdoms, clerics establish temples and train disciples, wizards begin constructing dungeons of their own and stocking them with monsters.
That’s why the rules want all those followers and infrastructure to just pop into existence at the appropriate level: to smooth over the boring setup phase and let you dive right into the fun parts of managing your domains. That isn’t to say that dungeon crawling stops outright, but it becomes a bit of a sideshow - if you’re tackling a dungeon, it’s a means to an end, not a goal in itself. Heck, if you’re a wizard, you may well be the one running the dungeon!
(That touches on another subtlety that often gets lost in translation, incidentaly. If you ever thought the spell list for high-level wizards looks weird as hell, you’re totally correct - from the perspective of a dungeon crawler. Look at it from the perspective of a dungeon administrator, however, and those spells’ intended purpose becomes much clearer. Prior to the game’s 3rd edition, which retooled itself to focus on dungeon crawling over the full span of levels, basically any wizard spell of 6th level or higher is operating on a totally different set of gameplay assumptions than the ones you might be expecting.)
Of course, none of this should be a new concept to modern players; many single-player CRPGs exhibit a similar transition from running fetch-quests to building and overseeing settlements at high levels, and even MMOs tend to have well-defined main game and endgame phases that share little in common in terms of their core gameplay. The problem isn’t that it’s an unfamiliar notion; the problem is the presumption that it’s a modern notion, when in fact the opposite is true - tabletop RPGs that remain focused on dungeon crawling throughout the life of a campaign are actually the more recent development.
ME Watching Critical Role episode 25 The Crimson Diplomacy. Vax in the room with the Brierwoods… . “He looks delicious.” … fuck they’re going to eat him BUT HECK THAT WAS REALLY HOT FOR SOME REASON. W TF.
Please save this half-elf boy. He is too pretty to be food.