It’s impossible for me to discuss Castle Amber apart from my experience of it. I remember thirty-two years ago like it was yesterday. My best friend was the DM and in top form, putting me and three other players though a truly demented campaign. It was weird from the first room, but we knew we were in a loony universe when we ran afoul the ogre dressed in a nightgown who thought it was Janet Amber (whom it killed), and got increasingly homicidal the more compassionate we were. My friend’s impersonation of the ogre and falsettos added up to some of the best DM role-playing he’d ever done; we felt like we were really in that castle.
Castle Amber is like something out of David Lynch: it has a fever-dream feel to it, and off-kilter encounters like the aforementioned ogre. The cover art of the Colossus epitomizes this theme, a staggering piece by Erol Otus which in my opinion is his best work ever. Those huge eyes still freak me out, and I remember them raising terrifying expectations. Our PCs were the recommended intermediate (3rd-6th) levels, yet we had this to look forward to? A fortress-sized 100 HD creature with 350 bloody hit points? The build-up to this encounter is fantastic, not least because the Colossus isn’t even the focus of the adventure. It’s just one of many nightmares to face in order to escape the insane world of the Ambers.
“The personalities of the lost Amber family set the mood for the adventure. The Ambers range from slightly eccentric to completely insane. For the most part, the family is [chaotic evil]. While they are proud of their name, they seldom cooperate with each other. Most of them believe they can do anything once they set their mind to it. They live magically lengthened lives, but they have seen too much and are bored. They seek anything to relieve this boredom… It amuses them to watch adventurers battle obstacles, and they 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.”
For the first time I realized the extent to which character and role-playing defined a good D&D game, and how a trait like boredom, of all things, could produce not only deadly results, but dangerously unpredictable ones.
The Ambers are as colorful as they are dangerous. There’s the librarian Charles who buried his sister Madeline alive; the soul of Princess Catherine lurking inside a throne, waiting to possess someone (see upper left); the evil priest Simon, who feigns friendship and kills at first opportunity; Madam Camilla, itching to tell fortunes you’d rather not hear; Andrew-David the man-goat, who patrols the indoor forest with a Wild Hunt of dire wolves and sabre-tooth tigers; and many others. They exist in a cursed eternity, confined to their castle like incestuous wraiths.
But Castle Amber is a masterpiece even aside from all this demented creativity. It packs so much in short space — well beyond what most 36-page modules offered back in the day. First there is the castle itself, with two large wings, an indoor forest, and a chapel, and not a room wasted (see above). Second is a dungeon, with hideous creatures like a brain collector, and potions that induce harrowing dreams that intrude on reality. The dungeon ends at a magical gateway to, third, Averoigne, the old home of the Ambers — an alternate prime material world resembling medieval France, and where magic is a heresy punished by death. Here the PCs must acquire a number of artifacts (one of which can be obtained only by killing the 100-HD Colossus which is in the process of demolishing a town; another of which is an honest-to-gods potion of time travel) in order to return to, fourth, the tomb of Stephen Amber, which contains the means to break the castle’s curse.
Incredibly, this module is scorned by today’s D&D players. As far as I’m concerned, they’re more insane than the Ambers; as always, the new school has it wrong. They want “realistic” modules, and this classic is surrealistic in the extreme. Castle Amber is gonzo pulp fantasy gone wild. And it offers more warped fun, and with such effortless economy, than any other module I know. That’s why it’s my favorite.
Next up: Vault of the Drow.