What can I possibly say about Castle Amber?
This adventure had always been something of a Holy Grail quest for me. I was a huge fan of Tom Moldvay, I had heard this adventure took place in Glantri and it was full of horror elements. As time went on and I still never found a copy I began to hear more; that it was a crazy dungeon full of crazier NPCs. That it is was more of a thinking module and not a hack and slash one and finally, it was heavily influenced by Clark Ashton Smith, whom I always felt was superior to Lovecraft in many respects.
I did finally get a copy from my FLGS, paid a lot for it, and I also got a copy from DriveThruRPG. The module lives up to the hype. It is not a particularly easy module to run and you better spend a lot of time with it. But for me at that time (the mid-90s when I finally got a copy) it became a great addition to my growing Ravenloft collection. It was not officially part of Ravenloft mind you, but so much of it feels the same that it would have been a crime not to bring them together.
Later I ran it for my family under D&D 5e rules and it quickly became one of their most favorite adventures ever. I started a trend in my family's games; they love anything done by Tom Moldvay.
Castle Amber is an adventure for characters level 3 to 6 for the D&D Expert Set. It was written by Tom Moldvay, who gave us D&D Basic set half of the B/X D&D line. This adventure shows that. While the Expert set was more focused on wilderness adventures, this is a romp through a "haunted house." For many gamers of a certain age this became the template for all sorts of Haunted House dungeons that are still being published today.
Physically the original adventure was a 28 page book with color covers by Erol Otus with the maps of the titular castle in old-school blue on the inside covers. The art inside is black and white and done primarily by Jim Holloway. The art has a duel effect here. Otus was the prime B/X cover artist, so the feel here is 100% his weird fantasy vibe of B/X. Jim Holloway was also at this time the primary artist for the Horror game Chill. Come for the weirdness, stay for the horror.
The adventure is overtly an homage to the tales of Clark Ashton Smith. The area where it all takes place, Averoigne, is used right out of the works of CAS. The Amber family would fit right-in in one of his tales and that is the Colossus of Ylourgne, or rather his D&D counterpart, on the cover. The adventure even includes a reading guide for those that want to read up on the tales of CAS, and I highly recommend doing so.
CAS, and his contemporary H.P. Lovecraft, were no strangers to the D&D world by 1981. Indeed Molday's pulp sensibilities shine throughout in this adventure as much as they did with X1 The Isle of Dread and B4 The Lost City. All three adventures have also been updated by Goodman Games for 5e in their hardcover Original Adventures Reincarnated series, making Moldvay their most reprinted designer. Even more than Gygax himself who as of this writing only has 1, soon to be 2.
There is a lot to love about this adventure too. There are monsters to kill yes, but this is not a kick in the doors and kill the monster sort of deal. There is a mood and atmosphere here. In fact this is the prototype for the horror adventures of later date, in particular Ravenloft (which I will discuss).
On one hand, we have a haunted house filled with the not-quite-dead members of the Amber family. This can be a pulpy nightmare or even a Gothic tale. The room with the Tarot cards and their abilities gives us a sneak peak of some the things we will see in Ravenloft. On the other we have creatures from beyond that are quite Lovecraftian. The Neh-Thalggu, or the Brain Collector, is a creepy ass aberration that can give the Mi-Go a run for their money.
There is travel to other worlds via some strange mists and 16 new monsters. Some of these monsters also appeared in The Isle of Dread, but here they feel a bit different. Plus what other B/X D&D book can you name that has "Demons" and "Pagans" in it.
The background of this is rich enough that you want more of it. More on Averoigne and its connection to Glantri, more on the Amber family, and more on the world that this adventure implies. It is no surprise really that much of this adventure and what it all implies found welcome homes in the BECMI version of Glantri.
For me though the best connection is the one to Ravenloft. I have to admit the last time I ran this adventure I made the tie-ins to Ravenloft more specific, but I did not have to do much. I have to admit I was rather gleeful inside at the scene where they have to run from the "Grey Mists" to get into the castle.