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Saturday, 16 January 2010

Maliszewski's Mansion

One consequence of the publication of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition in 2008 was a further splintering of the sector of the hobby that played the game. Many took up the new version of the game; some remained with the Third Edition or one of its variants; while others waited for the arrival of the next version of the Third Edition, Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder RPG. Yet even when Third Edition arrived – and let us not kid ourselves, its arrival back in 2001 really was a breath of fresh air – some older gamers decided to stick with an even older version of the game, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Now all of these segments are still out there, but since the arrival of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, it has been joined by another made possible by the continuing existence of the Open Gaming License, the legal document that not only led to some great Third Party titles, but also to a glut of awful rubbish. This new segment looks back to the beginnings of the hobby and the Dungeons & Dragons of the 1970s. Not Basic Dungeons & Dragons or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but what Rob Conley on the front of his blog – Bat in the Attic – describes as “...(g)oing back to the roots of our hobby and see what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.” The segment has acquired a name for itself, the Old School Renaissance, and via his blog – Grognardia – one of its leading commentators is James Maliszewski.

In terms of the hobby at large, James is better known as one half of Rogue Games and the publisher of Colonial Gothic, a historical  horror RPG set in Revolutionary America, and the Imperial Science Fiction inspired RPG, Thousand Suns. Now, instead of just commentating on the Old School Renaissance, James has added to it with the publication of The Cursed Chateau. This is an adventure designed for a party of four to eight characters of levels four through six which the author previously submitted to the Fight On!/Otherworld Miniatures scenario contest back in 2008. (If you do not know of Fight On!, it is a quarterly journal devoted to the Old School Renaissance which you can find out about here. If you do not know about Otherworld Miniatures, they do 28mm miniature figures inspired by the art and monsters of old school Dungeons & Dragons). It did not win, but it did receive an Honourable Mention and now been expanded and tidied up for publication.

As with other releases that are parts of the Old School Renaissance, The Cursed Chateau is edition neutral. What that means is that it can be used with almost any version of Dungeons & Dragons up until Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. So that is First, Second, and Third Editions, Paizo Publishing’s new Pathfinder RPG, Troll Lord’s Castles & Crusades, and even Basic Dungeons & Dragons, as well as OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Spellcraft & Swordplay, and so on. Similarly, it is also self-contained, enabling a DM to drop it into his campaign with little or no changes needed.

The Cursed Chateau concerns itself with the fate of Lord Jourdain Ayarai, a dissolute and jaded man who has not been seen at his small mansion in some time. The adventurers come across the dilapidated house on their travels, perhaps while on their way somewhere or after having heard rumours of the curse or of Lord Jourdain’s reputation. Alternatively, they might be in the employ of a relative of Lord Jourdain, tasked to confirm whether or not the nobleman is still alive in the hope of claiming an inheritance. Finding the chateau is easy, as is gaining entrance to the grounds and buildings, but the adventurers will find that getting back out again is a whole other matter.

Once trapped inside the chateau, the party will have to explore it all but fully if it is to free itself. Clues and mysteries abound as to the nature of Lord Jourdain’s life, and the player characters will need to take note of these to learn something of what is going on. Further, they will also encounter ghosts of the dissipated nobleman, his former and now undead servants, and various other inhabitants of the chateau, both old and new. As they explore the house, strange things occur – dogs bay, screams can be heard, and blood drips down walls and from the ceiling. These add to the atmosphere and help build a sense of unease that pervades the whole scenario.

In addition to promoting the unease, the DM should be instilling in his players the sense that they are being toyed with. Or if not toyed with, at least that someone is taking pleasure in the misfortunes that beset them, which is exactly the case. The truth is that Lord Jourdain is dead, having committed ritualised suicide in the hope that he will pass onto pastures and pleasures new. Yet he remains trapped in the house that was his home in life and sees his only escape as being to take pleasure in the torment of others in the hope that it will be enough to propel him onwards. This is perfectly modelled in the “Diversion Table,” which helps the DM track how much pleasure that Lord Jourdain is taking from the suffering of the adventurers, right down to the amount of Hit Points that they lose. Conversely, Hit Points can go up as well as down, and that is something Lord Jourdain will take no pleasure from...

Physically, The Cursed Chateau comes as a slim digest size book. Its writing is clear and the book is liberally illustrated in a variety of styles, some of which really do hark back to art styles of the 1970s, but most of the art points to the horrific nature of the chateau’s history. In fact, one piece of art is so good that I want to own it myself to put on the wall. Similarly, the maps are also clear and easy to read. The format though is slightly problematic and for two reasons. The first reason is more of a preference than a problem, but given that the adventure is part of the Old School Renaissance, it would have been nice if The Cursed Chateau had aped the modules that it in turn is inspired by. In other words, if it had been comprised of a module booklet and card cover map, it would have been even more Old School. Yet if it had been published in this format, it would have also solved the second problem, which is that the adventure requires a fair degree of flipping back and forth – from the text to the maps and back, and from the text to the tables and back. The Cursed Chateau does involve the referencing of a table or two...

Although The Cursed Chateau is very much aimed at the Old School Renaissance market, it does not entirely fit within that segment. The adventure lacks the superficiality of many of the early – and yes, American – modules, primarily because of its inspiration (the aforementioned Tegel Manor and X2 Castle Amber) and because the author’s attention to detail and sensibilities that have moved on in thirty years of gaming. There is a darker edge to the scenario too, one reminiscent of British writing, but that might be down to my having read too much Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It is also a more flexible affair, which devoid of setting material beyond the confines of its walls, means that not only can The Cursed Chateau be dropped into most fantasy settings, but with a change in the details and some extra set dressing also be dropped into other horror RPGs, including the author’s own Colonial Gothic (though if you are really lazy and do not want to do the adaptation, run it with Atlas GamesNorthern Crown setting instead) or even Call of Cthulhu. In fact, The Cursed Chateau contains several nods towards the Cthulhu Mythos in its lower depths.

My feelings about and towards frogs are absolutely neutral, but any time that a new RPG title either uses or forces me to use the word “batrachian” in a review, I have to smile. And indeed, The Cursed Chateau does have frog-like or even rather, Deep One-like threats lurking in the caverns below the mansions and it does use the word, “batrachian.” Their presence though, is just an extra element that adds to the eerie and mouldering mood of a scenario which in essence combines the locked room and “get out of this” set up with a “Death Trap” style dungeon all inside a Haunted House. Fortunately, The Cursed Chateau is not a pure Death Trap Dungeon in the mode of Tomb of Horrors with its seemingly endless means of inflicting random murder upon the adventurers. This is not to say that James Maliszewski pulls any punches as there are plenty of traps, puzzles, and encounters that will kill the characters in his first adventure, but they are leavened with encounters and puzzles (though not traps, because after all, traps are meant to be deadly) that grant small benefits and boons as well as inflicting pain and inconvenience. Of course, which of these that a player suffers will all be down to whether or not he makes his Saving Throw.

Think of The Cursed Chateau as something akin to a “Misery Module” and you would be about right. Do not think of it as miserable though, as there is much entertainment to be had within its pages though, which should provide two sessions or so worth of play. It is not often that as a DM you get to be cruel to your players to be kind, but The Cursed Chateau (or rather its former owner) wants you to be.