Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Play Report: Castle Amber

  Every Halloween we pick a classic module and run through it as a one-off, non-campaign adventure (usually - I fit the Hidden Shrine into the campaign). The players make holograms (i.e., 'above first level characters') and off we go.
  This year the selection was Castle Amber.
  Castle Amber is one odd module: the opening might as well have been made by CSX because it is railroad all the way. Then after a castle/dungeon crawl opening it turns into an overland sandbox where the party could spend months looking for items that allow them to return to a dungeon and finally escape the railroad open.
  You have really high level NPCs doing odd things for no clear motive and random encounters include a Shape Changed gold dragon as set dressing. There are two new intelligent humanoid raced. No, three. No, maybe four. Are the creatures made in vats golems? Are they a new race? Does each version count separately?
  It is set in the real world but in a fictional part of France during the Medieval Period, sorta'.

  Castle Amber is very famously based on some of the short stories of Clark Ashton Smith and Zelazny's Amber series. The comet, beast, colossus, fictional French region, and more are Smith. The pattern, magical cards, odd family, and more are Zelazny.

Spoilers for books and the module Castle Amber follow!




  The last few times the adventures were totally divorced from the main campaign so I wanted to avoid that at least a little.  Here was the setup'

  Each player could have a single character with about 40,001 X.P. and a few magic items that we selected together. The characters had to be human, have European names, and speak European languages. There were strict limits on spell casters relating to the Church's regulation of magic. The year would be 1250 in a mystical France.
  Each character must also be 'linked' to a PC from the Seaward campaign.

  The group:
  The Wife: an Italian fighter, 5th level
  Son #1: an Iranian 6th level assassin. As in, a real assassin.
  Son #2: an Austrian illusionist, 5th level
  Son#3: a French nobleman, 5th level (one of my custom classes)
  Son #4: a 5th level cleric from Provence

  A comet has been visible in the night sky for sometime, now. The tail of the comet is blood red and casts a chilling light across the world at night. Ever since the comet has been visible the characters have been dreaming of another world, a world where elves and dwarves mingle with Man; a world with dragons, orcs, and much more. And as the light of the comet grows brighter they are forgetting their memories of France and only remembering Seaward, whatever that is.
  Their dreams led them all to the road between Ximes and Vyones. As they took shelter at a roadside shrine to St. Christopher near the remains of an old building destroyed by fire an odd mist sprang up. The mist, glowing red in the light of the comet, closed in on them killing a spare palfrey. The party noticed a fully intact mansion nearby and, despite the fact it had not been there a moment before, fled into it with their horses.
 
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  I am a big fan of Clark Ashton Smith and I read the first few Amber novels, which are very memorable. When we picked Castle Amber I decided I needed to change it just a wee bit.
  I ran Castle Amber when it came out in '81, in '83 (or so I am told by an old friend - I don't remember it!), and in '86 (twice). It can be rather lethal, especially if the party tries the 'kill anything and everything, then loot it all' outlook. Since my players are not like that, I decided to change a lot of other things.

  The New Races: The magen are still magic creatures similar to homonculi. The rakasta are now a band of alien mercenaries (called lyrans) whose star schooner crashed on a small moon while they were on their way to fulfill a kling'an contract. While seeking shelter they somehow ended up in Castle Amber. Instead of iron claws they have vibroknives (having lost their disruptors in a bet with a member of the House of Amber). The aranea are now weak neogi from a spelljammer that thought it was entering a crystal sphere but instead crashed near the castle. The lupin are now vargr who experienced a critical jump drive failure and instead of vanishing into hyperspace awoke in the castle.

  Other Creatures: The slime worm is now a dianoga; the sun brothers are now kelmain officers. The gold dragon in the central garden was also cast here while travelling in a spelljammer (she was chasing the neogi).

  A New Twist: If anyone stays within a single room of Castle Amber for more than 24 hours they are cursed with intense agoraphobia so that they will not willingly leave until the curse is lifted (or Stephen is rescued, but they do not know that).

  The Plot and Such: The core plot remains with modification. As I am telling it - in about 1100, immediately after the death of the Holy Roman Emperor, a member of the Amber family tried to usurp leadership by killing the father of the family, Stephen. Stephen was able to escape death with magic, but the safeguards the usurpers put in place trap him in a vault that moves through time, always just a few moments away from being reborn. The light of the comet allows magic to wax just a touch stronger and to interact with dreams.
  Stephen, who is almost alive again and almost dead, is dreaming. Cast adrift in Time Stephen dreams.
  The only way that the usurpers could overcome Stephen and trap him was because the Blood Comet enhances magic. In 1250 the comet has returned. Unbeknownst to even the usurpers, the comet's ruddy light also allows magic to interact with dreams. Stephen's yearning has drawn people from across many realities, all drawn to free him....

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  Gameplay
  The party entered the foyer and settled their horses, then began to explore. When they entered the room with the boxing ring they were... bemused. Assured that the fight was by Marquis of Queensbury rules the assassin joined in on one condition - he wanted Jean-Louis' magnificent hat as his prize! After handily knocking out the magen boxer the party spoke with Jean-Louis and began to realize he is not all there. Jean-Louis spoke of finding it harder and harder to remember things as the light of the comet continued and now all he wants to do is watch boxing.
  The illusionist realized that the disembodied eyes were a combo of illusions and Wizard Eye and the party immediately pointed out that it was pay-per-view boxing.

  Entering the study they encountered the rakasta. The party immediately parlayed and this led to a long discussion of what the rakasta know. There was an exchange of food, a discussion of how the rakasta are trapped in the room (due to the curse), and how they have seen other parties enter the mansion, some of whom they fought. They mentioned a 'dwarf made of stone who was hot to the touch' who gave them something and then burst into flame. Having earned their trust, the rakasta gave the party a silver key

  In the hallway they did the 'lose the lights, get blinded by the mirrors' trick. They immediately called for help from the rakasta (!) and took shelter in the study until their sight returned. During this time the rakasta shared a list of words they had been given by a strange group of people. The group had been a timid man, a brash man, a pretty girl, a mechanical man who seemed sad, and a man with two heads.

  In the dining room the assassin, the illusionist, and the noblemen sat for dinner. With planning and a little luck they avoided or reversed the curses (well, mostly) and got a few boons.

  At that point we took a small break and the party talked about the dreamlike quality of the adventure - it has dream logic, of a sort, and once you 'tap into' the logic of the dream it all seems to make sense.

  They decided to skip the rest of the hall and head straight to the next section. In the garden they used a Bag of Tricks to test leaving the path - watching a bear get ripped in half by killer trees convinced them to stay on the path. They met the gold-skinned maiden and her unicorn. They gentle woke her and spoke with her for a long time. While they did not understand her discussion of 'temporal fractures', 'einstein-rosen bridges', 'arcane occlusions into the morpheatic realm of semi-consciousness' or 'transitioning from the phlogiston across the portal of a great sphere' [in character, they didn't] they did grasp that she's trapped in the garden.
  After learning about 'the pattern' from her, and realizing that the list of words that the rakasta gave them seemed related they promised to return and free her, if they could. Once more, after a long talk the maiden trusted them and gave them another silver key.

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  We ended play as they debated going to the east wing or the chapel.