Saturday, August 7, 2021

A new generation for Castle Amber ... and for Dungeons & Dragons

My son Ashar has taken to reading my old Dungeons & Dragons modules for pleasure, and I can vouch that they're still very fun to read after all these decades. Most recently, Ashar finished Castle Amber (Château d'Amberville), which was written by Tom Moldvay (1948-2007) and published in 1981 by TSR.

That striking artwork on the cover is by Erol Otus, who created numerous iconic D&D illustrations during that era. In an interview with, Otus described his time with TSR from 1979 to 1981: "This was a dream come true, literally. Painting and drawing D&D illustrations for a living. People were all very nice especially Dave Sutherland. He set me up a place to live on the 2nd floor of the Dragon Magazine offices. It was spartan but I didn't mind at all. It was my first time living away from home so I had nothing to compare it to. Later I was offered a room in a house Lawrence Schick and his wife were renting. That place was a real step up. Totally furnished, including a huge basement with a pool table and a workshop space perfect for painting miniatures. Many evenings were spent painting miniatures."

Ashar really dug the plot of Castle Amber, which features a haunted castle, cursed family members, an emphasis on exploration, plenty of ghoulish monsters and good guidance to help dungeon masters keep the players on track — making the adventure challenging, but not impossible.1 We talked about how one plot twist in the module reminded us of the 1945 Boris Karloff film Isle of the Dead, which we watched recently.

D&D has become a bit of a passion for Ashar during the ongoing pandemic, especially as we spent so much time at home throughout 2020. He loves following the Oxventure D&D campaign, a series of YouTube videos and podcasts put together by some very cool folks in the UK.2 There's a great fandom community around Oxventure that spans multiple digital platforms (Discord, for example), adding plenty of +2 modifiers to the fun and friendship levels.3 Ashar and I are looking forward to watching the season finale of The Orbpocalypse Saga together tomorrow morning on YouTube.

"Old" hobbies like the D&D roleplaying campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s have become hip again, bolstered by the available enhancements of the Digital Age. The Oxventure crew is mentioned in a November 2019 article by The Guardian's Keith Stuart titled "'It's cool now': why Dungeons & Dragons is casting its spell again." In that piece, Stuart cites the importance of the Netflix series Stranger Things in D&D's revival and writes:
"YouTube shows and Twitch livestreams have also played a part. Popular channels such as High Rollers, Critical Role and Oxventure feature funny and engaging players undertaking D&D campaigns over multiple episodes, with participants often dressing up and becoming immersed in their characters. These shows present D&D in an accessible format for young digital natives."4
Meanwhile, I enjoy revisting the highlights of D&D past, such as the module Castle Amber, both for nostalgia's sake and for discussions about what elements of fantasy roleplaying from decades ago continue to resonate with the hobby today. And it's incredibly cool that Ashar finds some of that stuff enjoyable, too.

I'm a fan of James Maliszewski's Grognardia blog, which casts itself as "musings and memories from a lifetime of roleplaying." Maliszewski posted voluminously from 2008 to 2012, then took a long break from the blog until the summer of 2020. I share his enthusiasm for the D&D module T1 The Village of Hommlet. And he's also mostly a fan of Castle Amber, writing this in 2008: "Castle Amber has a phantasmagoric, fever-dream quality to it that still holds up. ... It remains a good example of an approach to fantasy gaming that has largely been lost. ... Some of my most cherished gaming memories center around playing it with my friends."

1. Fun fact: Some of the module's plot was inspired by the weird writings of Clark Ashton Smith.
2. The Oxventure crew: Jane is Prudence, a tiefling warlock with the hots for Cthulhu; Luke is Dob, a half-orc bard armed with soothing lullabies; Ellen is Merilwen, a wood-elf druid with an affinity for animals; Mike is Egbert, a dragon paladin; and Andy is the dread pirate Corazón, a human rogue. All of their exploits are guided by Johnny, the expert dungeon master.
3. Some interesting articles specifically about D&D's surge in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic:
4. Also along these lines was a short-lived D&D podcast that I enjoyed listening to on commutes, called "Fate and the Fablemaidens." Rather than thriving during the pandemic, however, it seems that this podcast was sadly scuttled by the understandable pressures of COVID-19 on its talented creators. In a series of tweets on July 24, 2020 (five months after its last episode that February), they stated: "Fablemates, it is after great reflection and with heavy hearts that we say we will not be returning to Alinoch. Our lives have changed in unexpected ways since we last recorded. We are not sure of what our future holds right now, but we are so grateful for the journey we have taken with all of you. Truly, this community has been both humbling and transformative. Although our story stops here, we pray it has inspired you to start your own. May you have Fate’s whimsy, Wynni’s loyalty, Merryweather’s dedication, Twyddle’s spirit, and Adeena’s passion. Thank you for everything."

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