Castle Amber Designer’s Diary: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
By Michael Curtis
Castle Amber is one of my favorite modules, hands-down. From the moment I picked it up at Great Escapes Hobbies in the Sun-Vet Mall in 1981 to the minute I’m writing this, I’ve loved “Chateau D’Amberville” and all its weird inhabitants. Like a good novel, I appreciated it on one level when I was 10 and another when I’m (mumbles something unintelligible). It was the adventure that 1) introduced me to Clark Ashton Smith, and 2) taught me that you can put a gray ooze, black pudding, and green slime all in one room. Both lessons have influenced my game design work to this day.
Castle Amber is nearly the epitome of the old school funhouse dungeon, exceeded perhaps only by White Plume Mountain. The mansion of the Amber Family contains some of the strangest and the smartest dungeon encounters you’ll find in the hobby, all springing from the fevered brow of Tom Moldvay, whom I consider one of the great underappreciated game designers of the profession. What other adventure contains a boxing ring, a trap based on the Sator Square, a shout out to Edgar Allan Poe and Brothers Grimm, deadly entrees, gremlins, and a magic amber light that acts as a save point? None, my friends. None but Castle Amber.
After tackling Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, I was delighted when Joseph Goodman asked me to take on Castle Amber. The conversion and expanding process requires an equal amount of imagination, number crunching, and educated guesses to accomplish, transforming and building upon a classic adventure into something both true to the modern version of the game as well as faithful to the original. It can be done by rote, sure, if you’ve got a solid grasp of game mechanics and have read the adventure through a few times. But in order to make the conversion really shine, to be worthy of standing on the shoulders of the original, another element is required: a true love for the adventure. You can tell, for example, the Chris Doyle loves The Keep on the Borderlands, and that Tim Wazinski is a man whose passion for the old school makes him more than a mere editor keeping us writer types in line. Tim demonstrates an attention to detail that notices things that slipped through the original TSR editing pool, allowing us to draw attention to these errors even when we can’t quite correct them (Barrier Peaks’ maps, I’m looking at you!).
It’s this love for the source material and the attention the entire Original Adventures Reincarnated crew brings to each new book that makes the line as successful as it is, and I’m confident that Castle Amber will be no exception. The opportunity to not only return to the Castle but to build upon the foundations that Tom Moldvay laid and to add a few bricks of my own to the chateau was a welcome one. Fans of the original castle will find even more strangeness to love and I dearly hope that those who’ve never before set foot inside its elaborate interior will find it difficult to determine where the original ends and the new (metaphorical) wings of the Castle begin. And, even if you can, you’ll still find yourselves in for one heck of a dungeon romp!