Whimsical and Deadly – A Review of Castle Amber

Castle Amber is an adventure module that is packed with entertainment. Within its slender 32-page count, there are 70 encounter areas, 17 new(ish) monsters, and an adventure that can be particularly deadly. It just doesn’t always make that much sense.

Inspired by the Averoigne short-stories of Clark Ashton Smith, an early 20th century writer of horror, fantasy and science-fiction, Tom Moldvay has crafted an adventure that is mainly made up of entertaining set-pieces, rather than a living, breathing environment. When you reach the servants quarters and read that “the floor is, of course, covered with green slime”, it’s clear that the normal rules of causality don’t apply here. Although you can imagine life continuing on the Isle of Dread when the characters aren’t there, this is not the case with Castle Amber!

These oddities in verisimilitude can be explain by the setting: the entire place is under a curse and trapped in time. Ghostly banqueters feast on magical viands. Magical mist prevents the characters’ escape. At the adventure’s conclusion, the entire place molders and crumbles to a ruin. In many ways, Castle Amber is a model for the Ravenloft setting as much as Tracy Hickman’s Castle Ravenloft is.

One thing is certain: this is a challenge for a Dungeon Master to run properly. The Amber family, a family of chaotic magic-users, are quite bored and crave entertainment. Who better to provide entertainment than the adventurers? (Although the players may not be of the same opinion).

What do you make of a family that lets rooms to Aranea and Rakastas? Are the party meant to fight the Aranea? Bargain with them? Tom Moldvay doesn’t provide a clue in the text, and so it’s up to the Dungeon Master and his players to find a way through these encounters.

The set-up for the adventure allows it to be placed in any campaign setting, although the original opening sets it in the D&D Known World. The adventurers are on their way to Glantri City, but after resting for the night, they discover themselves outside the castle, which has mysteriously appeared. All around them, a gray mist around prevents their escape. Only within the castle can they find their escape!

None of the adventure actually takes place in the Known World – the wilderness section is actually an excursion to the world of Averoigne – and as a result you could happily place this in the campaign setting of your choice.

Getting out of this mad – and exceptionally deadly – place requires the characters to find the Gate of the Silver Keys and at least three keys; the keys are scattered around the castle. The Gate leads to Averoigne, a version of our France where magic is considered an evil pagan practice. One can imagine the trouble that will give the standard D&D party! Once in Averoigne, the group must retrieve four items and make their way to the tomb of Stephen Amber, who has the ability to break the curse and set the adventurers free.

The section on Averoigne is quite short, and requires the DM to introduce a lot of detail and flavour. I have not read the stories by Clark Ashton Smith, I find it difficult to properly evoke the setting. However, the quests in Averoigne have sufficient detail to at least give a feeling for this dark, medieval setting.

Stephen Amber’s tomb contains a number of dangerous guardians that must be fought; once this is done and Stephen is released from his sleep, all things are put right and the players returned home.

Castle Amber (Chateau d’ Amberville) is a difficult product to evaluate. It contains much of the high-lethality and high-whimisicality of certain D&D adventures (such as Dungeonland and Through the Magic Mirror), but this is married with an evocative gothic horror setting. The marriage is uneasy at the best of times. It is best if the DM and players try to not to think the logic of the situation, but rather just go with the flow of it all.

If you’re looking for a serious, Gygax-naturalistic adventure, Castle Amber won’t give you that. This is all about giving you adventure, excitement and really wild things! Zaphod Beeblebrox would love it. Arthur Dent, not so much. What’s great about the adventure is how dense the ideas are and how much adventure there is in the module; players should definitely have to think and have their best tactics in action to survive this. However, it certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes.

The artwork in the adventure is indifferent. Jim Holloway provides some of the better art, but I’m not very much a fan of his style. Otherwise, there are some rather dreadful pieces throughout the book.

Ultimately, Castle Amber is an adventure that I’d rather enjoy running, although I don’t know if I’d enjoy playing it as much. It’s an adventure that exists to challenge and delight the players, and it works wonderfully well as such as long as it isn’t taken too seriously.

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