Wednesday, January 13, 2010

REPOST: Retrospective: Castle Amber

(I feel a little dirty about reposting an old entry of mine, even if it is well over a year old. However, seeing as it's Clark Ashton Smith's birthday, it only seemed right to highlight module X2, Castle Amber, for today's retrospective. So far as I know, it's the only old school D&D module to base itself explicitly on any of Smith's tales.

This post has not been altered from its original appearance in October 2008, right down to my error of citing CAS as an author listed in Appendix N of the DMG, despite my being repeatedly reminded that he wasn't. Other than correcting that mistake, I wouldn't change much of what I wrote back then. If anything, my affection for Castle Amber has only increased since I first wrote this and I expect a retrospective written on it today would be even more effusive in its praise)

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. Castle Amber is one of my all time favorite modules.

    I like to chop up modules and published adventures and use what's in them as I see fit and I have always wanted to, but never have, run a campaign in Averoigne. It's a perfect "pinched-off" universe that the PC's can either visit from the outside or portray native denizens who are trying to figure out why there hasn't been any contact with the outside world for a long time. In fact the "pinched off" universe idea was Clark Ashton's own, as read in his notes about Azedarac.

  2. I have used it many times as a setting, in and out of context with the adventure itself, and it worked effectively well. One of my personal favorite!

  3. One other product strongly influenced by CAS is AD&D's Book of Necromancers. There's decadent sorcerers, island of necromancers, witch-women in luxurious positions and it quotes Zothique stories making it one of my favorite AD&D product.

  4. EDIT: The book is called The Complete Book of Necromancers.

  5. XRP's 1e module "The Conqueror Worm" is loosely based on a CAS story from his Hyperborean cycle.

    Abacus Ape

  6. You mention that:
    "there are a number of pointless D&D-isms that break the frame"

    Would you expand on this? I'm interested in your thoughts.

  7. Tim,

    I'm mostly thinking of things like a room in which the walls, floor, and ceiling are each covered with a different type of ooze or giant piles of treasure are stuck to the body of a sleeping slime worm and so forth. Castle Amber has a number of bits in it that (for a D&D module) come close to evoking Smith's atmosphere of stylish decadence, phantasmagoria, and insanity, but I was frequently yanked back from that by yet another lame monster encounter straight out of the Jr. DM playbook.