Monday, November 14, 2011

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

I haven’t had much time lately to concoct compelling fantasy role playing universes, so in order to get my role playing back on track I decided to dig into some published modules and source material (which I have oodles of around the house). The first adventure that I decided to run was the classic Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (U1), one of the favorites of my youth. It tells the story of a spooky haunted house and what is really going on inside of the abandoned manor on the outskirts of the remote fishing village, Saltmarsh. Originally published for 1st edition, I decided to run it for 3.5 since that is the version that most of the players know the best. I saw that there were some 3.5 conversions of it out there but I figured I know enough about D&D to convert it on the fly. And besides, the whole point of a module was to save myself some time. Additionally the 3.5 Dungeons Masters Guide II has an example of a premade city, which just so happens to be Saltmarsh. So plenty of stuff for me to draw on.

The main reason that I am generally not into modules is that they require the players to follow a somewhat linear path, which is not really the way that I enjoy playing the most. Sure, I will lure the players in with hooks but I really like when they just sort of pursue the agenda that they are most into, which is usually killing things, rejecting authority, and then looting all the corpses that they have left behind. And yes, I actually play with adults. But it’s a lot of fun. So my hesitation in running a module is that they would break from it right away. But the Sinister Secret is a well thought out adventure and I though that they would be into it. And they were. At least the first half of it.

The Sinister Secret is actually the first in a series of three related modules (the U series of old D&D) but I planned from the beginning that I only wanted to run the first. The following two (Danger at Dunwater and The Final Enemy) are a little too heavy on dungeon crawling and require the party to act nobly in order to progress the story and I knew that was not going to happen. So I modified some of the background info and made the haunted house of Saltmarsh stand on it’s own as an adventure. For example; the smugglers are working closely with a merchant in town rather than selling weapons to lizardmen or sahaugins or whatever it is that they are doing in the published module. This way it can all wrap up neatly and the party can move on.

The module is broken up into two sections; the first is the investigation of the “haunted house” and subsequent uncovering of the smuggling ring; the second part is the taking of the smugglers boat with the help of some townsfolk, ultimately smashing the smuggling ring for good. The party that I played with had zero interest in the second half of the adventure. They knew that the boat was out there, but did not seem to care about it one way or the other. In fact, they never even told anyone in town that the house was actually filled with smugglers and not ghosts! Instead, they came back to town with some gold and confirmed that yes, the house was haunted and the townsfolk should continue to stay away from it. Hmm, I did not expect that. What it came down to was a desire to head off to a bigger city or a place with more opportunity. They came out of the house with some strange, and valuable, items like a skull made of solid gold and an apple that was also solid gold. They knew they couldn’t get good value for them in the small fishing village so they were on their way to greener pastures.

It has been a long time since I have run a 1st edition module and some things really jumped out at me as to how the game has evolved over the years. One of the most interesting involves the nefarious waghalter, Ned Shakeshaft. Ned is planted in the house to slow down the party, ideally he joins the party under the guise of being a thief that was waylaid when he came into the house and at some point attacks the party after earning their trust. Now, the way that the module is written makes it so that there is really no way for the party to prove that he is up to no good. Which I thought to be really odd and strange. First off, what sort of adventurers are not going to suspicious of this guy? His story sort of adds up, but come on? The text of the module says, “ will not be possible for the party to unmask Ned simply.” He is well prepared to answer their questions and has a somewhat plausible story to tell them. Ultimately it comes down to what the party wants to believe and how they want to act towards him. It is sort of forcing the party into a metagaming role, I think. Basically, there is no mechanic to determine if he is lying or not, nor is there one to represent Ned’s obvious skill in weaving a tale to tell. Now, of course, 3.5 D&D has a mechanic for this. Sense Motive vs. Bluff is all about this. As it happens one of the party has a very high Sense Motive and used it in this situation (unfortunately for them Ned had a high Bluff and the party wound up buying his fishy story). I think I prefer this way. One of the other characters firmly believed that Ned was up to no good, but sort of fell in line when the investigator character said that Ned was on the up and up. This is a more accurate reflection of a character’s in game skills than just letting the player’s decide what is happening. I think it also encourages better roleplaying in the sense that the party will then have to play along with their perceived view of Ned, even if it is what they, as players, do not believe.

The adventure is designed for character levels 1-3, which is really nice. There seems to be a dearth of cool, low level modules that provide a decent challenge. However, it is also written for 5-10 players! Wow. That’s a lot of players. Again, it’s a reflection of the early days of D&D when a much larger group would gather for the game and probably play for an entire day. I’ve done the big group thing and I’m not much of a fan of it, but it was easy to alter it for a smaller group (four players). I do like the premade characters in the back of the book, especially Megaron the Bold and Gerald the Seeker. Who would name their character Gerald? Also strange is Caine the Despised, the Cleric/Magic User with a 17 strength and 10 intelligence. I see why he is despised.

One other aspect of the module that was top notch was the artwork. It wasn’t just generic fantasy work pulled from a neutral source, but actually detailed drawings of what was happening in the module. I thought that it was great and actually helped me understand the setting better since I could actually see what it was supposed to look like. An excellent inclusion.

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is a really solid adventure. The plot is well thought out and makes a lot of sense. It is not just a group of bad guys hiding out and stocking up on magic items, waiting to be killed by adventurers and looted of their booty. It is through no fault of the module that the party did not follow it through to the end, they just had a different agenda. Which is really the beauty of D&D. The players can go anywhere and do whatever they want. And on that note, it’s on to Greyhawk! Which I am totally geeked about.