Guest Review: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

Guest Writer: Shane Davis

“Desolate and abandoned, the evil alchemist’s mansion stands alone on the cliff, looking out towards the sea. Mysterious lights and ghostly hauntings have kept away the people of Saltmarsh, despite rumors of a fabulous forgotten treasure.”

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh cover

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh cover © Wizards of the Coast

So begins “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh”, the premiere module of the U-Series and the first module published by TSR Hobbies (UK). Written by Dave J. Browne and Don Turnbull, this 32 page entry- level module is designed for a party of five to ten low-level (1-3) characters. While the module is intended to serve as an adventure in two acts, “The Haunted House” and the “Sea Ghost”, it is possible for the Haunted House portion to be played as a single scenario. In either case, the adventure should prove a challenge for both experienced and novice players, alike.

The module begins with a brief introduction of the small fishing town of Saltmarsh. No maps are provided and the game master is tasked with fleshing out the town – describing the Town Council, inns, shops, areas of interest, local NPCs, and so forth. Considering that Saltmarsh is intended to be the players home base for the entire module, as well as the other two modules in the U-series, some additional details should have been provided. (Protip – The town of Saltmarsh is fully realized in Chapter 4 of D&D 3.5 Edition’s Dungeon Master’s Guide II).

Once the party has had some time to get acquainted with the local flavor of Saltmarsh, they learn of a long abandoned house overlooking the sea a few miles outside of town. The alchemist/wizard who once lived there is thought to be long dead and gone, but his treasure has never been found and to make things more interesting, tales of ghostly lights and unexplained shrieks and screams have been heard around the place for some time now. What self respecting adventurer could resist the prospect of exploring a haunted house, looking for an alchemist’s horde of gold and braving the challenge of whatever ghostly guardians may await? Of course, if your players are not motivated by greed, then you will have to do a little work with the hook for this adventure, but this is all you are given to work with.

The Haunted House is a two story building with surrounding gardens. It is well described with keyed descriptions for each room. Great care has been taken to create a sense of atmosphere in this section. Creaking floors, mysterious footprints, dark shadowy corners, mold, mildew and rotting furniture all lend themselves to give the house a suitably creepy feel. If handled properly, the players should be constantly on edge, always fearing that danger lurks around the next corner. Also, if the party is thorough in their exploration, they will begin to learn that there is clearly more to the old abandoned house than meets the eye.

The party will eventually find their way down into the cellar. If a fresh corpse doesn’t serve as a deterrent (does it ever?), those mysterious footprints the party noticed earlier lead here and continue across the cellar, ending abruptly at a seemingly solid wall. It is here where the truth of the old haunted house begins to reveal itself. The fate of the old alchemist, his laboratory, and the fact that the cellar and caverns beneath the house are now the base of operations for a small smuggling ring rapidly unfolds.

Illustration page 9

Illustration page 9 © Wizards of the Coast

Presumably laden with contraband, the party soon returns to Saltmarsh where they are received as heroes and are well rewarded by a grateful Town Council. This is the end of the first part of the module. Should the party stay in town for a few days, they will find themselves summoned before the Town Council, who have now begun to grow worried that the smugglers may seek to reestablish themselves at the old “haunted house” or seek retribution against the townsfolk. They reason that a ship must be involved in the smuggler’s operations, and hire the adventurers to aid the town in finding this ship, boarding it and putting an end to the smuggler’s once and for all.

The second act of the Sinister Secrets of Saltmarsh begins with the party planning how to ambush and board the smuggler’s ship. The town provides a small patrol boat and two NPC “excise men” to aid the party in their efforts. The party is encouraged to come up with the specifics of their plan on locating the ship, but should they prove ineffective in this, the NPCs are there to give the game master an opportunity to guide them along the proper path.

The module provides a great degree of detail on the position of the ship, its occupants level of alertness, different approaches the party can take to sneak aboard, as well as how the crew will react. Sufficient details are given to run the scenario as either a stealth mission, with the party carefully moving about from the deck down to the quarters and storerooms below, or a more swashbuckling style attack, if the party is more inclined towards hack and slash. Regardless of how the party proceeds, when the battle is won and the crew is subdued, the final secret of Saltmarsh is revealed. A large cache of weapons as well as the presence of some unexpected passengers prove to not only be a formidable group of adversaries, but also sets the stage for the second module in the U-series, “Danger at Dunwater”. In either case, engaging the “Sea Ghost” requires a lot of prep on the game masters part, but should prove to be rewarding in that it is both an intense and enjoyable scenario.

While “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh” is considered an old-school module, it has many elements found in newer gaming modules. There is a strong element of exploration, roleplay interaction, planning, strategy and puzzle solving. Combat scenarios are interestingly sparse, which is quite a rarity in modules published in the early 80s.  The recommendation of a party of five to ten characters seems to be too many, especially if the characters are expected to be second or third level by the conclusion. Perhaps a well balanced party of 5-6 characters would be more appropriate. More details on Saltmarsh should have been provided with this module and some serious efforts on the game masters part are required to bring the area to life. Despite this, “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh” has proven to have aged well and should be an engaging and fun scenario for a low level party of either inexperienced or seasoned players.

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