Castle Amber Designer’s Diary: The Magnificent Ambers
by Michael Curtis
Castle Amber is more than just a funhouse dungeon, although that’s easy to overlook, especially for younger game masters. While there’s plenty of monsters to fight and treasure to be looted, the Castle features something that was uncommon for many early adventures: plenty of roleplaying opportunities in the form of the Amber family members
The Ambers aren’t well-defined in the original adventure, something I attribute to both the youth of the hobby and undoubtedly Tom Moldvay’s need to bring the adventure in under a certain word count. Some of the Ambers get more screen time than others, so to speak, but there are a few cases where the DM is given just a stat block and nothing else—no physical descriptions, motivations, or even where in the heck they sleep in the blasted castle! This is both a blessing and a curse.
Neonate game masters will likely flip through the module’s pages, looking desperately for information that isn’t there. I know I did in the 1981. More experienced game master will meet this with a different approach, probably cracking their knuckles, adopting a funny accent, and setting about creating a memorable Amber family member based only on their own imagination. Give this adventure to five different DMs with some experience under their belts and I guarantee you’ll get six different interpretations (yes, I checked my math there).
When I set out updating Castle Amber for 5th edition, I knew that there would be DMs approaching this adventure for the first time, many of which might not have a lot of practical game experience. I also had to be aware that a sizeable portion of the audience would be old hands returning to a beloved adventure of their youth and looking forward to taking it on in the most recent ruleset. I set out to try and meet the expectations of both these audiences.
In OAR #5, you’ll find an Amber family a little more fleshed out than what you remember from back in the day. Each of the Ambers (old as well as some new faces) is given physical descriptions, notes about their personality, where they lie in the Amber family tree, and, for those of you into family intrigue and petty rivalries, who among their kin they like and despise. I’ve tried to keep these family bios brief but useful. Nobody wants to digest a massive info dump in order to run an adventure, especially those who’ve only been game mastering a short time. By making these bios short, a newbie judge has enough material to keep them afloat in uncharted waters while encouraging them to add more. Brevity is also a boon to experienced DMs, who can skim through what I’ve provided and then quickly decide whether to incorporate all, some, or none of what I presented in their own personal Castle Amber.
I’m not the first to attempt to liven up the Ambers. Aaron Allston, Jeff Grubb, and John D. Rateliff did something similar with Mark of Amber (1995), and although I put my own spin on things, I remain indebted to them for showing one way of presenting those magnificent Ambers as more than just stat blocks to be slaughtered and looted. I hope you find my own version of the Ambers just as entertaining as I did Messrs. Allston, Grubb, and Rateliff’s ones. If not, do what I did and make up your own. Your players will never know the difference, and only you know what funny voices you do best.