A book that is often overlooked when compared to the other offerings of the growing fifth edition library from Wizards of the Coast, Ghosts of Saltmarsh walks the very tenuous line of bringing old adventures to 5e with new mechanics far better than most. It is a solid book, with resources and mechanics, but overall gets lost when compared to more popular adventures such as Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus or themed adventures such as Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, and doesn’t enjoy the same fondness of adventure collections like Tales from the Yawning Portal. Ghosts of Saltmarsh is primarily a collection of seven adventures that were previously published across multiple editions of D&D, and now gathering for 5e. It features the return of the famous setting of Saltmarsh, a common adventure starting point in Greyhawk, which was a unique departure for Wizards of the Coast in 5th Edition, and may be a reason why it sits less prominently within the greater library of adventure and sourcebooks that are overwhelmingly focused on the Forgotten Realms.
The array of adventures ranges from 1st to 11th level, they are varied in style and objectives, and the book provides additional opportunities to incorporate each into established campaigns or homebrewed adventures to make them more than standalone material. With the additional stat blocks and sailing mechanics, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is well written in its combination of multiple dynamic adventures and sourcebook material.
Starting with an introduction to the setting and city overview of Saltmarsh, the book begins much like a campaign sourcebook. In truth, it is one of the most comprehensive resources regarding a significant city or point of interest I have seen from Wizards of the Coast. It is a resource I have gone back to multiple times when creating original cities of significance in homebrewed settings, or for building out cities that have a more central role in an adventure or campaign. This chapter focuses on more than just the city and its inhabitants, but also details about the region, the nearby coast, and dangers that lurk in and around the city.
It covers multiple important aspects of a location, all tools that come into play for Dungeon Masters making the most out of their settings. There are multiple subsections, each highlighting a different aspect, group, or mechanics found in Saltmarsh. Some, like Politics and Factions, give insight into groups that will come into play to various degrees in the adventures that make up the rest of the book. This is also a good intersection of mechanics from other books, such as Renown from the Dungeon Master’s Guide when dealing with multiple factions. There is a detailed Saltmarsh Overview which looks at everything from Law and Order to Commerce to the Mood of the Town. It also includes a list of locations in Saltmarsh, from shops to the town jail and more for the town of roughly five thousand residents. If there is a question about a part of the town, more than likely it can be answered in that section, whether it’s selling animal pelts, buying adventuring goods, or breaking out of jail. The Saltmarsh chapter expands Downtime Activities from those added to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, but several are given a new and unique twist to fit within the setting of a coastal town.
The Saltmarsh Region subsection gives Dungeon Masters details about travel, random encounters, location-based encounters, dangers, and other strange aspects of the region. It has an accompanying hex map for reference in overland and coastal travel, showing the extent of the wider region around Saltmarsh. There are points of interest like fortified outposts, dwarven mines, and a sahuagin fortress; and geographical features such as cliffs used for diving, dangerous forests, marshes, winding rivers, and other hidden treasures. Each location has its own added description, and several have multiple opportunities for danger or exploration. There are also details about the Azure Sea surrounding the coastline that Saltmarsh calls its home, with similar listings of points of interest, details about travel, random encounter tables, and more.
This chapter ends with suggested ways to incorporate the shortened adventures into an extended campaign set in the Saltmarsh region. It also gives expanded options for filling out such a campaign with the adventures from Tales from the Yawning Portal and adapting them more than just putting them in a new location, but inspiration for how and why such adventures would be occurring and intriguing to characters. For Dungeon Masters looking to create a longer adventure, but unsure of how to fill the gaps between Saltmarsh adventures, incorporating adventures from Tales from the Yawning Portal is a great way to augment a campaign with its similar offering of multiple adventures of varied lengths across multiple levels.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh contains seven unique adventures, ranging for short exploration to extended rescue operations. While not designed to be a continuous campaign, the book provides tools to help lead one adventure into the next.
Beginning with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, an adventure first published in 1981, it is designed for a party of 1st level players and will advance them to 3rd level if they complete both parts of the adventure. This adventure serves as a strong introduction to the region with a plot revolving around smugglers and their operation around Saltmarsh.
In the followup to the events of the first adventure, Danger at Dunwater is written for 3rd level characters. It is a roleplay and interaction-heavy adventure, where both are a requirement for success, not simply one option of many. After dealing with the smugglers, the group is sent to scout and then gain the respect of a tribe of lizardfolk near the Dunwater, a winding river near Saltmarsh.
Salvage Operation is written for 4th level characters. This adventure was written by Mike Mearls, published in 2005, and is unique in that it takes place entirely at sea. Characters are sent by a formerly-wealthy noble to retrieve valuable goods aboard the wreckage of his ship in exchange for a handsome reward.
The following adventure, Isle of the Abbey, is designed for a party of 5th level characters. The party is sent by a mariners’ guild to clear an island overrun with undead so they might claim it in order to build a lighthouse. Through the adventure, characters navigate through skeleton infested dunes with a lingering potential for wave-based combat, eventually making their way to the abbey atop the rocky island.
An adventure written for 7th level characters, The Final Enemy can see them advance to 8th level by the end. The party has plenty of opportunities to fight, but they must think tactically in their task of facing the Sahuagin Fortress, in order to not find themselves overwhelmed by greater numbers. The fortress itself is massive, detailed, and is a remarkably dangerous location. The purpose of this adventure is to get players to think creatively to avoid unnecessary fights with a superior enemy.
In a dark, fiendish adventure written for 9th level characters, Tammeraut’s Fate can serve as a flashpoint for a greater campaign or story arc with the themes of undead out at sea. Players will uncover the secret of the pirate Syrgaul and his war galley, Tammeraut. This adventure has brilliant wave based defense while holding the strongpoint, and tests the players’ creativity and resourcefulness while under mounting stress.
The final adventure in the book, The Styes, is an adventure that “feels like it was pulled straight from the mind of H.P. Lovecraft.” Written for a party of 11th level, it has players investigating for clues, uncovering the dealings of a sinister cult. The Styes brings to bear followers of what might be the most destructive entity in the history of Dungeons and Dragons, the Cult of Tharizdun.
Sailing Mechanics and Other Resources
In one of the largest, and possibly most impactful, mechanics supplements to fifth edition, Appendix A contains Of Ships and the Sea, first previewed in the Unearthed Arcana by the same name. Beginning with mechanics for ships, sailing, combats, upgrades, and encounters, it is a wealth of resources and mechanics for Dungeon Masters. It explores expanded rules for sailing and ship based combat beyond simple travel, there are multiple stat blocks and classifications of ships to choose from, and lots of customizable potential. Ocean hazards from mundane and magical storms are presented as options, as well as whirlpools, eldritch mists, and more. Encounters and location details for islands, coastlines, and underwater are great supplements for location based adventures, and several in this book are written all ready to be explored. The mechanics presented in this book are not necessarily used in the Saltmarsh adventures, instead presented as supplements for adventures in between, or for another ocean-based adventure or campaign. This is reinforced by the expanded mechanics for travel at sea, ocean environs, mysterious islands, and underwater locations such as the Cover Reef, Wreck of the Marshall, and Warthalkeel Ruins.
No adventure book would be complete with the inclusion of new stat blocks, and Ghosts of Saltmarsh has a thorough supplement of monsters and NPCs. These are stats for monsters supplemental to the Monster Manual, but some are repeated in other resources, such as Volo’s Guide to Monsters. There are 56 stat blocks from monsters to NPCs to beasts and creatures of the ocean. It adds much needed variety to ocean, coastline, and underwater monsters and creatures with greater offerings of varied mechanics and challenge ratings.
It’s unfortunate that Ghosts of Saltmarsh hasn’t enjoyed the same popularity that Tales from the Yawning Portal has, despite the two publications being very similar and it’s very strong offering. The adventures contained in this book are varied in both style and theme, and brings a new environment region for adventuring and exploring. Coastlines in D&D are not uncommon, but the added level of detail and provided mechanics for coastline, ocean, and underwater environments are taken to a new level. Whether for the emphasis on these adventures being written for fifth edition, the new Ships and Sailing mechanics for ocean-based adventures, or mechanics for exploring and adventuring those settings, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a solid adventure book and even more useful sourcebook.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh is published by Wizards of the Coast.
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