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RetroReview: X2 – Castle Amber (Chateau d’Amberville)

X2 Castle Amber (Chateau d’Amberville)

X2: Castle Amber was written by Tom Moldvay and published by TSR in 1981. It is a 32 page module for use with the Basic Dungeons and Dragons Expert Rules Blue Box (set 2). As its code designation (X2) implies, it is the second module in the series designed for characters of levels described in the expert set. Specifically, X2 is designed for a party of 6-10 characters from levels 3-6. It is intended to be played with a group whose total experience levels are between 26 and 34, with the best fit at 30. It is intended that the party have at least one magic user or elf and at least one cleric.

If you have never played/read this module before and you may do that in the future, this review contains SPOILERS!! Read at your own risk.

Basic Background:

The party is traveling to the Principality of Glantri to gain commission on a quest one of the princes is rumored to be funding. They get lost in the wilderness and must camp for the night before making it to town. They set up camp on a defensible hill. Everyone in the party has dreadful nightmares during the otherwise uneventful night. The party wakes up on the floor of the foyer of an ornate mansion. A smoky grey mist surrounds the mansion at a distance of 30 feet and blocks all sight beyond. A pack mule that wanders into the mist is hauled back, but the body is in a horrible state and it is obvious that the poor animal died a horrific death in mere seconds. The doors from the foyer to the main hallway swing open by themselves, inviting the party to explore the mansion. It is clear they have no choice but to explore the mansion and try to find a way out that doesn’t include the grey misty fog.

Unlike its predecessor, X1: The Isle of dread, X2 is not written for new DMs. This will take some planning and extra work to make it go right. How much planning? Well, that depends on what your PCs do and where they want to go. Castle Amber is one part dungeon, one part wilderness, and one part horror/mystery. It is filled with interesting NPCs that can and will react in strange and interesting ways, but it will take work on the DM’s part to fill out certain areas.

The module is split into 9 parts, each with several pages of information. The module includes maps to go along with each major location.

Parts of the Module

Part I: Introduction

Part I contains introductory information for the DM. This includes pertinent background on the Amber family and what led to the current situation. It also explains that the module is meant to be played over several sessions and that the players will be healed (and can level up if they gain enough exp) between each session due to the benevolence of Prince Stephen Amber. I’ll talk more about this later (in the final thoughts section) because I have mixed feelings about it.

The most important part of the introduction is a passage about the Amber family and their mindset and motives: “The personalities of the lost Amber family set the mood for the adventure. The Ambers are not quite sane! They range from slightly eccentric to completely insane. For the most part, the family is chaotic. While they are proud of their name, they seldom cooperate with each other. Most of the family members believe they can do anything once they set their mind to it. The Ambers live magically lengthened lives, but they have seen too much and are bored. They seek anything to relieve this boredom. On top of their other traits, the Ambers possess a bizarre sense of humor. It amuses them to watch adventurers battle obstacles which the Amber family members place in their way. The Ambers are equally amused whether the adventurers succeed or fail. A good spectacle is more important to them than defeating the adventurers. The Ambers tend to be fair, out of the belief that a rigged game is too predictable and not much fun.” In other words, the family contains devious, smart, and partly or wholly insane people who will stop at nothing to play tricks on the PCs and each other. This leaves the DM free to embellish and exaggerate role-playing NPC members of the Amber family. It also explains why much of the stuff the PCs will run into is rather bizarre.  An important part of this is that the PCs can learn the majority of information about the Amber family and their history from the family itself – there is ample opportunity to give the PCs a glimpse of Amber family history via role-playing interactions, which is always better than simply telling the players what their PCs know.

Part II: The West Wing

This section describes the 12 rooms in the west wing of the castle. This is where the PCs find themselves when they awake from their nightmares, so they will experience many, if not all, of the rooms in this part of the module. My favorite room in this part of the module is the dining room, in which PCs get a chance to partake in a grand banquet. Some of the food they may eat have interesting effects. One of the cool things about this module is that most things have a chance of providing a benefit or being neutral rather than just having detrimental effects. It is entirely possible for the party to exit the west wing better off and more healthy than they entered it. Of course, in the old school style, it is also possible for a number of PCs to fail a save or die check and not continue on.

Part III: The Indoor Forest

This section describes the large octagonal indoor forest designed by Andrew David Amber. It is a wilderness area on rails, thick with brambles and a clear raised walkway. If the PCs go off the path, they will suffer. Heck, if they stay on the path they will suffer, but not as much. This is less exploration than it would seem at first glance, being a pseudo-wilderness area, but there are a couple of interesting encounters that may take place. There are even a couple of areas/interactions placed there solely to inspire paranoia in the PCs (and the players).

Part IV: The Chapel

This section describes the 10 rooms in the Amber Family Chapel. In this part of the castle the party can find two of the most interesting members of the Amber family. One, Madeline Amber, was accidentally buried alive by her brother, Charles Amber. He thought she was dead and had her buried and she has never forgiven him. This can make for an interesting interaction and will change based on whether the party helped her get un-buried or ignored her pleas for help. There is also a very interesting choir loft filled with statues who turn out to be the pipes for the pipe organ. The 88 statutes are actual former singers who fell victim to the Amber family – the family was not full of nice people.

Part V: The East Wing

This wing is a mirror of the west wing, but only in size. The 12 rooms it contains are completely different and have a different layout. This side of the castle houses the throne room, a ballroom, extensive library, and a series of color-coded rooms. Like the west wing, opportunities for role-play and negotiation are plentiful and can garner the party a lot of interesting information about the castle and the family, and, importantly, how to escape the castle. Highlights here include a card room where the PCs can get draw tarot cards that have some effect (penalty, advantage, or neutral), Catherine Amber acting rather like a doppelganger, and a sympathetic man-ape who is suffering a punishment that is perhaps unjust.

Part VI: The Dungeon

This section details the 13 rooms in the dungeon under the castle. There are two ways to get to the dungeon, one from the chapel and one from the black room in the east wing. Though the entrances could accidentally be overlooked, it wouldn’t be too hard to “help” the players find one of the entrances that they missed the first time. All of the locations in this part of the module provide interesting opportunities for the party. One of the rooms doubles as an entrance to the land of the ghouls; here is what the module says about it: “In the middle of the room is a 10’ wide pit. The pit is guarded by six hideous, beast-like humans. The humans are ghouls. They are guarding a pit which leads to an underground labyrinth. This labyrinth eventually leads to the land of the ghouls. While the land of the ghouls plays no part in the adventure as written in this module, the DM can create an underground labyrinth and ghoul kingdom to supplement the adventure, if he or she so desires.” In other words, ”We put something in here that may end up being really interesting for the party and they may want to enter the land of the ghouls, but the DM has to make all of that up on their own.” Why is this here? It would have been very easy to not have this in the module since it is unnecessary and only creates more work for the DM for an unrelated area.

The (probably) last room the party will investigate in the dungeon area of the module contains the Gate of the Silver Keys. Several previous areas provided opportunities for the party to gather keys to this gate and, though they are interchangeable, three of them are needed to open the gate. If the party cannot open the gate, they cannot finish the adventure and therefore cannot escape the castle. For this reason, the module wisely gives this piece of advice to the DM: “The DM may wish to modify the number of keys necessary to open the silver gate if the party is not doing well, since it is essential that the party open the gate and continue the adventure in Averoigne.”

Part VII: Averoigne

After the PCs go through the gate, they find themselves in a parallel world where magic is illegal. If they found the correct information in other parts of the castle, they will already know what they have to do here. If they did not, the DM will have to provide them the information before they move on from this spot. The PCs have to gather 4 items and do some specific actions with them in order to summon the tomb of Stephen Amber and escape back to their own homelands. The 4 items are The Enchanted Sword of Sylaire, The Viper-Circled Mirror, The Ring of Eibon, and a potion of time travel. They must travel around Averoigne and complete quests and/or negotiate with NPCs to obtain the items.

Averoigne is based on 11 short stories written by Clark Ashton Smith. Most of the stories originally appeared in Weird Tales in the 1930s. CASiana Literary Enterprises, Inc., the rights holders at the time, graciously gave its permission to base this section of the adventure on Smith’s Averoigne stories. There is a complete list of stories that inspired the module on the last page. If you want to read them, you can go to this website, which hosts the complete works of Clark Ashton Smith: EldritchDark.com. I’ll be honest and say that I have not read the Smith stories and so I cannot say if they would have an impact on the module. If I were planning on running it now, I would make it a point to read the stories before I ran the first session.

Even though this section is based on Smith’s Averoigne, the module really doesn’t spell out much more than is absolutely necessary to run the encounters. It has this to say: “The encounters in this part of the module are left sketchy since most take place in cities and would require more detail and space than is available in this module. The DM should flesh out each adventure as he or she desires, designing NPCs, town streets and other details as necessary.”

Even with that, I have to say that I wouldn’t spell out much on paper before running this. It’s not necessary because the module actually does do quite a bit to set the stage for this part of the adventure. It gives details for several NPCs that the party may deal with and provides details on how the group is supposed to obtain the 4 items needed to continue the mission. This is one of those cases where the PCs get to direct the action and, as a DM I would let them go where they wanted and talk to whomever they want in whatever order they want. I would make up most of the responses on the fly and react to the players driving the action for once. They could actually go off the rails quite a bit and still be able to accomplish the necessary quests to get back to their own lands. This part of the module is a bit sandboxy – how much depends upon the choices the players make during the session. A well prepared DM will be able to handle anything the players/PCs do in this part of the adventure.

Part VIII: The Tomb of Stephen Amber

This part of the module is very deadly. The rest of the module is deadly as well, but this is to the extreme. The tomb has 9 rooms, 1 of which is the final crypt of Stephen Amber and 5 of which the party is obligated/required to pass through to get to the final crypt. In the process, and depending which path they take, the party will face a blue dragon, a flame salamander or wyvern, a stone giant, a manticore, a mud golem or great white shark, and a five headed hydra. Several of these rooms also contain environmental hazards that can be deadly. Once the party survives all of those challenges, they can meet Stephen Amber and have a nice role-playing opportunity to get up to 4 of their fallen comrades resurrected, along with other gifts the prince bestows upon them. After that, he transports them back to the hill they were taken from and the castle is demolished: “The castle was frozen in time as a result of Stephen’s curse. Now that the curse is broken, the lost ages catch up with the castle in minutes. The walls grow pitted and crumble into ruins. Tapestries molder into dust. The inhabitants of Castle Amber age rapidly and die, ending as mummified skeletons. The only things left intact in the ruins are the party members, the treasure they won and Stephen Amber.” A fitting end to the adventure.

Part IX: New Monsters

This is a straight-forward catalog of the new creatures introduced in the module. It is pretty extensive, but doesn’t offer as much art as I would have preferred for a monster catalog – of the 17 new monsters, only 3 are pictured. New creatures described and statted out are the Amber Lotus Flowers, Giant Amoeba, Aranea (not really new, as they were used in X1), Brain Collector (or Neh-Thalggu in their native language), Death Demon, Mud Golem, Grab Grass, Gremlin, Killer Trees, Lupin, Magen (Hypnos, Demos, Caldron, and Galvan types), Pagan, Phantoms, Rakasta (once again, not really new, as they were used in X1), Slime Worm, Sun Brother, and Vampire Roses

Final Information

On the last page of the module is a bibliography that gives the names of each short story by CA Smith that was used as inspiration and background for the module. It also contains a short section listing credits for the adventure. Half of the last page contains the text that would be found on the escape scroll in the mansion – useful for photocopy so that you can give the players a copy after they find it.

Notables:

1) Save or Die! This module is very deadly in an old school style, but not just with the monsters used to populate the dungeon, but also with save or die checks. I count 5 instances of the save-or-die check being utilized in the module. This may not seem like a lot, but I am only counting incidental occurrences due to interactions with items or the environment, not creature derived saves. If I add in saves forced by creatures during possible encounters, it will go up to 20 easily.

2) Deadly monsters! There are ample opportunities for the party to be completely wiped out. The players are going to have to be smart and really work to survive through this adventure – and that includes running away or avoiding combat altogether. Even some relatively easy creature can be overwhelming in this adventure. For example, there are 6 monastic cells in the chapel, each of them housing 3 zombies. When one group of zombies engages the party (and they will attack on sight) the other 5 groups of zombies rush to the fight. It is a very real possibility that the party will be attacked by a mob of 9 zombies. As long as your cleric is at least 3rd level you will turn 2d6 of those automatically, but you could still get stuck fighting 7 zombies at the same time. Another example, in the servant’s quarters in the west wing, the party will meet a green slime, a black pudding, and a gray ooze, all in the confines of a 20 foot by 20 foot room. And this isn’t just some chump green slime, it is a 10HD green slime because it is old and huge.

3) Creative Scenes and Items! This module has some very interesting and creative rooms to explore. Some examples include the chorus of stone in the chapel, the man-ape and his backstory in the ballroom, and the phantom yet real meal in the dining room.  Also, there are several interesting items that can be found or interacted with. For example, in the card room of the east wing, it is possible to gain possession of a magic cup that will glow warm when someone tells a lie to its holder. I love that kind of unusual magic item – not a weapon, but useful in a variety of situations.

4) Penalties AND Advantages! One of the things that makes this module fun is that it is possible to gain interesting advantages if a PC takes a chance and interacts with something. The likelihood of getting a benefit is similar to the probability of having something bad happen. The card room mentioned above is a good example of that – depending upon the card drawn, a PC may be rewarded with something beneficial or they could have something bad happen (including death). Another example is the dining room, where the PCs get to choose which parts of the meal they would like to try and the effects of the item they eat range from gaining HP or attribute points permanently, to never needing nourishment again (or possibly having to eat twice as much to get the same energy), to gaining ESP, being poisoned, or having to save vs death. There is also a puzzle room with similar good/bad effects and an alchemical lab with a strange dream motif that may have good or bad consequences depending on which dream a PC has and whether they think it is real or not.

5) Role-Playing is Key! This module has so many opportunities for role-playing with interesting NPCs that it stands out in that respect. This requires work from the DM, as preparation will be key here – knowing the background and motives of the Amber family and role-playing them in a fun way is easier the more work one puts into the module. The module helps this along too, though, because it notes when and if an NPC will react differently to the party based on some characteristic (e.g., whether or not one of the PCs is wearing the clothing of a member of the Amber family). The impact of the role-playing will, of course, depend upon the players and the choices they make. In the Averoigne section, for example, they could simply go perform the quests to obtain the items they need without really interacting with the available NPCs, or they could try to get as much out of the interactions as possible. I think the second way would make for a very fun session or two, but either way is serviceable as written. As always, how much fun a group gets will depend upon their style.

6) Know Thy spells! In this case I am talking to the DM, not the players. Because most of the NPCs are human spellcasters (they were leaders in Glantri after being forced out of Averoigne, after all), there are a lot of spells that the DM will need to know offhand. Without a generous amount of preparation (especially for a new DM), you may find yourself looking up and reading a spell description every other encounter. That could make the adventure drag and cause the players to lose momentum or interest.

7) Full of Treasure! Or is it? As I read through I remember thinking it there is a lot of treasure available in this module. But is there really? If the PCs defeat every monster and gain all the treasure available in this module they will have gained about 164000 gold pieces worth of coinage. This is not counting anything else valuable, nor is it counting magical weapons.  It amounts to about 20000 gold pieces per PC for an 8 PC group. Remember that in Basic D&D, treasure translates to xp, so depending on class and level, that may gain PCs 2 levels worth of xp each. And since the module states that PCs can gain levels while resting in the amber cloud of protection granted by Stephen Amber (while they rest between sessions), they could start the module and end the module at very different levels. Honestly though, they will not, or maybe I should say “should not” gain that much treasure because there are some things they should avoid rather than engage. The sleeping blue dragon is one such encounter. So let’s say they gain half of that gold piece amount – about 10000 gp each. That isn’t too bad and I certainly don’t consider it a large amount for a big party of 3-6 level PCs. There are several opportunities to gain magical weapons and items during this adventure. In all, I count 13 pieces of magical armor or weapons that could be gained, 6 magic potions, 5 magic scrolls, and 6 other types of magical items (rings, bags, etc.). Of course, the group probably won’t obtain all of those either just due to the nature of role-playing – i.e. some of these are items owned by NPCs they probably will choose to talk to rather than fight. So after that analysis, I have come to the conclusion that there isn’t too much treasure available here, especially given the challenges faced by the party.

8) Railroad?!? There are several elements written into this module that create an overarching railroad. The one that bothers me, perhaps, the most is that the PCs are spirited away in the middle of the night and forced to go through the mansion. The presence of the grey fog outside ensures they will enter the mansion proper. They must complete the entire adventure or be trapped in the mansion or Averoigne forever (or until they die). This module is so expansive that it will take several sessions to complete, so to battle the fact that they are stuck here with no access to the outside, the DM is told: “This module is not designed to be played completely in a single session; a number of gaming sessions will be needed to finish it. If the party tries to complete the entire module without stopping periodically to regain lost hit points and restore spells, they are all quite likely to die. The party has an unknown powerful ally looking after them. Prince Stephen Amber (described in detail in a later section) will send a cloud of amber light to encircle the party at the end of a gaming session. This light will protect the party from all wandering monsters and provides nourishment. The amber light will also restore all lost hit points to wounded characters and allows magic-users, elves and clerics a chance to regain their spells. Time outside the amber light stops while it continues for those within the light. Thus, if characters gain enough experience to reach higher experience levels they may train and study between gaming sessions and rise in experience levels. Those characters who gain experience levels may use the abilities gained at the new level the next time they play.” (bold emphasis mine)

My gut reaction is to dislike this deus ex machina way of starting an adventure and getting the PCs to do what you want. On the other hand, it does fit the story-line quite well and matches the personality of Stephen Amber – he needs their help to escape his own curse and he tries to help them along without completely protecting them. This is necessary so that Stephen’s relatives do not catch on and kill the party to stop them from freeing Stephen. They know that when he is freed, they will perish. Also, the author is quite right when he says, ”If the party tries to complete the entire module without stopping periodically to regain lost hit points and restore spells, they are all quite likely to die.” In fact, that is an understatement – quite likely should be extremely likely. Ultimately, if a DM wants to run this differently it would take only a small amount of set-up and prep to allow the PCs to leave the mansion after every session – as long as the story is adjusted to reflect the changes and the DM provides enough incentive to get  them back to the mansion every time. Also, once in Averoigne, they could not leave without completing the quest – I don’t think that can change because Averoigne is basically a parallel universe the PCs have no way of travelling to/from on their own. So, it is railroad, but some adjustments can make it no more railroad than a typical published module from this time period. Also note that when they are in Averoigne, it can be played sandboxy or railroady, depending entirely upon how the players want to go about things.

Final Thoughts

I really like many of the things in this module. It is interesting and creative and it offers a ton of role-playing interactions – or not, if the players don’t want to play it that way. It is deadly, but offers rewards for risk taking and an interesting mix of encounter types. It takes more prep than a standard dungeon crawl and tries to mix in wilderness adventure with dungeon adventure. I think it does a decent job.

Honestly, this is one of the modules that I have never actually run a group through, so I cannot say how well it works in play. I feel it is really deadly, but perhaps in play that doesn’t ring true. Of course, most modules back in the day were very deadly, so in that way this is exactly what I expect it to be.

If your group is well suited to interacting with NPCs, this can be a wonderful few sessions full of negotiation and deal making with a cast of insane but not-cookie-cutter NPCs. If your group just wants to have a creature killing smash-up in a dungeon environment, this is probably not for you.

In 2004, Dungeon magazine (issue 116) noted the 30 Best Adventures of All Time, as voted by prominent game designers and industry leaders. X2: Castle Amber was voted #16 on that list (see the geeklist here: top 30 Adventures). I think it deserves to be on that list because it blended dungeon and wilderness, contained lots of creative, mood setting scenes, and was equal parts horror and comedy. It also stayed true to the source inspiration while at the same time allowing for the party to experience a unique adventure.

 

Well, there you have it – RetroReview #2, X2: Castle Amber. I hope this is giving you insight into some of the foundational adventure modules in industry, and maybe it will inspire you to pick up a copy and read through it.

~Until next time, I wish you good gaming!

 

About

DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.

9 Responses to “RetroReview: X2 – Castle Amber (Chateau d’Amberville)”

  • Thanks for the link – I’ll check it out!

  • This is one of my all time favorite modules as well. I’ve only ever got about 3/4 of the way through, but it was always fun. I’ve been havng serious thoughts about resurrecting it for my latest game group.

  • This one never resonated with me and I found it to be too many different things rather than one clear type of experience. As a result, I never ran it.

  • I can’t remember why I never ran this, but it may have been a similar reason. I definitely have a different perspective on it now, as an older DM, than I did the first time I read it way back in 1985.

  • The module was a fanfic of the Weird Tales era, and was inaccessible to young’ins of the Reagan era. You had to be a complete Klar Kashton fanboi (like the author) to interest the players in the material.

    But I literally COULD. NOT. FIND. Clark Ashton Smith for any price until the Internet (late 1990s). Why’s everything in French? Why’s everyone nuts? What’s so special about this province Averoigne? I had no clue in the 1980s (I was young admittedly) and neither did my players (my age).

  • Well, you may have had no idea, and as I said in the review I had not read CAS previously, but that doesn’t take away from the charm and utter strangeness of the adventure. Why is everything French? Who cares? It was weird, odd things happened, and strange people were encountered, and I know a ton of people who had a ton of fun running through this one. I don’t think that one NEEDED to be familiar with the work of CAS for this to be fun.

    I also think it unfair to say it was inaccessible – many of the references were, for sure – but the adventure itself was not, which is a testament to the care that was used in its construction. And there were many modules that had ideas that were inaccessible to my 11 year old brain, but were still accessible to me on enough levels to be fun to play.

  • I have been running a 2nd edition game that I introduced this to a group of 5 characters of 7th-10th level. There have been 11 6-hour sessions and the group just got to Averoigne in the last session.

    I read the CAS material long ago, quite accidentally and didn’t realize it until I started reading the stories for reference.

    As a heads-up, the CAS material really has no impact until you get to Averoigne. Then it becomes a rolling string of cameo appearances by just about every character he uses. THIS is where the DM needs to do their homework.

    The stuff in the module kind of assumes that you have already read it, because it leaves the NPC’s kind of stale and hollow. Reading the stories will flesh out the NPC’s way better than the module has the room to accomplish – and they are good stories to boot!

    They totally skipped the White Kingdom, which I did take the time to flesh out the passage there and things that they might do while there – enough to buy me time to make more content should they have chosen it. But alas, they passed it up.

    This module required more work than most of its era to set up, but as usual, you reap what you sow.

  • […] 400, position: "top right", relative: true, offset: [10, 10] }); I’d read many, and yes, Castle Amber (no, not THAT Amber) was a favourite. I’d looked upon them as awesome inspiration to build […]