Existensialism and the dungeon - confessions of a knuckle-dragger
For me, Dungeons & Dragons is all about going into dark holes in the ground, kicking open doors, killing the monsters, and taking their stuff. I'm here to say, I am a role playing knuckle-dragger. But go with me here for a bit, because there is a method at work.
Looting places is the default paradigm of most of the golden age modules - check out this list below:
B1 In Search of the Unknown
B2 The Keep on the Borderlands
B4 The Lost City
B5 The Horror on the Hill
X1 The Isle of Dread
T1 The Village of Hommlet
S1 Tomb of Horrors
S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth
U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh
None of these adventures have over-arching plots or storylines, or intricate plot hooks to get the players started. They are all simple site-based adventures with not much more to them than "Here's an interesting place to find adventure, ready-set-go". You may say, "Beedo, when I played that module, we helped so-and-so, or we discovered such-and-such evil plot, it was a great story, it had nothing to do with looting." Yeah - but it didn't need to turn out that way - that was your choice to make it about something, not the DM's plot.
This is the strength of site-based adventures, of sandbox play, the reason I'm still playing D&D 30+ years later. Compelling stories emerge through play. Story and plot isn't forced onto the game from the outset.
When I've played a plotted a game, I've had the experience of leading the players through the story. It is fundamentally more passive than presenting a locale and turning over decision making authority to the group. For the players, gaming in a sandbox goes from passive entertainment into an exercise of existential choice.
And this is where the idea of heroism in D&D should really matter - forget about making the premise of the game, "You're a hero". Make the premise of the game, "You're whatever you want to be", and let the players be heroic or villainous or amoral through their choices. If they choose selflessness over self-interest in a sandbox game, now you have heroism with meaning.
I've played B2 with multiple groups (mostly younger) where they tried to sack the Keep on the Borderlands. Or the group attacked the (good) Cynidicean factions in the Lost City to loot their golden masks. Or they tried to rob Rufus and Byrne in the Village of Hommlet. And I've played with groups that made heroic choices in the same circumstances. But the difference in an old school game is the players have that choice to decide.
You'll note that I'm equating old school play with free form dungeons and site based locations (sandboxes). There's an implicit idea in these adventure structures that the DM presents a location, and the story emerges from player choice and interaction with the setting, and the sum is much greater than the parts. And this is why D&D is still my game of choice 30 years later, and despite dabbling in scripted, plotted games, I come back to the sandbox and the basic dungeon delve over and over again.
And yes, a corollary statement is you can play a new school style plotted story adventure with old time D&D rules, and I would say it's not an old school game - old school is as much about adventure style as it is about the rules system.
Tying this back to DCC and yesterday's "You're No Hero Post". The issue I can see with the DCC ad copy is the explicit statement "You're not a hero", as opposed to saying something like, "You could be a hero, or a reaver, or a thief…" I certainly don't think it's a fatal mistake, people! Let's read it and discuss the game on its merits.
Note - thanks to Stuart over at Strange Magic (again) for providing the motivation to defending the killing of monsters and taking their loot, and to Limpey for putting the focus on heroic choice.