Welcome new backers! And: Castle Amber!
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Over the last couple days we've been posting some fun updates on classic adventure modules. The contributors to this project are all great adventure designers who have in turn been inspired by the adventures that came before them. In the first two installments, Lloyd Metcalf discussed The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and Casey Christofferson discussed Secret of the Slavers Stockade. Continuing this feature of the Kickstarter, here is "Manly" Michael Curtis to discuss X2: Castle Amber.
By Michael Curtis
Her hair will be disheveled, her grave clothes tattered, her fingernails broken and her hands bloodied from the effort to dig herself out. Madeline has gone completely insane… And with those words, my fate was sealed.
Like the majority of gamers, my introduction to fantasy came not by the visual arts like movies or video games, but by the written word. Fairy tales and folklore ushered me across the threshold between the mundane and the phantasmagorical, breaking a path that wound far into my future and I still trod today. When inspiration is lacking, it is to novels and short stories I turn for ideas rather than the works of artists. Perhaps then it comes as no surprise that I consider the D&D module X2 Castle Amber (Château D’Amberville) one of the finest adventures ever penned.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Castle Amber is a fun house dungeon, one of those wild and nearly illogical places where form doesn’t always follow function and the chaos holds a not-ungentle reign. This type of dungeon was far more the norm in the early days of the hobby, but has since fallen out of fashion. If you cannot adjust your sensibilities to embrace the gonzo nature of these types of dungeons, X2 will be a hard sell for you. And the module does have a poor reputation among some gamers. I, however, am not one of those.
Castle Amber, written in 1981 by the incredibly talented (and much missed) Tom Moldvay, is a love letter to “weird fiction” in all its many forms. It wears its inspirations on its sleeve. A well-read gamer cannot miss the homages to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, the Brothers Grimm, Roger Zelazny, Greek and Celtic myth, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft that pepper the adventure’s pages. But these references all pale in the shadow of the adventure’s true literary forefather: Clark Ashton Smith.
Smith’s name may be absent for the famed Appendix N Gary Gygax assembled in the Dungeon Masters Guide, but that error wasn’t repeated when Moldvay assembled the “Inspirational Source Material” for the D&D Basic Set (1981). Castle Amber clearly demonstrates Moldvay’s love of Smith, and he uses the author’s fantastical French region of Averoigne in the adventure to great effect.
Moldvay taught me an important lesson about game design: Never fear your literary roots or letting others know that you have them. Reading through Castle Amber, one cannot help but see that Moldvay wasn’t merely ripping off the stories of Clark Aston Smith and the other weird writers to meet his word count. He loved these stories and wanted to share that love with other gamers, allowing those who were familiar with them to enjoy the homages and to introduce these stories to those unfamiliar with them. I had a nearly identical experience when writing The Chained Coffin, an adventure that was inspired by Manly Wade Wellman’s “Silver John” stories. It was only in retrospect that I see I learned how to do this correctly thanks to Tom Moldvay.
Some thirty-odd years after being exposed to Castle Amber, I can look back on my own game design work and see how much this adventure affected my own design style. There’s an element of chaos and change that runs through my work. I’m a big fan of randomness whenever it’s applicable, making either dumb luck or player choice impact the game. We see this in X2 in encounters such as “The Dining Room” (sample the mushrooms in wine sauce with care!) and “Card Room” (may you always pull Le Roi de Baton).
My own work is also pervaded with an underlying thread of menace, madness, and horror. I’m not one for gore, but if I can send a chill down the spine of the game master—which is what happened to me when I read of the horrible fate awaiting Madeline Amber (as quoted at the start of this essay)—or better yet, the players, I am a happy game designer. Castle Amber shows that even when you have ogres in dressing gowns, squirrels whose touch turns acorns to gold, and Frankenstein’s Monster-esque boxing matches going on, you can still evoke a sense of dread.
Is it the perfect adventure? No, not by a long shot. There’s no such thing, first of all, but Castle Amber does have its flaws. It is without a doubt a railroad. The PCs awaken inside the castle with no choice but to proceed forward if they want to escape. That sort of heavy-handed beginning is sometimes a necessary evil in the RPG industry when you only have a certain thousand words to play with, but that doesn’t make it any less grating on the nerves of some players. As I discussed earlier, one’s tolerance for fun house dungeons will also impact your enjoyment of the adventure. Despite these flaws, there’s a heck of a lot of fun between the cardstock covers of Castle Amber and, if you can suspend your disbelief and go with the flow, you’ll never forget your stay at the home of the D’Ambervilles.
Michael Curtis began playing RPGs in 1980 and has been designing them professionally since 2008. Most known for his work with Goodman Games, Michael is the brilliant mind behind such Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures as Frozen in Time, Intrigue at the Court of Chaos, The Chained Coffin, and the award-winning Dungeon Alphabet. He is currently the lead writer for the DCC Lankhmar line of game supplements based on the works of acclaimed author Fritz Leiber. Michael lives in Long Island, NY, with the requisite number of cats for a writer and far too many books.