Tuesday, July 12, 2016

U1. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

So, I've been looking closely at 1st ed. AD&D lately to try to see if I can find out why this edition of the game has so much appeal to me—i.e., is it truly as good as I remember it, or am I unreasonably nostalic for the Old Days.

One thing I came across in the process is an unfinished piece I'd been writing for the WotC website  which from internal evidence dates from sometime in 2001.

I'd done introductions for Julia Martin over on the web team, who were making available for the first time ever official e-publications of some long-out-of-print, near-forgotten modules: the original version of B3. Palace of the Silver Princess; the EX-series of Gygax's Alice in Wonderland parodies; L2. The Assassin's Knot (a personal favorite), and I10. Ravenloft II: The House of Gryphon Hill.  I'd been working on a fifth piece in the series which remained unfinished for one reason or another; I no longer remember if the series was cancelled or if it was because WotC and I parted company that summer (or both).  In any case, I greatly enjoyed writing them, and from comments I've seen about them on the web I gather that a fair number of people enjoyed reading them, so thought I'd share this fragment of the unfinished piece.

U1. Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

   Some modules are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness trust upon them.

   Such is the case with the U-series—U1. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (1981), U2. Danger at Dunwater (1982), and U3. The Final Enemy (1983), all written by Dave J. Browne with Don Turnbull. Certainly U1. Saltmarsh made little splash when it first appeared twenty years ago,* far less than others released that same year.[Note 1]  It was published, sold moderately well—certainly enough to justify completing the series by publishing the 2nd and 3rd modules in their turn—and then faded from view. It was never reprinted in a compilation, unlike the Assassin series (A1–4), Hickman's Desert of Desolation (I3–5), Gygax & Schick's S1–4, Gygax's original Giant series from the dawn of time (G1–3, itself later incorporated into the giant-drow-underdark series GDQ1–7 by Gygax & Sutherland), or the massive B1–9. In Search of Adventure.[Note 2]  Instead, it slipped into the oblivion that overtook many another good module of that era as the old inevitably made way for the new.

   In the case of the U-series, however, many years after they had slipped out of print interest in these three adventures was revived when they came to be inshrined in the 'Greyhawk Canon'. Interest in Greyhawk—Gygax's original fantasy world, predated only by Arneson's Blackmoor as the original D&D dungeon—spiked after the GH product line was cancelled in 1993 after years of mediocre sales.[Note 3]  This cancellation galvanized fans of the setting, who scanned every adventure closely for any details it might add to their ever-growing database of the game-world, or any corners it might fill in the none-too-crowded map. Collectors began to offer higher and higher prices for out-of-print modules from the early & mid '80s—not just rare items like the original printing of Lost Tamaochan but those which harkened back to what could now be idealized as a 'golden age'.[Note 4]  Chief among them were the generic AD&D 1st edition modules that, by default, were set somewhere in Greyhawk. Since the U-series had been loosely set in Greyhawk (via a single sentence on page 3 of U1 saying where to place it within the setting), it shared in the GH revival and rose considerably in fans' estimation long after the fact.

   Aside from the cachet they have enjoyed in recent years as part of the classic 1st edition GH canon, do these modules have any other qualities to recommend them—any qualities inherent in the adventures themselves?

   The answer is, yes indeed, quite a lot. For one thing U1 was the first module to actually give the layout of a haunted house. Prior to 1981 there had been dungeons and castles aplenty, and exotic settings from an ice-cavern to a spider-ship sailing through the Abyss, but no one had actually drawn a floorplan for a mansion.[Note5]

   Second, the second stage of the adventure shifts from the old mansion to a sailing ship, and here again U1 broke new ground, giving deckplans for the first time—an immensely useful and lootable part of the adventurer that got reused time and again in homebrew adventures for years thereafter.

   Third, U1 was one of the first adventures that made a serious effort to play with its audience's expectations. Certainly some earlier modules had contained surprises, discoveries that revealed new dimensions as events unfolded (most notably the revelation that a previously unknown race of elves known as drow were the moving force behind the giants' depredations in the G1–3 series). But, by and large, before U1 any time player characters heard about a mysterious haunted house (or tower, or castle, or dungeon), it was a pretty sure bet that when they arrived there they'd find it chock-full of undead—skeletons, zombies, wights, ghosts, whatever. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh changed all that by being downright sneaky: not only was the 'haunted house' not actually haunted,

—and there the text breaks off, followed by two notations

14th cent. English touches.
The UK series (TSR UK)

the draft text ends slightly differently:

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh changed all that.[Note 6]  DMs everywhere now had

the associated notes with this, also unfinished, reads

Note 6. B3, published the same year . . .

The notes are as follows

Note 1. Notable among them being B2. Keep on the Borderlands (the single best-selling rpg module ever), L1. The Secret of Bone Hill, X2. Castle Amber (inspired by the works of Clark Ashton Smith), the launch of the I-series, the reissue of the original Giant modules as G1–3. Against the Giants, the completion of the A-series (A2, A3, A4), and the relaunch of D&D (3rd edition, by Moldvay and Cook, split for the first time into two boxes—'Basic' and 'Expert').

Note 2. Actually this last should properly have been entitled B2–9, since B1. In Search of the Unknown was omitted from the final compilation due to a contract dispute, although the maps accompanying the adventure were inadvertently included.

Note 3. Not revived until five years later, with 1998's Return of the Eight, although an on-line community remained active and vocal in the interim. With the advent of Third Edition D&D in 2000, Greyhawk has once again become the default background in which all generic D&D products are set.

Note 4. Three of these that were in greatest demand by the mid-'90s were the original I6. Ravenloft, T1–4. Temple of Elemental Evil, and the H-series (H1. Bloodstone Pass, H2. The Mines of Bloodstone, H3. The Bloodstone War, and H4. The Throne of Bloodstone).

Note 5. The closest challenger I can find to this claim is Jim Ward's short adventure 'The Mansion of Mad Professor Ludlow', published the preceding Halloween in the October 1980 issue of Dragon magazine, a very odd D&D adventure in which the PCs are modern-day boy scouts exploring a mad scientist's lair. Judges Guild published House on Hangman's Hill by Jon Mattson sometime in 1981, but I have been unable to find out whether it preceded or followed The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh into print. Since other appeared at roughly the same time, it seems clear that neither had any significant influence on the other.

This unfinished piece was written in 2001; 
hence the reference to U1's having been published 
'twenty years ago' would now more accurately read 
'thirty-five years ago'. Similarly, the reference in one 
of the notes to Greyhawk's now once again being the default 
world setting should no longer be in the present tense.

As for where the half-finished piece wd have gone from here, it's clear that I intended to at least mention the English fishing village setting with its attempt at a bit of realism, with excise men rather than generic town guards. Unfortunately this is undercut by the local village being severely undeveloped. Given the amount of time the PCs are expected to be spending here, making it their home base while exploring the area, you'd think they'd have at least named some of the local notables, such as the one who hires the PCs to investigate the nearby haunted mansion, or another town notable who turns out to be in cahoots with the enemy. I also clearly meant to say something about TSR-UK, a semi-autonomous branch of TSR that probably seemed a good idea at the time but is remembered today primarily for the hapless FIEND FOLIO (1980). And I can't imagine I'd have failed to mention some of the interesting ideas that emerge in the second adventure in the series, where alliances can quickly shift when those assumed to be enemies turn out to be potential allies against a greater foe. The ancient leader of the lizard men is a memorable character, but the iconic moment comes when the characters, in the midst of a raid on what they think is the enemies' lair come across two toddlers who are essentially baby monsters: an alignment-defining moment that I think was designed to reign in hack-and-slashers.  

In any case, such was my never-finished piece. I hope you enjoyed this brief visit to the past.

--John R.
current reading: 1st ed. PLAYER'S HANDBOOK

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