Then something interesting happened: the third edition of D&D was released as some sort of 'open source RPG', under the 'Open Gaming License'. Other games could use the D&D system (re-branded into 'D20', after the die used most often) and tack on their own setting or rules variants. This caused a glut of new (and established) companies pumping out their own D20 setting books, scenarios and even complete RPGs. Some of them were good. It is from this point that the most popular RPG at the moment, Pathfinder, has its roots.
Right now, there is something going on that is called the "Old School Revival". Gamers yearn back to the days of uncomplicated dungeon crawls -- where heroes would simply go through a dungeon, kick in all the doors, kill the monster who (most often implausibly) inhabit the room and take their treasure. You know, none of this characterisation stuff, but simple fun like they had when they were kids.
Some of these gamers were designers, or wanted to be designers. They took the D20 system (which in essence is still the basic D&D system from the early beginning) and tacked on their own house rules. The aim of the OSR is to get a system that's both more modern (that is: with the kinks ironed out) and evokes that sense of wonder that you had the first time you entered a dungeon.
And there is the fabled "Appendix N", in which the main creator of D&D, Gary Gygax, writes about the literature that inspired him to create D&D. The appendix itself can be found integrally here. Some of the stuff in there was directly codified into the D&D rules, like wizards having to memorise a spell and forgetting it once it was cast -- that's from the Dying Earth (IIRC).
Some of the OSR people wanted to go even further, and go to Appendix N -- to create a more modern ruleset that would evoke the sense of wonder in those books.
It is important to note that these can be considered 'pre-genre fantasy': at that time, there was no fantasy genre with its associated genre conventions. Nowadays, when you mention an elf, people assume they're like Tolkien elves because that's what we've been exposed to as the norm in fantasy -- but that convention had yet to be made back then. As such, the proto-fantasy (if you could call it that way) embodied an even greater sense of wonder than the basic D&D.
This gave birth to Dungeon Crawl Classics. The design philosophy of DCC is pretty interesting and mostly meshes with the Appendix N aesthetic:
- The environment is hostile to the player characters. This is best exemplified by the 'funnel': you roll up multiple(!) level 0(!) characters with random(!) stats, professions and equipment. Then you run the set of characters through a dungeon, and see who survives -- those are your level 1 characters who get to pick a class. The GM is instructed to make rolls in the open, and never fudge a die roll to let a character live. Heroes are not born, they are made.
- The world moves according to the whims of unknowable gods and demons who fight a war for supremacy between Law and Chaos (which are, along with Neutral, the three alignments available to the characters). Your Luck stat (which is very important mechanically) is an expression of how well your patron god favours you. If you act against your alignment's interests, you lose Luck.
- Magic, which is learned from other-worldly types (for example the aforementioned gods and demons), is in essence unknowable. Every spell has a very detailed table of possible effects, based on how well the spell is cast. Wizards and Clerics are beholden to their patron, and while low-level mages are very powerful, high-level mages fear for their souls and must negotiate with their patrons to cling to their sanity for a little longer. Also, there is no such thing as a generic magic item! This also results in a whole set of tables to randomly determine the item's properties.
- Since the average person never travels further than, say, five miles from their place of birth, the world beyond is frightening and unknown. The GM is invited to describe monsters instead of mentioning there's a band of orcs -- so as to avoid invoking the fantasy tropes in the minds of the players. There's also a bit about treasure: if a single gold coin represents the average peasant's earnings for a year, what does it say about a land's economy when a dragon can hoard thousands of coins?
I'm not much of a fan of the original D&D, but the funnel mechanic amused me so I bought the PDF heavily discounted. But I must admit that after reading through the book, DCC has intrigued me. It is certainly a departure (or maybe a return) from the high-magic, high-fantasy systems like Rolemaster or Pathfinder. It evokes a dark age where monsters lurk in dim-lit caves. The example adventures are fun (check out those gorgeously illustrated maps!), but cleverly deadly. (Though the second adventure earns the players in excess of 2800 gold pieces in treasure -- along with several spells! That really detracts from the rant about economies earlier in the book... Where are our characters going to spend that kind of treasure, anyway?)
If there's interest, I might get a few modules and run through those -- for the fun of it. It would certainly be a change of pace!
1: (At least, that's true for people in the US -- here in the Netherlands, many players started out with 'Oog Des Meesters', a translation of the German 'Das Schwarze Auge' which was sold in mainstream toy shops and hence ended up in the hands of many people who would otherwise not set foot in hobby shops.)
2: Due to the circumstances of my introduction to RPGs, I started out with Rolemaster. The first long stretch of D&D I played was mid '90s with O. as the gamemaster, running us through some Forgotten Realms modules in 2nd edition AD&D. We played every Monday evening. Good times, but too late in my RPG carreer to give me any bouts of nostalgia.