Tag Archives: Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

Reskinning Saltmarsh

Riffing on my review of The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh I got into a discussion on how this adventure would be easy to reskin for other genres. Without further ado, here are some of my ideas.

1. Call of Cthulhu – This one is simple, as the setup for Saltmarsh is practically a 20’s pulp adventure already. The smugglers are gangsters running alcohol who have hired a down-and-out stage magician to rig up the hauntings that keep people away. The alchemist’s hidden lab remains practically unchanged, with the addition of a mythos tome. Otherwise the mansion remains mostly the same.

But since this is Call of Cthulhu we need to add some hooks. Something is wrong with the hooch being brought in by the smugglers. Some people who drink in the speakeasies supplied by the gang seem to go mad and even experience physical mutations. The gangsters captured a few of the worst cases, fitted them with cement overshoes, and sent them to sleep with the fishes. Unfortunately those individuals came back to shore. The gangsters now have them locked in the zombie room.

The rum is being stored in a cave underneath the alchemist’s lab. Magics from his experiments have seeped down into the cavern and infected the alcohol, which has begun mutating certain sensitive individuals into Deep Ones.

The sea elf prisoner on the ship is replaced with a deep one hybrid who has a psychic connection with sea life. The ringleader of the smugglers forces the hybrid to use his powers to allow them to avoid coast guard patrols.

2. Sci-Fi – This one is for Stars Without Number or Traveler fans. The mansion is a derelict research station in deep orbit that was once the property of a private research firm. Rumors say that the crew was killed when something they were working on got loose; a biological weapon, a killer robot, or out of control nano-technology. A former employee for the company claims to have discovered a shutdown code in the now defunct company’s files and is looking for a crew to salvage the stations data core. There are megacorporations who will pay good money for any files remaining in the station’s data core.

Unknown to the players, the threat was neutralized long ago and the station is now being used as a base for space pirates. The alchemist’s lab can be the station’s dormant AI, or a locked down cryo-statsis unit storing inert genetically engineered monsters. This could lead to an unstable alliance between the party and the pirates should the insane AI or the inert creatures be unleashed.

If you are playing Star Frontiers the sea elf prisoner should become a Sathar, alive but in stasis. A live Sathar would be worth more than the entire station and all its contents, if the players can get it to the right person.

3. Cyberpunk – The mansion is turned into a data vault that once belonged to a criminal syndicate. The mob was broken up decades ago but their intranet is still running, protected by an AI armed with high powered black ICE. Rumors on the dark web say that more than one decker has had their mind fried trying to run the node. However the party’s fixer has information of interest to the party. The old gang had blackmail material about one of the team’s powerful enemies. If that information still exists it would be in their old data vault and if the team could recover it, they’d have a powerful weapon against their enemies.

The vault was protected by a dangerous AI, but what they don’t know is that the AI was taken offline a few years ago by enterprising hackers. The vault now serves as a virtual information bazaar where world class deckers come to store and sell their illegally obtained files. Anyone who gets deep enough into the VR environment to discover this will find a very upset collection of capable deckers who will be quick to protect their secret.

Should the AI be brought back online it will determine that anyone it finds inside the data vault is an intruder and will unleash its countermeasures to eliminate them.

4. Pulp Adventure – Another relatively straight forward conversion, this time set during WWII. The mansion is a front for a Nazi spy ring. Or move it to the 60’s and use the KGB.

The hook for the players would be a series of sabotage incidents at factories in the region. Throw in the disappearance of an allied agent and the kidnapping of a senator’s son or daughter (to replace the sea elf) and you’ll have ample reason for agents to investigate the mansion.

It’s likely this will end up being a straight forward raid by the agents on the spy’s lair. For an added twist, as the battle plays out, have something get loose from the alchemist’s lab. Perfect for swerving the adventure from conventional secret agents into Delta Green territory.

5. Role Reversal – The characters are the ones charged with keeping the Sinister Secret, be it a speakeasy or an OSS base in occupied Europe. Let the players come up with ways to perpetuate the scary rumors that keep curious people away. Make them try to spot enemy agents or federal officers and find ways to throw them off the track.

Or the group of meddling kids and their dog.

They may also have to deal with anything they find still hidden in the basement chambers. Or which comes crawling up out of the sea, answering the call of something inside the mansion.


Do you have any classic modules you’ve reskinned for other games? Any more ideas for Saltmarsh? I’d love to hear about them.


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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Cyberpunk, Fantasy, Gaming, Horror, Science Fiction


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The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

“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 and print copies shouldn’t be too hard to find.




Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Fantasy, Gaming, Reviews


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