Wednesday, October 22, 2014

U1 Alliterative Secret of Saltmarsh

Not as sinister as you might think.
I haven't had much to say for a while which has me thinking that I may need to obsess about an old module again.  But for the time being I feel that I've plumbed as much as I can from the depths of Hommlet and Restenford; perhaps I'm ready to move on to some new old material.  Which is why, over the weekend, I dug out TSR Dungeon Module U1: El Siniestro Secreto de la Marisma, first of the modules to come out of Merry Ol' Inglaterra back in the 80s.  This oldie but goodie is famous for giving the PCs the opportunity to roll up to a haunted house in their own Mystery Machine and play the role of meddling kids who foil the plans of the nefarious bad guys.  Extra points if you split up the party. 

As I recall from my run through this module as a youth my old chum Byron the Chaotic was at the helm--he was the go-to module guy in our group. Though without a significant town component to the adventure--more on this later--the chaos factor barely cracked the Richter Scale.  Also of note: my halfling fell through the floor and died early-on in the affair.  Then my replacement character, a feeble MU born with only 1 hit point, bought the farm on the Sea Ghost in what would end up being a TPK; a fairly typical outcome of that encounter I'm told.  
Now this looks sinister.

But on reading U1 now, 82 years later, the module exudes a sense of missed opportunity. Whatever points this thing earned for Goth and Gloom and all that Britishy stuff it loses because of one crucial, glaring, egregious oversight that will forever keep Saltmarsh off the list of super-awesome mega-raddest modules of all time: despite all the action that's supposed to go down in the town of Saltmarsh, the authors didn't bother actually creating the town.  

The module pretty much demands that you interact with numerous townspeople including members of the town council, the local guardsmen, and some idiotic poacher, meanwhile insisting that the townsfolk stonewall the party for a few days before they set out for the haunted house. Indeed, the text of the module indicates that the PCs should be dealing intimately with parties in the village not just at the outset of the adventure but repeatedly throughout this and future adventures. For all that interaction between town and dungeon locale you'd think they would have accommodated the DM by actually providing a friggin' village!  Nope. And by not including so much as a map indicating where the town is in relation to the haunted house, the module design actually discourages the DM from engaging the town at all.  

Compare this to T1 where the moathouse and the nearby village need not have any interaction whatsoever; if you cut the module in half and handed the moathouse portion to one DM and the Hommlet portion to another DM, neither would know that he was missing any material.  And yet no one has ever once taken a run at the moathouse without first dallying at the Inn of the Welcome Wench. 

Now, at least one optimist will tell you that the town of Saltmarsh is "given glorious life through its many NPCs". Reviewers of this ilk are obviously more imaginative than I, cuz in my opinion just saying that there's a "web of intrigue" in a town that exists in name only doesn't actually do much to conjure said web. There's no map, no NPC descriptions, no names of establishments to visit... sigh. What there is in great quantity is wasted potential  because even some very basic info on the village and its denizens would have given the DM's creativity some traction to get started. Instead the authors hand you a clean slate and tell you to get to work. Don't get me wrong, I can deal with a clean slate; but I like modules for the opportunity to see other people's ideas on adventure, not to do homework. 

Furthermore, given that at least 4 pages of the module were occupied by meaningless fluff that was clearly intended to do nothing but fill space--2 full-page illustrations--unheard of in TSR modules at the time--as well as the moronically pointless visual aids on page 31 and the entirely blank page on the back of the worthless visual aids, not to mention the out-sized plan and section drawings of the ship that fail to occupy the entirety of the tri-fold jacket maps--there was easily enough room in the book for the authors to squeeze in at least a rough depiction of a town had they been inclined to provide such.  With little effort they could have tightened up the dungeon maps on the jacket leaving enough space for a 1 page map of town. And they could've ditched the space-wasting illustrations, instead providing a keyed list of significant locations, and maybe a table providing summary info on a few prominent NPCs: names, titles, maybe some useful stats, and a tidbit of info. Something like "George Weasly, Human, MU2, shopkeeper at Zonko's Joke Shoppe, twin brother of the Ostler at the Three Broomsticks" could easily have fit into the space vapidly occupied by the aforementioned fluff. 

Instead, the DM is asked to prepare the town "quite thoroughly" and to "be guided by any small south-coast English fishing town of the 14th Century and with a population about 2,000."  A few factors our friendly modulists failed to realise:
  • In 14th c. England only 8 towns in the entire Realm had a population of more than 3,000, and that's including London.  A village of ~2,000 people would have cracked the list of top 20 largest metro areas in the land; this is not a small town.  By way of comparison, the 19th and 20th largest metro areas in England today are Stoke and Wolverhampton.  Which is to say, a town of 2k in 14th century England might very well have supported the Medieval equivalent of a mid-table Premier League soccer team--excuse me--football club.  By the standard of the time, a town of the recommended size would have been a regional cosmopolitan center, not a sleepy backwater. 
  • Making this guideline even more ridiculous: we are informed that Saltmarsh is a significantly smaller town than the neighboring towns of Burle and Seaton.  Needless to say, there were no urban clusters of this nature along the shores of southern England in the 14th century on which to model your sleepy Saltmarsh.*
  • Far more important than either of the previous two points: at the time U1 hit the market the maximum population of municipal areas in D&D modules was about 300 (see: the Keep [B2, 1980], Hommlet [T1, 1979], and Restenford [L1, 1981]; the soon-to-be-published towns of Garrotten [L2, 1982] and Orlanes [N1, 1982] were also in this neighborhood).  Could you reasonably expect amateur DMs who just paid money for an adventure so that they wouldn't have to prepare one on their own to now go ahead and "quite thoroughly" design a friggin' town that is 6-2/3 times larger than any town the professionals had yet produced?  With all due respect to Messieurs Turnbull and Browne: if you didn't think creating the town was worth the effort then why should we?    
Which is why, without exception, every DM who ran this module back in the day skipped all the published hype-material and kicked this thing off by reciting the following:
"Your party is walking along a road when off in the distance you see a run-down house on a cliff overlooking the sea."
*  According to the Wikicensus of 1377 Plymouth (pop. 1700) and Exeter (pop. 1560) were the two largest towns on the southern coast of England though the Black Death of 1348-49 probably brought these numbers down a fair bit from the first half of the century.



Ifryt said...

Detailed description of Saltmarsh appeared at last in Dungeon Master's Guide II for D&D 3.5 in 2005. But frankly, it is not the town we imagined running U1.

Mphs.Steve said...

I've got some fond memories of this module and the U series in general. I have to agree with your assessment that the module would have been better if the town of Saltmarsh was fleshed out or at least mapped considering how integral it is to the plot of the module. As for the town size not matching up with history, I recommend avoiding the urge to reconcile D&D demographics with real world Europe of the Middle Ages. We are talking Greyhawk here which was originally just a map of the United States. In Gygax's mind, a town had a populace of 1500 to 6500 so, by that measure, at 2000 Saltmarsh would be a small town. A location with a population of 300 isn't even big enough to qualify as a village, it is a hamlet by Gygaxian standards.
I have to disagree with your closing “without exception” statement. I bought U1 when I was 13 and the DM for the neighborhood group that I gamed with was 14 so we aren't talking seasoned gamers. We started off in town, broke into the town archive trying to find blue prints for the haunted house and, once we were rolling in gold, some of the PCs chipped in to convert the haunted house into a home for retired seamen. It probably helped that our version of AD&D was essentially a Western in Medieval drag. We knew what a frontier town in the average John Wayne movie looked like (Main street with saloon, shops & residences on either side). You just put a wall around that & added the harbor from Moby Dick or Jaws and you had our Saltmarsh. Also, we lived in the Southern United States so the environs & people in and around Saltmarsh were more coastal Louisiana & Mississippi than coastal England.
I think with some mood & cosmetic adjustments that the U series could have a real Lovecraftian feel & could even work as a CoC scenario. It would also work for Meddling Kids, Cartoon Action Hour or Simon Washbourne's Lashings of Ginger Beer since U1 has that Scooby Doo feel.

Timrod said...

Personally, I'd be shocked if the authors of U1 were using the word "town" within the parameters of Gygax's stringently quantified demographic terminology. Rather, my assumption is that Browne and/or Turnbull were extrapolating what constituted a small town in developed nations of the late 20th century backward onto 14th century England without adjusting for population growth over the intervening years. In their defens(c)e, medieval population statistics were a lot harder to come by before the internet puked them out for jerks like me to cherry pick for our own despicable purposes.

Otherwise, I'm right with you: I've always played D&D as wild west in fantasy medieval drag. The real Middle Ages with their pervasive, dogmatic religion and equally pervasive, dogmatic feudalism was too odd of a concept for me to digest as a kid and probably still is now. And Saltmarsh, even though we didn't "play" the town back in the day, has always been to me an amalgamation of several low-tide scented fishing villages along the coast of Maine and Nova Scotia that I visited as a kid.

Mphs.Steve said...

D&D is definitely not very feudal aristocracy. It has the titles but the whole way a fighter becomes a Lord/Baron by looting/killing, clearing some land & building a castle rather than by blood inheritance is more cattle baron than medieval baron. I actually prefer it that way too. I've played games like Chivalry & Sorcery where the system cleaves closer to history and, while I enjoyed the trip, I found my characters being trapped by their social status annoying.

Leon Baradat said...

I know I'm coming way late to the party, but I recently ran this adventure for the first time (for my kids, as it happens), so I got interested in seeing what people had to say about it. You're absolutely right that the omission of the town is a huge failing of this module. Still, my biggest beef with it is that it insisted the DM should go out of his way to make the house seem creepy and spooky everywhere, and yet the descriptions of the rooms and hallway are completely devoid of spookiness. It goes right to a standard dungeon-crawling atmosphere, and the DM is supposed to just fill in all the spookiness on the fly.

I think what should have been done with this module was to split parts one and two into separate modules. U1 with a detailed Saltmarsh and actually spooky rooms would have been a fine module on its own. The second part might have been harder to expand out to 32 pages, but a rich detail of the area could have been added to bring the hunt for the Sea Ghost to life. Some detail could also be added to avoid handwaving how the party spends several days in town before being summoned by the council. Splitting the module would also allow part 2 to be rated higher, reducing the incidence of TPKs from parties who took U1's level recommendation seriously.

JasperAK said...

Slight tangent here. I recently saw a cutaway map someone did of Holmes Sample Dungeon (Tower of Zenopus), and I instantly thought of the White Cliffs of Dover. I wonder if this module could could fit in with the minimal information we have on Porttown.

Timrod said...

This sounds cool. Got a link?