I don't think it's a self-important exaggeration to say that I'm one of the foremost proponents of the notion that D&D, especially OD&D, can best be understood in light of the pulp fantasy literature that inspired Gygax and Arneson. As I have delved deeper into the history (and pre-history) of the hobby, I grow ever more convinced of the truth of this notion. Indeed, I believe that, as popular tastes in fantasy have grown more distant from from the pulp conception of the genre, D&D has become a caricature, the end result being a new edition that is so divorced from its roots as to be of little interest to me.
But D&D isn't the only thing that has become a caricature. I would argue that the conception of "pulp fantasy" many hold is similarly rootless and thus of little interest to me. Chief among the caricature being foisted on pulp fantasy is the idea that the genre's protagonists weren't heroes. I think such a position is only tenable if you equate "hero" with a spotless white knight who not only knows what is right but always does it without fail. Pulp fantasy doesn't have many such characters -- though they do exist -- but the genre nevertheless doesn't lack for heroes.
Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, even Elric are all heroes. That they are often greedy, self-interested, and prone to violence doesn't disqualify them from hero status in my opinion, because, when push comes to shove, they are all, however fitfully, on the side of the angels. They all possess moral codes, lines they will not cross, even in pursuit of their sometimes prominent vices. That these characters are all flawed, inconsistent, and conflicted doesn't mean they aren't heroes; what it means is that they're human and to be human is often to stumble and fall while striving for the Good.
Somewhere between the time these characters were created and the present day, the thread of a grand conversation was lost. Somehow, instead of being seen as flawed heroes, they came to be seen instead as antiheroes. Somehow antiheroism then became elevated to a quintessential element of pulp fantasy; it is not. To see Conan primarily as a brute who indulged his every appetite with glorious abandon is to forget that we are introduced to the character as the first just king Aquilonia has seen in generations, who strives to govern this foreign land honorably despite the machinations of its nobles and the fickleness of its populace. Conan is certainly flawed and, at times, deeply antiheroic, but he remains a hero, precisely because he abides by a rough code that regularly compels him to do what is right even at great cost to himself.
What does any of this have to do with D&D? Quite simply: being a game inspired by pulp fantasy does not mean that it's a game without heroes -- just the opposite. Pulp fantasy is a genre of flawed heroes certainly, but flawed heroes do not cease to be heroes because they aren't spotless. The attraction pulp fantasy holds for me is that its protagonists seem real; I can identify with them, because, like me, they make mistakes, give in to their worst vices, and selfishly confuse what is easy with what is good. Yet, each of them proves that, when stripped to their core, they will stand up for what is right.
Every one remembers that Conan famously abhorred civilized ways, but the truth of it is that he abhorred the way men used civilization as a cloak to hide their baser natures. Conan did not revel in barbarism so much as acknowledge its basic honesty when compared to "civilized" men whose morality was little more than a veneer. To reduce Conan to Arnie's "what is good in life" quote is not only to misread Conan, but also to contribute to the caricature of pulp fantasy that has driven many people away from it. Many proponents of the genre have done it a grave disservice in their exaltation of brutality and amorality. Such things exist in pulp fantasy, to be sure, but they are not its defining characteristics nor are they things that pulp fantasy authors admired and promoted.
To cite a non-pulp fantasy example: Lancelot may be a far more interesting character than Galahad, but that doesn't mean adultery is laudable or a defining characteristic of an Arthurian hero. Lancelot's betrayal of his king and his disregard for Christian morality are not what make him admirable. To see them as such is to get it backwards and to misread one of the central themes of the Arthurian legends. In like fashion, I don't expect D&D characters to be sinless paragons, but they should still be admirable; they should still be recognizably heroes. I fail to see the point in playing an evil character in a roleplaying game and I certainly don't think RPGs ought to be seen to treat evil as laudable or even "necessary."
I could probably go on, but I'm leaving it at this. I trust my point is reasonably clear and I sincerely hope no one will get the mistaken impression that, because of my advocacy of pulp fantasy as the lens through which D&D must be understood that I support the reduction of a rather nuanced genre to a catchphrase of velvet Boris Vallejo painting. I love and respect the greats of pulp fantasy too much to do that, just as I love and respect D&D. The last thing I want is for either to be caricatured, because it doesn't take long before a caricature -- especially a lurid one -- to become the reality.