Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2011/12/30/tabletop-review-the-cur-
Usually we only get review copies of newly released titles here at Diehard GameFAN, so I was a bit surprised to see a code for The Cursed Chateau come into my inbox a week or so ago. After all, it was released towards the end of 2009. Still, I’m a sucker for “haunted house” adventures, having cut my gaming eye teeth on Ravenloft and I’ll always love old school D&D, which is the system this is made for. With those two things in mind, I decided to review The Cursed Chateau and see if it is was worth the four dollar price tag.
The Cursed Chateau is designed for Dungeons & Dragons, and both editions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It’s written for four to eight characters with their levels ranging between 4 and 6. Although you’ll want to have a cleric with, the adventure does seem to favor Warrior classes the most. That’s always a nice change of pace.
The crux of The Cursed Chateau revolves around the machinations of one Lord Jourdain Ayarai. This wealthy lord slipped into depravity, debauchery and demon worship (Go alliteration!) due to a massive case of ennui. Eventually Jourdain tired of life itself and decided to shuffle of this mortal coil via a suicide ritual that would allow him to enter the world beyond. Of course, why he needed a ritual instead of a sword to the heart is never explained. Unfortunately, the ritual went awry and now Jourdain’s spirit is tied to his earthly home. He is now more bored (and insane) then ever and with the ability to seal the grounds of his manor off similar to how a Lord of Ravenloft can seal their domain, once inside, there are only two ways to leave The Cursed Chateau – by breaking the curse or joining Ayarai in death. It’s a neat little plot and it can fit nicely inside a Ravenloft campaign easily. It can fit in any D&D campaign really, but Ravenloft is definitely the best home for this due to the powers and setting.
The adventure has no real beginning or end, leaving it up to the DM to decide why his players should go to this locale. The game gives a few examples of why, but there’s nothing that would especially make characters WANT to take the risk of being eternally sealed in with a mad spirit and its undead servants. For some DMs, the best option is just to throw the chateau in as a background location on the way to another adventure and have the players blunder in to it. The end of the adventure is completely random and depending on dice rolls and character decisions, they just may be trapped there forever. You see, the adventure ends when Jourdain 100 “diversion points.” The problem is it’s a bit hard to earn diversion points and quite easy to lose them. The chart really isn’t balanced at all and the possibility of the adventure frustrating players as well as the DM is actually quite high. More care should have been taken to ensure the table didn’t cause this gaming gridlock. The adventure suggests adding your own bits to the table, but honestly most people that purchase adventures want things laid out for them a little more than this. My suggestion would be to either lower the diversion point threshold or cut it out altogether and just have Jourdain’s soul move on after a certain piece of the adventure or better yet, when it feels right. Otherwise you’re risking ennui setting in on your players, not just the main antagonist.
Much of the adventure requires use of the random event chart, known as “Jourdain’s Fun.” Most of these are spooky bits such as blood dripping from the walls or phantom screams. Only two are combat based, which I think is a great idea. However there are two problems. The first is that thanks to magical weapons and items, most D&D gamers (and their characters) don’t react to bumps in the night very well. They either ignore them or laugh them off. It’s one of the reasons even back in the days of old school D&D most gamers that wanted that went to Chill, Call of Cthulhu or something similar. Again, this is why I suggest putting this adventure in a Ravenloft campaign, as gamers playing that tend to react better to spooky than those that have been in a Monty Haul campaign. The second problem is that because so few D&D gamers react to horror/terror outside of Ravenloft, those distraction points are going to dry up and we’re back to the potential endless loop of being stuck in the chateau.
Monsters are an interesting mix. Most of the undead in the adventure are Skeletons, zombies, ghouls and shadows…which probably won’t present much of a challenge to characters between levels 4 and 6, which this adventure is made for. However, there are a few solo monsters like a wight, a spectre and a wraith that can show up randomly and act as mid-bosses. Unfortunately, only the spectre has any real hit points, soi to give your players a challenge, you may want to buff things up a bit.
The two boss fights (for lack of a better term) involve a demon and an Iron Maiden Golem. The demon is exceptionally weak to begin with and it shouldn’t pose much of a challenge. You can also avoid this battle entirely. You’ll find some players will purposely trigger it just to earn more distraction points however. The Iron Maiden Golem is the real challenge of the adventure and should give any characters that come across it pause. It’s a very original monster, does a lot of damage if the DM plays it right and it by far the biggest source of terror in the adventure.
My two biggest problems with the adventure both revolve around the same issue, which is that The Cursed Chateau tries to mix horror with D&D style fantasy and unfortunately doesn’t do a good job of it. There are a lot of monsters other than undead here, that include fire elementals, hell hounds, gargoyles and more. There are also a LOT of monsters, which prevents any real sense of dread from occurring. A spooky adventure is best served with lots of red herrings and a few but powerful creatures. When you line an adventure with a lot of weaker monsters that the character could beat a level or two ago with ease, the mood is lost. The second problem is there are a lot of magic items in the adventure. A good horror adventure has little to no magic and forces the players to rely on what they have on them and/or their wits. There is also way too much gold just lying around haphazardly, which makes this adventure more of the old Monty Haul trope than something truly scary to unleash on players. A good DM will take one look at this and realize they have to rebalance the entire adventure to create a spooky feel throughout it. They’ll be removing a lot of the things that don’t fit the theme like the black pudding and gelatinous cube, cutting down the number of distraction points needed to end the adventure, buffing up the monsters they do keep, and removing a lot of the gold or magical items.
Overall, I give the adventure a thumbs in the middle. It’s only four dollars and there’s a lot of content here. Unfortunately it’s not so much a spooky horror adventure as it is a hack and slash Monty Haul affair wrapped in some Ravenloft style trappings. It might be a good adventure for those that want a haunted house affair for their players even though everyone likes killing dozens of creatures in an adventure but it misses the mark when it comes to actually providing a chilling experience for D&D players. The Cursed Chateau is well written storywise and is laid out nicely, but it really needed to decide what type of adventure it really wanted to be and could have used some definite balancing.