I was having an interesting conversation with Frank, Keir's player, the other day about narrative and D&D, particularly the way we play D&D. I'm very quick to dismiss narrative or story as driving forces or even as really present in our sessions. I see our gaming as a series of picaresque adventures that, when compounded, tell a themeless tale of a life in its totality. For this reason, I have always strongly rejected the term storytelling or story. "I'm not telling a story," I would always say, "I'm running a simulation. The story is emergent."
He brought up a good point though—that the "story" doesn't focus on a single character. There may be no themes throughout the life of a PC, but that doesn't mean the whole setting is not fraught with thematic tension. Indeed, as it was designed by a person (me, of course) with a particular worldview (anyone responsible for the designing of a world will necessarily imbue it with a worldview of some kind) and that these comprised the real "themes" of the story.
"The lives of individual characters," he said, "are just chapters." The WORLD is the story. That struck a chord with me. I've been trying to articulate the campaign vs. single narrative game difference for years. IN a persistant setting (such as any of those in which D&D was made to be played—Blackmoor, Greyhawk, etc.) the setting itself is not only a character (as I wrote earlier) but it is the overarching framework itself. It is the story.
In much the same way as the world is the subject of history (in that case, Earth is the "story" no matter how any individual episode may turn out) the same is true of long term campaign settings. We are not writing a novel, but rather a massive history compendium, complete with betrayals and reversals, the rise and fall of great nations and empires, and the chronicling of cultures. In this sense, D&D can be a way to experience the grand sweep of fantastical history at the most basic level.
You aren't playing out a Lord of the Rings fantasy—you're helping to write the history of a completely new world. I suppose it's only natural that I became a historian, terminal degree or no.