Dungeons & Dragons in particular) and because that was the era of my "innocence" as a gamer, before I had any sense of what was really going on at the companies that made my favorite games. From time to time, though, I'll make exceptions and talk about materials produced after 1984 that were particularly noteworthy in some way or another, if not for the hobby as a whole, at least for me personally. One such exception is 1990's Ravenloft: Realm of Terror boxed set, written by Bruce Nesmith with Andria Hayday.
By 1990, I wasn't actually playing much D&D anymore. I'd largely moved on to other games, partially out of fatigue -- I'd been playing Dungeons & Dragons in one form or another for more than a decade -- and partially because I wasn't a huge fan of AD&D's second edition, released in 1989. The reasons for my dissatisfaction are many and varied and not particularly germane to this post. Suffice it to say that, while I did buy plenty of Second Edition books and supplements over the course of its existence, I rarely used them to play. Mostly, they were things I read instead of gaming, which is a pretty sad commentary on how I approached my supposed hobby during a lot of the 1990s.
In my defense, I can only say that I was not alone in this regard. Indeed, my personal experience suggests that a great many formerly active gamers largely became mere readers -- and avid ones at that -- of gaming material in the '90s, which may well explain the proliferation of different settings for AD&D throughout that decade. Ravenloft was one of those settings and, while I remain ambivalent about the adventure module that spawned it, I nevertheless saw enough potential in the setting that I happily bought the boxed treatment of it when I saw it. The boxed set consisted of a 144-page softcover book, four large maps, 24 cardstock sheets, and a transparent overlay to be used in conjunction with the maps, since, back in those days, TSR felt that including some means of determining distance on the maps themselves somehow detracted from their appearance. (No doubt I read too much into things, but I see such a style vs. substance decision as indicative of a lot about the 2e era).
Ravenloft: Realm of Terror was basically an attempt to create a Gothic literary setting/sourcebook for AD&D. It was precisely this that appealed enough to me that I bought it in the first place. I was -- and am -- a big fan of Gothic literature, or at least many of the themes and elements derived from it, many of which were present in D&D from its first publication. Consequently, the notion of explicitly playing up those elements and themes struck me as a worthy endeavor. And, for the most part, I think Realm of Terror did a decent job of doing just that, with rules modifications to classes, spells, and magic items, as well rules for curses, fortune telling, the seduction of evil, and more. There were also essays on Gothic literature and how best to use it as inspiration for adventures and campaigns.
In 1990, this was all rather heady stuff to me. Aside from superhero RPGs (and Call of Cthulhu), there wasn't a lot of straightforward emulation of literary sources in the hobby, at least not as I experienced it. Even then, it was often done in a rather hamfisted fashion, whereas Realm of Terror seemed to be a lot more "sophisticated" and "thoughtful" in its approach. If nothing else, it gave greater consideration to the difficulties of running a horror-based D&D campaign, something even the original Ravenloft module never quite managed to do in my opinion. It's also worth noting that Realm of Terror predates the upsurge of interest in horror RPGs that followed in the wake of Vampire: The Masquerade and its sequels and imitators, thus making it a trailblazing product in many ways.
That's not to say that, looking back, it fully succeeds in its goals. In my opinion, Realm of Terror suffers from two opposite sins. First, despite the rules modifications it presents, it's still fundamentally a D&D supplement and many aspects of D&D militate against the emulation of horror literature of any kind, let alone the emotionally charged horror of the Gothic type. Second, while I appreciate -- now more than ever -- the attention paid to the literary inspirations of the setting, I do think there's a bit too much emphasis placed on emulation, to the point where it subtly encouraged a kind of railroad-y playstyle that became to dominate later products in the line. Now, neither sin is insurmountable in my opinion and neither takes away from the genuinely groundbreaking nature of Realm of Terror, at least to my much younger self.
One of my queerest gaming eccentricities is that I own nearly all every Ravenloft-related product ever produced. I consider them some of the most inspirational gaming materials I own, even though I think most of them are deeply flawed either in content or presentation (or both). Yet, even the worst of them contain a spark of something I find compelling, from which I can derive good ideas for use in my own adventures and campaigns, which is, frankly, a rare and laudable thing. Nowadays, I find a similar spark in Jack Shear's superb Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque blog, as well as 164-page compilation of much of its contents available in softcover or hardcover through Lulu.com. Even if you were never a Ravenloft fan as I was, the blog and the compilations are well worth your time and good examples of some of the best stuff the OSR is producing these days.