Monday, October 19, 2015

Mystara Monday: Module X2 - Castle Amber

Today we're having a look at the second of the D&D Expert level modules, Module X2: Castle Amber, written by Tom Moldvay. X2 is a weird module both in style and content. In many ways it's similar to Gary Gygax's later Wonderland-inspired Dungeonland and The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, drawing both directly and indirectly from multiple literary sources including Zelazny, Poe, and most strongly, Clark Ashton Smith. Castle Amber also introduces a character who goes on to become incredibly important to the ongoing Mystara setting, Etienne d'Ambreville.

That's a 100 foot tall colossus formed of corpse flesh,
just so you're aware.

Castle Amber is split between a dungeon crawl (through the eponymous castle) and a more loosely describe adventure through the lands of Averoigne. Averoigne is described as a province of an alternate earth, based on the French province of Auvergne. Averoigne was the setting for a number of stories by the writer Clark Ashton Smith, four of which become mini-adventures in this module. Before reaching Averoigne, however, the adventuring party must brave Castle Amber and make it out intact.

The Amber family were originally the d'Ambreville's of Averoigne until they were forced to flee across dimensions and found refuge on Mystara in Glantri, a magocracy briefly described in The Isle of Dread. Being a family of powerful mages, the Amber family rose in power to the point that the head of the family was made a Prince of Glantri. The seventh Prince of the Amber family, Stephen Amber (or Etienne d'Ambreville) was one of the most powerful mages in history. Then the entire family and their mansion (Castle Amber) vanished. That was over a century ago.

The party goes to sleep one night on the road and wake to find themselves in the foyer of Castle Amber, penned in by a choking mist that prevents their leaving. To escape, they have to explore the mansion, encountering numerous members of the Amber family of varying levels of sanity, and ultimately find a gateway that transports them to Averoigne. In Averoigne, more adventuring is required to find a way back to the adventurer's home world.

The first of the Amber family the players meet is Jean-Louis.
He likes to put on boxing matches using artificial people.
He's one of the relatively sane ones.

Many of the encounters in the mansion draw from the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, with clear references to Hop-Frog and The Fall of the House of Usher for example. Many of the Amber family have been cursed in some manner, often transformed into animal men. Even the encounters with normal monsters tend to be written in keeping with the off-kilter feel of the mansion, such as an ogre who killed Janette d'Ambreville and has been enchanted to believe it is her.

Also there's a woman and a unicorn sleeping in the garden.
Spoiler: She's a gold dragon. Don't touch her chest.

In the course of exploring the mansion, the party can learn that the family was cursed when Prince Etienne was murdered by his brother, Henri, and Henri's wife, Catharine. To escape, they will have to travel to Averoigne through a portal in the castle dungeon and find Etienne's tomb. This leads to the second portion of the adventure where the party must explore Averoigne to find four magical items which can be used to summon the tomb. Each of those items is a reward from a short adventure drawn directly from one of Clark Ashton Smith's stories.

On reaching the tomb the party discovers that Etienne is not truly dead, but was trapped within his tomb waiting for the adventurers to free him. He teleports them all back to Glantri, resurrects up to four characters that died during the adventure (there are a lot of save or die opportunities in this module), gives everyone a magic item, and vanishes. Adventure over.

This is a module that I've never had the opportunity to run, but have always wanted to. In a lot of ways it feels like something that might better fit in Ravenloft than Mystara; it has a gothic weirdness feel throughout that would be right at home in the Demiplane of Dread. I'd probably modify the hook so that the characters are actively seeking the home of the Amber family so that it's less of a railroad, and I'd definitely want to turn a lot of the save or die encounters into less fatal punishments. Overall though, it's a really neat module with a lot to recommend it.

As I mentioned before, Etienne becomes a key player as Mystara develops. We'll see that more in depth when we get to the Glantri Gazetteer and later the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set. In short though, after being freed from his state of living death he goes on to ascend to immortality through the use of the Nucleus of the Spheres, a nuclear reactor buried deep beneath Glantri in the remains of crashed spaceship. Mystara can be weird, y'all.

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