I've played a lot of adventures. I've never been able to easily find out what happens in an adventure without playing it. I've always wished someone talked about the adventures that they've been through, not so much a review, but a commentary. This. . . is that.
The secret really is sinister.
It's the first Dungeons & Dragons adventure I ever played. My father ran it for me, my mother, and my brother. I've run it a dozen times myself, and found myself again among the halls of the alchemists house in my adult life more than a time or two.
It's one of the great reasons for its ubiquity. It's easy to put a 'haunted' house on a map. Let's take a stroll through the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh.
This module is notable for being from "TSRUK", and contains a personal message from Don Turnbull.
So, American readers—if you find the text too flowery and florid or too plain and stilted, the structure of the language slightly unusual, the use of certain words apparently slightly offbeat, these are the reasons. Perhaps you will take solace in knowing that UK readers of all the other TSRª modules have the same reaction in reverse!
Is it an essential British trait that they would take a game about dungeons, and write an adventure about an old house up on a hill? The United States has no ancient buildings looming for a thousand years.
The Dungeon Master is instructed on personalizing the town, making it a base of operations for the players. Name the council, develop them as individuals, draw a map, design an inn, create local gods.
Then, there's the legend. The decrepit house sits up on the hill, once owned by an old alchemist around which nefarious rumors swirled. Now it's haunted—dilapidated and unwholesome. Ghastly shrieks and eerie lights emanate from within the dismal lesion marring the purview.
Spoilers for a thirty year old module, but hey, right? The house is a base of smugglers, led by an illusionist. It has a remarkable clear description of how to present the module and the core mysteries, without giving away too much.
It is paramount that the players are given no obvious clues, which would lead them to believe the house is not haunted; they must deduce the truth for themselves or simply stumble upon it. They might even wander around the house, finding a little treasure but never discovering what actually takes place there.
This module and the other two in the series are designed for thinking players. Those who tackle the adventures imaginatively and thoughtfully will not only obtain good rewards for their characters but will derive the satisfaction of seeing the various layers of the plot peel away as the real meaning of each clue is discovered. On the other hand, those who regard the House as nothing but monsterslaying territory will not only fail to unravel the secrets but will find their adventure dull and unsatisfactory; they may even lose their characters, for the smugglers, in the hands of a competent DM, should be more than a match for an unwary, careless party.
No munchkin hack & slash here! Only real role-playing.
In all seriousness, This is a well designed module. There are multiple layers to this mystery and it relies on player choice and initiative to assess what is actually going on, instead of just killing stuff because it's there. It's the kind of adventure where combat (should) happen(s) because there's an actual conflict, not just because you see something to kill. It clearly supports all the choices, with outcomes noted in the finale.
But that's not what you're here for.
What you are here for
You show up in town, ready for adventure. After taking lodging and shopping for a bit, you hear a legend about a haunted house up on the hill. If you decide to investigate, then you get introduced to a member of the town council, who has an interest in your decision to 'stamp out a local menace'. The council member makes no specific promises, but mentioned rewards—perhaps, say, something for doing a public service.
When the party sets out, they are accompanied by a slew of townsfolk, urchins, and hangers on. Amusingly, they retire shortly after the house pulls into view.
It sits atop a cliff, behind a 6' high stone wall, with a heavy ornate great. To the east is a well.with a softball pitch of a snake that has sleeping venom.
The house is obviously two stories, although there is a secret third underground "level", leading down to the coast at the bottom of the cliff. The house is laid out in a chunky upside down T. The front door opens into a big central room, with a staircase going up to a balcony you can see, with hallways leading to the west, east, and north wings. It's a great vertical and non-linear space!
While exploring, you'll find rats, goblins, and other vermin as you would expect in any kind of standing structure. Tracks for observant players show some frequent foot traffic. Let's explore!
The stairs to the second floor hang over a passage to the east. These leads to empty and dilapidated rooms. To the west lies the library of the alchemist, a study, and a trapdoor leading to the basement trapped with a magic mouth that says:
"Welcome, fools -- welcome to your deaths!" followed by a prolonged burst of insane and fiendish laughter.
The passageway to the north contains two events of note, there's a beat up "withdrawing room" which I assume is british for lounge. In addition to detritus there is a chimney. If examined, you find a loose brick, concealing a small chest, along with a spider that sets down beside you. The default poison causing 'enfeebling' for 1-4 days, rather than any authentic risk.
The other event of note is that when you take the first step to descend into the basement, there's a wicked howl of shrieking pain, triggered by a magic mouth.
The upper floor is unstable, and more than one player character has died by falling to his death through unstable flooring. Another deadly chamber lies to the west, with an unassuming closet, filled with a cloak covered in deadly yellow mold.
Upstairs to the east, lies unstable flooring and a very subtle clue, that I think frequently goes missed until later in the module. This is the room where the smugglers can see the approach of the ship and signal it. More interesting is Ned Shakeshaft, a prisoner who is actually an assassin. He's supposed to mislead them, in the interest of a merchant who profits from the smuggling operation.
You can reach the attic, and get attacked by stirges as your reward.
The Main Event
Eventually the characters man up and brave the depths beyond the magic mouth spells, and head down into the basement.
This leads to a very memorable encounter. There's a corpse on the floor in a suit of FULL PLATE MAIL! This is a great moment for your fighters, immediately before they die from the rot grubs infesting the body.
There's a secret door in the wine cellar, and sooner or later the party will encounter the smugglers, which include their illusionist leader, along with several gnolls. There's a great illustration of the illusionist, hitting a party with the color spray spell.
Having discovered the smuggling operation, the town council conceives of a plan, where you assault the Sea Ghost and end the smuggling operation once and for all.
The party has a number of options for assault, giving them the opportunity to strike in the dark, or engage in open combat aboard the floating vessel. A terse, exciting, and possibly deadly battle occurs on the deck of the sea ghost. Looting the vessel lets them discover a slew of prizes, not the least of which is a pseudo-dragon looking for a Wizard to bond with, and the fighter thief aquatic elf "Oceanus".
Once complete, a few days pass, until the council becomes curious why such primitive creatures as lizard men would seek the arms and armor from the forges of men? Is the town of Saltmarsh at risk of attack?
I guess if you want to find out, you'd have to play Danger at Dunwater, but that is a different tale.
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