James Maliszewski is arguably the most outspoken and listened to voice in the Old School Renaissance (OSR) community, so when he writes an adventure module designed to be played with "any old school class-and-level-based fantasy RPG" it is going to get the attention of many gamers who claim to be part of the OSR (including myself), and hopefully from those outside the movement as well. The Cursed Chateau is his adventure, and this is my review.
Obligatory Note Concerning Spoilers
Reviewing an adventure like the one presented in The Cursed Chateau is tricky to say the least. Personally, I do not enjoy reading reviews that contain spoilers. I find it annoying as a player and troublesome as a game master. In my opinion, sensitive information pertinent to the adventure should never be revealed in a product review, and it is my intention to leave such information undetailed.
As the name suggests, in The Cursed Chateau the player characters are confronted with a seemingly long abandoned chateau that appears to be in a state of disarray and ruin. Unbeknownst to the visiting adventurers the property is under the eldritch influence of a dark curse brought on by the sorcerous dealings of its previous owner. Soon it becomes obvious that it is the curse itself that holds sway over the environment in the game, as well as the game rules themselves. It is up to the players to figure out the nature of the curse, and what it will take to escape its hold on the adventuring party.
Reading through the module I did not notice any glaring misspellings or grammatical errors. The writing style is tight and to the point. The layout is clean and very functional. Finally, all the charts and maps required for the adventure are nicely presented.
The Physical Thing
The Cursed Chateau is a 50 page 6"x9" booklet, which includes an introduction from the author, background information needed for the adventure, various location and event descriptions, random encounter and event tables, maps, new monster write-ups and finally the Open Game License.
Stylistically speaking, Chateau is a very nice little book. The cover displays a scene from the entrance hall of an ancient dilapidated mansion, and takes the viewer's mind directly where it needs to be. There is no question that this adventure will involve the exploration of a creepy old house. The color scheme ranges from various shades of brown, tan and green, with a dramatic effect from a sunlit window that bursts forth into the gloom of the house with glowing hues of yellow and orange. Overall, the cover reminds me of a Renaissance era oil painting, and is well executed. The interior artwork is black and white, nicely presented and complements the overall theme of the module.
I found the artwork evocative and refreshing, as it does not try to be anything other than what it is. The Cursed Chateau has a unique look and feel, and that is a very good thing. I know that James has spoken at length on his disdain of OSR products that try to capture the nostalgia of the glory days of TSR by aping the artwork and trade dress of those venerable products. It is safe to say that he dodged that bullet here, by giving Chateau a style all its own.
The book itself is perfect bound, which in this case for me is a negative quality. If it were a rulebook or collection of stories this would probably not be an issue at all. Being that this is an adventure module I find that the perfect binding makes the book harder to use at the game table. I would have preferred the book to have been saddle-stitched or stapled. This would allow for a more flexible spine and would readily flatten out when laid in front of the game master. For several obvious reasons the perfect binding cuts down on the module's ease of use.
The Meat of the Adventure
Overall, I would say that The Cursed Chateau is very much a theme-park style adventure, in that it takes a specific idea as its core theme, this of course being a cursed chateau, and it has a lot of fun exploring the elements of that theme. The book states quite plainly that this module is both difficult and deadly. The adventure promises thrills and chills, as the party dodges traps and fights their fair share of undead and outsiders. It will also quite possibly offer a level frustration to the players, as they have to figure their way out of the conundrum the chateau has presented them, not to mention trying to get out alive...
Reading through Chateau immediately had me thinking of two things: atmosphere and saving throws. This adventure is heavy handed with each, and I feel it is going to require more effort on the part of the game master to run effectively than most of your typical run of the mill modules. Delivery and discretion will be important qualities for any game master attempting to run this adventure - delivery for the building of atmosphere, and discretion for when frustrated players fail a critical saving throw.
In the introduction James states that The Cursed Chateau is a homage to the classic adventure modules Castle Amber by Tom Moldvay and Tegel Manor by Bob Bledsoe. There are tricks and traps at every turn, and strange locales abound in the old house and its subterranean caverns. The players are going to have to bring their "A" game if they hope to unravel the mystery of the curse, and they are really going to have to think on their feet to survive this module. There is more than one occasion during the adventure that a saving throw will need to be successfully made to avoid dying.
James also sites the weird fiction of Clark Ashton Smith as a big influence on him and the writing of this adventure. Atmospherically, Chateau does a fine job capturing a decadent Smithian unworldliness, and with proper storytelling I can see where it would be creepy and quite possibly unnerving in places. Ultimately, it will be the responsibility of the game master to capture and convey this atmosphere to the players, which will take some thought and preparation to achieve.
As with most well designed modules there is an appendix of new monsters waiting to challenge the adventurers. In this case there are six, all fully written up and usable with any old school fantasy RPG or retro-clone. Also, wandering monster and random encounter tables can be found in the module, which can always be counted on to add an additional level of randomized fun to an adventure.
The Cursed Chateau is a great old school adventure module that successfully blends fantasy and horror in a somewhat nontraditional haunted house theme. The game design is inventive, and quite diabolical. Players should have a lot of fun trying to think their way out of this adventure, and game masters will evilly grin at their players as they try to do so. I have no problem recommending this product to any game hobby enthusiast, old school or otherwise.
Substance: 9 out of 10
Style: 8 out of 10
Fun: 10 out of 10
Overall: 9 out of 10