“Four miles east of Saltmarsh, just inland of the old coast road and looking out to sea, stands the Haunted House. Until twenty years ago it had been the residence of an aged alchemist/magician of sinister reputation, and even then had been shunned by reason of its owner’s mysterious occupations. Now, two decades after the sudden and unexplained disappearanceof its occupant, the house has acquired an even greater air of evil and mystery with the passing years.”
-The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, pg. 3
The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh was written by David J. Browne with Don Turnbull and was published in 1981 by TSR’s UK division. It’s an excellent introductory module, designed for levels 1-3 and filled with enough twists and turns to keep the players guessing.
This was another of our go-to modules back when I started gaming. The haunted house aspect gave it a different flair from the other dungeons we ran and the mystery gave the adventure extra allure. If you’re not familiar with this module you may want to give this review a pass, as the titular secret is an important part of the scenario and there will be spoilers ahead.
You have been warned.
The adventure focuses on the abandoned mansion of an evil alchemist who vanished 20 years ago. Stories of mysterious lights appearing in the house, coupled with unearthly shrieks and other hauntings, have caused the people of Saltmarsh to shun the building. These tales are bolstered by locals who are all to eager to share stories of their narrow escapes from ghosts or vampires, especially if prompted by a few pints of ale. However there is also speculation about the missing alchemist’s wealth, which may still be hidden somewhere inside.
With a crumbling mansion on a cliff high above the sea combined with legends of lost treasure and evil spirits the setup is worthy of a Hammer horror film. However the true secret of the mansion is much more prosaic. The house is not haunted, it is the shore base for a group of smugglers who are lead by an illusionist. He uses his spells to perpetuate the myths about the house.
The mansion’s map is well done. The upper floors are creepy enough to keep the party on edge, a sensation bolstered by the illusionist’s spells. In true old school fashion the layout offers several ways to explore the house, and two secret ways to access the hidden lower chambers where the smugglers have their headquarters. Also within the lower halls is a sea cave where the smuggler’s ship can be found at anchor.
“You have entered a room which is so unlike anything else you have seen in the House that for a moment you pause, somewhat taken aback. The illumination here is good since several lighted torches are held in shoulder-high brackets around the walls. This was obviously a cellar, but equally obviously it is now used for an entirely different purpose; your first impression is that it is the living quarters for about ten people.”
-The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, pg. 11
I have never failed to get a rise out of the party when they discover the truth about the house. The twist from Hammer horror film to Scooby Doo caper is what makes this adventure unique and memorable. It’s a fun mix of exploration and mystery with several fine additions thrown in, such as a room barricaded by the smugglers that contains some of the alchemist’s creations or the hidden laboratory where the alchemist’s final fate can be discovered.
The writing in the adventure is flowery and verbose, even compared to adventures written by Gary Gygax. I enjoy this and it makes the adventure fun for the DM to read. Unfortunately it also spills into the boxed text.
A note about that; unlike many in the OSR I am not against boxed text descriptions in modules. My friends and I didn’t learn D&D from older players, we were 12 and 13 year olds who figured it out on our own. As such, boxed text was helpful in teaching us how to describe things to our players. That’s what good boxed text should do, help the DM give the players an evocative description that also allows them to make decisions.
What boxed text should not do is tell players what their characters are doing and that happens a lot in Saltmarsh. Frequently the text tells the players not only what they see, but how they react to it, or how they approach it. For example, in one case the text assumes that the adventurers enter from the hallway and makes no sense if the characters are coming down the back staircase. However this is a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent module.
Aside from being a good adventure, Saltmarsh provides opportunities for further escapades. With its sturdy construction, secret chambers, and hidden sea cave more than one party has decided to turn the mansion into a base of operations. Some have restored the structure and lived there openly while others have picked up where the smugglers left off, especially if they capture the ship intact.
The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh was written as a lead-in to a three module series that includes Danger at Dunwater and The Final Enemy. However it is perfectly fine as a stand-alone adventure. If you’re looking for a classic module that combines traditional dungeon crawling with an interesting twist I recommend tracking down a copy. It’s available in .pdf from www.dndclassics.com and print copies shouldn’t be too hard to find.