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Friday 31 December 2021

1981: X2 Castle Amber

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Published in 1981, the second entry in the ‘X’ series of modules for Basic Dungeons & Dragons designed for use in conjunction Expert Dungeons & Dragons could not have been more different than the first. Both are pulpy in their tone and inspirations, but where X1 The Isle of Dread is a lush mashup of King Kong and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Lost World with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft, X2 Castle Amber combines its Pulp sensibilities with a mixture of horror—the Gothic and the Lovecraftian in particular, sybaritic ennui, dreamlike dread, and woozy whimsey. The locations are different too, the Player Characters expected to sail to and explore a large island in search of treasure in X1 The Isle of Dread, whilst in X2 Castle Amber, they are unceremoniously pulled into an alternate dimension—not once, but twice—and forced to go looking for answers (and solutions) to their predicament, again not once, but twice. The bulk of X2 Castle Amber take place in a castle—or technically, it takes place in Château d’Amberville and is therefore not actually very castle-like—followed by a potentially lengthy wilderness section. In fact, having the scenario’s location before the wilderness section, when it is normally set after it in a traditional wilderness module, is very strange indeed, and that is in a very strange, often weird module indeed.

X2 Castle Amber is designed for a party of six to ten Player Characters, between Third and Sixth Level. The total of the party’s Experience Levels should be between twenty-six and thirty-four, ideally averaging thirty in total. Both X1 The Isle of Dread and X2 Castle Amber begin with the Player Characters on the Continent of the ‘Known World’. In X1 The Isle of Dread, they discover the journal describing a trip to the Thanegioth Archipelago, and lured by the mention of great treasure, sail off on the thousand-mile journey as soon as possible. In X2 Castle Amber, they are traveling to the Glantri City where they are hoping to find employment with one of the princes, but along the way, they get lost and are forced to make camp. After a sleep filled with nightmares, they awake to find themselves in the foyer of a mansion—a French mansion no less! With the mansion surrounded by a strange and very deadly mist, the Player Characters have no choice but to go forward and explore. In room after room, they will be confronted by one strange encounter after another—a nobleman who wants to set-up a bare-knuckle boxing match between his magen (or magical men) and whomever the party nominates as their champion, with bets on the outcome encouraged; a great banquet attended by ghosts which the Player Characters can also attend and eat their fill, and in doing so gain great benefits or dire consequences; a room with its floor covered in a Green Slime, ceiling in a Black Pudding, and its only furniture, a very full treasure chest, is covered in a Grey Ooze; an Ogre servant who killed his mistress and now dresses like her and attempts to emulate her; a river in an Indoor Forest crossed by a bridge under which lives a troll; a noblewoman buried accidentally alive in the chapel by her brother—in a very obvious nod to Edgar Allan Poe; a throne room populated by skeletons frozen in their last moments; and a mad, misshapen court jester with the power to charm others and turn them into white apes! And this is only the start.

X2 Castle Amber is home to the aristocratic Amber or D’Amberville family, and they are either incredibly bored or insane, often both. Their aim, when encountering the Player Characters is not necessarily to kill them, but toy with them and extract some entertainment value. This is not to say that Castle Amber is not deadly or that its inhabitants are all friendly—it is deadly in a great many places and many of the inhabitants are decidedly hostile. It is deadly—and weird—in another way too. There are multiple means of a Player Character dying simply by eating the wrong thing or making the wrong choice, notably at the banquet and later when picking cards from a tarot deck, and then failing a Saving Throw. However, death is not the only effect that a Player Character might suffer, such as having the spell Feeblemind cast on him or being turned into a ghost, and there are also many beneficial effects that a Player Character might gain. For example, he might gain a permanent increase in Hit Points or actual attributes or an increase by one Level upon the completion of his next adventure beyond that of Château d’Amberville. There is also quite a lot of treasure, both monetary and magical, to be found if the Player Characters are thorough and are prepared to brave the castle’s many dangers.

For the most part, X2 Castle Amber is fairly linear. The Player Characters start at the foyer of the castle and work their through the West Wing into the Indoor Forest and from there either into the East Wing or the Chapel. Although this is a mansion, it does not have a lived-in quality. It is all quite self-contained and all but frozen in time. This applies to many of the individual rooms and locations too, which often feel more like tableaus awaiting the arrival of the Player Characters and their involvement, the mix involving opportunities for roleplaying in interacting with the inhabitants and deduction in working out the tricks and traps to be found in the castle—as well as combat. This sense of the scenario being frozen in time applies to the Player Characters too, for at the end of each gaming session, they are encircled by a cloud of amber light, a space in which they are protected from the denizens of the castle, including wandering monsters, can recover Hit Points and spells, and even train to go up a Level if they have acquired enough Experience Points. This not only enhances the oddness of the Château d’Amberville, but it suggests a degree of agency upon the part of someone else… This though is only the first part of X2 Castle Amber.

Much of the first part of the scenario is presented as a mystery. Not so much a murder mystery—although that is sort of present in the scenario’s overall plot—but a mystery as what is going on and why the Player Characters have been pulled into the weird and whimsical world of Castle Amber. Plus of course, how they escape the castle and ultimately the grey mist. The scenario makes this relatively easy in placing a scroll in several places around the castle which gives explicit instructions as to the means of escape. This requires that the Player Characters locate several Silver Keys and then the Gate of the Silver Keys, which is located in the dungeons below Castle Amber, and from there travel to the original homeland of the D’Amberville family, Averoigne, and this is where the scenario opens up and again marks it out as something different to previous scenarios.

Averoigne is a mythical province of France and the setting of a series of short stories by Clark Ashton Smith which originally appeared in Weird Tales magazine. Used with permission, this marks X2 Castle Amber out as one of the first scenarios for Dungeons & Dragons to use licensed content and the module includes a list of all of the stories in its bibliography. Unlike in the castle, the Player Characters have far more freedom of movement in Averoigne—to an extent. No longer are they in a Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy land, but an ahistorical fantasy land, one based on mediaeval France in which magic is outlawed by the church and the likelihood is that any demi-human Player Character is likely to be regarded as an abomination. So as much as they freedom of movement, they are constricted by the society of the land they are in. Like any good wilderness scenario, the Averoigne section of X2 Castle Amber is a sandbox which the Player Characters must explore driven by the need to locate the four items they need to unravel the final scenes of the scenario. So there is a need for subterfuge here unless the Player Characters want to become outlaws and fugitives.

However, advice and background for the Dungeon Master for this section of the scenario is perhaps a little underwritten. X2 Castle Amber is definitely not a sourcebook for Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne—though it could certainly form the basis of one—and so states that, “The encounters in this part of the module are left sketchy since most take place in cities and would require more detail and space than is available in this module. The DM should flesh out each adventure as he or she desires, designing NPCs, town streets and other details as necessary.” Potentially, this does leave the Dungeon Master with a lot of work to develop encounters and NPCs should her Player Characters deviate too much from the four quests to find the items necessary for them to progress onwards. At the very least, the Dungeon Master will need to improvise some of the encounters and NPCs outside of the scenario’s plot, and as a consequence, X2 Castle Amber is best run by an experienced Dungeon Master rather than one new to Dungeons & Dragons.

Lastly, the Player Characters can enter the scenario’s final dungeon, The Tomb of Stephen Amber. This is X2 Castle Amber at its mostly deadly, a complex of nine rooms, containing in turn, a Blue Dragon, a Flame Salamander, a Wyvern, a Stone Giant, a Manticore, a Mud Golem, a Great White Shark, and a five-headed Hydra, and that is in addition to dangerous environments in which these denizens reside. Now the Player Characters will not face all of these creatures, but they will face most of them, making for a tough physically challenging end to the module. If the Player Characters persevere and survive, they will encounter the NPC who has been sort of helping them along the way, be thanked, and richly rewarded for their efforts, including the resurrection four of their dead comrades—if they want. Surely, there can be no clearer indication of how tough a module if the Player Characters are being offered the chance of resurrection at the end?

Rounding out X2 Castle Amber is a bestiary of seventeen new—or mostly new—monsters. These include Amber Lotus Flowers, Giant Amoeba, Aranea, Brain Collector, Death Demon, Mud Golem, Grab Grass, Gremlin, Killer Trees, Lupin, Magen (of various types), Pagans, Phantoms, Rakasta, Slime Worm, Sun Brother, and Vampire Roses. Of these, the Aranea and the Rakasta originally appeared in X1 The Isle of Dread, and of the rest, the Pagans are worshippers of nature some of whom actually practice human sacrifice…! They can be found in the castle and in Averoigne, whilst some of the larger monsters are confined to the castle’s dungeon, including the Neh-Thalggu, or brain collector, and the Slime Worm.

Physically, X2 Castle Amber is done in the traditional format for TSR, Inc.’s modules—a wraparound cover with maps on the inside, containing a plain black and white booklet inside. The Errol Otus cover depicting a giant wielding a tree trunk and grabbing a castle tower is excellent, but not necessarily appropriate to the events of the scenario. The internal illustrations, many of them done by Jim Holloway are superb, imparting both the horror and the humour of the module.

One interesting aspect of X2 Castle Amber is how in 1981 it prefigures I6 Ravenloft and Ravenloft itself as a campaign setting. Surrounded by a strange grey mist, Castle Amber is essentially a pocket dimension all of its very own—as is Averoigne in the later part of the module—and both would sit very easily on the Demiplane of Dread as Domains in their own right. Of course, the module is completely unconnected to Ravenloft for obvious reasons, but the similarities are there such that importing X2 Castle Amber into the Realm of Terror campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, without any difficulty at all. Further, given that both have the influence of Edgar Allan Poe in common, with some adjustment, X2 Castle Amber could also be adapted to be run as part of a Masque of the Red Death campaign as well.

As a complete scenario, X2 Castle Amber is principally a ‘funhouse’ dungeon, essentially a series of self-contained tests and challenges consisting of mostly puzzles and traps with little to any overarching plot or nod to consistency. Hence you have a weird room layered with puddings and oozes, and a ceiling with shafts that hide a myriad of traps. The effect initially then, is to confuse both Dungeon Master and then her players. First the Dungeon Master, because the module provides a sort of overview and of course, advises her to read the module through carefully, yet until she has actually done so, she will not really grasp what is going on and what the full plot is. This is because it is not effectively explained in the introduction to an infuriating degree, leaving it to the Dungeon Master to thoroughly read through the module to find out what is going on. Second for the players and their characters. They will have no idea what is going with the characters’ abduction and limited choice but to go forward and explore. Only once the Player Characters find the scroll they will at least have an objective and even then, there is the possibility that they will find the scroll, collect everything they need in Averoigne, do everything necessary to solve the mystery of how to leave Castle Amber, but never work out or learn what the overall plot is. However, by this point, the Dungeon Master will of course know what is going on.

The funhouse aspect of X2 Castle Amber also comes out in the humour, often dark humour, of the scenario. This includes squirrels with the Midas touch, the Jester with his White Ape companions, and Gremlins whose Chaotic area of effect will reflect spells, prevent mechanical effects from working, trousers to fall down, helmets to slip down over the eyes, and the like, all at their whim and amusement.

One issue with X2 Castle Amber which will require an experienced Game Master is the underwritten motivations of the NPCs, specifically the members of the D’Amberville family. Although the background to the Amber family is given and it is made clear that none of them is actually sane, ranging from slightly eccentric to completely insane, that they are Chaotic, uncooperative, bored, and looking for some diversion to relieve that boredom, individual motivations—apart from one or two—are sorely lacking. Which leaves the Dungeon Master with a lot of effort to put into the portrayal of these NPCs, many of them of high-Level Magic-users and Clerics beyond that possible in Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert Dungeons & Dragons at the time of the module’s publication.


X2 Castle Amber was reviewed by Jim in White Dwarf No 35 (November, 1982), who said, “Castle Amber is the second module for use with the Expert Set and is an attempt to bring randomness back into D&D. The 3rd and 6th level party become trapped in Castle Amber where they are beset by the members of the Amber family. Escape lies into a wilderness on another world where magic is frowned upon and spell casters may well come to the attention of the Inquisition. Non-humans are going to have a hard time here as they will be very conspicuous. Amber Castle depends a lot on chance leaving little room for skill and at times can be deadly.” His conclusion was that “I don’t recommend X2 unless you like chaotic adventures and designing urban areas.” and gave it a score of six out of ten.

More recently, X2 Castle Amber was included in ‘The 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time’ in the ‘Dungeon Design Panel’ in Dungeon #116 (November 2004). Author of Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, John Rateliff said, “A rare example of a licensed product that shines both for its treatment of the original setting and for its excellence as a D&D adventure. Inspired by the ‘Averoigne’ stories of Clarke Ashton Smith, the best of the Weird Tales writers, it has a distinctive quirkiness, dangerous and sensuous and slightly amused all at the same time. There’s a reason it inspired not one but two sequels.”


By being set on an alternate plane of existence, X2 Castle Amber is very self-contained, which means that it is incredibly easy to adapt to other settings, whether that is as a Demiplane of Ravenloft or elsewhere. Yet initially, X2 Castle Amber feels incomprehensibly weird, leaving the Dungeon Master with little or no idea as to what exactly is going on, but give it the careful read through that every module demands—and is warranted here more than most—and the module’s weirdness and whimsy begins to come together. In places, underwritten and underdeveloped by modern standards though it is, X2 Castle Amber does have a coherency, eventually, that the archetypal ‘funhouse’ dungeon often lacks and the challenge perhaps lies in imparting that sense of coherency to the players. In addition to that, X2 Castle Amber does leave the Dungeon Master with a lot to develop to get the very most out of the adventure, whether that is fleshing out the motivations of individual D’Amberville family members or expanding upon the Averoigne wilderness section. The latter is arguably a not much more than a fascinating snapshot of the county which deserved further exploration which it never got in Dungeons & Dragons. It certainly would have made a fine addition to Ravenloft.

X2 Castle Amber is not perfect and it requires a lot of input upon the part of the Dungeon Master, but it is a fantastic Dungeons & Dragons adventure, made all the more enjoyable by its whimsy and weirdness, its humour and its horror. This with the combination of the Gothic and the Pulp Horror push it away from the classic medievalism of earlier modules into a much darker fantasy than that typically found in Dungeons & Dragons, and that is why X2 Castle Amber is regarded as a classic.


  1. My group had a great time making their way through this module, back in the day. It was one of our all-time favorites!

  2. I've run this adventure many times.
    Reading Smith's short stories, specifically the ones that tie in with the items that need to be found, was a great help in bringing that part of the adventure to life. I found them posted free on the web fairly easily.