Ramping up my reviewing.
Happily playing games for many, many years.
The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is considered to be one of the true classics of AD&D adventures. Published in 1981, it was the first adventure released by UK designers - the “U” of the series code standing for United Kingdom. A short while later, we’d actually get a series of “UK” designated adventures, but this was back in the days of single letter series codes.
Written by Dave J. Browne with Don Turnbull, the latter being the managing director of TSR (UK), the module begins with the party exploring a “haunted” house. In fact, the house turns out to be a hide-out for smugglers, who have made it seem like the house is haunted in order to conduct their business undisturbed. The second half of the adventure takes the group aboard the smuggler’s vessel, where the crew must be overcome and the ship taken.
The adventure takes especial note of setting and story, so much so that it actually loses out on actual adventure at times. My favourite low-level module for D&D is The Keep on the Borderlands, which gives you an idea of how old-school I can be, and The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is almost the polar opposite of that adventure: Keep gives you a lot of encounters and lets you fill in personality and plot, whilst Saltmarsh gives you a lot of personality and plot, while skimping out on the encounters.
Consider this, in the first seven pages of describing the haunted house, we manage to get all of six combat encounters in 24 areas. Beneath in the smugglers’ caves, there are eight smugglers, their leader, and two gnolls. Combat-heavy this adventure isn’t!
Instead, you spend most of the first half of the adventure exploring a mostly-empty house, with a number of traps and hazards to break up any monotony that might be experienced. What’s great about this is that it really reads like a haunted house should read: a lot of nothing (although normally nicely described nothing), and a few scares thrown in every so often. When you discover a clump of tiny red mushrooms growing around a fireplace in a semi-circular formation, it heightens the paranoia of D&D players; especially those who are attuned to the often “save or die” style of play in old D&D adventures. (The mushrooms, in fact, are just mushrooms).
The action is more prominent once the group reach the “Sea Ghost”, the smugglers’ ship. Well, sort of. 12 smugglers and 3 lizard men will oppose the characters, including a 5th level fighter, and two 3rd level fighters. Aiding the party are a 2nd and 1st level fighter, sent by the village council to aid in the taking of the Sea Ghost. It’s entirely likely that this will become a pitched battle on the deck of the vessel, with reinforcements for the smugglers arriving throughout the battle. It should be noted that the smugglers count a 3rd level magic-user amongst their number who possesses the Sleep and Web spells. It is entirely likely that the players might find their adventure cut short once one of those spells is cast.
Exactly what levels of experience this adventure handles is a little unclear: 5-10 characters of levels 1-3 allows for a rather large range of levels, especially as there is a big difference in the combat capabilities between level 1 and 2 characters in AD&D. The module’s text indicates that a group of 1st level characters should reach 2nd level within the course of this module, assuming they don’t perish of course! Winning initiative and having magic-users with the Sleep spell prepared seems the best way of winning combats aboard the Sea Ghost. Of course, eight characters with two NPCs aiding them might just be able to overpower their opponents. It’s going to be tough in any case.
One of the actual things the Sea Ghost section shows quite well are the limitations of the AD&D rules. The group have to actually get on board the Sea Ghost, but how do they do that? They have to row out, hopefully undetected, and then climb aboard the ship - perhaps aboard along the anchor chain. Or bluff their way past the smugglers and have a rope-ladder lowered down to them (the bluff is automatically detected after three make it aboard). A few percentage numbers are thrown about for their chances of success, but much of it comes down to how kind the DM is feeling; it’s not like the rules have much to help him adjudicate chances.
The strengths of The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh come from how real the entire thing feels; unlike Keep on the Borderlands, there isn’t much suspension of disbelief required as to any portion of the adventure. In addition, the adventure makes great use of secrets and hidden motivations. It’s not a haunted house - it’s a base for smugglers. Who are the smugglers working for? That’s another secret. It’s an adventure that unfolds as it plays, and this continues through into its sequels. There are always more things to learn, and it’s this structure that put it firmly in the ranks of the great adventures.
However, I have decidedly mixed feelings about it all: there’s just too little in the way of actual challenges here. Actually, it’s the right amount for the adventure as presented, but, for a 32-page adventure, the characters are only just going to reach 2nd level - if that - by its conclusion. Having all the awesome detail makes for great reading, but it is one of the slenderest adventures for first level I’ve seen.
The greatest accomplishment of The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is how it opened up the world of adventure design for later adventure designers: at last, we had a good example of how to write an adventure where plot and character were tremendously important; we could do more than just include death-traps and monsters. For that, it is justly hailed as one of the greatest of adventures.