Review – Ghosts of Saltmarsh (Dungeons & Dragons)

I must now have been the only one to appreciate Tales from the Yawning Portal, because the next Dungeons & Dragons release, Ghosts of Saltmarsh (available May 21, 2019) takes a similar approach. Ghosts of Saltmarsh isn’t just TFTYP 2, however. If Tales from the Yawning Portal was a greatest hits collection, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a concept album – seven adventures that all (loosely) share a certain theme. (Note: As Ghosts of Saltmarsh is primarily an adventure/DM book, a significant chunk of this review will contain mild spoilers for the adventures. The early part of this review will be spoiler-free, but those who don’t want to ruin the surprise should not venture below the space image a few paragraphs down.)

In the case of Ghosts of Saltmarsh, that theme is the sea. The seven adventures updated for Ghosts of Saltmarsh include the original Saltmarsh trilogy and four adventures pulled from the pages of Dungeon magazine. The original trilogy (The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater, and The Final Enemy) was published by TSR UK from 1981-83 (designed and developed by Dave J. Browne and Don Turnbull). Although it’s the sort of think we’ve generally come to expect in modern times, the Saltmarsh trilogy was distinctive at the time in assembling adventures with thematic presentation and something of a story, instead of an independent location for the party to search and loot. The other four adventures are Salvage Operation (Mike Mearls), Isle of the Abbey (Randy Maxwell), Tammeratu’s Fate (Greg A. Vaughn), and The Styes (Richard Pett).

Across the seven adventures, players will encounter pirates, smugglers, smuggler-pirates, haunted houses, lizardfolk, aquatic elves, aquatic hobgoblins, merfolk, skeletons, underwater zombies, giant underwater monsters, ships in various states of disrepair on the surface of the ocean, and ships in various states of disrepair on the ocean floor. And players going into Ghosts of Saltmarsh are definitely going to need to become familiar with the rules for underwater combat and movement.

In addition to the adventures, players will find new background and some variations on existing backgrounds to fit them in with the town of Saltmarsh (or any other random coastal town). The new backgrounds are fisher, marine, shipwright (which has a really useful ability if you’re going to engage in naval combat), and smuggler. In addition, the back matter includes about 15 pages of expanded information on using ships, including stats for several basic models (longship, keelboat, galley, sailing vessel, war vessel). This includes ship layouts, crew actions, weaponry, movement, and upgrades. It’s a fairly light presentation, as one might expect from the space devoted, but I think that’s appropriate, since D&D is not generally a naval combat simulator, even if the player characters end up with their own ship. This section includes discussion of both combat and travel (although I’m not including DM material on environment in that 15 pages).

Speaking of DM material, I’m going to put a spacer image here, and the review with resume below with. As a last word for players, I’ll note that I have a thumbs up for most of the adventures, but found myself unenthused about one of them. The Saltmarsh trilogy works best as a trilogy, but the other adventures can be plug-and-played at appropriate levels. A specific interest in sea-themed adventures will give players an extra kick out of these adventures (this is probably more pertinent to pirate- and ship-related adventures), although it isn’t required.

For the DM’s Eyes Only

Now that all of those prying players have safely clicked away to greener pastures, here are some more detailed thoughts on the adventures, and how they might be strung together.

As noted above, the adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh can be, but don’t need to be strung together. Of course, the original Saltmarsh trilogy have a connected story, and while I think those can be played separately, they are better run sequentially. They cannot, however, just be run consecutively, because the levels don’t work out that way. With that said, they probably work best being run relatively close in time to each other, as the plots directly flow. So there’s a balancing act of putting enough content in between to gain the appropriate levels without stretching things out to much.

For Ghosts of Saltmarsh, that would be accomplished with Salvage Operation and Isle of the Abbey, which span most of the level gap between Danger at Dunwater and The Final Enemy (there is no gap between The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and Danger at Dunwater). Both of those adventures are pretty self-contained and can readily be run out of the town of Saltmarsh. The final two adventures (Tammeraut’s Fate and The Styes) don’t fit as well, but that’s less of an issue because they are higher-level than the end of the Saltmarsh trilogy.

To help serve as ‘glue’ for the campaign is the town of Saltmarsh itself, which has several factions – Loyalists (who support the crown’s moves to introduce mining and more legitimate trade to Saltmarsh), Traditionalists (who want things to stay as they ever were, mostly fishing and smuggling), and a secret evil faction (who want to wreck the place, but have the obviously good guy member of the city council as their unwitting pawn). There isn’t a ton there, but that’s probably good because the adventures as written have nothing to do with the politics of the town. Instead, the GM needs to make sure to read in the Saltmarsh town section about how to tweak the adventures to tie back into those elements. This could easily leave a situation where the primary political effect of the characters is to discover the bad guy faction, alert the good guy council member, and then generally be heroes.

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh – An adventure in two parts (characters will start at level 1, go up after part 1, and then go up again after part 2), the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh begins with exploration of a supposedly haunted house that turns out to be a smugglers’ base (although there are some undead in the basement), and then moves on to a raid on the smugglers’ ship. Getting to attack a pirate ship will probably go a long way towards floating some players’ boats (if you’ll pardon the pun). Among the passengers and cargo on the ship are some lizardfolk and weapons, which leads to the next adventure.

Danger at Dunwater – The city council is understandably concerned about a lizardfolk outpost purchasing lots of weapons, and send the player characters to investigate (the players start at 3rd level and will gain 1 level). In order to succeed at this adventure, the characters must realize that the lizardfolk are not a threat, but rather a potential ally. This may involve beating stubborn players over the head at some point during the adventure, because the whole point is that they need to change their mindset – the DM doesn’t have the luxury of a quest-giver at the start of the mission ordering them not to engage. While the adventure kind of assumes that the players will inflict some casualties on the lizardfolk before figuring out what’s going on, they really need to catch on fairly quickly. This has the ancillary downside that, if the players are on the ball, relatively little of the adventure will actually be used. And, while there is a point-tracking system to determine when the players have convinced the lizardfolk to ally with Saltmarsh, and that system involves talking, there’s very little guidance on how to do that convincing other than making charisma checks.

Salvage Operation – Designed for a party of 4th level characters, Salvage Operation takes place entirely at sea (well, the actual adventure part of it does, anyway). For reasons not particularly pertinent, the characters need to board a derelict ship, make their way down to the cargo hold to grab the Quest Item and trigger a monster attack, then make their way back up to the main deck and off the ship before it sinks or the elder octopus gets them. The way down is pretty standard fare, just with the ‘dungeon’ being the inside of a ship. But the way back up, with a constant environmental threat, movement restrictions from the treasure, and the danger of sinking, really gives this adventure a distinctive feel.

Isle of the Abbey – The second adventure to fill the levels between parts 2 and 3 of the Saltmarsh trilogy, Isle of the Abbey is designed for fifth-level characters. The abbey in question was of the evil deity variety, and was recently attacked by their own pirate allies. With the pirates defeated and the abbey weakened, it’s the players turn to finish off the losers. This adventure kicks off with an effort to traipse across a sandy beach that just happens to contain many, many buried skeletons – which will be of wildly variable difficulty, because the d20 roll to make it off the beach may mean no combat or massive hordes of skeletons to deal with. The public part of the abbey, similarly, may or may not require much fighting, depending on whether the players are able to figure out the right things to say. The part that remains constant, however, is the secret passages under the abbey, which contains a stack of traps, undead, and animated statutes.

The Final Enemy – The capstone of the Saltmarsh trilogy, The Final Enemy is for a 7th-level party (so there’s a gap to fill from the prior adventure). It is probably also the most difficult adventure to GM out of those in this book. The reason for the alliance in Danger at Dunwater is that the lizardfolk only moved near Saltmarsh because their old home was taken over by sahuagin, and they were buying weapons to take it back. The lizardfolk were assembling an alliance, and ultimately Saltmarsh wanted to join (and did join, if the characters managed to avoid murdering all of the lizardfolk). Before the final battle, the characters are sent in to the sahuagin fortress (which is now mostly underwater) to scout enemy numbers and locations. This is tough for the GM, because it’s going to be difficult for the GM and the players to realize when it’s time for the players to bug out. There’s no way the players will just be able to defeat all of the sahuagin (if they could, what would the point of the alliance be?), and there are some individual rooms that are flagged as probably being lethal. But these probably won’t be immediately apparent to the players without some DM signposting. There’s supposed to be a lot of sneaking, but entire parties of characters are notoriously bad at sneaking. And, even if the DM is skilled at assessing party capabilities, it’s unclear what exactly will count as a success in the mission – how much information about what is enough to let the allies succeed? Topping off this exploration is a final confrontation (which was not included in the original adventure; that just ended with the characters getting out of the base). That part is fairly straightforward to run, but only once it’s read very, very closely, because it isn’t entirely clear what is where (and a glaring typo doesn’t help). I like that the concluding battle has a nice point-scoring system, so it’s easy to know exactly how much the party accomplished and how much it mattered to the assault.

Tammeraut’s Fate – This adventure, for a party of 9th level characters, features another abbey on an island. This one, however, is occupied by the good guys. These residents, alas, suffered a similar fate to those on the Isle of the Abbey – most of them are already dead at the hands of pirates. Although, to spice things up, this time it’s zombie pirates. And they’re doing that whole ‘undead walking across the floor of the ocean’ thing to get to the island. The initial phase of this adventure is fairly light exploration and combat. But eventually the characters will discover the remaining inhabitants in hiding, and realize that the zombie horde will be back that night. This introduces some nice efforts at shoring up the abbey’s defenses from the oncoming attack – there’s quite a bit the players might be able to do (although it will also help greatly if they didn’t expend too many resources in phase 1). Once the attack has been repelled, heroic characters will be compelled to venture to the ocean floor and deal with the magical effect that is turning the drowned sailors into drowned zombies.

The Styes – An adventure for 11th-level characters, The Styes primarily consists of straightforward investigation punctuated by a handful of high-stakes encounters. There’s a very Lovecraftian vibe here, as the threat is an aboleth who has converted to worshipping a mad deity, controls an evil cult from behind the scenes, and is infusing a sea monster with evil power. There are even half-human/half-fish types around. The signs will readily point to the council member who is the putative head of the cult (note: this is an entirely different council from the one in Saltmarsh, and the setting of The Styes doesn’t really play all that nicely with the rest of the book). Finding him sets up this nice visual with a derelict ship being held up by a crane, with the interior kept in jungle-like heat and humidity, and the first fight, which will likely be an ambush spell attack. Once that surprise attack is done, things should quickly turn in the party’s favor, and they will be off to find the aboleth in the local cult hideout. Again, there will be little challenge until combat with the aboleth itself, which has full use of its lair actions. Finally, there will be a final battle, because the characters will need to go deal with the infused sea monsters – with a twist that there will be even more aboleths there, because the first one was a heretic (the characters have the possibility of actually recruiting the help of these newcomers, which will make this scene much easier than fighting them and the monster).

In addition to the naval material discussed in the player section of this review, DM’s will also find more environmental rules for use in sea locations, and three underwater locations. These locations aren’t tied to any particular adventure, but instead spend a bit over four pages each presenting a map, location basics, and then possible adventure hooks. The three locations are a reef, a shipwreck, and an underwater ruin, so there’s a nice spread of options.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I’d suggest running the first five as a campaign, and I think I personally would mostly stick with a minimalist approach to incorporating the town politics, but then weave those politics into something more substantive to fill the one-level gap between Isle of the Abbey and The Final Enemy – get the town unified before the big confrontation (or maybe I would get lazy and just go look for a pre-made 6th-level adventure elsewhere). I would look to run Tammeraut’s Fate as something independent for any random campaign (or later on in a campaign a couple levels after the completion of the Saltmarsh trilogy). Both Salvage Operation and Isle of the Abbey can be done alone as well, although Salvage Operation is more on the nose if you’re aiming for a sea-themed adventure (Isle of the Abbey is set on an island that was previously attacked by pirates, but the challenges faced by the players aren’t really sea-related).

I have a harder time recommending The Styes, because the mood of the adventure feels so out of place to me for the level of the characters involved. I get that fighting aboleths requires a certain power level, but to me part of the Lovecraftian mood is characters who are first learning of the crazy world out there and have a relatively limited ability to do anything about it. 11th level D&D characters are relative powerhouses, able to blow up buildings, slice their way through enemy hordes, and throw lightning at their problems – they’ve been there, done that.

In all, then, Ghosts of Saltmarsh presents a few really good adventures (Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Salvage Operation, Tammeraut’s Fate), a couple that are OK or will require some GM hand-holding (Danger at Dunwater, Isle of the Abbey, The Final Enemy), and one that I’m not too enthused about (The Styes). I think that’s a pretty good ratio. Ghosts of Saltmarsh doesn’t have the same level of star power that Tales of the Yawning Portal did, but it still provides a lot of fodder for the GM to use.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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