‘Ghosts of Saltmarsh’ delivers epic ‘D&D’ action amid rolling tides and aquatic gems
Most would agree that the official Wizards of the Coast Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition content has been a primarily landlocked and typically dry affair.
Sure, there have been adventures set on tropical islands (Tomb of Annihilation), in the towns and cities along the Sword Coast (Hoard of the Dragon Queen), and some even featured daring rescues on the high seas (Storm King’s Thunder); but one thing that has been distinctly lacking is an adventure set primarily on or around the water.
After all, the oceans provide more than 90% of the habitable living space on our planet and houses well over 50% of life, and in the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, this is no different. So don’t you think it’s about time that WotC dusted off some of their classic water-based adventures and revised them for the modern age?
Thankfully, Ghosts of Saltmarsh does just that.
What Is The Ghosts of Saltmarsh?
Following in the same vein as Tales From the Yawning Portal, this collection of stories presents seven standalone modules that are thematically and geographically connected via the coastal city of Saltmarsh. Long-time D&D aficionados will recognize the name and will be excited at the prospect of revisiting some of the most epic and well-loved stories. From encounters with the sahuagin to bargains with dragon turtles, and from wading through swamps to sailing their own ship, Ghosts of Saltmarsh promises everything you could want from a sea-fairing campaign book, but does it deliver?
Here I utilize a familiar framework, asking five simple questions to see if this D&D book is the right one for you:
- Will I be interested in the story and will my players have fun?
- How easy is it to DM with the material given?
- What are the best bits?
- What are the worst bits?
- What extras are there that I can use in future campaigns?
Naturally, this article will contain spoilers.
Will I be interested in the story and will my players have fun?
The great thing about this campaign book is that it’s not just ONE story, it’s at least seven. Possibly fourteen. Probably even more. Or perhaps it is just one very big one. Whatever it is, it’s definitely fun.
On the surface, it is a collection of seven thematically connected modules, which can all be satisfyingly played in isolation. In this way, it is very much like Tales From the Yawning Portal. However, where that collection of tales seemed limited in scope – it’s focus was on purely reproducing the greatest hits of D&D – more thought has gone into how you would play these stories as one long campaign. The stories and themes range from exploring a haunted mansion in The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh to negotiating with lizardfolk in Danger at Dunwater and infiltrating a Sahuagin stronghold in The Final Enemy.
All of the key elements of D&D are here, but with the additional aquatic flair. Dragon turtles and underwater dungeons are only the headlines; expect to see aboleths, ghost ships, zombie pirates, deserted islands, and every aquatic race you can think of – and some you probably can’t because they’ve only just made them up.
How easy is it to DM with the material given?
On the whole very straight forward. If you want to play Ghosts of Saltmarsh in its’ entirety as a whole campaign, the story follows a very coherent and intuitive path. Unlike some of the recent 5th edition releases, there are no enormous, DM-challenging, gaping holes in the narrative to fill (see Dragon Heist chapter 2), nor is it a huge, over saturated mega-dungeon to give you nightmares, “Where will my players go next? Surely not there? Please no. They’re only level 7! They can’t face Halaster now!” (Dungeon of the Mad Mage). Note: I really enjoy both of the Waterdeep releases, but would not consider either easy to run.
Instead, Ghosts of Saltmarsh feels like a concise and deliberate progression of stories, which DMs new and old can enjoy in equal measure. Chapters 2 to 8 each present a self-contained, fully functioning adventure without requiring any significant research or development from the DM.
If you choose just to run a single adventure from this book, then that is also a straight forward thing to do also. Each adventure is plainly summarized and comes with plot hooks, clearly defined NPCs and objectives. Sure, some of the adventures will require more planning than others – make sure you’ve looked up underwater encounters and the rules for swimming and water-breathing before you run The Final encounter for example – but don’t expect to be searching reddit for hints and clues of how to maneuver your players, limping over the finish line.
On the other hand, if you’re a DM who prefers roleplay focused games over dungeon crawl hacking and slashing there’s plenty here for you too. Chapter 3 Danger at Dunwater is a primarily diplomatic mission, but don’t worry, the designers know most players thirst for battle isn’t easily quenched, so there are alternatives and explanations of what happens if they do go off the rails.
What are the best bits of the Ghosts of Saltmarsh?
Highlights from Ghosts of Saltmarsh include observing a sahuagin death match in The Final Enemy, bargaining with Xaltalos, a dragon turtle, and solving the mysterious murders of the Lantern Ghost Killer – Saltmarsh’s answer to Jack the Ripper.
However, the absolute highpoint of these books comes after the first eight main chapters. Ghosts of Saltmarsh has three appendices, one of which contains arguably more reusable content that all of the previous 5th edition campaign books put together. Appendix A: Of Ships and the Sea is what players and DMs have been waiting forever since ocean faring was first teased by the folks behind the wheel at D&D. Included in this section are all the rules, tables and variations you could possibly need to create your own water-based adventures.
You want stat blocks for various ships? You got it. Details on officers and their crew? It’s here. Rules for navigation, combat and exploring the ocean depths? Look no further. Random encounters, mysterious islands, shipwrecks, coral reefs, sunken ruins, pirate ghosts, and underwater locations are all covered in as much detail as you could want, complete with pictures, stat blocks, and maps. When word gets out, this appendix will be the reason most people buy this book.
In this appendix, there are 10 whole tables dedicated to creating new vessels for your players to encounter. I rolled 10 times on those tables to create a random ship and I got:
A rowboat carrying cargo called the Salty Barnacle. Manned by Captain Heartless Fingers and his mutinous crew of hostile gnolls, it’s stuck on a sandbar and the load of emergency relief supplies its shipping is going to spoil.
And now I have to write a whole new campaign just around that!
What are the worst bits of the Ghosts of Saltmarsh?
There are times in this book where the focus moves away from the fun aquatic adventures and relies too heavily on new mechanics, rather than on interesting stories. This only happens once or twice in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, but perhaps some DMs will want to find their own way around these issues.
The conclusion of chapter 6 The Final Enemy, for instance, uses victory points and a pre-determined battle that occurs off-stage, which some people won’t like. It almost feels like this has been put in for plot convenience rather than for player satisfaction, and so doesn’t really work. I can see players struggling with the victory points structure and their own character’s motivations as the narrative assumes it knows how players will react. Having DM’d a few open world campaigns, I know from first-hand experience that you should never assume you know what a player will do. They always end up surprising you.
What extras are there that I can use in future campaigns?
Where to begin? Well, first there’s Saltmarsh. Chapter 1 presents the entire town of Saltmarsh and sets up the location for where all seven adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh begin.
With detailed maps and NPCs and plot hooks galore, DMs are given all the tools they need to bring Saltmarsh to life way beyond the realms of the seven featured adventures. This is brilliant and goes some way to avoiding the main problem of Tales From the Yawning Portal – which was the lack of an actual Yawning Portal and the difficulty in running a coherent campaign without any other materials.
Instead, Saltmarsh comes complete with side quests, downtime activities and three distinct factions that each have their own flaws, objectives, and motivations. As a new campaign setting, Saltmarsh is fruit ripe for the picking, and I can’t wait to introduce this intriguing and exciting location into my home game.
But that’s not all. Ghosts of Saltmarsh has so much more to offer, not least the 43 pages of expanded rules and resources for waterborne adventures (mentioned earlier). Further to that, there are 6 brand new magical items, each with its own watery twist, and 57 new monsters stat blocks – although some of these are reprinted from other sources such as Volo’s Guide to Monsters, but not many.
Essentially, Ghosts of Saltmarsh provides enough water-based monsters and options, encounters and locations to set up an entire campaign world where there is no dry land at all. This book is the D&D equivalent of Waterworld. But good. Replace Kevin Costner with a locathah and have him attacked by some sahuagin and now you’ve got a movie I’d watch.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh manages something unique so far in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. It is simultaneously a campaign book full of exciting and interesting adventures; a glorious campaign setting ready-made for DM’s to weave their own story around, and a bestiary and rules resource equivalent to a mini Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual.
I was super excited to hear that WotC was reprinting some of the adventures included in this book. And when I found out they were further developing rules for seafaring and water based-combat that excitement built up. They didn’t disappoint. Ghosts of Saltmarsh delivers on all of its promises and more. Sure, it might have a couple of moments where DMs will have to improvise a little, but that’s half the fun. At least.
So, if your players long for adventure on the high seas, if they jealously watched the pirate episodes of Critical Role season 2, if they want to explore shipwrecks and fight weird fish people, or you’ve just waited for years to call out the phrase “Release the Kraken!” then Ghosts of Saltmarsh is the D&D book for you.