DND: Ghosts of Saltmarsh Preview - The Ocean is the Scariest Dungeon

Published: July 11, 2019 1:00 PM /


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Your wizard’s seen every dungeon from here to Neverwinter. Your fighter’s bested hundreds of goblins in the hill-country. Your bard’s lifted the spirits of tavern patrons all along the Sword Coast. But, as exciting as all that is, what do you do if your group wants a change of scenery? Well, it’s high time to hoist the sails, adventurers, as Dungeons & Dragons takes a trip to the wild seas with their newest supplement Ghosts of Saltmarsh

The new book, released in May 2019, is all about salty sea dogs, epic coastal clashes, and lurking underwater terrors. Ghosts of Saltmarsh fleshes out the titular seaside town of Saltmarsh, provides a series of adventures and additional player options, and includes new rules for ship-to-ship combat. But how does it read, and how does it play? 

Ghosts of Saltmarsh

The seaport village of Saltmarsh is integral to the adventures laid out in this supplement, and is wonderfully realized in its pages. Along with details of the important places (like the nefarious smuggler’s tavern The Empty Net) and people (like the dapper but conniving Gellan Primewater) of the town, they’ve also created a great political undercurrent to thread through the town and ensuing adventures. 

Factions vying for power in an isolated locale is Dungeons & Dragons’ bread and butter, and here they pull it off more seamlessly than they ever have in the past, entangling the town in the machinations of The Loyalists (who want to see the king’s influence and protection grow in Saltmarsh), The Traditionalists (who want Saltmarsh to remain its wild self), and the secretive Scarlet Brotherhood (who… are basically evil, magical racists). DM’s can ignore these bits and pieces of lore, but threading them into a run of Saltmarsh adventures creates a well-rounded experience.

The star of this book is, of course, the seven seafaring adventures reprinted from previous editions and updated for the 5th edition ruleset. These include The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (1981), Danger at Dunwater (1982), Salvage Operation (2005), Isle of the Abbey (1992), The Final Enemy (1983), Tammeraut’s Fate (2004), and The Styes (2005), and they can be played in a somewhat linear fashion, from adventure to adventure, with the same group of characters. I won’t tread too deeply into the specifics of these adventures, but they’ll see players exploring a seaside haunted house, interacting with a colony of Lizardfolk, hunting for clues to a series of murders in a run-down port, and much more. Each adventure has been completely revamped to be fully run as a 5e game, with 90% of all monster stats found in the fifth edition Monster Manual. The rest, not covered in the manual, are found at the back of the book. Storywise, updates and changes to the original text seem to be fairly minimal, serving mostly to smooth overly-complicated text and modernize the skill checks to the current system (though I'll admit I haven't read all of the adventures in their original form, this assumption is based on the few I have read in the past).

In my homebrew home game, I slotted in adventure hooks and exciting moments from several of the adventures, and plan to run my players through most of The Styes the second they get near to shore again (right now they’re traipsing through a sweltering desert, dreaming of the salt-spray air of Saltmarsh). And while all of these adventures are perfectly suitable to add to your own campaign, DM's can also begin a brand new campaign with this book that will take new characters from level 1 to level 12, a hearty and lengthy adventuring experience.

There are plenty of hooks, clues, and curious moments to keep players interested in exploring this coastal town, but the Ghosts also does a lovely job of threading the needle for the Dungeon Master, if they need help creating a through line. In a section right before the breakdown of each adventure, the book offers ways to loop the secretive Scarlet Brotherhood into each adventure, offering small revisions designed to paint them as the ongoing villains of the campaign. For example, one adventure which would normally see characters facing off against (or working with) Lizardfolk, offers a variant where an NPC who's been fed misinformation from the brotherhood about Lizardfolk urges the players to eradicate them. Little, smart tweaks like this add heaps of opportunity for well-laid story moments, reinforce the Scarlet Brotherhood as conniving, meddling evil doers, and hint at larger machinations happening behind the scenes.

In addition to linking these adventures together through the Scarlet Brotherhood, the book also offers connection points to each of the modules in D&D's previous book of reproduced adventures, Tales from the Yawning Portal. By placing certain unspecified Yawning Portal adventure locations near Saltmarsh, and linking villains from the previous text to the current world, a Saltmarsh campaign can be lengthened even further.

The world around Saltmarsh is also lovingly described in great detail, including random coastal events, points of interest like the fortified outpost of Burle, and the deadly drowned forest and the ruthless Dreadwood. With so many places to explore and mysteries to uncover, DM's can really create one of the best sandbox gaming experiences I've seen in a book full of pre-written adventures.

The appendix of Ghosts of Saltmarsh features a few nifty magical items suited to the setting, a collection of new foes your adventurers will face throughout the campaigns, and, most impressively, a large section on ships and the sea. The section covering different types of ships is extensive, with rules, special notes, and full stat blocks for ships like Galleys, Keelboats, Longships, and even Row Boats. Instead of just serving as a vehicle with a base speed, there are now rules for sample crew players could find (or need to hire) on a ship, using oars and/or sails, weaponry available on different ships, and plenty of other small details. For the nautically-minded, I can't think of a better rundown of all the options available. 

The Bottom Line:

Like several of Wizards of the Coast’s other adventure modules, this is the perfect supplement if you’re finding yourself in a creative slump as a Dungeon Master. It’s not quite as fully realized and built-from-the-ground-up as Curse of Strahd, but Ghosts of Saltmarsh perhaps offers more flexibility, and is a place players can leave and return to as the story dictates (unlike Strahd's Barovia, which locked players in from start to grisly finish). I do think this is more a book for Dungeon Masters, as about 80% of the content is adventures that players shouldn’t read and spoil for themselves. But for the DM looking for something fresh, Ghosts of Saltmarsh offers a boat load. So hurry up, DM’s, railroad your group into quickly finishing off the big bad of your current campaign, and send them off into the high seas.

Get This Game If:

- You’re looking to spice up your regular RPG adventure.

- You love pirate, sailing, and smuggler stories.

- You want to bring classic adventures from D&D days past into your current 5e campaign.

Avoid This Game If:

- You’re just a player and aren’t planning on running your own game.

- You can’t swim.

What do you think of the latest run of D&D supplements? Do they add to your game or are you a hardcore home brewer? Let us know in the comments below!

This review copy of Ghosts of Saltmarsh was provided by Wizards of the Coast.

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