Review by Art Schmidt
Premiering today, the next adventure sourcebook for Dungeons & Dragons is entitled Ghosts of Saltmarsh, a title that evokes both the haunted nature of many of the adventures contained within it, including the titular Saltmarsh trilogy from D&D’s 1st Edition. Saltmarsh is the first D&D adventure book to be officially set in the world of Greyhawk, the original D&D Fantasy world setting used in 1st and 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons before Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms captured the roleplaying community’s imagination, a fact sure to delight many long-time fans of the setting. It includes a brief introduction of Greyhawk and provides some background information about the Kingdom of Keoland, where the coastal town of Saltmarsh is set.
The book also provides three alternate “factions”, in place of the standard five factions of the Forgotten Realms: The Traditionalists, the Loyalists, and the Scarlet Brotherhood. Included are NPCs, motivations, and background information enough to provide players with the ability to use them in place of the standard factions. Of course, the Realms factions can easily still be used with a little work on the DM’s part.
Similar to Tales from the Yawning Portal, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is primarily a collection of seven adventures set in a maritime area, rather than a full campaign in and of itself as with other hardcover books (such as Tomb of Annihilation and Dungeon of the Mad Mage). The Saltmarsh adventures are designed to be inserted into an ongoing campaign and ran as independent adventures. However, unlike with Yawning Portal, there is an outline provided in Saltmarsh which allows them to be stitched together into a campaign, with room for other published adventures or excursions of the DM’s design to be inserted in between.
Three of the adventures are based on the Saltmarsh Trilogy of D&D modules, first published in the early 1980s by TSR’s United Kingdom office (hence “U” in the original module designations “U1” through “U3”). The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater, and The Final Enemy presented players with an in-depth plot, multiple twists in story and characters, and a deeper roleplaying experience than was available at the time from most other published adventures. In fact, one entire adventure is designed to be roleplayed almost entriely through, with very few combat opportunities (unless the party started fighting with their potential allies), something rarely seen at the time.
Today the roleplaying populace at large demands a heavy, story-driven narrative for their gaming dollars, and the popularity of Twitch, YouTube and other streaming platforms have brought awareness to how enjoyable and accessible the roleplaying experience can be. But 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons was dominated by the likes of The Keep on the Borderlands, the Slavers and Giants series, and the penultimate Tomb of Horrors, most of which were based around the same general idea: “Hey, there’s a hole in the ground and it’s full of monsters and treasure; see how far you can get without dying.”
And players were plenty happy with those scenarios, enjoying the experience of simply playing the game without bothering to learn a false history of an imaginary town or keep track of the medieval names of NPCs (many adventures of the time did not even bother to name their NPCs, most famously the works of the game’s creator, Gary Gygax). But the game, and most of its players, have matured since those days. Today, the story is the thing, and the team at Wizards of the Coast has taken plenty of pains to infuse some already story-laden adventures with even more depth and opportunities for players to sink their teeth into these locales and their denizens.
The other four adventures are reprinted and updated for 5th Edition from the pages of Dungeon Magazine, the adventure-based gamers mag previously published by TSR and then Wizards of the Coast. These excellent adventures are given not only perfect updates to 5th Edition rules, but also expanded in areas and tailored to fit the Saltmarsh coast where the entire book is set. There are also extensive notes and additional materials for adding in more adventures around these settings, which make them a treasure trove of story for the inventive DM. These adventures include Salvage Operation from Dungeon Issue #123 (designed by Wizards’ own Mike Mearls for a party of 4th level), Isle of the Abbey from Dungeon #34 (for a 5th level party), Tameraut’s Fate from Dungeon #106 (designed for a 9th level party) and The Styes from Dungeon #121 (designed here for 11th level characters).
Along with the original Saltmarsh adventures The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater, and The Final Enemy (designed for levels 1, 3, and 7, respectively), these adventures can be stitched together fairly seamlessly with the materials provided, along with some work on the DM’s part to create or expand some additional quests at 6th, 8th and 10th levels, to form a complete campaign that will take a party from 1st through 12th levels.
To give this collection of maritime adventures some gusto, the book contains an extensive appendix on ships and travel across the seas and oceans of fantasy worlds. Included are detailed descriptions and stat blocks for a half dozen ships of various sizes, and rules for running ship encounters and voyages. Option rules for running a ship’s crew, upgrading the hull, movement, combat abilties and other items, and weather and encounter tables for oceanic voyages are also included. And though none of the adventures include the need for nautical travel or encounters, the rules and ship blocks can easily be used to add in encounters with pirates, sea-faring races, or deep-dwelling creatures for some flavor.
To round out the book, there is a 25-page section containing NPCs and monsters found in these adventures. There are, as always, some repeats from other adventure sourcebooks (Tomb of Annihilation and Storm Giant’s Thunder, primarily) or from supplemental rulebooks Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, but there are a handful of creatures and NPCs new to 5th Edition including the harpy matriarch, kish, various sahuagin, and new stat block variations for lizardmen, koalinth, and bullywugs, among others.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh is also being published with an alternative cover, designed by San Diego artist N.C. Winters. The cover continues Wizards’ current trend of publishing most hardcover books in two covers, but this marks the first time the company has done so for an adventure book; previous alternate covers were done for the rule supplements Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, as well for the newly-republished core rulebook set (Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual).
All in all, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a well-done adventure book, full of useful updates to beloved modules of the past, and can serve as either its own campaign or to provide players with a host of adventures to supplement an ongoing campaign. The waterborne adventure rules and ship information is well suited to take any adventuring party in search of fame and glory on the high seas. Ghosts of Saltmarsh is available on Amazon here and via other booksellers today.