Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Cursed Chateau

The Cursed Chateau (2009) is a module I could have used back in the '80s when I didn't have the mojo to create something like this myself. In a D&D context, haunted houses can be dreadfully boring, when they should just be dreadful, and the key seems to lie in fleshing out colorful, demented backgrounds to the haunting entities. It is they who should be yawning, and James Maliszewski gets this right: "Though dead, Lord Jourdain is bored. He seeks diversion and (he hopes) release from his earthly bondage by toying with any living beings that enter the ruins of his former home." (p 8) Supernatural bullying owes to contempt and world weariness, when you get down to it, and in Jourdain's case he's been homebound on the prime material plane ever since his suicide. The torment he inflicts on intruders is weird, and in the hands of a good DM can be genuinely frightening.

The module clearly harks back to old-school D&D, which is a treat to those like myself who continue to play by 1st edition rules and lament the loss of gritty, pulp-fantasy adventures that flourished in the late '70s and early '80s. The Cursed Chateau, in fact, reminds strongly of Castle Amber and Ravenloft, not only in the way characters are confined to a morbid setting until a curse is lifted from the place, but more profoundly in the looming personality of Lord Jourdain whose own liberation depends entirely on the actions of the characters. Both of these classics are favorites of mine, so Maliszewski's homage has a lot going for it in advance. Again like these classics, it's geared for mid-level characters (4th-6th), but requiring player as much as character experience, as the house's curse is rather hard to come to grips with.

The chateau is given a ground level, an upstairs level, and a dungeon level, with plenty of tricks that reward and punish in unexpected ways. There are the obligatory undead and demonic forces, and a good deal of creative traps: fountains yielding benison and bane, portraits one hardly dares look at, other nasties. (The influence of Tegel Manor becomes as apparent as Castle Amber.) I particularly like one of the "accomplice" spirits (now a spectre), Jourdain's vengeful wife who was jilted and tried teaching him a lesson, but ended up locked and dying in a guest bedroom. Characters will probably be making saving throws as often as swinging swords as they try to figure their way out of the chateau, which isn't obvious, in fact counter-intuitive: the better the party fares, the less likely they'll ever leave; the more punishment they take, the more they gratify the spirit who terrorizes the house in a game of liberation.

Which brings me to Jourdain's Fun. The random events occurring out of nowhere as characters make their way through the house sell this module as much as the rooms' contents, if not more. I've never been a fan of wandering monsters (though The Cursed Chateau has those too), but "wandering events" are far more interesting and less tedious. Jourdain's spirit entertains himself by scaring people -- inflicting them with formication, speaking out of a random painting, making the walls bleed, causing doors to bang open, animating brooms and shovels which attack, etc. They're the sort of little things that make horror novels and films what they are, though in the context of gaming can be trivial if not handled well. As an aside, I can't help but note the similarity of "Jourdain's Fun" to what I called the playhouse of horrors in my own module, Blinding Claw of Torremor: "Pazuzu's Amusement". Like Maliszewski, I suppose I have a penchant for the macabre rooted in boredom as much as active hate.

The Cursed Chateau is a small 48-page booklet that bears no outside resemblance to old-school D&D modules, which is a shame, because what's on the inside scores on every page. It's a great ready-to-run module that doesn't try to reach above itself, doesn't require an over-arching plot or narrative, doesn't contain any filler, and can be injected into almost any campaign requiring a haunted house.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.


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