RPG Review: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh


We're currently working our way through The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh in our AS&SH game. It adapts pretty well and at a later point I might write up about adapting the series. This post however is simply a brief review of the adventure itself. If you're in my group it's probably best to hold off in reading this until we're done, though I'd not be surprised if some or all of you have played or run this in the past, as it is a fairly common adventure from the 1st edition...

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is an adventure from the UK branch of TSR, copyrighted to 1981. It has a bit of a different feel from most adventures of the period. It has a bit of a heavier plot than most adventures back then - it's not like later adventures which sometimes go so far as to render player decisions moot. Rather it has a set of NPCs with their own agenda who aren't likely to sit waiting for the PCs to arrive.

Saltmarsh is a two-part adventure as well as being the first adventure of a trilogy. In it, the adventures visit the town of Saltmarsh. It is designed to be a fishing town like that of 14th century south-coast England. Near the town is a "haunted house", once the home of a sinister alchemist.

As it turns out, the haunting is a sham. The ill reputation of the house is being used by a band of smugglers who mainly operate out of the basement and cave system under the house. The house itself is poor condition, with creepy giant spiders living in chimneys and stirges in the attic. The illusionist leader of the smugglers has used magic to reinforce the reputation of the house.

The second half of the adventures deals with the PCs investigating a sailing ship which transports cargo to and from the smugglers in the house. There's a crew of nasty smugglers, some lizard men passengers receiving a weapons shipment, and an imprisoned aquatic elf. In previous play the second half can be rather dangerous - the boat is small and once the smugglers become aware of the PCs it can prove a very dangerous environment.

For the most part I like this adventure. Nominally set in the World of Greyhawk setting, it is easily adaptable to other settings. I like the fact that the NPCs all have their own agendas - for example, a member of the town council, upon learning that the adventurers are planning on investigating the house, quickly puts together a plan to hinder them, as he is doing business with the smugglers.

I did find the links between adventures to be a bit rough. The only real clue that the PCs receive about the smuggling ship is a scrap of paper with shorthand for light signals to communicate with the ship. It's very tenuous and in actual play I've found it an easy clue to miss. Typically, I've found it works better to have a logbook the smugglers use to record their meetings as well as the possibility of interrogating prisoners. Similarly, the next adventure deals with the fact that the lizard men on the ship are arranging a weapons shipment to their nearby lair. I've often found players miss this clue, just figuring the lizard men are part of the crew. I've found it best to add extra evidence in the form of logs as well as the aquatic elf prisoner being able to provide additional information.

With those caveats, I've found Saltmarsh to be a good low-level adventure. In our game, the characters are 1st level, albeit with a single prior adventure that didn't quite get them to second level. I'm guessing it will be threes sessions to complete - two to cover the haunted house and a third to handle the smugglers' ship.

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