Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Retrospective: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

My UK readers may or may not be aware of the bipolar relationship most Americans have with their homeland. For some, anything British is a priori good and, more than that, possessing an excellence so in advance of anything possible on this side of the Atlantic that they've managed to convince themselves that The Benny Hill Show must have hidden depths. For others, anything British is a priori bad and, more than that, exhibiting a pretentiousness of such a powerful sort that it's bamboozled a large number of young men into believing The Meaning of Life is actually funny.

In my experience, talking about any of the AD&D modules produced by TSR UK in the 1980s always runs afoul of these two contradictory points of view, with some people enamored of them simply because they're British-made and others disliking them for precisely the same reason. For myself, I found these modules to be, as one might reasonably expect, a mixed bag, with module U1, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh being one of the best low-level modules ever written for Dungeons & Dragons. I can't say for certain that there's anything "distinctively British" about it other than its spellings and vocabulary, but I don't think that matters much: its excellence transcends its origins.

What really stands out about U1 are two things. First, it takes the standard low-level D&D tropes -- an isolated town beset by problems appropriate for 1st-level characters to deal with -- and gives them a new spin. The town of Saltmarsh itself is given glorious life through its many NPCs, including criminals in league with smugglers who are using a nearby abandoned reputedly haunted mansion as their base of operations. What's terrific is that the mansion is not in fact haunted at all but is only made to appear so through the use of illusion magic and other trickery. The vast majority of the enemies the PCs face initially are in fact human, which puts the module very much in line with the traditions of pulp fantasy.

The second stand-out element of the module is the very matter-of-fact way it portrays a fantasy world. That is, U1 simply takes it as given that that the D&D rules describe the nature of the world and then goes about logically drawing out the consequences of such a description. The result is neither a low-magic world nor a world where magic becomes ersatz technology but rather one where magic is uncommon but potent and often used in clever ways. Likewise, humanoid races, like lizard men, are portrayed as being both intelligent and intelligible without falling into the trap of making them either cardboard cut-out mooks or misunderstood creatures hard done by human villainy.

In short, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh comes very close to taking Gygaxian naturalism to the next level by teasing out the implications of what a world where the D&D rules apply might look like. Combined with the low-key nature of the module's central mystery -- criminals using a local legend as a cover for their activities -- I find it hard not to gush a bit about this module myself. But I do so because it's a superb example of adventure design and not out of Anglophilia. Really.

37 comments:

  1. I recently "acquired" a pdf of this very module a month or so back. With my OD&D campaign at an end, I decided to create a simplistic AD&D1e campaign centered around this very module.
    Reading what little background info on the town of Saltmarsh there is to be had really got my creative juices flowing.

    With less than two weeks of prep time, I created a 3-deity mythos for the campaign world, outlined the NPC's of the town council, & charted out the kingdom in which the 3 towns are located.

    I have to tell you, I don't know what it was, but something just "got me" about the adventure. Our first game was last Saturday, with the company containing a Human MU, Human Fighter, Human Thief, & a Dwarven Shieldmaiden (my finacee).

    They didn't really get too far, with half of our time going to character creation & re-familiarizing ourselves with the meat & potatoes of AD&D.
    They did, however, enter the house through the back door, the MU failing his throw vs. the first magic mouth by the trash pile, & running like hell all the way back to town. Seriously, he had to be virtually dragged out of his room at the inn to rejoin the party!

    After that, they kind of breezed through the majority of the first floor (never did encounter the spider or the centipedes, though) & down it was to the basement! With the MU shaking like a leaf at the second programmed verbage (I threw in an Amityville style "Get Out!" just for my own twisted amusement), they encounter the corpse of the warrior at the bottom of the steps. The thief attempts to pick the corpse clean, but the rot grubs throw a serious wrench into his plans. With the assistance of the party, he survives, but only barely.

    Finally, with the grubs dead & the corpse stripped to the bone (sorry...), our intrepid band of heroes high-tail it back to Saltmarsh with loot in tow...

    All in all, a great time had by all. Our next game is set for the 28th of this month. Certainly one of the best starter modules I've ever had the pleasure of running; quirky, pulpy, & unique. If they manage to make it through U1, I might have to give U2 a try...

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  2. I can't say for certain that there's anything "distinctively British" about it other than its spellings and vocabulary, but I don't think that matters much: its excellence transcends its origins.

    I disagree. I think that the good British AD&D output had a distinct feel:

    1. The adventures tend to be strongly grounded in their setting. The adventure is part of the world - it isn't secreted away in a distant dungeon.

    2. The UK stable of writers had a much defter touch for sliding the wondrous and magical into the fabric of the AD&D world.

    3. Those wondrous aspects of the world are spiced more with the tone of Dunsany and Moorcock than the typically REH/Lovecraft flavored tone of American designers.

    Mind you, I'm comparing TSR UK's output to the rest of TSR. I think the differences are less marked comparing them to, say, Jaquay's work for Judges Guild.

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  3. A great module indeed. I recommend combining it with L1, using 'Restenford' for 'Saltmarsh'.

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  4. This was my introduction to the world of RPGs way back in 1983. I have such great and vivid memories of my 12 year old self playing through this. By far, the strongest of any adventure I've played in...though, perhaps, largely because it was my introduction to the this marvelous world. Yet, the memories are so strong it feels almost like I was actually there! I've spent the years since trying to recapture that feeling of wonder.

    Oh...and I'm British. But this doesn't really influence things. I never really liked any of the other UK modules other than the Saltmarsh ones. That said I do find that in general Brits prefer a grittier fantasy more rooted in the history (and myth) of this green and pleasant land rather than the more REH influenced S&S style of the US. Huge generalisation, of course.

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  5. I really have to get these modules (U1 and L1). I know it from Melan, that two of my childhood's favorite hungarian fantasy novels were inspired by these modules. :-) The author was a player of a half orc fighter/cleric (CE?), and so the novel's main character. Melan has firsthand knowledge on this, but according to him, the DM used these modules. (By the way, these guys brought Howard, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, and many others to Hungary)

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  6. I played through this module at least 3 times, with the most recent playing about 2 years ago. I really liked U1 as a first level adventure. I did not like the other two in the series, nearly as well as I liked this one.

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  7. I am currently running Saltmarsh as a weekly chat game on Dragonsfoot - 6 2-hour sessions played so far, and the PCs just encountered (and captured) their first smuggler, after painstaking exploration of the upper mansion levels. It's a classic site/exploration based module, and I'm having a lot of fun running it. Next game tomorrow (Thursday 12th Feb)! Anyone around 8pm-10pm GMT (3pm-5pm EST) is welcome to drop into the C&C chat forum on Dragonsfoot.org and see us kickin' it old style. :)

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  8. L1 is a free download on WotC's D&D site BTW.

    I think Mike Mearls makes some good points above. Saltmarsh has an earthy (salty?) sort of atmosphere you rarely see in US adventures. And it avoids the Grimdark trap that ensnares a lot of UK fantasy output. I think Turnbull & co got it just right with this one.

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  9. My opinion of U1 has slid downwards over the years. In retrospect, I think the introduction of the "Scooby Doo" trope (supernatural haunting is not real, but a human deceit) is a cause for mischief in the fantasy world. Players become unable to heed warnings. World-builders start assuming the "fake trick" thesis first, and "actual supernatural" less often.

    ...the next level by teasing out the implications of what a world where the D&D rules apply might look like.

    This, too, I think is an enormous peril. Long-term it leads down a road to a game-world that is an entirely self-referential, nonsensical abstraction (as we have in fact seen in recent publications). Today I'm a strong proponent of putting the desired game-world first, and making a commitment to tweaking rules on an ongoing basis to support that.

    I know a lot of people get enormous enjoyment out of U1, and for that I'm very glad.

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  10. First off, I went searching for the pdf download of this from WOTC and stumbled across this,
    http://www.ob1knorrb.com/Saltmarsh/saltmarsh.pdf,
    which is evidently an adaption of U1 for HARP, which is kinda cool.

    Secondly, U1 made a pretty good impression on a lot of people. Whilst I know its "new school" and everything, the 3.5 DMG II, uses Saltmarsh as an example setting, including details of the whole town from stem to stern, for those of us too "lazy" to do that on their own.

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  11. What's terrific is that the mansion is not in fact haunted at all but is only made to appear so through the use of illusion magic and other trickery<

    Man, I really wanted to say "and I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for those lousy kids" but somebody already mentioned a Scooby Doo reference. Damn.

    Monty Python was my favorite as a young man, but it's not holding up for me. Maybe I've spent too many hours standing in camping pass lines at the Ren Faire listening to a couple of douches endlessly doing routines and references. People who go to conventions can probably relate (except for the dudes in line doing the skits). Meaning of Life is pretty bad now. Benny Hill still rules! Timeless!

    I should say something about the module, but instead I'm going to hurry over and get the free pdf...

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  12. I acquired this module only recently... I'll have to take a harder look at it. I'm planning on using only published modules in my neophyte campaign, and if this module's so good maybe it'll get added to the To Run list.

    BTW: "Tropes??" *sigh* I swear, it's starting to annoy me so much that I lose a little more hair every time I see that word misused... :P How did this accepted meaning of the word creep into the gaming community to begin with?

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  13. Delta: -I think the introduction of the "Scooby Doo" trope (supernatural haunting is not real, but a human deceit) is a cause for mischief in the fantasy world. Players become unable to heed warnings. World-builders start assuming the "fake trick" thesis first, and "actual supernatural" less often.-

    My mind somewhat boggles at this. You're saying there's no place for misdirection in fantasy? That using it once will cause players to assume it foevermore? Really? In a world where the supernatural is demonstrably real? That sounds way out there to me.

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  14. Blotz - pity the 3.5 DMG2 Saltmarsh is a super high powered Forgotten Realmsian sort of place entirely unuseable with the U1-3 trilogy.

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  15. Sometime around 20 years ago I ran a really great scenario (I think a Marvel Conan comic inspired me) where the mid-level adventurers came across a village of people turned to stone. The players shit bricks for half the game, fearing the medusa that lurked around in the trees and foliage.

    It turned out that a local crazed sculpter scared everyone in town away, using dingy robes and a mask that he attached small living snakes to. Having spent a year making a couple of dozen crude statues to build on the legend, he was finally found out (after they entered the "lair" that also had a few false traps and fake monster tracks) and unmasked.

    I can't remember another time when I had the supernatural turn out to be a hoax in my games, but that turned out to be a very memorable session. Mostly role play, barely any combat, and they didn't even have to kill the villain. The players really dug it, but did not go on to think everything else they encountered was a hoax. It was just a great little side adventure.

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  16. I feel about U1 about the same way I feel about DL1 and I6 (Ravenloft)... Well done products that started a lot of trends that I really hated.

    With U1, the trend I did not like is the aforementioned 1st level "Scooby Doo" adventure. (A term I thought I coined, but apparently not.)

    Basically, I sense there was some feelings that 1st level adventures needed to be toned down from the examples set by B2 and T1, but the designers didn't want to bore the players with the mundane, so you create a fantastic situation, with a mundane solution. Don't want 1st level characters to risk their necks against an actual ghost, don't you know.

    U1 isn't actually a particularly bad example of this, but it was the first of many to come.

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  17. You're saying... using it once will cause players to assume it foevermore? Really? In a world where the supernatural is demonstrably real?

    Absolutely. U1 stands as a 1st-level adventure that introduces players to a world where the supernatural is demonstrably unreal. First impressions especially set the tone for an entire campaign.

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  18. You know, I've never understood why you guys like Benny Hill so much.

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  19. I've never understood why you guys like Benny Hill so much<

    Lots of sexism and elderly abuse. The American way.

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  20. "and I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for those lousy kids"

    that was beautiful.... :)

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  21. As a UK module, I think B10 Night's Dark Terror is far better, especially since it is really a sandbox campaign in about 64 pages.

    Of course, it doesn't get any respect because it wasn't "Advanced".

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  22. Hey Inaki, B10 is probably my favourite module of all time.

    I also love UK4. Hell, most of the modules in the UK series are gems (except UK5).

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  23. I'm so glad you like this module! I liked most of the adventures from the UK (whether "official TSR" or not) but Saltmarsh holds a special place for me as a quality design.

    Damn, I'm feeling all nostalgic now. :)

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  24. I have a whole bunch of modules, but U1 is the only one I can recall with misdirection. And the misdirection is of supernatural origin - an Illusionist! And there are undead in the mansion; they just aren't the cause of the 'haunting'.

    U1 is somewhat less lethal than B2 perhaps, but there are plenty of opportunities for a TPK. Take a look at the stats of the Sea Ghost crew. The captain is Fighter-5 with over 40 hp; in an adventure for 1st level PCs. He has a bunch of 1st-3rd level crewmen. Not to mention the spellcasters.

    Comparing Saltmarsh to the havoc wrought by Dragonlance and Ravenloft does not sit well with me.

    Anyway, it is setting just the naturalistic, low key tone I was looking for for my new Greyhawk campaign. I'm sick of OTT villainy and world-smashing apocalypses.

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  25. That said I do find that in general Brits prefer a grittier fantasy more rooted in the history (and myth) of this green and pleasant land rather than the more REH influenced S&S style of the US. Huge generalisation, of course.

    There's certainly something to this and I know quite a few people prefer the generally darker tone of British fantasy. Of course, part of that is because a lot of American fantasy in the 80s and 90s was high fantasy Tolkien rip-offs, whereas I get the distinct impression that Tolkien didn't have as big of an impact on British fantasists.

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  26. And it avoids the Grimdark trap that ensnares a lot of UK fantasy output.

    I certainly agree with this. I think U1 is such a good module precisely because it presents a "low" version of AD&D without wallowing in gloominess or grit. That's frankly quite an achievement.

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  27. This, too, I think is an enormous peril. Long-term it leads down a road to a game-world that is an entirely self-referential, nonsensical abstraction (as we have in fact seen in recent publications). Today I'm a strong proponent of putting the desired game-world first, and making a commitment to tweaking rules on an ongoing basis to support that.

    I can certainly respect this point of view and, on some days of the week, I even share it.

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  28. BTW: "Tropes??" *sigh* I swear, it's starting to annoy me so much that I lose a little more hair every time I see that word misused... :P How did this accepted meaning of the word creep into the gaming community to begin with?

    Far be it for the guy who's been trying to convince people that "dice" is the singular form as well as the plural to say so, but I wasn't aware that this vernacular usage of the term was controversial.

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  29. U1 isn't actually a particularly bad example of this, but it was the first of many to come.

    Not that I doubt you, but could you cite a couple of subsequent examples? U1 was in fact one of the last modules I ever bought (I never owned U2 and U3), so if there was a trend toward this style of adventure later, I must have missed it.

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  30. Hey Inaki, B10 is probably my favourite module of all time.

    I also like B10. It's a little more heavy-handed in the plot department than I like -- it has some pre-set "scenes," if I recall -- but it's a very solid example of late module design.

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  31. Anyway, it is setting just the naturalistic, low key tone I was looking for for my new Greyhawk campaign. I'm sick of OTT villainy and world-smashing apocalypses.

    That's my general estimation of it as well. I really do think it's a terrific module, but I'm open to being convinced I've somehow missed some crucial flaw in its design.

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  32. We played our 7th 2 hour chat session last night, as the PCs descended the steps past the secret door and encountered the main body of the smugglers...

    After 6 low key episodes tangling with spiders & centipedes, this turned into a massive knock-down, drag out battle as the PCs ambushed 3 smugglers in the tunnels, then were blasted by a Colour Spray from an invisible illusionist - one PC failed save and thus missed the rest of the fight, much to his annoyance. After a massive melee with smugglers, spellcaster and charmed gnolls the heroes triumphed. However the neutral-goodly NPC Cleric with them is very unhappy with their preemptive use of lethal force, and is likely to quit the group.

    It's still going great. If I have any complaint, it's that the module seems rather treasure heavy - possibly due to 1e's heavy training costs? The PCs have already amassed ca 2400gp of treasure between them, not counting the 2 +1 rings of protection and +1 platemail.

    And that's without the 500gp *each* the Saltmarsh town council preemptively rewards them with, per the next section. Which seems a bit much when 2gp buys a mercenary heavy infantryman for a month! Think I may have to cut that, 200gp each would still be generous IMO.

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  33. U1 is one of my favorites. I like the whole sequence. I know that the author of this blog favors location-based modules over heavily plotted ones, but U1-3 hit a sweet spot for me.

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  34. Martin TideswellJune 18, 2012 at 5:01 AM

    An absolute classic. My first adventure back in 1983. The rest is history. This game hooked me on AD&D. I have since played and DMd it several times. Stands the test of time.

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  35. This is one of my favorites as well, I'm teaching my 11 year old to play, and this is the one I'll be starting with...since she loves mysteries.

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  36. Is it just me? Or does anyone else listening to the song by the group Genesis named "Home by the Sea / Second Home by the Sea" get flashbacks to this module? lol

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  37. agreed. Be very wary of the "Monty Haul" dungeon syndrome. Don't be stingy, but at the same time, be careful not to let them get too rich too quickly. Useful items preferred over cash. Low ball the value of the items back in town if they seek to cash out.

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