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Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Retrospective: U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

Published in 1981, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh stood out from any adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons which had come before it for many reasons. The most obvious one being that it was written and published by TSR (UK), the British arm of TSR, which would have a profound effect upon both the type of adventure its pages contained and the type of fantasy. Famously British roleplaying fantasy, grounded in a ‘real’ medieval history such as the Wars of the Roses, rather than the idealised one of American roleplaying fantasy, is full of mud and shit and death, most famously idealised in Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Yet, in U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh this mud and shit and death is not really present, but rather there is a feel of grime and grubbiness, of working lives, and of course, a degree of danger. What is absolutely not present is the grim sense of death and of course Chaos which would come to influence British roleplaying fantasy so heavily with the publication of the aforementioned Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Like so many adventure modules, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh presented a village in peril, an ancient legend, and a mystery. A set of clichés by today’s standards, this set-up goes all the way back to classic adventures like T1 The Village of Hommlet and U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. The difference is that where most adventures with this set-up, including T1 The Village of Hommlet, detailed the imperilled village or town in full, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh famously does not. Instead the Dungeon Master is given half a page of advice on how to create the town herself, including detailing the members of the town council, drawing a map of the town, and deciding its taverns and inns what gods the townsfolk worship. Now given that the town of Saltmarsh is meant to be in Keoland in the World of Greyhawk, and thus an official location, it seems odd that the Dungeon Master would be expected to put in all of this effort rather than it be included in the module. Yet really, this reflects the fact that nearly forty years ago gamers had more time to do this and what the authors were quietly encouraging was the Dungeon Master making both the module and the World of Greyhawk his own.

That said, the notes do point towards a society which the player characters will be interacting with. This is enforced later on with the player characters being expected to capture rather than the kill various NPCs and their capturing of loot like barrels of brandy and bolts of silk that the antagonists are trying to avoid paying tax on. The player characters even get to work with some excise men!

The set-up in U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is a haunted house, with the front cover reinforcing that with it depicting the adventurers approaching the house along the cliff tops as bats wing their way out of the ruined building. Saltmarsh’s townsfolk will hire the player characters to investigate an abandoned house on the hill, once home to a sinister magician and alchemist, but who has not been seen in nigh on twenty years. Recently strange lights have been seen in the house at night and the townsfolk fear that whatever is cause might be a threat to the town. So, what then, is the sinister secret of Saltmarsh?

Famously, in fact, the thing the module is most famous for is the fact that authors do a bait and switch on the player characters. In fact, they do it twice, but the second comes at the end of the adventure. U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is set up as a mystery and a haunted house, but where it is a mystery, it is not a haunted house. Instead, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh does something which is so utterly American it is a surprise that nobody had published anything like it before, because its set-up is actually so straight faced it is brilliant. In what has become known as the ‘Scooby Doo’ set-up, instead of being haunted, the sinister secret of Saltmarsh is that the house is being used as the base of operations for a smuggling ring which accepts regular cargoes from the ship that is the scene of the second half of U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and which has links to one or more merchants and persons in the town itself. One issue is that the Dungeon Master will need to decide who that is, but will not find about the existence of this merchant until deeper into the pages of the module itself. The smuggling ring has employed an Illusionist who has deployed his magic in ways to suggest that the house is haunted in order to keep the townsfolk away, but bold adventurers of course will not be so deterred.

U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is divided into two parts. ‘Part One – The Haunted House’ goes into some detail in describing the twenty or so rooms of the house’s ground and first floor. This is a house which has definitely been lived in, but which has since fallen into a dilapidated state of repair, covered in layers of dust, cobwebs, and damp. The descriptions have a mundane feel to them, coupled with a sense of eerie abandonment, and there are barely any monsters or combat to be had in these rooms, and with one exception, they consist mostly of spiders and insects. With elements such as footprints in the dust, creaking staircases and floorboards, and mysterious notes, the house is also creepy, an aspect that the Dungeon Master is expected to play up. The exception to the mundane monsters is Ned Shakeshaft, who has been left stripped of all his possessions and bound in one of the upper rooms. Now Ned Shakeshaft is an Assassin—in fact, a Third Level Assassin compared the First Level characters the players are expected to be playing—employed in desperation by the merchant in the town with connections to the smuggling ring to prevent the party from learning of its operations in the cellars of the house. Now he poses as a Thief, but the problem is that there is relatively little reason for the players and their characters to trust Ned and given the paranoia of most playing groups, it is unlikely that either will.

Below the house in the cellars and the connecting caves, the truth of what is going on in the ‘haunted’ house will quickly be discovered, as might be the fate of the house’s previous owner. There are smugglers moving about and signs that the rooms and passages are occupied. This compounds clues to be found in the house above and the player characters should soon find out what is going on. There is a quite nasty creature to be encountered down here, a body infested with Rot Grubs, which perhaps could have been better handled, perhaps by giving a chance for the searching players to spot signs of their infestation.

The second half of U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is ‘Part Two – The Sea Ghost’. At the end of the first part, the adventurers should not only have learned of the smuggling ring’s operations in the house, but the fact that the ring is in regular contact with a ship, the Sea Ghost. The player characters are again hired by Saltmarsh’s Town Council, this time to row out to the Sea Ghost and board and capture it. The whole of this second part is set aboard this ship and is essentially a cutting out expedition against a pirate ship. Where the first part provided plans of an ordinary house, this second part includes the deck plans of the Sea Ghost as well as a diagram of its rigging. In comparison to ‘Part One – The Haunted House’, ‘Part Two – The Sea Ghost’ is much faster paced, a climatic action-based encounter that will see the player characters facing the crew, who are as much pirates as they are smugglers. 

As in the haunted house, there are some tough opponents aboard the Sea Ghost, a Fifth Level, two Third Level, and several First Level NPCs, perhaps too tough given the fact that the player characters are First Level. That said, the notes in the modules do make clear that the adventure is designed to be played and run intelligently and that the NPCs will not necessarily fight to the death. Another oddity is that there is a Pseudo-Dragon aboard who might attach itself to one of the player characters should the NPC it is with be killed… It seems so mercenary of it! Once the player characters have captured the Sea Ghost, they will learn that the pirates are not only smuggling goods into Saltmarsh and beyond, but weapons to a nearby tribe of Lizardmen. The question is, are the Lizardmen preparing for war against the townsfolk of Saltmarsh? That is a question which is answered in U2 Danger at Dunwater, the sequel to U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh.

Although the town of Saltmarsh is not fleshed out, the two locations in both ‘Part One – The Haunted House’ and ‘Part Two – The Sea Ghost’ are well designed with excellent floor and deck plans. The illustrations are pretty much all nicely done, many depicting the abandonment of the house, though there is a split in style and feel of the artwork. Some of it feels at odds with the mundane nature of the fantasy in U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, a little too fantastic compared to the grime and grubbiness of both house and boat. Jim Holloway’s illustrations though capture that grime and grubbiness of the setting and a certain shiftiness in the NPCs he depicts.

Oddly, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is designed to played by between five and ten(!) characters of between First and Third Level. This is a lot of characters and for that many Third Level characters this module becomes a whole lot less of a challenge. Worse, the included twenty pre-generated player characters are expected to start play with a magical item apiece. This feels a little too much given how ordinary much of U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is in its play.

There can be no doubt that U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is highly regarded. In November 2004, in 116 of Dungeon MagazineU1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh was listed at number four in 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time. At the time of its publication in 1981, Jim Bambra in White Dwarf No. 35 (November, 1982) awarded it nine out of ten, saying, “…TSR (UK) are to be congratulated on their first module, the series should prove to be interesting and entertaining.” In Different Worlds Issue 20 (march, 1982), Anders Swenson commented, “While the characters in this adventure are not placed in a position where they must decide whether or not to break the laws of God and man, they are immersed in a social context where any random infractions would have to be accounted for. Furthermore, the characters are placed in a situation where they must work with the locals in order to further their tastes for adventure - this is a good source for a lot of role-playing.” before concluding that “Overall, I like The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. It is nice to explore a house for a change. If modules U2 and U3 are as good as this one they should turn out to form a solid campaign.” In the Capsule Reviews of Fantasy Gamer Number 2 (Oct/Nov 1983), David S. Turk called the mystery behind U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh “cleverly conceived”, but said, “A weak point in the module is the lack of strength in the pacing of the plot. It is too easy for a familiar "chop and slaughter" dungeon to replace the clever plot. There are too many major villains and sidekicks to keep track of, so careful dungeon mastering is needed. In conclusion, the module is a strong one. With proper dungeon mastering and an everwatchful group of player characters, this module is superior and quite enjoyable. It will surprise even the dungeon master with its creative story and twisting plot. I recommend it.”

U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh nicely combines a strong sense of naturalism with underplayed fantasy—one which actually makes the adventure really easy to adapt to other settings and genres. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay would be easy, Legend of the Five Rings can work too as would Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game. That naturalism and underplayed fantasy, situated in what feels like a real world, also serve to make U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh a truly great adventure, strong on atmosphere and mystery. 

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