The One Simple Change that Derailed My Saltmarsh Campaign
“A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, and a tornado forms in Texas.”
About a year ago, I had the pleasure of taking over as DM for a weekly game. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I proposed D&D 5e, and since Ghosts of Saltmarsh was about to come out that’s what we decided to play. I ordered the Beadle & Grimm’s Sinister Silver Edition, did a bunch of reading on Greyhawk, and probably spent more time planning than I should.
I made a few changes here and there as a DM is wont to do to any published adventure. One of my first changes involves a corpse found in the basement of the mansion that is the centerpiece of the first adventure, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. In the basement of that area is an unfortunate corpse wearing a suit of plate mail.
Now while I don’t mind characters enjoying high defenses, plate mail for level one characters seems a bit much. I modified the armor to splint mail (which is still expensive and valuable). I asked myself “why is this corpse here?” The book claims it is an adventurer who “set out to explore the house several weeks ago.” Well, that doesn’t track - no REAL adventurer that could afford plate mail would make the mistake to go it alone. The text continues, “The smugglers slew the heavily armored intruder and left the remains in place to scare off other visitors.” While I’m not a smuggler nor murderer, I could not in good conscience leave 1,500 gp - a king’s ransom - lying on the floor as a scarecrow. Even shifted to splint, that’s too much money to forgo (especially if I’m a weapons smuggler who already has buyers among the lizardfolk).
It simply doesn’t add up. So to make this oddity more in line with the world, I needed to fix it. The puzzle came down to two questions: who was this person, if not an adventurer? And why did the smugglers leave the valuable booty there?
For the first one, I needed to consider who could afford the 200 gp for splint mail. Removing an adventurer from the equation cut down the list of possible owners swiftly: the owner had to be a powerful merchant or a noble. While merchants are powerful in Saltmarsh, the scion of a wealthy merchant going missing after looking around the mansion would be the talk of the town. Though that could work as another hook for the adventure, I had other plans. The other option (making the deceased a noble), granted me more room to flesh out the rest of the world. While Saltmarsh is rich with scheming merchants who profit from the unrest in the town, the nobility isn’t as fleshed out. By making the deceased a member of the inland nobility, I offered the story a connection to make the world feel richer.
Choosing the deceased to be a member of the nobility also solved my other problem: the armor is marked goods - you can’t just sell it. Someone would notice the noble crest and there would be WAY too many questions. Rather than finding an armorsmith to remove the crests of a noble house (which is difficult in and of itself, and requires substantial bribes), the smugglers left it behind. For the story, I anticipated that this would allow for drama if someone spotted a player character in this armor or trying to sell it. With a campaign based on the sea and agreed upon in a session zero, I seriously doubt the party will go inland to return it.
I could not have been more wrong. This armor became the Boblin the Goblin of my campaign:
As soon as the party cleared the mansion, they tied up a couple of loose ends and immediately began to ask questions about local nobility and where the armor came from. I humored them but made the noble residence nearly a week of travel from Saltmarsh.
Surely, SURELY, they wouldn’t want to leave the actual plot in Saltmarsh for that long!
Nope, they left town and abandoned the carefully-laid plot threads behind.
For several of the characters, their senses of honor, their alignments, or their curiosity made it ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY to return that armor to the noble household, and with it allow that family to learn what happened to their kin and have some closure.
For the next year, Ghosts of Saltmarsh sat unused on my shelf, and my Sinister Silver Edition’s props never got to delight the players. With one tiny change, the whole campaign swung on its axis, into something completely different and much more memorable for me. Yes, I could have made it a simple delivery quest of dropping it off, getting some gold, and moving on; OR simply told the players that the content prepared was on the coast, I didn’t do either of those. I chose to let the story follow the players.
Other DMs, I implore you - make the small changes when you see something questionable in an adventure. You never know where they’ll lead you.