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Ghost Review: Tegel Manor

Guest Writer: Matthew Stephen Sunrich

Tegel Manor cover © Judge's Guild

Tegel Manor cover © Judge’s Guild

Cliché as they may be, haunted houses are some of the most compelling devices in literature. The notion that a supernatural entity could occupy a building or that the building itself could be evil (as in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House) has proven effective in thrilling readers for generations.

It’s difficult to say what the first haunted-house story was, but Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) is considered the first gothic novel, and the two are closely related. A gothic novel does not have to have a supernatural element, as is the case with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but ghost stories are always gothic. The word itself relates to “grotesque” architecture, and the idea that evil entities dwell within is a logical extension because humankind tends to associate ugliness with evil. Ghosts generally don’t just wander around. They are tied to specific locations, usually buildings and typically the places where they lived and died. It goes without saying that they are usually not happy about it, either, and they like to make that fact known to anyone who ventures into their territory. As in Beetlejuice, the ghosts’ primary objective is to get intruders to leave the premises so they can haunt in peace.

Haunted houses can be found in the oeuvres of such horror luminaries as H. P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, and Clive Barker, and though each put a different spin on the idea, they are fundamentally operating within the same framework. One of the most interesting things about the recent theatrical adaptation of Stephen King’s It is that the director, Andy Muschietti, chose to alter things slightly to make it into a haunted-house story. While the Neibolt House does exist in King’s novel, it is not as central to the plot as it is in the film. In addition to being It’s headquarters, the house also serves as an effective metaphor for Derry itself; it is, as King has observed, a haunted town.

It’s important to make the distinction between a house that is haunted by either a solitary ghost or a small group of them and one in which multiple spirits dwell, as they serve different purposes in the narrative. The former fits well within the context of the classic horror story, whereas the latter is related to the idea of a place where danger lurks around every corner, which works better in a fantasy context. A haunted house in a fantasy story presents a challenge for the heroes rather than something intended to scare them away.

It is with this in mind that Judges Guild designed 1977’s Tegel Manor.

Original version of the Tegel Manor cover © Judge's Guild

Original version of the Tegel Manor cover © Judge’s Guild

The early days of role-playing games can best be described as a cottage industry. Businesses were operated out of people’s basements and apartments, and the level of sophistication in the materials left a lot to be desired. Granted, there is a certain charm to be found in a sheaf of typewritten rules accompanied by amateurish illustrations, but compared to what modern companies produce, it was quaint stuff indeed. (Of course, these advancements have resulted in dramatic price increases, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Judges Guild (JG) was founded in 1976 by Bill Owen and Bob Bledsaw, two avid Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) players. While they enjoyed the game, they felt that it had a lot of shortcomings. They decided to approach TSR to see if the company would be interested in publishing supplementary materials to help dungeon masters (DMs) run their games more effectively. The powers that be didn’t think that anyone would be interested in such things, so they gave Owen and Bledsaw informal permission to make and sell these materials on their own. They decided to sell their products through a subscription model and found such great success that TSR eventually realized that they weren’t so crazy after all. Not surprisingly, the company decided that JG should pay royalties. In return, Owen and Bledsaw were allowed to put the D&D name on their products, thus increasing their cachet in the industry. At the end of 1980, however, TSR declined to renew JG’s license, and the company was kaput by 1983 (Designers and Dragons: The ’70s).

Tegel Manor is described as a “great manor-fortress on the seacoast, rumored to be left over from ancient days when a charm was placed over it protecting it from most of the ravages of time and human occupation” and “a dangerous place to visit.” It is owned by the Rump family. The first thing I noticed is that it doesn’t explain why adventurers would go there. Typically, modules provide the DM with background information so that the adventure makes sense in context, but there isn’t much of that to be found here. Granted, Tegel Manor does not identify itself as an adventure; it is billed, instead, as an “aid.” In the early days, Gary Gygax felt that DMs would want to devise their own adventures, so the first few D&D manuals lacked much in the way of information on how to put a game together. Of course, it proved to be less intuitive than he believed. Even in the modern gaming environment, a DM can spend an incredible amount of time creating an adventure, only to have players ignore 70% of it. Nevertheless, it’s clear that JG meant for the Manor to be used in games rather than be an adventure unto itself. No sort of “progression” is outlined; how the players decide to approach the Manor and its interior is entirely up to them.

That being said, this is a detailed supplement. I can, however, see how a DM would have a difficult time making sense of it at first. Several level maps are included, with letters corresponding to area descriptions, and there is even a blank map for the players to fill in. It might be best for the DM to review the material briefly prior to starting the game and then just let the chips fall where they may, as it were. There is no indication of what level characters the supplement is designed for, but that was probably not a concept that anyone had considered.

One hundred members, numerous generations, of the Rump family are listed, and there is a painting of every one in the Manor. It appears that each family member is associated with a species of undead (zombie, skeleton, ghoul, wraith, spectre, vampire, shadow).  As far as I can tell, the images within the paintings come to life, unleashing the horrors within. Additionally, the Manor’s rooms are chock full of monsters, including mummies, ghosts, giant toads, phase spiders, and rust monsters. There are also numerous traps, treasures, and curiosities. The gazebo houses a vampire vine, the hermitage a cursing wraith, and the outhouse, hilariously enough, a black pudding.

The numerous charts and tables make it possible for the Manor to be traversed multiple times without having the same experience twice, which was surely the intent. It’s a very solid “setting.” It would have been a lot of fun to play back in the day. In modern terms, it’s intriguing and could be “cannibalized” for ideas that could be used in new games. It must be said that there is a certain Castlevania-esque feel to the whole thing, which is a huge plus in my book. It could have also inspired D&D’s Ravenloft setting.

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