Review – Dungeons & Dragons: Ghosts of Saltmarsh
Following up the massive two-book Waterdeep adventures from 2018, Dungeons & Dragons make their way out to sea with Ghosts of Saltmarsh. While there have been different kinds of adventures that involve the ocean and treacherous waters over the years in various lands and forgotten lore, few times in the history of D&D has the company thrown you into the middle of the seas for a complete adventure with all the tools and tricks you need in order to make an entire campaign based at sea. But how exactly does this book hold up both as an adventure module and as an addition to Fifth Edition as a whole? We chartered a boat, gathered up a crew, learned Water Breathing for good measure, and set sail into the unknown pages ahead.
So the big thing to know about Ghosts of Saltmarsh is that it isn't just one singular adventure, it's actually a combination of several adventures into one. Much like Tales From The Yawning Portal a couple of years ago, this book is comprised of seven adventures for characters level 1-12, all of them remastered to 5th Edition rules and mechanics. You can play the book in a few different ways, too. First, there's the linear way, which is playing all seven adventures back-to-back in order and leveling up characters accordingly before moving onto the next adventure. Each adventure will tell you what levels you can reach or what they're designed for, for example, Danger At Dunwater will tell you it's designed to be run with four to six 3rd-level characters. The book has been designed so that you can go through each adventure and tell a complete story that makes sense when run in order and give the players a fulfilling experience as they would get from a regular long-form adventure.
Another way of doing this is the randomized way, which I would recommend for people who are experienced and have well-rounded characters that are 10th Level and above. This is where the DM essentially plays RNG with a D8 and picks an adventure for you to go into as a stand-alone campaign. If the challenge isn't that great, you can always string together a few more or add extra monsters and quests to play with at your discretion. The final way is what I lovingly call the Frankenstein way, where you rip adventures out of the book and sew them onto other adventures from Dungeons & Dragons lore. When going over each one, I found a couple that I could easily tie into Waterdeep: Dragon Heist with a little creative license and reasoning to add some variety and then bring them back to Waterdeep to finish out the campaign. Basically, the book is very versatile as to what you can do with the adventures in it.
I had a lot of fun exploring these adventures as well, as I was familiar with only two of them and the rest were either stories I had heard about in passing or were a total mystery to me. (What can I say, my DM's over the years weren't all that into seafaring adventures.) The first chapter of the book gives you the overview of Saltmarsh, which is described in the book as a "nondescript fishing village tucked away on the southern coast of the Kingdom of Keoland". This serves as your essential base of operations to a degree. The town doesn't operate like other places where you can get whatever you'd like, it's confined in a very specific location where they rely on fishing and mining, but there's a great deal of trading and smuggling that happens at the docks. There are nearby dangers, some haunted areas, a tower, a dwarven mine, a couple of islands and some other important areas that give you plenty of options if you decide to skip the pre-made adventures and create your own in the area.
So now that we have the setting, let's explore the adventures in a spoiler-free way. First up you have The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, which comes to us from the TSR library in the middle of 1st Edition in 1981. This is a basic adventure to get people acquainted with the town and the people who reside here and leads you on a path to solving a ghost story of sorts. It is about as classic of a first campaign for Level 1 characters as you can get as you are all exploring a new place, dealing with a weird kind of threat, working as a team to figure it out and eventually figuring yourselves out as a team. It gives you the building blocks for what you'll need moving forward without all the dread of possibly getting a TPK, or even losing someone in the process. It's not a cakewalk, but it will get you in the groove.
The second adventure is Danger at Dunwater, another from 1st Edition published in 1982. This is one I've played before as you deal a lot with Lizardfolk who happen to be harassing the town and now you've been called in (having proved yourselves already) to help with the situation. They're an interesting set of people to deal with, especially under 5e rules and designs. There's some really cool and interesting lore to revisit here as you discover they operate a lot like other races in D&D history, where they can both be reasoned with but can also be an absolute threat. There's a lot of fun to be had here and a couple different paths you can take to establish yourselves in Saltmarsh.
Adventure three is Salvage Operation, one of the few adventures you'll see held entirely in the ocean, written by current Franchise Creative Director Mike Mearls back in 2005. The title tells you only have the story as your crew is hired to go salvage what you can from a ship currently adrift at sea by its former owner. What you don't know is what's on board as you're basically searching through the bowels of a derelict craft and having to deal with its new inhabitants, along with some additional surprises that will make you feel like you're in the middle of an action flick. This is one I had never played but absolutely enjoyed as it is built for people who are into exploration and fighting. But be careful not to bite off more than you can chew, as you never know what that might be connected to.
The fourth story in Ghosts of Saltmarsh is Isle Of The Abbey, which is one hell of an adventure going back to 1992 in the thick of 2nd Edition AD&D. If you're a fan of Treasure Island, this is the one for you as you'll be dealing with pirates, undead, and an island full of mystery as you try to figure out what happened at the ruins of a burned-down relics run by evil clerics. This is just island exploration and adventure at its finest, and there's a number of treasures to snag from it. But there are just as many pitfalls and perils you can run into as well. It's not an adventure for the weak, but those who know what they're doing and know how to handle the undead will have no issue getting to the heart of the matter. Abbey Island also makes for a cool campaign point in other aspects for the truly creative DM.
The fifth adventure in here is The Final Enemy, as this one goes back to the U-Series in 1983 and some of the UK talent TSR had working on AD&D at the time. This one will put you in direct conflict with a few different parties including the Lizardfolk, Merfolk, Sahuagin, and the Locathan, as this becomes an all-out test to see how well you fair in both politics and battle. Essentially, Saltmarsh is in danger, and you have various ways of dealing with the conflict both head-on and through creative ways. You'll eventually end up in combat in this short adventure, so be prepared for a lot of trials as a 7th Level character making your way through a fortress, but also be aware that you are not necessarily alone in this fight.
The sixth adventure is Tammeraut's Fate, which was originally written up for Dungeon #106 in 2004 by Greg Vaughn. This is the second adventure I played from this book during my time with 3.5e, as you deal with a ton of mystery and the supernatural as you investigate what's taken place on Firewatch Island. This is for players at Level 9 who are in it for the long haul as there are so many layers to this story that it will take you a few sessions to figure out just what's going on and how to prevent future problems from happening. When I originally played this we made it through the campaign, but we nearly died in the process as it put all of our powers to the test. Like, if you're looking for pure Dungeons & Dragons mayhem at its finest, this is the one you need to spend some time with as you get a taste of everything this game has to offer and opportunities for characters at every role to shine. Could just be from my previous experience playing, but I would call this one the best of the set.
The seventh and final adventure in the book is The Styes, which is a Richard Pett adventure from Dungeon #121 in 2005. This is every sailor's nightmare adventure in a nutshell, shy of being swallowed by a whale, and a love note to anyone who adores H.P. Lovecraft. A series of murders have rocked the Styes, which is a port near Saltmarsh that's fallen into despair and may be under the influence of something worse. It's up to you and your Level 11 characters to figure out what's happening. I enjoy this one a lot because whenever you believe the adventure is going to go left, it swings to the right. Whenever you think you've figured things out, you realize you're only scratching the surface. And if you're looking for monster fights, you will get them. A lot of mystery, a lot of fighting, a lot of uncovering of local lore, all to see if this small harbor can be saved. It's a good time to end on if you're playing from start to finish.
What remains of the book is the Appendix, which has been split into three areas: "Of Ships and the Sea", Magic Items, and Monsters and NPCs. The latter two are pretty self-explanatory if you know Dungeons & Dragons, but the first bit is the one that will get your mind racing. Here you have several options of ships in design and format to take out into the seas. Longship, keelboat, galley ship, a major sailing ship, even a warship, all here for you to play with and figure out how to best utilize. If your party gets some coin going, you can become a force to be dealt with. But it also has just as much info on how to navigate the sea according to 5e rules, the dangers that await, weather conditions and health issues, the creatures that inhabit it, and all the mechanics in-between. If you're a DM and you want to create an adventure in the ocean, D&D just gave you every tool you'll ever need to make it happen on your own terms. That's one hell of an addition to the game that a lot of people who deal with seaside adventures will gladly take advantage of.
Overall, I personally believe Ghosts of Saltmarsh is one of the best put-together books in the entire run of 5th Edition. I was a big fan of Yawning Portal as well, but this one feels like they took the lessons they learned from that book and refined them here. It takes a lot of work to mesh singular modules into a cohesive adventure, but Mearls and Kate Welch (who served as the lead designers on this one) did a fantastic job. There's very little to complain about in this book as everything in it is both versatile and succinct when it comes to adventure building and storytelling. And sure, there are people who will look at this and think "I don't feel like going out to sea" for their campaign, and that's okay because some of these can be adapted easily to fit what you need if you feel like taking your DM's tools to them. But if you're looking for a good mix with some different stories and chances to play with elements you don't normally get in every adventure, this is the book for you.