Remember Ravenloft? If you are or ever were a role-playing game nerd my age or older, you do. It was a Dungeons and Dragons module (A module being a prefabricated story setup on which to base a DND session) in which the premise was simple: Dracula-in-all-but-name has set up shop in a big old castle and you have to break, enter and dispatch. Most DND modules have similarly basic premises, but this module was different, and made a big splash at the time.
A few years back my old college role-playing group started a new campaign which alternated our DM's original adventures with old modules; it seemed like the perfect balance of fresh material (and our DM was very good) with nostalgic favorites. Only it turned out those old modules sucked; early role-playing was a real cottage industry, and the writers of those old modules were pretty much coasting on enthusiasm. A module should provide the basis for a really satisfying, unified experience of semi-improvised group storytelling but the early module designers basically knew nothing about storytelling, legend and lore, or medeval architecture, and it showed. All they knew was that they really dug hack fantasy. So we didn't really play these modules; we deconstructed them.
Not Ravenloft, though. It seemed to work on its own terms really well, and we played it on those terms. Perhaps Ravenloft was the first module designed by people who really knew how to make these things work as vehicles for truly satisfying role-playing sessions; if so, Ravenloft may be role-playing's D. W. Griffith moment; the moment someone fulfilled the form's implicit potential. Someone should, if someone hasn't, examine this in a scholarly way; what have been the key works in the development of role-playing games as a genuine artistic form?
It just recently occured to me that the tragedy of role-playing games is that from the beginning they were shackled to pedestrian, hack genre material. If Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had been as wide-ranging in their scope as Viola Spolin, RPGs may be a lot further down the road than they are. Or did RPGs need that genre connection as a selling point? Who can say. Something like Gurps, which allows for any genre but requires none, might have been a better way to start the RPG phenomenon.