I think I can safely say I have never been more prepared for a review in my life. I not only went through the time and effort to read through the two oldschool Dnd adventures the module is based on, I also, as part of my understanding Isle of the Unknown and the strange mind of Geoffry Mckinney, read through all of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne cycle. I am ready coach. Put me on the team!
The Cursed Chateau (Revised & Deluxe Lotfp edition, for the original I recommend this review.) by James Malesewski is a haunted house module based on Tegel Manor and Castle Amber respectively. When reviewing it I was reminded of an admonishment by the Supreme Dark Lord never to attempt imitation when the author of the source material was of greater skill then oneself. James Malesewski, co-writer of the very much delayed Dwimmermount megadungeon and apostate cardinal of the OSR, cannot match the likes of Tom Moldvay and Bob Bledsaw. As a consolation prize, the module is still alright and good fun, with even an innovation or two.
The Cursed Chateau takes place somewhere in 17th century France, in the province of Averenha. The titular Chateau belongs to now deceased Aristocrat Joudain Ayarai. Joudain, necromancer, demonologist, conjurer and incorrigable tosser that he is, was plagued an with incurable boredom that no wealth, power or mundane pleasure could dispell, and so he spent his time persuing increasingly blasphemous and vile indulgences of a singularly unpleasant nature until he finally commited suicide, hoping to free his spirit from terrestrial bonds and wander the higher planes forever. Instead his spirit is bound to the mansion and he and his much abused servants are now doomed to linger in its decrepit halls until the curse is lifted. The only thing that will lift the curse is if Joudain is entertained, and the only thing that will entertain him is if adventurers attempt to break into his mansion and mostly die horrible deaths. Enter the PCs.
I find myself neglecting to mention art but I should give credit where it is due and say I like the art of the Cursed Chateau. Stark contrast and sharp lines of Black, Brown and White help set a certain atmosphere of decay and ennui. It has some elements in common with Death Love Doom but the way it is handled is completely different.
Cursed Chateau takes place in a haunted mansion map that feels like a crossbreed between Tegel Manor and Castle Amber, with none of their advantages. It is neither as sprawling and vast as Tegel Manor nor as weird and tightly focused as Castle Amber. As far as mansion’s go it is alright.
This adventure plays a couple of tricks on you that I endorse, because I do not recall having seen them very often if at all;
– The moment you set foot in the creepy hedge maze (what haunted house would be complete without one?) you are fucked and cannot escape until the adventure has been completed (That one is from Castle Amber among others and is relatively common).
– Most of the monsters consist of the spectral remnants of Joudain’s servants that may be encountered randomly or in certain areas. Their reactions are randomly determined, and even if you kill them, they (and certain other monsters) re-animate every 24 hours.
– Each time the players move into an unexplored area or room they trigger a random d100 encounter, only instead of an encounter it is a haunted house effect (bloody deck of playing cards, windows breaking, ominous whisperings) or an encounter with the household staff. In very rare cases, the effect is actually beneficial.
– The adventure can only be completed if the curse is lifted and thus Jourdain needs to be amused. Since pissing Joudain off triggers an instant random encounter, there is some feedback here, but really the only way to figure out what type of behaviour pleases Joudain and that this even needs to be done is to piece together all the clues and the background in the mansion. Some of the actions that will please Joudain are as good as wild guesses. Others, like taking damage, fighting and killing certain of Joudain’s disloyal undead servants, are likely to occur at some point. The question is whether your players are alive by the time this occurs. The precise point when the adventure ends is hard to estimate, I would have to run it to tell you more, but I like the idea exploration and investigation is rewarded and a helpful component in solving the adventure.
Uh…what else? Cursed Chateau has many of the trappings of OSR dungeons and their ancient forebears that make them interesting and fun to explore. Weird stuff to fiddle around with that has random effects, creepy statuary that can be fucked around with, magical paintings (see also Tegel Manor, although again Cursed Chateau prefers context over randomness) and unique monsters (although derivations of the classics, the household staff has a unique appearance and backstories, and other creatures perfectly fit the haunted house theme the adventure is going for, and of course, fucking frog demons). Treasure is good but not great, degenerate and perverse artworks, various precious furnishings, the fingerbones of St. Azedrac (C.A Smith reference), strange occult tomes and so on, interspersed with the odd hidden caché of precious jewelry.
The investigation part of the Chateau might be a bit obtuse and I find some flaws with the way the nature of the house is conveyed, but the overall premise seems to be sound. A rather considerable drawback of the Cursed Chateau is the prose itself, which is long-winded and overly descriptive, making a reading of the adventure rather tiresome, despite the overall decent quality of the content. I appreciate the attempt to add some more structure and context to the premise of something like Amber and Tegel but it seems in many ways to detract, rather then add to the premise of such an adventure.
So what is the verdict on the Cursed Chateau? Is it decent? Yes. And you can conceivably have fun with it. Despite its derivative nature and some of the encounters clearly being taken from Castle Amber, overall Cursed Chateau manages to deliver a solidly designed haunted house adventure, with appropriate atmosphere and sufficient novelty to justify its own existence. It lacks utterly the panaché and inspiration of its forebears and cannot help but pale in comparison, which is a shame. As a horror piece, it is too generic to evoke genuine dread while being too serious to enjoy as satire or camp. 6.5 out of 10. A cover must surpass its original or wither in its shadow.