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The Cursed Chateau by James Maliszewski, illustrated by Jez Gordon

This entry is part 17 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them.

The Cursed Chateau is an adventure set in a castle in the south of France, haunted by the ghost of a sadistic maniac and many of his victims. This is an adventure that James Maliszewski had published previously: there’s a Rogue Games edition listed online from 1999, and the author mentions having run the game many times over the years and noted player responses and feedback. The edition I’m looking at is the 2016 edition.

It’s very much a funhouse dungeon, complete with a 100-entry random events chart. (I used the chart while running my own haunted house adventure during playtests of my own RPG WIP The Isle of Joy, after realizing that one haunted locale was missing something like this.) There’s a cast of ghosts—each with their own “home based” within the chateau, but each of whom can show up elsewhere; there’s a tracker for how much fun the deranged (and “dungeon master”-ish) ghost running the funhouse is having; and there are very few locales where there isn’t something interesting for PCs to do. It does the whole, “haunted house as terrible funhouse” pretty much to a tee.

(I don’t recall ever running or playing any of the modules that most reviewers cite as precursors, like Castle Amber or Tegel Manor, so as for comparisons, I have nothing to offer.)

Jez Gordon’s interior art and layout work are, of course, superb, but we expect that from him. The cover is also solid. 

While I haven’t run the adventure for anyone, I have—as I say—used elements from it, such as the random events table, in my game, and I found they worked very well. It reads like a fun romp, perhaps reminiscent to some of earlier haunted-castle adventures, but these days, the adventure module genre is less about novelty and more about polish and ease of use, and this book offers that in spades, along with being genuinely pretty.  

I have a soft spot for ghost stories, and a soft spot for ghosts in RPGs: their nonphysical nature, their often-tragic backstories, and their creepiness can do a lot, when handled correctly, and with a group that is interested in that kind of game, and I suspect that for me, a dungeon or ruin really ought to be at least a little haunted, though of course there are many forms of ghosts and many forms of hauntings possible.

I think this module offers a lot of tools to ramp up the weird-spookiness of the setting and its concept, but I also think it’s worth the GM’s time to spend a little time thinking about how each ghost’s manifestation should set off a familiar tingle or reaction for the players: accents, faint scents in the air, visual leitmotifs, and the rest can easily help amplify the creep factor, and also the sense that there’s a sense and a story behind all the craziness that their characters experience. 

I’ll also say that there are a lot of ways to GM haunted houses, and of course it depends on the group you’re running for. Some groups don’t get spooked easily, and treat it like any other dungeon. Other groups will be more susceptible to being creeped out, and will react in a variety of ways: some, engaging in humor to deflate the tension, and others embracing the creepiness and reacting to it in character. That said, even in the latter group, there’s a kind of pacing to creepiness that one needs to consider: effective horror movies rarely engage in a constant ramp-up of mayhem and fear, but often oscillate between the spooky and the mundane. That said, in an RPG what I find is that players often manage this themselves: table talk, jokes, and arguments about what to do next often substitute for what, in ghost stories, is more mundane stuff like going to work, visiting a friend, or dealing with a personal conflict. 

For this reason, usually when I incorporate ghosts into a game, I focus on building that creepy, unsettling mood as best I can, and stick to it even as players punctuate it with humor. I find that works really well, and can often creep out players enough that they play their characters as being afraid of ghosts even when the ghosts literally have no stats and cannot harm them (let alone where they’re combat-ready “monsters” like in this adventure). That said, mileage will vary depending on the group, and also depending on things like where you’re running the game and even the time of day: on a sunny afternoon, it can be harder to creep people out; on a dark night with a rainstorm going outside, it can be a lot easier. 

Going back to The Cursed Chateau itself, I like the mechanic of “Jourdain’s Fun”—which, when we strip it down, is really about an system by which players trigger metaphysical changes in the setting through specific character actions. This is something I’ve been playing with in The Isle of Joy, in a much more rudimentary way, and it’s made me think about that approach. For a hexcrawl or campaign setting, I prefer a more basic “X triggers Y” approach because I’m loathe to add yet another form of bookkeeping to the GM’s tasks when you’re dealing with a longer-running campaign or mini-series or whatever.

However, I think for a specific locale, when the adventure is to be of a limited duration—one or a few sessions—actions being tracked and counted up and only triggering effects in aggregate is interesting. I wonder how it would affect players’ behavior, especially depending on whether the tracking was secretive or overt, the way clocks can be visibly tracked in some newer-style games. Indeed, in place of this kind of point-tracking system, I’d be tempted to use player-facing progress clocks like those used in Blades in the Dark (here’s another succinct explanation and some image resources). I think this is an especially tantalizing option since the triggers are not known to the players, so this can create another layer of that sense of foreboding, the way camera angles, lighting, and soundtrack effects or music often trigger tension before something occurs in a film. If you are in fact going for a creep factor, it can be a pretty powerful tool in the same way the tension before a Jenga block pull is in a game of Dread

Even if you’re not really going for a creepy tone, a player-facing danger marker can be a fun thing to introduce into a game in terms of introducing narrative tension, but more importantly in alerting players to the fact that character actions are triggering events in-game. A lot of old-school play involves giving players the equivalent of (or, sometimes literally) a bank of levers and buttons with no instruction manual, and then inviting them to figure out which ones to pull and push versus which ones to avoid completely, so this is just an extension of that for a more metaphorical bank of levers and buttons. 

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