I recently read a post over on Joethelawyer's Wondrous Imaginings that got me thinking a bit about life, death, and the endgame in our various campaigns.
Keep in mind a couple of things: 1) I've been gaming with the same group of friends for something like 25 to 30 years now, so we're all quite familiar with everyone's playing style as well as how our stalwart DM runs his campaigns. 2) We don't play on anything approaching a regular basis, mainly due to the fact that two of the guys live in California.
Our current campaign (most recently mentioned here) is a 3.5 game set in the Forgotten Realms. Everyone is at or close to 8th level. The storyline has us butting heads with the Red Wizards of Thay, but not just because we needed an enemy to fight. Two characters (including my wizard) are from Aglarond, which borders Thay to the southwest. Needless to say, family history more or less has us at odds with Thay going back before we were born. The intrigue and unanswered questions keeps our imaginations busy, for sure.
Historically, our DM has run a low-magic campaign. In past campaigns, magic items were hard to come by. You cherished each one, and it REALLY hurt if you ever had the misfortune of losing one (or all of them). Things have changed since then. Magic items are now more plentiful, but the LEVEL of the items is carefully controlled. And in my opinion, this is a good thing.
With a couple of exceptions, we are mostly outfitted with +1 and +2 armor and weapons, and miscellaneous magic of similar power. I have the feeling if we were all strapped with +3 and +4 items, we would breeze through encounters and there would be little challenge (and therefore little danger). In other words, I think we are appropriately equipped for a party of our level. I'm sure if we reach higher levels, then the +3/+4/+5 items will eventually come into play.
Leafing through my pile of dead and/or retired characters, I noted a trend: my last four characters were all 9th level. For whatever reason, double digit levels is a challenge for our group. Where did we go wrong? Well, for one, we sometimes just plain and simple fuck up. We managed a TPK with one group because we made a bad tactical decision in a frost giant lair. That was our bad, no more, no less. And if memory serves, I think we lost a couple of characters when they went off on a side adventure, or got split from the party. And then there's always the dice. Sometimes you just have a bad day rolling. A 1 on a crucial save, or a miss when you really needed a hit. You can't control that part of the game, so you just have to deal with it.
I guess I must be an optimist, because I have set up and planned for my wizard to eventually become an archmage (as in the prestige class). That won't happen until 16th level, when I will be Wiz15/Acm1. Of course, I still need to make it from 8th to 16th, but if you don't plan for it, how can you make it happen? Why even bother? Well, I don't think anyone in the group has ever pursued a prestige class before, so it's more of a "let's plan for it anyhow and deal with it if I ever get there" sort of mentality.
Bottom line, I think, is that in a campaign like ours, you need to EARN your rewards (hence my quoting Capt. Miller for my title). If I ever want to reach 10th, much less become an archmage, I need to play smart. So far, so good. But, no matter what happens, the game is still fun to play after all these years. If the game isn't fun for you, why would you even play?