Ghosts of Saltmarsh Review

Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a recent release from Wizards of the Coast for the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition roleplaying game. In the interest of full disclosure, we here at Full Metal RPG were given this book free of charge by Wizards of the Coast for the purposes of review, and will be raffling off the limited edition cover variant. Ghosts of Saltmarsh (GoS) is a series of nautically themed adventures, some of which are part of a linked narrative, while others are stand alone dungeon crawls. The adventures are appropriate for various character levels, not necessarily flowing into each other easily. Often there are level gaps between where one adventure would end and another would begin, or no threads tying the narrative together.

The intro of the book details the town of Saltmarsh, and is easily the section from which I would derive the most utility. Set in Greyhawk, Saltmarsh is not part of the current Forgotten Realms default setting, but there are sidebars about porting things over to other settings in the line. The town is laid out and explained in a way that makes sense. The various dramatis personae and factions dwelling within the town are explained with enough detail to allow the GM to flesh out and explore the politics and tensions. The are mentions made to the Pirate Kings and various kingdoms, but no details given on those factions, so expect to do some additional research if you would like to include any of that content in your game. Saltmarsh is listed as having a population of 5,000, with 100 active guards, which feels incredibly high given the talk about how much smuggling is reported to occur. That is one guard for every 50 people. Assuming the average family is 4 people, each guard could personally inspect 3 dwellings a day without having to exceed a five day work week. How good are these smugglers? Or perhaps how lazy are these guards? That quibble aside, the town would make for a nice grim dark low fantasy location for something like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or something more OSR and less epically heroic than D&D. At a certain point, the type of characters you grow into in the World’s Most popular Roleplaying Game are no longer going to want to hang around what is basically a glorified fishing village.

After the chapter on the town come the adventure modules. There are seven in all: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater, Salvage Operation, Isle of the Abbey, Final Enemy, Tammeraut’s Fate, and The Styes. Finally, the book contains three appendices: Of Ships and the Sea, Magic Items, and Monsters and NPCs.

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is billed as a haunted house adventure, which I found an intriguing prospect. As someone who loves horror, I was very interested in what they were going to do with this concept. The answer, disappointingly, was that the house is not really haunted at all, and is instead a fairly standard “murder all the baddies” room by room search. This felt like a missed opportunity to do something really unique with the line and grow it in a new direction. The adventure is fine, but nothing remarkable. I would do something different with it, playing more on the haunted house angle.

The next adventure, Danger at Dunwater, is intended for 3rd level characters.  Continuing off of the first, it sends the characters on a mission of diplomacy to some lizard folk. While the leader of the council impresses on the characters that this is an information gathering mission, it is entirely possible to slaughter your way through the dungeon and not bother with negotiation at all. Given the usual way these adventures run, this is how I would expect things to play out. I prefer this adventure over the one that preceded it, as smart characters can avoid a fight entirely, though I would certainly make it very clear from the outset that killing absolutely everyone is not the desired solution of the town leadership. With branching paths and multiple means to success, this tale is one of the more compelling to appear in the book, though by no means the best adventure.

Following the crawl through the home of the lizard folk is Salvage Operation, and adventure for 4th level characters. This adventure is not connected to the first two in any way, and sends the party off to retrieve a chest from the cargo hold of a nearby shipwrecked craft. The confines are tight and the idea of exploring a derelict craft is appealing, but I wish it had gone for a more supernatural theme instead of the more standard fantasy creatures employed. Spoilers: Servants of Lloth show up! Good old Lloth, who as the Drow spider goddess of course makes perfect sense as a villain in an adventure set at sea. I suppose octopuses have eight legs, too, so maybe there is some kinship. I wish they had played up that angle, honestly. This is shortest adventure in the book, coming in at all of seven pages.

Next is Isle of the Abbey, intended for 5th level characters. The town would like to claim a small, strategically located island in order to build a lighthouse. The island is home to burned out abbey, which is itself home to cultists who survived a recent attack by pirates. Getting on the island involves making landfall on a beach, with threats buried beneath the sand. From there the party explores the ruin and drives out the remaining cultists. Rather standard fare, honestly.

Continuing the story from Danger at Dunwater is the Final Enemy, an adventure for characters of 7th level. Having either murdered all the lizardfolk, or agreed to aid them against a common foe, the party is once more sent on a reconnaissance mission is the stronghold of the Sahuagin. This is a slog through a dungeon packed densely with foes. It is possible to complete the investigation without needing to resort to violence, but not probable given the number of threats contained within the confines. There are some nice set pieces here, and it can be a little overwhelming in spots.

Next is Tammeraut’s Fate, an adventure for 9th level characters. The characters are sent to investigate an island recently reclaimed by a religious order. Of course, something has gone terribly wrong, and the party must perform a room by room exploration to ferret out the enemy and stop a terrible evil hidden in the depths of the sea. Spoiler: It is Orcus. It is always Orcus. I do not know why you cannot have an adventure without Orcus showing up as the bad guy at some point, but here he is, for anyone who was worried he would not make an appearance in a nautical adventure and the writers might use a more appropriate villain instead. When I think of the ocean, I think of Orcus and Lloth.

At least we come to the final adventure, and the standout for me: the Stye, for characters of 11th level. This is a street level, Lovecraftian style murder mystery with dark conspiracies and an evil cult. It is probably the best arc of the lot, however at 11th level are characters really interested in skulking back alleyways and dealing with peasants getting murdered? It is a shame that so many of the iconic and disturbing monsters are reserved for characters reaching a point where they can venture to other planes and take in strange, otherworldly sights. 

There are three appendices, the first of which covers ship stats and ocean travel, which I suppose is useful for people who want that level of detail and immersion in their game. This seems like it would have been good information to have at the front of the book, given that several of the adventures involve travel over open water and will likely require the characters to have access to a ship. There are rules for ship combats and environmental threats and challenges, along with tools for undersea and shipwreck adventures. The next two entries cover magic items and NPCs and monsters appearing in the book, which is to be expected. Nothing too controversial. This is the portion of the book most likely to entice the nautically inclined.

In terms of physical quality, this is a Wizards of the Coast product, with high production values and the quality of art, maps, and construction you would expect. You will not be disappointed in the book as an artifact. WotC makes quality goods.

Ghosts of Saltmarsh is an odd little book. Clearly not meant for new GMs or players, it is a nostalgic uplift of older modules from various sources. The different adventures all orbit around the sea, but it all feels disjointed. I would expect GoS to appeal to older, more experienced gamers, the kind of people more than capable of taking an old adventure and tooling it to the current edition themselves, should they so desire. Perhaps it is merely meant for aquatic enthusiasts, but the lack of rules for pirates or a royal navy faction would seem to limit the appeal to that audience as well. It gives rules on constructing ships and ocean travel and environmental threats, but was this something the community was clamoring for? I have been disconnected from the Dungeons & Dragons world for so long that perhaps this is the case. In the end, I would expect the people this type of content speaks to know who they are, and completionists will purchase a copy because that is the nature of being a completionist. I would have a difficult time recommending this book to anyone who is not enthralled by the core concept and the idea of oceanic adventures. There is not enough there to entice me to do much with the book.