In early roleplaying games equipment was king. We deliberated over who could carry the gear we needed. Pots, pans, tents, and bedrolls were packed carefully onto our character sheets. Iron rations were bought and consumed -- suppplemented with fresh food when the prospect arose. Our dreams weren't preoccupied with magic items -- a suit of plate armor was a treasure worth countless toil and adventure. Like kids at the pet store we did as much time shopping in windows as we spent acquiring goods. We knew the local blacksmith by name.
Dungeons were explored, but using the caution of long poles to test for pits and pressure plates. Grapnels, shovels, and augers were all put to good use because these were the tools that would carry us to safety. Ropes were essential -- and string might accompany a character sheet as an accessory to show the DM how we were going to wrest treasure from the bowels of the earth. Tying, slipping, and winching our way to riches artifact by artifact. We didn't have the luxury of finding piles of gold and jewels; we would salvage treasure where we could find it. An old statue with an ivory horn... well we would have to find a way to extract the precious bone without damaging it. "How is it affixed." "What tools do we have" We interacted with the environment, not just the splat text in a box of a module. The environment had riches, but they didn't fall from the sky. We had to work at it. When the physical riches were lean, we would peddle information to merchants, scholars, and historians.
Over the last few decades role-playing settings have become increasingly bountiful. More supernatural creatures, more magic, and the gross domestic product of every kingdom and principality must be measured on a boundless scale. As a generation nurtured on the philosophy of constant growth and endless abundance took over the game, there seemed to be a limitless treasure to fit the world view. Treasure and vast riches were fruit on a low-hanging branch. Preparation was not required to secure the treasure. It was easy. In an effort to make the game more "exciting" the designers wrote out the boring bits. Getting magic was more exciting than finding a stone tablet from an ancient civilization. The syrupy sweet transformation of the role-playing game began with piles of treasure, leading to colleges of magic selling items, and ending with corner store magic shops.
The general store has gone out of business. There is no one left to swing the picks, or use a sieve to look for jewels. Why waste all that time when my rulebook says that every orc carries enough treasure to support you for a week? Does every person in your city walk around with $500 in their wallet? What percentage of your wealth is in your wallet, compared to in your real property?
These are annoyances of settings, but the worst side-effect of the status downgrade for mundane equipment is in the experience. We used to connect to the game through the stuff you used. It was over 30 years ago when my first player asked me what items were in the thief's tools. We sat down and figured them out so that they could use them in the game. That was back when the player, DM, and character all had to interact with a trap to disarm it. I am sure I got the physics of a lot of traps wrong, but the players knew what they were looking at and took pride in getting past the trap.
When more skills were added to the character sheet equipment got moved to page two. I am afraid to ask if they even use equipment in 4th Edition. The Lord of the Rings was an everyman story about a person who resolved to take on a big task. It wasn't about their levels or their skills, and it wasn't about their equipment. It was about the choices they made. For good or ill, they interacted with the world. They fought when they had to, ran if they could, climbed, hid, crawled and wondered.
They lived in a visceral world where they would prepare for their challenges. Sure they got elven rope, and bread, and knives, and mithril shirts -- it was high fantasy after all -- but they packed their ponies, gathered cabbages, and generally attended to an everyday reality that is missing in many games. There are plenty of old-school gamers that are just finishing their last year of high school. Old-school is not chronological. It is a philosophy -- a philosophy that accepts that the most likely thing in your character's hands when the troglodytes burst from the forest is not your sword, but your waterskin.