Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Retrospective: Danger at Dunwater

Released in 1982, Danger at Dunwater is the sequel to The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and the middle adventure in the trilogy of U-series modules. Indeed, action picks up almost immediately after the events of its predecessor, which makes it quite easy to use at the table. Equally significant is that the module encourages and rewards thoughtful play, just as Saltmarsh did. Writer Dave J. Browne (with assistance from Don Turnbull) is to be commended for having penned another module that is quite unlike anything else being produced for AD&D at the time. The praise that this series of modules has thus received over the years is, in my opinion, quite well deserved.

Danger at Dunwater hinges on some curious clues discovered during the course of the previous adventure. While tangling with the smugglers besetting the town of Saltmarsh, the player characters discover evidence that, in addition to their other illicit activities, the smugglers were selling arms and armor to lizard men. The characters even uncover a map that indicates the location of the lizard men's settlement. Once Saltmarsh's ruling council learns of this information, they become alarmed, assuming that the lizard men, whose settlement is located at the nearby Dunwater River, are preparing to march against them. Alarmed, they ask the PCs to investigate the truth of this and, if necessary, deal with the looming threat to Saltmarsh.

What then follows is a short trek through the marshland in and around the Dunwater, where a few low-level threats lurk, such as giant snakes and bullywugs. However, the bulk of the adventure takes place within the lizard men's fortress. There, the characters encounter a lot of lizard men, who are quite prepared to defend their lair. Among them, the characters also find females and children, in keeping with the generally naturalistic tone of the U-series modules. Of course, this fact might also prick the consciences of all but the most bloodthirsty adventurers – and it is, in fact, supposed to do so. 

The central "trick" of Danger at Dunwater is portraying the lizard men not as monsters but as intelligent beings with whom the player characters might parley and from whom they might learn something. If they undertake this course of action, the PCs soon realize that the situation is not as the people of Saltmarsh fear. Yes, the lizard men are arming themselves in preparation for war, but it is not a war against the people of the village. The only reason the lizard men are now occupying this fortress is because they have been driven out of their original home by the evil sahuagin. Now, the lizard men are forming an alliance with other coastal and sea-dwelling races to launch an attack against the sahuagin and reclaim their homes.

This is certainly an unexpected turn of events, or so I recall finding it in 1982. At its start, Danger at Dunwater looks to be yet another low-level module where the characters are tasked with eliminating the encroachment of human lands by monstrous humanoids, as in The Keep on the Borderlands. In reality, it's something quite different, as a conversation with the lizard man chief and his aged advisor soon makes clear. The lizard men originally did not believe humans would be much use in their fight against the sahuagin. After seeing their effectiveness in battle firsthand, perhaps an alliance with them as well might be in order, thereby setting up the action of the third module in the series. Before that can happen, though, the characters must turn over any treasure they took from the lizard men and pay weregild for any lizard men they slew before realizing the truth. How's that for unexpected?

Like The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater is a module that turns many Dungeons & Dragons adventure assumptions on their heads. The result can be satisfying, but, even more so than its predecessor, the success of this adventure depends on how quickly the characters recognize that things are not at all what they seem. It's also possible that some players might feel cheated by having the metaphorical rug pulled out from under them, not to mention the loss of treasure (and money) to assure a positive outcome for Saltmarsh. I think that's certainly fair, though it's been my experience that most players enjoy being surprised and Danger at Dunwater offers that in spades.


  1. Loved this adventure back in the day- still do. I've re-skinned Saltmarsh/Dunwater a few times and given the lizardmen (or their stand ins) a different foe. It's a solid plot which isn't a railroad- PC actions can have wildly different outcomes for lizard men & human of the area.

    First time I played it I did end up attempting full scale slaughter (I was probably 9-10 years old) and suffered tpk. Took me 3 attempts to grok the real situation.

  2. U1 was my introduction to D&D back in 1983 so I have huge nostalgia and fondness for this series...definitely stands the test of time.

  3. U1 might be my all time # 1 fave published D&D adventure, but I didn't care for the continued plotline in U2 and U3 as a young man and never used them. I instead have used U1 as an intro to the Slavers series.

  4. The only adventure I DMed where success involved not cleaning out the dungeon of its inhabitants. U2 does include a bunny slope for the morally inhibited, but as there is much treasure and adventure left on the table when the characters hew to their good alignment, it does feel like a miss.