Some of my fellow bloggers have compared old-school D&D to a caper film. The PCs case the joint (dungeon), spend an inordinate amount of time planning their delve (heist), then attempt to sneak past or assassinate whatever guards (dungeon denizens) obstruct their path to the vault (hoard). There’s some truth to this view, but it only covers one aspect of play.
In terms of character creation and development, I think it’s much more useful to view old-school D&D as a war film. The starting PCs are a group of raw recruits (first-level characters) thrown together in a unit (adventuring party) and thrust, unready, into the battlefield (dungeon). Characters have interesting motivations and quirks that make us want to learn more about them, but often they’re killed unexpectedly, demonstrating the brutality and capriciousness of war (adventuring). As time goes on, the original members of the group dwindle, forming a hard core of veterans (high-level characters).
I’ve noticed a tendency on the part of some players to avoid giving their characters any sort of history or personality until they’ve leveled up, on the grounds that such effort is wasted on a character that can easily die. On the contrary, I think that it’s a waste to have a character die without first instilling him or her with personality. If you only have this one chance to play your character, make the most of it!