NewbieDM Review: Ghosts of Saltmarsh

Posted on June 1, 2019 by

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Let me just say it… Ghosts of Saltmarsh is the book Tales of Yawning Portal should have been.

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It’s a book filled with adventures that can be played independently of each other, or as a cohesive campaign that spans levels 1-12. It’s also a mini setting, a new rulebook, and a collection of adventuring sites for seafaring scenarios. It’s a fun book, and in my humble opinion it’s an immediate instant classic for the slowly expanding 5e library. Do I recommended it? I absolutely do, with a caveat…

I DO NOT recommend the special edition cover, as it’s just not very good. Not the art, but the print job of the cover itself. It’s dark, dull, and does not do the artwork any justice. I’d go with the regular cover, and skip the special edition one. Trust me on this, I own both.

So… what is Ghosts of Saltmarsh? It’s a 5e book containing seven nautical themed adventures converted from previous editions of the game, going as far back as 1e, through 3e. It also includes rules for running sea-faring campaigns and ship to ship combat, and adventure sites DMs can use to challenge their players as they explore the seas. It also includes new monsters, magic items, and a few player backgrounds to tie PCs to Saltmarsh itself.

The first thing worth pointing out is that GoS is set in the world of Greyhawk. It’s not implied, it’s not hinted at, or wink-winked… It is completely and unequivocally set in the World of Greyhawk. This is a major development for a 5e hardcover, as Wizards of the Coast had made Faerun and the Forgotten Realms the default 5e setting. GoS goes all in on Greyhawk, defining the area the fishing village of Saltmarsh is set in, the power players and their goals, and the possibilities of a campaign centered around the area.

The book devotes the entire first chapter to the town of Saltmarsh–defining the area around it, the history, the factions at play, major NPCs, etc. It’s a mini setting from which a savvy DM can launch a long term campaign with very little more setting information required. It includes a full color map of the town itself (adapted from the 3.5e DMG2 version of Saltmarsh), and a B&W map of the region where Saltmarsh lies.

This first chapter also includes campaign threads for each adventure in the book that tie back to the factions, essentially creating a campaign outline, all centered around people and places in the region. It’s a fantastic tool for DM’s, because this book alone can provide an entire campaign spanning 12 levels!

But there’s more!

It also ties the adventures found in Tales of the Yawning Portal to these factions as well! So now you can really set the Tomb of Horrors or Against the Giants firmly in Greyhawk where they belong!

Let’s talk about the adventures themselves.

In 1981, the UK office of TSR Games published an adventure titled “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh”, written by Dave J. Browne with Don Turnbull. It was followed by two sequels, “Danger at Dunwater” and “The Final Enemy”. These adventures were centered around the coastal fishing town of Saltmarsh, and were notable for not being set in yet another dungeon, but rather a spooky haunted house. It’s a classic of the game and rightly so, a fun adventure that showed where else the game could go as far as story and plot. Ghosts of Saltmarsh takes these three adventures and updates them to the current 5e rules, along with four other adventures adapted from the pages of the venerable Dungeon Magazine. These four adventures are the following:

  • “Salvage Operation” by Mike Mearls (Dungeon 123)
  • “Isle of the Abbey” by Randy Maxwell (Dungeon 34)
  • “Tammeraut’s Fate” by Greg Vaughn (Dungeon 106)
  • “The Styes” by Richard Pett (Dungeon 121)

Of these, The Styes, a Lovecraftian tale involving aboleths and a kraken, is probably the best remembered, although all are classics in their own right and deserve to be part of a nautical compilation.

Note: I wrote a thread on twitter back in February 2019 about these original adventures–you can find it here. 

It’s worth noting, and recently this has been a much talked about issue with WOTC’s hardcovers, is that the maps continue to be old school style maps, reminiscent of the early days of the game.

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These aesthetic choices bring forth tons of opinions on the matter. I personally like this style, it’s easier to translate to the table, but I also understand the needs of players who play digitally and want a more detailed mapping experience. It’s a tricky balance to say the least.

Another thing on the maps… pay attention to the compass on the maps… north is not always up!

The rest of the book is rounded out with new rules for nautical combat, magic items, monsters, and adventuring locales one may find while out at sea.

Stat blocks for six types of ships are provided:

  • Galley
  • Keelboat
  • Longship
  • Rowboat
  • Sailing Ship
  • Warship

And players are given the opportunity to fill six different officer roles on a ship:

Captain. The captain issues orders. The best captains have high Intelligence and Charisma scores, as well as proficiency with water vehicles and the Intimidation and Persuasion skills.

First Mate. This specialist keeps the crew’s morale high by providing supervision, encouragement, and discipline. A first mate benefits from a high Charisma score, as well as proficiency with the Intimidation and Persuasion skills.

Bosun. The bosun (or boatswain) provides technical advice to the captain and crew and leads repair and maintenance efforts. A good bosun has a high Strength score, as well as proficiency with carpenter’s tools and the Athletics skill.

Quartermaster. The quartermaster plots the ship’s course, relying on knowledge of nautical charts and a study of weather and sea conditions. A reliable quartermaster tends to have a high Wisdom score, as well as proficiency with navigator’s tools and the Nature skill.

Surgeon. The ship’s surgeon tends to injuries, keeps illnesses from spreading throughout the ship, and oversees sanitation. A capable surgeon benefits from a high Intelligence score, as well as proficiency with herbalism kits and the Medicine skill.

Cook. A ship’s cook works with the limited ingredients aboard a ship to make meals. A skilled cook keeps the crew’s morale in top shape, while a poor one drags down the entire crew’s performance. A talented cook has a high Constitution score, as well as proficiency with brewer’s supplies and cook’s utensils.

I like this section because it gives players a role to fill while on a ship and something to do.

The adventuring locales section of the book is more fleshed out than I expected it to be, as it includes mini adventures that can provide a night’s worth of gaming while the party is out exploring the seas aboard their ship.

I had the opportunity to interview Mike Mearls recently about this book. It’s worth listening to that interview to get a better understanding of how it all came together, but essentially they took lessons from Tales of the Yawning Portal, and applied them to this book. It should definitely serve as a new template moving forward:

  • Mini setting
  • Adventures tying back to it
  • Rules additions to complement the theme
  • Extra locales, items, and monsters

Do I like it? Yes. I already ran a group on roll20 through the first half of Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and had a lot of fun. It’s the book Yawning Portal should have been. Tying these adventures together to a mini campaign setting (Greyhawk!) and creating a cohesive narrative around them is a great tool for newbie dm’s, as well as more experienced folks looking to pick up and play. The backgrounds tying the PCs to the town of Saltmarsh give them an instant investment in the setting, and the new rules for ships are fun, and can be expanded for future use (think spaceships!). There are tons of charts to roll on to create ships, names, all sorts of things. It’s filled with content to get you going on a nautical journey and not look back for a long time.

Worth noting that this book is definitely DM facing. There is very little here for players, and if you are are a player, please don’t spoil yourself… let your DMs get this book–look, chip in to help them pay for it, but sit back and enjoy the, eh.. voyage… that they’ll put you on with it. There are tons of surprises and neat stuff in this book worth going into unspoiled.

I strongly recommend Ghosts of Saltmarsh. It is a solid add to the 5e canon. It’s the book Tales of the Yawning Portal should have been, and a new template for this type of adventure book moving forward.

Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast provided a review copy of this book. 


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You can also support my work by visiting Amazon.com for your next rpg related purchase. All links to Amazon in this article are linked to my Amazon Associates account.

If you’d like, also check out the following products:

Ghosts of Saltmarsh

D&D: Tomb of Annihilation

D&D Tomb of Annihilation Dice

Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated

Tales from the Yawning Portal

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Posted in: 5e D&D, Gaming