Castle Amber (1981)
Tom Moldvay (TSR)
Level 3 – 6
A while ago I reviewed The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem, and described it as proper weird fucking fantasy. But it was, despite its trappings and appearance of weird, still rather of mundane. A journeyman’s weird fantasy adventure if you will. In preparation for the Cursed Chateau by OSR pope and loveable Kickstarter draftdodger J.Malesewski, I wanted to revisit the two largest sources of inspiration for said adventure and fortunately for me the legendary Castle Amber by DnD Basic Creator Tom Moldvay is one of them. If you want proper fucking weird fantasy themed adventure at the master level, this is it. Fun, imaginative, beautifully eerie imagery. A triumph of both aesthetics, background/story and gameplay. They really do not make them like they used to. Plane-travelling, an insane family of wizards (and I mean the old school, evil sorcerer kind), a cursed bizarre mansion, Clark Ashton Smith, Roger Zelazny’s Amber and frequent callbacks to folklore and mythology? Sign me the fuck up!
Our adventure begins by throwing the characters headlong into peril, of which I approve. It is a module for characters 3-6, they should be able to handle themselves by now. On route to Glantri (a wizard-led principality in the D&D Basic Campaign setting), our noble heroes go to sleep and wake up, pack mules and all, in the foyer of a vast & ornate mansion, surrounded by eerie grey mist. Attempts to penetrate the mist fail and inflict increasing amounts of pain and nausea, resulting in death if the would-be escapees persist. “I guess we shall just have to explore that mansion then,” said Player A. And thus, adventure.
The mansion proper is kickass, like a condensed Tegel Manor. Instead of three bazillion rooms with about .5 bazillion good encounters you get 57 rooms with the majority of the encounters being interesting, atmospheric, creative and deadly. Chateau L’Ambreville belongs to the powerful Ambreville family, an extended dynasty of mostly very powerful and chaotic (not to mention insane) misfits who were powerful members of the Glantrian Nobility before one day vanishing, mansion and all. The french nomenclature is no happenstance, the Ambreville’s are originally not from the world of Mystara (the Hollow world of the D&D Basic Campaign setting) but from Averoigne, a province of France that lies in an alternate medieval Europe first described by the poet and weird fiction author Clark Ashton Smith (highly recommended btw, the Averoigne and Zothique cycles are really great and excellent sources of inspiration).
In true weird tale/S&S Fashion, the Ambreville family lead decadent, nigh immortal lives and, being highly individualistic and at the very least mildly eccentric if not outright insane, are aching for anything that will alleviate their boredom. Enter the poor, dumb PCs.
The mansion proper is vast and sprawling, the rooms large and opulent, the corridors immense and carpeted and the ceilings 30 foot high. What better way then to give the impression that the PCs are among Giants and out of their league? Three wings and an Indoor Forest make up the mansion grounds. Most of the wings are interconnected, allowing for nonlinear exploration. In addition, the mansion feels like a mansion, not like a dungeon that has been made to look like a mansion, adding to the mood and atmosphere of the piece.
What of the contents of the rooms? For the most part, really great. The most likely way the adventure begins is an encounter with John-Louis D’ambreville, rakish and flamboyant, offering sums of gold to anyone who will enter into a (possibly lethal) boxing match with his magically created servants (the Magen) whilst phantom glowy eyes watch from above empty chairs. The PCs are free to ignore the challenge or may even attempt to attack John-Louis if they get greedy. Perfect beginning. Many rooms are like that. Weird. Creative. Deadly.
A ghostly dinner with permanent effects depending on what type of food the PCs choose to partake in. A hall of mirrors that can blind people. An ogre poorly impersonating a female member of the Ambreville Dynasty in her bedchamber (terrible at it, frustration will cause it to attack). An Amber-skinned maiden and a unicorn asleep, hand draped over a small wooden chest. An arch dripping blood for the hideous crimes of the Ambreville family. I am not even scratching the surface. A gallery of sorcerous statues of the Ambreville Family dressed in saintly gear with leering, sarcastic expressions animate to give weal or woe if they touch you. An alchemy lab is trapped to fill with black lotus powder that sends people into dreams that come true if they fail a saving throw. A projection of a fortune teller lays tarot cards with magical effects if the players so choose! References to the Green Knight and The Wild Hunt. A gallery of petrified statues whose screams can be invoked by playing the organ in the room.
Rooms cannot just be interacted with but sort of pile up to create an atmosphere. A vibe. This is not Kansas.
Some monsters are unique and only encountered once in the adventure (great!!!). Some of the rooms (a minority) are simple D&D monsters, though even these have a weird vibe to them. Dopplegangers. Intelligent spellcasting spiders. Dog-men. Living statues. Squirrels that turn acorns into gold by their touch. 10 skeleton’s in monk’s robes (but one of them is actually a bone golem!). The unexpected lurks behind every door and in every nook and cranny.
The Ambers themselves too are strange and sinister people. Lion-headed, insane, following incomprehensible vendetta’s or strange delusional impulses.
One of the few criticisms I can level against this adventure is that some of the Ambers are encountered randomly and not given backstory or motivation. And then there is the Jester in the Ballroom. A small misshapen figure with three great white apes on a leash (actually members of the Amber family he has avenged himself upon). He will do the same to any PCs disguised as such and is magically geased to remain in that room forever or die (naturally he has been provided with means of sustenance and potions of longevity). Fuck. Yes.
What else? The treasure is surprisingly shitty for such an atmospheric adventure. Gems worth something something GP, a shitload of gold pieces (as though the designer had actually read the XP requirements in Basic), the odd statue or vial of powdered platinum and magic items from the dungeon master guide. An intelligent sword and a bag of unending nourishment are little bumps of rebellious teen spirit in this concrete slab of conformity. Given the stellar quality of everything else, I forgive (though by no means overlook) the concession to a familiar format.
The premise of the adventure is a little gimmicky/meta-gamery but everything else is great so we shall roll with it. The PCs must escape from the mansion and in order to do this they will eventually discover that they need three silver keys to open a gateway to Averoigne to end the Curse of Stephen Amber. My only problem with this section is that it is possible to fuck up and destroy one of the Keys quite easily, rendering the Adventure unwinnable. A backup key would have been somewhat more merciful. Should the players survive Castle Amber and make it to the Silver Gate, they arrive in part deux of this adventure; Averoigne. There is a possibility for the GM to expand a pit in the mansion that leads into a labyrinth and finally the Land of the Ghouls which I appreciate but Castle Amber is hard and strange enough without it.
Part II: Averoigne is interesting and kind of hard to judge. The PCs travel through the Silver Gate to Averoigne, specifically, the Averoigne of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne cycle, populated by character’s from Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne Cycle. A quarter page of Gazetteer to get everyone up to speed on major settlements and the quest is on. In order to reach the Tomb of Stephen D’Ambreville and to break his Curse and to return to their world of origin the PCs must gather 4 sorcerous artifacts; The Enchanted Sword of Sylaire, The Viper Circled Mirror, The Ring of Eibon and a potion of Time Travel.
The rest of Averoigne is about as faithful an adaptation of the mythical province of Ashton Smith’s stories as is possible, given the ruleset (the Mother of Toads is notably absent, which is a shame). Instead of describing each individual instance, I recommend you just read the Averoigne stories if you are not already familiar with them. Is that original? Not really. Do they make for distinctive and fun adventuring? Yes. Yes they do. Stop the hideous Colossus of Ylourgne. Slay a black magician turned werewolf for an enchanting sorceress. Stop the dreaded Beast of Averoigne etc. etc. There is some railroadery advice on making sure the party figures out that they need the artifacts if they somehow missed all the scrolls and the fact you get the Viper Circled Mirror from Gaspard Du Nord even if you fail to stop the Colossus of Ylourgne is bullshit of the highest order but otherwise this section is nice. A departure from the standard DnD vibe, but definetely not as good as the first section. Still, it is impossible to hate anything that strives to introduce more C.A Smith into DnD.
The third section is arguably the weakest of the adventure. The PCs are transported to a flat plain containing the tomb of Stephen D’Ambreville. It is thematically centered around…4 elements. Sigh 😦 The PCs must defeat several guardians to reach the Tomb of Stephen D’Ambreville. With the exception of the First Guardian (A sleeping Blue Dragon atop a pile of filthy filthy treasure), they are straight up unskippable combat encounters with familiar DnD monsters in an almost linear dungeon. Damnit Castle Amber you were doing so well. No puzzles. No tricks. No negotiation. In order to free Stephen D’Ambreville the party must destroy a tapestry next to the tomb, with the instruction to do so inscribed upon the tomb. What immersion-breaking nonsense is this?!? At least let the Ghost/Magical Simulacrum of D’Ambreville tell them to do it, or make sure it is a riddle that is foreshadowed throughout the adventure or something?!? Terrible.
Anyway, destroying the tapestry lifts the curse, freeing Stephen D’Ambreville from stasis and causing the time-displaced mansion and its inhabitants to turn into dust-covered skeletons but leaving the party and the treasure intact. D’Ambreville is an alright bloke and offers the PCs a generous reward, as well as using his ring of 4 wishes to restore to life up to 4 party members, not too shabby, considering this adventure is likely to kill at least 1 if not several of them.
Pro’s: Brilliantly atmospheric Weird fiction first section. Unique monsters. Platonic Weird dungeoncrawling. CLARK. ASHTON. SMITH.
Cons: Dismal third section and clichéd ending. Gets a little railroadery at times.
Bottom line: There is a reason people are nostalgic for the olden days and it is not just because they are too old to figure out the Grappling Rules in 3e. Castle Amber is an atmospheric powerhouse that gets in most of its punches in its first (And probably largest) part. A potent reminder that it is possible to do both atmosphere, agency and gameplay in one go. Definitely give it a try if you are at all interested in Weird tales DnD, and especially if you are into Lotfp. 8.5 out of 10.