“Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh” (pt 1)

n.b. Warning! This recap (and the next two) contains spoilers for U1 – The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (and the 5E adaptation in Ghosts of Saltmarsh).

 ‹Recap for Session #5 (played [remotely] 4/25/20)›

The fishermen enjoying the benefits of a bountiful catch do not look up when Thron walks into The Snapping Line, and even Alston barely gets an odd look, but when the hulking Rollo walks in followed by the turban-wearing Nora, several conversations stop and the adventurers all get a look up and down from the regulars. Luckily, however, the joy of the catch and the spirits being happily shared in the common room make the locals return to their revelry. The innkeeper—a zaftig middle-aged woman in overalls named Hanna Rist—sees the party over to a table in the corner and fetches them drinks and a bowl of the evening’s mystery meat with brown gravy. Rollo thinks it’s delicious! They book a pair of rooms to share for a couple of nights, while Lertol settles Muffin in the stable and then joins them (he’ll sleep on the floor of one of the rooms).

Invited to sing some songs or tell some stories by the innkeeper, Alston is happy to oblige, and the fishermen cheer when they don’t have to listen to Old Charley’s croaking voice and accompanying concertina yet again. Everything is going well until, singing a modified version of the ballad he wrote about Elzid and Erilyn, Alston is interrupted by a brusque drunk. Ole Wimpy Bones (as they would later learn he is called by locals) is flush with drink and during a quiet part of the song he says too loudly, “Why dontcha go visit that ol’ haunted house if ya like skeletons and ghosts and all that stuff so much! FAH!” Spittle flits over his cracked thin lips and dribbles down his chin. He wears ragged clothes and looks nearly emaciated. Despite probably being in his 30s, he looks much older, an effect reinforced by his sagging jaundiced skin, his rheumy eyes, and his many missing teeth.

Everyone in the common room stops talking and the music dies just as suddenly. The crowd glares at the drunk, and as the chatter in the place slowly begins again, the innkeeper admonished the man for spreading tales and a couple of his “friends” hustle him out the door telling him to go sleep it off. The adventurers’ interest is piqued, however. Even if the claim of a haunted house is not intriguing enough, the crowd’s reaction to it coming up certainly makes it seem mysterious. When asked about everyone’s reaction, Hanna explains that Ole Wimpy Bones isn’t a popular figure in the area. A liar and a drunk prone to poaching people’s traps, his drinking only got worse after he claims he saw some kind of ghosts at the old haunted house about four hours march east and north of the town. She goes on the explain that the house has been abandoned for nearly three decades and that it is the kind of place kids dare each other to approach. The townsfolk tend to be superstitious, and while most people dismiss the stories of the house—which according to legend once belong to a mysterious alchemist—there seems no point in provoking something on the off chance there really are undead spirits there.

Alston has to know more, so declaring his intentions to go after Ole Wimpy Bones, he takes off, and Rollo decides to follow to keep his little gnomish friend from wandering the night alone. They find the drunk down by The Empty Net, a tavern they were warned to avoid. He is being rousted out of there as well, and looks like maybe he’s vomited on himself, which is not all that much worse a smell than the fetid air around the tavern, which hangs out into the bay, held up by posts. The drunk also looks as if someone has dunked something over his head and he has bruises on his neck from where he’d been roughed up. As the gnome approaches the man holds out his hand. “Have ya got some silver? I’m thirsty!” Rollo hangs back when the man’s demeanor changes to fear upon spotting the big ugly barbarian.

Alston agrees to give Ole Wimpy Bones a couple of silver pieces if he’ll talk about the house. The gnome never loses his smile despite the man’s smell. A little more sober than before Wimpy seems reticent at first, but the thought of the mead he could buy with the silver loosens his tongue. He explains that a few months back he’d been hunting in the area of the old house, checking some traps he knew were often set around there and decided to see if there was anything valuable in the house. He had once heard stories of the alchemist keeping a wine cellar and “Well, I get thirsty a lot!” He went in the back door which led into the kitchen and from there into the scullery where he found stairs down into the basement. However, before he had even reached the stairs a terrible howl came up from the darkness followed by a rush of ghostly sailors. He fled and did not look back.

Alston peppers the man with questions about the house and the town, getting some more info, but as patrons leaving from or arriving to The Empty Net keep stopping to look at them strangely, the two adventurers decide to go on their way. The sight of an approaching town guard who looked like he was about to question them as to what they were doing standing around in the street at night also moved them along.

The next day the companions explore the town some. Nora, Thron, and Rollo spend some time wandering the local markets to pick up some new gear and then grab food for a picnic, hanging out by the docks down the way from The Empty Net. Thron hopes to find word of his friend Bob, which is who he had come to town to look for. He knows Bob is something of a gambler and The Empty Net is the most common place for wagers and games of chance in town. Nora is inquiring after her contact, a money launderer and private banker named Butchie. The problem is she doesn’t know exactly where in town to find him, as she was simply told to seek out “where the rod meets the staff.” Rollo comes along because he has nothing better to do and because Alston says he wants to a chance to talk to people without their being frightened by the bearskin wearing barbarian’s presence.

But before all this and before the four adventurers get to where they’d split off to do their own things, they heard a cry for help that gets their attention. They are crossing the Sharkfin Bridge when they hear a commotion beneath its western end. Rollo hangs Alston down over the side of the bridge by his ankles and the bard sees three men with drawn daggers converging on a fourth man backing into a stone bridge support and waving a rapier defensively. The ring of steel and the man’s calls do not arouse any alarm over the sound of the river emptying into the bay and people setting up in the nearby green market.

The version of Saltmarsh you’ll find in Makrinos, a modification of the map found in Ghosts of Saltmarsh.

Thron, Rollo, Nora and Alston spring into action, hustling around the end of the bridge and down the sandy slope heading beneath it. Thron and Rollo try to get the attackers to stop, calling on them explain why they were attacking this man, while Alston tries the opposite tack and asks the apparent victim of these poor odds why he is being attacked. The man shrugs as if to say that the time for explanations is past. The attackers tell Rollo and Thron to mind their own business and leave. When it becomes apparent that the newcomers will not leave and their quarry is too skilled a swordsman to be easily killed the attackers run for it. The adventurers did not give chase. The man, whose name is Olias Sanhillow, sags into the sand, winded and bleeding, but thankful for the help.

He explains that while he does not know who sent the men who attacked him, he was on his way to take care of a “sensitive errand of great importance to Saltmarsh” at the home of Kelendek the Sharp – a wizard – when he noticed the men on his tail. He ducked under the bridge hoping to lose them but got cut off and stuck down there. He does not want to take the time to explain as a crowd is gathering at the foot of the bridge, finally drawn by the commotion and the townguard are certain to be soon behind, but he suggests they might be able to give him more aid in return for payment. He promises to meet them at The Snapping Line that night to make his offer and explain some more. The party agrees, eager to clear out and not run afoul of the law on their first day in town.

While the others are at the market, the gnome makes his way to the townguard barracks­—which he soon discovers doubles as the jail—looking for the town Bailiff, Eliander Fireborn. The jailer is an old soldier with a paunch and scar on his cheek named Kraddock. He explains that “Bailiff” is just the term used in Makrinos for whoever is in charge of law enforcement and town defense. In the case of Saltmarsh that person also happens to be the captain of the guard. He then goes on to add that the Bailiff has the morning off and can probably be found at home. At first Kraddock is reticent to tell the gnome where the captain lives and suggests the gnome just come back later or leave a message, but the gnome puts on the charm and soon the jailer feels comfortable enough to describe the route out onto the upper banks on the town’s western edge, where Eliander Fireborn’s well-appointed cottage sits overlooking the Shimmaré.

Alston finds Eliander working in his garden, shirt off and sweat glistening on his broad chest and well-muscled arms. He had curly rings of thick black hair. As he looks up to see the gnome approaching, so stands wiping his hands off on his pants and then reaching for a cane that leans against a fence post. He steps forward clearly suffering a permanent injury that stiffens his left leg. The bailiff greets Alston in gnomish. It turns out he learned several languages during his time in the army (which army he does not say), rattling off a few phrases in dwarven, elvish and goblin to impress his visitor. It is a productive talk. Eliander explains that Saltmarsh used to be a much more lawless place but that since his arrival and the relatively recent election of Anders Solmor as town Prefect, they have worked to together to keep things in line and make the town more prosperous for all. Sure, some of the locals are not happy that dwarves opened a new mine in the area and are using the town as a staging ground for shipping their resources out to other places in Makrinos and beyond, but it is giving the local economy a much needed injection of capital and that the First Minister (executive officer of the Republic) is finally paying attention to the area. Sure, there are occasional smugglers that he arrests and sends on to the capital for justice, but nothing too bad and not for some time.

Yes, he confirms that there have been some rumors of people who were passing through disappearing, but he’d investigated and found no evidence they had not just moved on as many people did in this growing hub for fish, lumber, and now ore.

As for the haunted house, he reiterates what others have told them, and explains that while he has never been inside the house, he scouted the area not that long ago and found nothing out of the ordinary. “Sure, a few times a year some kids or some drunk fishermen out far too late claim to see weird lights from inside or hear howling and the like, but I know real evil and this isn’t it.” He explains that he had cut his teeth fighting ghoul hordes in the Drowned Forest so knew about undead infestation. He also warns, however, that the house stands on a tall bluff overlooking the water, which has been slowly crumbling over the last couple decades. If this is not enough to avoid it, he is certain that the house itself is on the verge of collapse and not safe to explore.

Bidding his new friend good day, Alston stops by Solmor Manor in hopes of seeing the Prefect but has to settle for making an appointment with the Prefect’s manservant, Skerrin Wavechaser for three days hence.

That evening Olias Sandhillow comes to meet the party at The Snapping Line, buying them a round of drinks but insisting they meet in one of their rooms for some privacy. “This is a matter that requires discretion,” he says. Once out of the common room, he confesses what he was doing when he was followed and attacked. He delicately explains that his scheme falls outside the law,  but is for a good cause and the benefit of the town as a whole. He explains that the town has two main families that own most of the mercantile interest and a good deal of property and have their claws in local and national politics. The two families (the Solmors and the Owelands) often compete in business and politics, but aside from a few pranks and a brawl or two in the distant past, it has never come to violence. However, while it is meant to be a secret, he knows that Jessa Solmor, the niece of the Prefect is in love with Richard Oweland, the younger brother of the Oweland matriarch. Olias’s fear is that this relationship would push the more extreme members of both families towards violence and instability (especially if the two lovers run off together without their family’s blessing). Olias claims to have business interest with both families which makes him personally interested, but also insists that the significantly younger Jessa is a victim of puppy love and will come to regret her youthful crush and its consequences. Furthermore, even if she doesn’t, he is certain Richard will grow tired of her and his abandonment will deepen the rift between the families. “The whole town will suffer and, to be honest, my own investments in both families will suffer!”

He goes on to explain that someone must have caught wind of his negotiations with Kelendek the Sharp for a potion of amnesia. Olias’s plan is to use the potion on the girl and force her to forget her lover and fix the problem. He figures the party should be able to approach Kelendek without being stopped.

Rollo, Nora, Thron and Alston have no interest in helping him, not even after he offers them 500 gps to simply retrieve the potion and bring it to him. Alston says that this does not further his own motives of seeking knowledge and Thron says it is a mistake to mess with true love. Nora and Rollo are just bored. Olias shrugs, though his face expresses disappointment. He tells the party where he is staying if they change their minds and buys them another round of drinks to show there are no hard feelings. But he is pretty certain Jessa and Richard will run off together soon, so the window of opportunity is closing.

The party spends the rest of the night carousing. Alston goes to The Wicker Goat where the town guards hang out, and soon becomes something of an impromptu mascot for the drunken guards, who dance to his songs as they sing along and ply the gnome with drinks. Alston has a great time and learns what he considers to be the most important rumor about the purportedly haunted house, that the alchemist who lived there had one of the greatest collections of rare books in the region. This entices him even more than the other rumor he heard, that there is a great stash of gold somewhere on the property. He cannot wait to tell the others.

Kreb Shenker, barkeep at The Empty Net

Meanwhile, the others are at The Empty Net, where a thin but rough crowd makes it clear they did not like outsiders. Thron is able to learn that his buddy Bob the Gambler left town a couple of weeks before to check on a herd of bison he supposedly won in a dice game, located a couple days northeast of Saltmarsh. The dismissive laughs with which the patrons mention Bob, make Thron think that his friend has been scammed or maybe even set up to be killed for his tendency to win at gambling, but there is not much he can do about it at the moment. He hopes his friend will be back soon. Nora has less luck finding a lead in making contact with Butchie. While a few folks claim that “where the rod and staff meet” sounded familiar, like they had seen it somewhere, they can not remember where or what it is. She has to keep looking.

They also hear more about the mysterious creatures locals report rooting around in the garbage and that have eaten someone’s cat (something the party had heard discussed at The Snapping Line the night before), but most folks are convinced it is either giant rats, stray dogs, or raccoons.

Once gathered back at The Snapping Line, Alston’s preference for their next steps hold sway. They decide to leave for the house early the next morning but will try to make it back to town in time for the gnome’s appointment with the prefect in three days.

Somewhere in there, Thron decides to go out to the stable and cast his speak with animals spells to have a conversation with Muffin the Ox. The druid wants to make sure Lertol takes good care of her, and the ox confirms this by going on and on about the delicious hay Lertol brings her and the time the guide spends brushing the her. Thron reinforces his own relationship with the ox by spending some time brushing her as well.

Midmorning the next day finds the foursome (accompanied by Lertol and Muffin) on the Brackwater Road and looking for the fork that leads up to the old house. It is a four-hour march all-told, nearly three hours on the main road and then another hour picking their way up the slope towards where the house sits. When they make it to the edge of the estate, they can see the decrepit house and the overgrown grounds. The low wall that surrounds the place is crumbling in so many places they do not have to go through the open rusted gate hanging by one hinge. They can also see where the bluff edge is slowing creeping towards the house’s foundation.

Lertol says he’ll wait here or nearby, but that if they come out and he isn’t around that means he’s taken Muffin back down to the main road because it wasn’t safe. Thron says to wait 48 hours, but if they aren’t back by then, that he should go back to town and get help.

The house is wooden but stands on a stone foundation. It is two stories, about 35 to 40 feet high. While the house’s many windows all look broken, some of them still have shutters, flapping open in the wind, missing slats or hanging from hinges.

Rather than risk unsteady ground and enter by the back door that Old Wimpy Bones told them about, the party decides to go in the front door. Immediately, the discussion about looking for traps starts up as it usually does when the party is confronted by a door. Rollo suggests looking but isn’t good at doing it. Alston takes some time to look at the door, but finding nothing, lets Thron lead the way into the entrance hall. The broken windows let in plenty of midday light. The walls inside are bare and smashed furniture is scattered everywhere and covered in thick layers of dust. The wooden floor is warped. An open stairway runs up on the right side of the entrance hall and a corridor behind it leads to the east wing. Two other halls, at 12 o’clock and 9 o’clock, lead to the rear of the house and west wing, respectively. The staircase leads up to a balcony at the upper level that runs above the far end and the west end of the entrance hall.

While Nora begins to check the stairs for traps and test if they are strong enough to hold their weight, Thron begins a ritual magic spell in order to detect magic. Alston and Rollo stand guard. Once the druid is done and the passage deemed safe, Nora leads the way upstairs, with Thron taking up the rear and using his spell-granted vision to scan about as he walks.

Ignoring the way to the left, the party decides to check the east wing’s upper floor first. Two broken windows in this hall look over the grounds adjacent to the rear of the house. They can see the bluff covered in tall grass and a crumbling well with a collapsed cover back there, along with the backdoor. On the other side of the hall are three doors and another window caps the end of it. They try the furthest door first. As Nora checks it for traps, she realizes it is locked. Explaining that she finds no signs of a trap, but that the lock looks freshly oiled and in too good condition for such a derelict house, she steps aside letting Rollo and Thron kick at the door to open it because picking the lock doesn’t work. Surprisingly, this didn’t work either. Taking a breather and worried they are making too much noise, they switch to the center door, which they are glad to discover is not locked. Upon opening the door, Alston can immediately see that the floor on the left side of the room is sagging and damaged and might not hold up the weight of the big folk. He creeps along the other side of the room looking down at the dusty floor carefully and realizes someone had recently walked in here, moving to the window and back. The bard follows the tracks and can see scratches on the windowsill, like something heavy and metallic has been placed there repeatedly. The window looks out across the water.

He comes back to tell the others what he saw and, in the meantime, Rollo is ready to try the locked door again and one more swift kick sends it off its hinges. In the decaying bedroom beyond, the barbarian immediately spots a figure in the far opposite corner of the room. The man is stripped to his skivvies and his hands and feet are bound with ropes. He is also clearly gagged. He has his back to the door and is writhing as if trying to get out of his ropes. Without thinking, Rollo moves into the room to attend to the man and immediately regrets it. While he hears the floor begin to crack and tries to jump back, it is too late. A moment later his companions are looking down at him covered in a blanket of dust and plaster and holding his head as he sits up one story below. He slowly makes it to his feet, shaking off the fall. Looking up he can now see that the ceiling in this room shows signs of cracking and sagging and is connected to the other room with the unstable floor. He hustles to make his way back to others who, have turned the bound man around to look at them.

Ned Snakeshaft

He stares at them with wide eyes of fear. He has leathered skin, a dirty beard, and hair like brown brittle seagrass. There is a dark clot of dried blood smeared on the back of his head and down his neck. When they ungag him, and after he spends a long minute expressing his gratitude, he explains that he is called Ned and is not sure how he ended up in this predicament. He gestures for his hands to be untied, but no one moves to help him.

“How did you end up here?” Alston asks. Ned explains that he is an adventurer from “down by Brackwater way” and that he was on his way to Saltmarsh to follow up on the rumor of jobs there when a rainstorm caught him just as it was getting dark last night. Knowing the house was close by he decided to risk it to get out of the squall and wait out the night before completing his journey. He had only made it as far as the kitchen when something struck him from behind and he blacked out. He woke up near sunrise right where they now find him. He tried to get free, but his head hurt too much and he passed out again until he heard them bashing at the door.

The party agrees to untie his feet, but at first are reticent to free his hands. He begs them to do so. “I am literally in my smallclothes! I have no weapon and my head is still ringing. I understand that you want to be cautious but what harm could I pose to you? In fact, if you help me find my stuff, I will help you explore this place so I can get revenge on whoever did this to me!”

The party discusses freeing him. Meanwhile, the man begins trying to push at his bound wrists with a foot in an effort to loosen them. There is something about the man’s story that just doesn’t seem quite right to Alston. For example, he does not recall it raining last night, despite the damp weather in general.

Finally, the foursome acquiesce and let him free. The man is effusively grateful.

The party moves on with their new companion in the middle of the marching order where he can hopefully do the least harm. They stop at the first door in the hallway and once again Nora searches for traps. Finding none, she opens the door. This is another dusty bedroom. The posts of a smashed bed are piled in a corner, a brick fireplace is on one wall, and cobwebs are everywhere. Something glimmers in the fireplace.

Worried about the floor, they send Alston into the room to investigate the glint. When he begins to brush aside the cobwebs on the fireplace a swarm of spiders come exploding out of it, overwhelming the gnome. At the same moment, another swarm begins cascading out of the cracks in the walls and ceiling above where Nora stands in the threshold. There is something preternatural about the swarms, almost like the tiny spider bodies—each about the size of silver piece—form one larger monstrous entity. “Spiders! Why did it have to be spiders?” Alston groans.

The swarms envelope both adventures, crawling into every nook and cranny of their clothing and armor, their bites stinging like fire. Nora stumbles into the room and as Rollo moves to aid her, Ned squeezes by behind him, screeching about his hatred of spiders, and shoving the barbarian awkwardly into the room to get by. The stumbling big half-orc accidentally strikes his friend from behind and she falls forward, still trying to stab at the countless arachnids with a dagger. “Oops! I’m sorry,” Ned cries out from where he cringes on the other side of the doorway, reflexively covering his nakedness. “I just feel extra vulnerable right now!”

It does not take long for the adventurers to smash enough spiders to cause the survivors to flee, but both Alston and Nora are sore from countless bites and feel a little swollen all over. Furthermore, the glint in the fireplace turns out to be a trinket. A crystal orb with a flat bottom—a paperweight that is tactilely satisfying to hold but not worth very much.

‹End of Session ›

Next: Alston and His Big Folk explore the lower levels of the mansion.

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