Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Retrospective: Castle Amber

Released in 1981, Castle Amber is part of what I call Tom Moldvay's "Pulp Fantasy Trilogy," consisting of this module, The Isle of Dread, and The Lost City. I'm not sure that the term is original to me; I might have picked it up from the incomparable Philotomy Jurament. In any case, all three of these modules are homages to the pulp fantasy stories that inspired D&D, but Castle Amber is the only one that makes explicit reference to its inspiration, the Averoigne stories of Clark Ashton Smith.

I can't say for certain, but I think Castle Amber is what first introduced me to CAS. I knew of his name, of course, from having read, among other things, Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Moldvay's own Basic Rulebook recommends Smith as well, although more for his Xiccarph stories than anything else. After playing the module, I hunted down what little of Smith's writings as I could find in the local library. I wasn't very successful in my quest and it was years before I read a significant number of CAS stories.

But what makes me remember Castle Amber so fondly is that, even though I wasn't able to read most of Smith's literary corpus until much later, I still "knew" Smith through Moldvay's rather brilliant evocation of his spirit in this adventure. Most of the distinctive Smithian features are here: decadence, ennui, the macabre, black humor -- all stirred together in an unsettling stew. I won't deny that, as kid of 12, I found Castle Amber a tad disturbing. I wasn't scared of it so much as fascinated by it. There was something not quite right about the whole thing, something I couldn't then put my finger on and yet I loved it all the same.

Even now, it's hard to articulate precisely what it is that still fascinated me about Castle Amber. On a superficial level, it's just another "funhouse dungeon," filled with nonsensical and whimsical encounters, like the ogre who believes himself to be a human woman, the troll under the bridge in the indoor forest, and jester who polymorphs opponents into white apes, among others. But what I think sets Castle Amber apart from true funhouse dungeons is two things. First, there is a degree of internal consistency and unity to even the most whimsical encounters; that is, there is a method behind the madness. Second, and more importantly for me, there's very little outright malevolence in the place. There are many evil people inside Castle Amber -- most of the Amber family, for instance -- and their actions are objectively evil according to almost any moral compass and yet, somehow, they come across not so much as evil as bored. On some level, that strikes me as much worse than if they they behaved as they do because they actively wished ill upon their victims. Instead, they're just looking for something to do, something to alleviate their world weariness.

With its Erol Otus cover, Castle Amber has a phantasmagoric, fever-dream quality to it that still holds up after 27 years. The module is far from perfect -- there are a number of pointless D&D-isms that break the frame, for example -- but it remains a good example of an approach to fantasy gaming that has largely been lost, at least among gaming publishers nowadays. Module X2 combines literary allusion, hallucinatory imagery, and deadly whimsy to produce a challenge for all but the most clever players. Even better, it combines a dungeon -- Castle Amber itself -- with the mini-sandbox setting of Averoigne, thus making it a useful teaching tool for referees looking for advice on how to combine the two styles of old school play into a unified whole. And all in 26 pages! How many modern adventure modules can compare?

What is sad is the realization that, in retrospect, 1981 was probably the highwater mark for the old school. While I would argue that we still see a goodly stream of old school material in the two years that follow Castle Amber's publication, it was nevertheless a declining stream. The shift in how modules were designed was obvious by 1983-84 and there's been no turning back. I'm sorely tempted to crack out my copy of Castle Amber and play it again with my gaming group soon. Some of my most cherished gaming memories center around playing it with my friends nearly 30 years ago. Perhaps it's time to make some new memories.


  1. One of my all-time favorite modules.

    In addition to the CAS homages there's Edgar Allen Poe mixed in to great effect as well. And brain collectors. Hard to go wrong with brain collectors.

  2. For me, Isle of Dread is my favorite adventure. I never really cared for Castle, even though I played it many times. For me IoD had more room for me to play with.

  3. What is sad is the realization that, in retrospect, 1981 was probably the highwater mark for the old school.

    Honestly...I think it would be hella cool to give "Old School" a comeback.

    Get some creative folks, with some experience and churn out some high quality products and get folks interested in it as a way of playing and not just "nostalgia".

    "Old School" Roleplaying where RAW is not the whole of the law is more of a standard than an exception.

  4. This is a great module for the same reason that the old Looney Tunes are: you can find the entertainment in it no matter what your age. The entertainment just comes from appreciating it different levels depending on your age.

    It is a great "funhouse" setting, which was how I experienced it when it came out. As a young gamer, I got a lot of miles out of the weird and wacky antics of the Amber clan.

    Twenty-five years later, I'd run this as a completely different animal. Not only being older, but more familiar with the source material, it come out being more melancholic and unsettling than wild and wacky.

    Might I ask, James, has this one been on your mind because of the Haunted Chateau? Is this an influence to that piece?

  5. James, in your opinion, was was the last high-quality old school module put forth for D&D? Do you see the line being crossed into different module design intent, or can you even peg it down?

  6. Might I ask, James, has this one been on your mind because of the Haunted Chateau? Is this an influence to that piece?

    Most emphatically yes. When I wrote the adventure during the summer for the Otherworld contest, I didn't realize until I was almost done that I'd been writing an homage to Castle Amber, but I was, right down to my use of the word "chateau" and all the Francophone names for NPCs. As I worked on the expansion and revision, I decided to run with the idea and make the most of it. My adventure isn't Castle Amber 2.0 by any means, but it shares a lot with the original module and I make no bones about that.

  7. Zachary,

    That's a tough call, but my immediate thought is that 1985's Isle of the Ape is the last truly old school module that TSR ever produced. That said, I'm actually not a huge fan of the module, so my preferred pick would be Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure from the previous year.

  8. I knew of his name, of course, from having read, among other things, Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

    Point of order: CAS is conspicuously absent from Gygax's DMG list, and when asked about him in later years Gygax always denied that CAS was a particular influence on him -- I suspect Gary felt his stories had too much florid description and not enough action. As I mentioned once before (don't remember when or where, but I remember that grodog responded at the time) I see the CAS influence as being perhaps the key difference between Gary Gygax-style D&D and Rob Kuntz-style D&D (Rob, unlike Gary, has always been a vocal fan of CAS). To the basic mixture of Tolkien, Howard, Vance, and Leiber (i.e. baseline D&D) Gary added more A. Merritt and de Camp & Pratt, Rob Kuntz added more CAS.

  9. It's funny: I was convinced CAS was included in Appendix N and, as you say, he's not. Go figure.

    As for the rest, I think that's very interesting. Since I'd been laboring under the false presumption that Gary read and liked CAS, I'll have to give some thought to the consequences of this revelation.

  10. Trent's correct, and the discussion was over on Fin's board @

    Also, semi-relatedly, there are some differences between the original version of the Appendix N list in TD#4 (Dec 1976) and the DMG (1979): one authors not in Appendix N appears in TD#4 (Algernon Blackwood; I thought there were two, but upon closer inspection, looks like just one since Saberhagen does appear in both lists; I'll have to check my other printings of DMGs to see if the list evolved in them); and, Gygax seems to have read less (or at least not recommended ones he'd read) in 1976: Anderson just lists Three Hears & Three Lions; MM just lists Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer, for example.


  11. I am running Castle Amber as a PbP right now on theRPGsite.

    What's not to love about this one?

  12. I have a copy of this and The Lost City that I'm going to put my players through again one of these days. I'm thinking of keeping the basic idea of CA but pumping everything up to 25th level or something ridiculous just to add to the mayhem.