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Advice on how you can write great adventures - from the company that has published more than 200 top-notch adventures!
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The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

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"Favorite Adventure" Essays

Over the past several weeks, we have published a lot of essays about "favorite adventures." The contributors to this project are all great adventure designers who have in turn been inspired by the adventures that came before them. As one of the features of this Kickstarter, we asked them to describe their favorite adventure modules, and what they've learned from them. So far, the designers of How to Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck have contributed their thoughts on all of these adventures:

Today we continue this series with Chris Doyle's favorite adventure: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. If you've read Chris's adventures published by Goodman Games over the years, this probably comes as no surprise. But there's a double-message here. Today's update is by Chris about an adventure he loves. And tomorrow's update is by Bill Olmesdahl regarding an adventure he loves...that was written by Chris! You'll have to check back tomorrow to find out what it is. For now, here is Chris Doyle on The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (which many of us remember fondly, I'm sure)...

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

By Chris Doyle

One of the best early adventures I recall reading and being inspired by was U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. This classic was published in 1980, but I probably did not get my hands on it until 1982 or so. It was the premiere adventure from the United Kingdom: it said so right on the cover! This was a well designed adventure balanced for low-level characters, and I had the pleasure to run it several times at my table. Yes, it had a Scooby-Doo feel to the plot and setting (even the cover art seemed to be inspired by the classic cartoon opening), but when you are 12 years old, somehow that seemed fine. And I’ll admit, Scooby-Doo episodes have inspired some of my adventure writing over the years.

The adventure was divided into two parts. The first part featured a “haunted house.” I use quotes because it’s not really haunted, but instead was used by a band of smugglers as a hideout. The encounter design was simple, but elegant. You will not find hordes of humanoids to overcome, but instead well-designed tricks, traps and a poisonous snake in the well. Yup, I lost a favorite PC to a snake bite on my first go around as a player. It was the perfect set of challenges for fledgling characters, plus enough investigation to keep their interest. The final encounter in the sea caves below the house features an illusionist as the Big Bad Guy. To this day, I’m fond of illusionists and have played my fair share over the decades. The haunted house section flowed right into part 2, The Sea Ghost.

The Sea Ghost was the smuggler’s ship moored off the coast. I could not get enough of the three plus pages of special notes about the assault on the ship. It was so open ended! There were no 10 foot wide corridors that limited your decisions. And the maps! Deck plans that would inspire me for years (or I would swipe as needed for other adventures), not to mention the longitudinal section and rigging diagram. I thoroughly enjoyed the extra detail given to the crew and the NPCs, including the different treasure each generic smuggler carried. It was a dynamic setting where the smugglers moved around and were not tied to a particular location. The Sea Ghost encounters also featured investigation such as the hidden rooms, an aquatic elf prisoner, and the lizard men. This included plenty of hooks to get the PCs to the next adventure, U2: The Danger at Dunwater. Personally, I’ll never forget the pseudodragon that latched on to our party’s ranger, and shared many further adventures.

I drew many inspirations from Saltmarsh. First, it was refreshing to have an adventure not set underground. Yet the haunted house and the ship were still compelling locations full of excitement and “things” to do. It really gave me a different perspective on adventure locales and how the plot could be weaved into them. One of my early RPGA adventures was a haunted house, but it was “not really haunted.” Second, the use of tricks, traps and investigation fascinated me, which inspired me to feature similar themes and encounters in some of my own adventures. The player handouts were simple, yet effective, and I remember begging my Mom to use the photocopy machine at work on that page of the module so I didn’t have to rip it out of my book. Third was the unique NPCs with just enough details to make them stand out and be remembered. And fourth is the aquatic setting. Not only did we get a ship setting in U1, but U2: Danger at Dunwater was in the swamp, and U3: The Final Enemy was an underwater sahuagin lair!

Take a look at many of the adventures I have penned over the years, and there is a good chance at least part of them feature water encounters. That’s what you get when you spend 20+ years as an aquatic biologist during the day, and an adventure author at night. True Story: a few years ago when getting ready to run a playtest of my adventure Fifth Edition Fantasy #6: Raiders of the Lost Oasis (which is set in a desert, by the way), I gave my players (some of whom have gamed with me for decades) the option to outfit their PCs with a limited selection of magic items. Pick one item from list A, one from list B, and 2 potions from list C. The players knew the setting was a desert, and for chuckles I included a potion of water breathing on list C. Four out of five players took a potion of water breathing, expecting some kind of shenanigans from their GM. Of course, they didn’t know that you start the adventure captured without equipment, but it was fun nevertheless to see them agonize over a water breathing or healing potion.

My adventure DCC #7: The Secret of Smugglers Cove was a direct homage to U1, right down to the title, the mansion, and the sea caves. DCC #11: The Dragonfiend Pact prominently featured a well, and yes, there was a snake at the bottom! The pseudodragon encounter added as a second thought eventually became a featured NPC and even graced the cover. I recall Joe saying, “Dragons on covers sell books! Can you expand that encounter?” Even Castle Whiterock has a “hidden” underwater level. Many of my most recent 5E adventures feature water encounters as well. But most recently, FEF #8: The Eye of the Leviathan features a coastal fishing village (complete with sea cliffs) and an assault on a pirate ship. That ship, The Black Orchid, was directly inspired by The Sea Ghost.

So, was U1 the best adventure module? Probably not. For one thing, a fully designed village of Saltmarsh would have been ideal. And perhaps a few more combat encounters in the upper levels of the haunted house would have hit the sweet spot. But there is no denying this is a classic, and I’m guessing I was not the only RPG author to be inspired by the sum of its parts.

Chris Doyle began freelance writing in the game industry in the early 1990’s through volunteer efforts with the Role Playing Game Association (RPGA). He has since freelanced for several companies such as TSR, West End Games, Wizards of the Coast, Atlas Games, and Goodman Games. Although he has designed and contributed to RPG source material, the majority of his projects have been the design of adventure modules. He has penned adventures for the 2nd edition, the 3rd edition, 3.5, 4E and 5E for the world’s first fantasy RPG game.

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    1. Goodman Games 23-time creator
      Superbacker
      on

      @Jussi: You are correct that the "memories" assembled here definitely trend toward fantasy, and that's probably a reflection of the authors (many of whom worked for TSR or who have largely worked on fantasy since then). But there are some essays that deal specifically with other genres within the book, and I think most of the advice is applicable to other genres. Though you will have be the final judge!

    2. Jussi Myllyluoma
      Superbacker
      on

      I must admit that all this reminiscing over various old classic AD&D adventures (and misadventures) is really fun to read, not to mention nostalgic for someone who, like myself and many others here, has been into RPG's since the late 70's/early 80's.

      But it has also solidified a trend that has made me begin to wonder if this book really is for me...

      If I were to write an essay about my favourite classic RPG module — well, sure, something like the original Ravenloft might be a strong contender — but I am fairly certain my final choice would be much more likely to be one of the classic adventures for Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, or Traveller. Or perhaps James Bond. Or another of the half dozen-or-so games we played in our gaming group back in the 80's.

      My point being, from the example lifted forth in these essays, it seems this doesn't so much aim to be a "How to Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck" in general, as a "How to Write AD&D Modules That Don't Suck" in particular.

      Am I mistaken in this perception? And if so, will we see favourite modules from other games, and genres, before this Kickstarter is done?

    3. John Warren on

      I was looking for an adventure to run this weekend, You have inspired me. I will run DCC7 for them.

    4. John Warren on

      I love U1! That and B1 were my first experiences with D&D, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. The haunted house was great, but I totally agree that it could use one more combat encounter to keep things interesting.

    5. Julian Tysoe
      Superbacker
      on

      I think Saltmarsh was the first scenario I played, in about 1984. We didn't get very far as we ended up trying on my friend's knitted chainmail and attempting to spear each other with bamboo canes in the garden...