I don’t enjoy being the bearer of bad news, particularly because that isn’t something Nerds on Earth is known for. But Ghosts of Saltmarsh, the latest book for D&D 5e isn’t a must-purchase.
To be clear, it isn’t a bad book. A book that updates seven D&D adventures from yesteryear can’t be all bad. In that way, Ghosts of Saltmarsh (GoS) is like Tales from the Yawning Portal, the other D&D 5e book that leans hard into nostalgia by updating seven old adventures, but GoS also includes 40+ pages of crunchy content like rules for ship building.
So, there is certainly stuff to like about Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Now, with that out there, let me walk you through the seven included adventures with my thoughts sprinkled throughout, including what I thought worked and what I didn’t think worked, because that’s why I get paid the big bucks.
There be spoilers ahead! Argh, warned ye I did.
The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh
The first of the seven adventures is designed for 1st level characters, as you’d imagine. It’s an engrossing adventure from 1981 that I actually vaguely remember from when I was a kid.
A two-parter, the first half of The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is set not in a boat, as one would have expected, but in a haunted house. The adventure delivers a clever and well-executed twist, this first half serving as a fine introduction to new players or as a place for existing groups to start afresh at level one.
The second of the two-parter is the best opportunity for players to climb some rigging as the adventurers are asked to return and eliminate the menace that was uncovered in the first half. Set on the Sea Ghost, a smuggler ship that is moored just off the coast, it’s the only thing that ties the overall adventure to the nautical theme.
But before those 1st level characters set their sails for adventure with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, the opening 30 page chapter of Ghosts of Saltmarsh establishes the town of Saltmarsh, a coastal fishing village. The developers do a capable job of making the town of Saltmarsh come alive, including new D&D 5e backgrounds themed for the adventure.
If you don’t know what Greyhawk is, you are hardly alone. Yet the book squarely sets Saltmarsh in the campaign setting world of Greyhawk right down to little details like the inclusion of Saint Cuthbert, the first deity Gary Gygax created for D&D.
How does Greyhawk differ from the Forgotten Realms, the campaign setting world used by most other D&D 5e products? Well, not nearly enough that the tens of thousands of brand new D&D players would be able to notice. Both Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms are of the “generic fantasy” variety, after all.
So, while old-timer D&D players like myself might appreciate the introduction of Greyhawk, it will be confusing to the horde of players who came to the game via D&D 5e. I’m not sure why Wizards of the Coast (Wizards) didn’t accommodate new players and set the book in the Forgotten Realms, allowing old school players to convert it to Greyhawk if they wanted to.
Danger at Dunwater
The next adventure, Danger at Dunwater, is designed for 3rd level characters. Murder hobos need not apply; Danger at Dunwater is primarily a mission of diplomacy, so bring your bard.
Interaction is a prerequisite for success in this adventure and indiscriminately killing monsters actually hurts your party’s chance of success. As an unrepentant murber hobo, I’d rather step on a d4 than play this adventure. But in all fairness, just like the rest of the book it’s well-done and well-presented (production values are off-the-charts) and is a nice addition for a certain type of player.
So much of enjoying a product is a matter of expectations. Honestly, when Wizards sent me the press release that the upcoming book featured ship building rules and nautical adventures, my thoughts obviously went first to high seas adventure and swashbuckling pirates.
Salvage Operation, the adventure designed for 4th level characters, is the adventure that most matches that expectation, being that it takes place aboard a long-missing ship that is adrift at sea.
It’s a great adventure and one that I can imagine groups of all types will enjoy. To be clear, it isn’t swashbuckling. There isn’t any swinging from the crow’s nest. Instead, it’s an adventure of exploration that drips with tension.
Salvage Operation is also the adventure that is the easiest to plop out and drop into pretty much any setting, making it great for a side quest or a one-off in an ongoing campaign.
Isle of the Abbey
Isle of the Abbey is an adventure that works great if a 5th level party imagines themselves as SEAL Team 6. As proof, the adventure beings with a beach landing followed by a skeleton-infested mine field that serves as a fun puzzle.
After that, the adventure is a basic assault mission, as the players are asked to clear an island of evil cultists. While that might not sound like much, it’s a tightly written adventure.
But, again, it’s striking that a nautically-themed book with rules for building boats is largely landlocked. Nor are the adventurers filled with lighthearted derring-do. They are largely grim affairs with a foreboding tone to them.
The Final Enemy
The Final Enemy is designed for 7th level characters and is the third and final act of the loose storyline that began with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and Danger of Dunwater.
Backed by an alliance of merfolk, lizardfolk, and locathah, the players serve as a reconnaissance force tasked to silently infiltrate a submerged sahuagin lair in order to bring back intel that will be used to stage a final full-out assault on the sahuagin.
The sahuagin lair is three levels, which means it’s repetitive to simply sneak around for 60 rooms. An astute GM will need to play it as Metal Gear Solid, ensuring that the tension is ratcheted up all all times.
Whereas the 1983 original outlined only the reconnaissance mission, the updated Ghosts of Saltmarsh version adds a second half that has the players use the intel gained to lead the alliance on the assault.
The book includes consise rules for achieving victory points that determine the success of the assault, because to clear sahuagin room-by-room immediately after the party snuck past sahuagin room-by-room would likely drive your players to a boredom-induced coma.
With a book of disparate reprinted adventures, I wasn’t expecting much narrative cohesion, but I was certainly hoping for more than the vanishingly little the book offers. This is highlighted further in the remaining adventures, which plop down in locales entirely random against what had come before.
Whereas players were the assault team in the Isle of the Abbey adventure, they are the assaulted in Tammeraut’s Fate. The adventure for 9th level characters is slow to get going. Sent on another mission, players first visit a village, Uskarn, before being drawn on a side quest to Firewatch Island.
The island is the site of an unassuming hermitage and it’s here that the climax of the adventure takes place. The payoff is nice as the players must withstand an onslaught of wave after wave of undead that rise up out of the sea. An epilogue to the adventure has players visit a nearby shipwreck to eliminate the undead at their source.
Why does yet another village make a cameo after the first chapter of the book went to lengths to establish Saltmarsh? I don’t know.
The word “Ghost” is in the title of the book, so it’s understandable that it leaned into horror. But the first sentence of the press release that Wizards of the Coast sent me with the book describes the tone and scope of the book as “seafaring adventures.”
So, I don’t think it’s unfair of me to wish the book actually had…uh, more seafaring adventures. Sure, Tammeraut’s Fate had a sunken ship but the reality is that it seems the only prerequisite to be labeled as a “seafaring adventure” in this book was for the adventure to happen on or near a coast. I won’t lie, I wanted a few more eye patches, peg legs, and parrots.
The Styles is designed for 11th level characters and and it’s also the name of the grim, decrepit non-Saltmarsh town that is introduced just for this adventure.
The adventure begins with a murder mystery. Players discover that aboleths have driven a man mad and into a killing spree in order to prompt the gloom and despair necessary to incubate a tiny baby kraken.
Listen, if you think that sounds rad, you’re not alone. Another cool part of the adventure is a large portion of the combat takes place aboard a dry-docked ship dangling from a crane. It’s really cool. And while there is nary an opportunity to peek through a spyglass in the entire book, this adventure at least offers opportunities to walk a gangplank and swing from a mast, even if water is nowhere to be found.
So, who is Ghosts of Saltmarsh for?
- Homebrewers: The ship building rules are well done and more comprehensive than you might think. Included also are random encores at sea, sea combat rules, crew member frameworks, aquatic environment samples, oodles of sample little islands, and more.
- Greyhawk enthusiasts: Being that Ghosts of Sandmarsh is set in Greyhawk, a core group of long-time D&D players will be pleased. They’ll also leave feeling a little disappointed as well, considering the book is just a teaser for Greyhawk consisting mainly of the town of Saltmarsh.
- Poachers: There are a couple of solid adventures included if you are the type that likes to lift adventures here and there.
- Completionists: Some nerds (like me) just gotta have ’em all.
Who might not be interested in Ghosts of Saltmarsh?
- Pirate enthusiasts: If you are looking for classic high seas adventuring tropes you’ll be disappointed in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. There isn’t a single treasure map in the entire book and you’ll never get to shout “Land ho!” as you’re basically on land the entire book.
- New players or dungeon masters: You’ll likely be confused if you have come to D&D through 5th edition because the setting isn’t what has come in any of the 5e books that came before it. Unless it sounds fun spending 10 hours reading fan site Greyhawk wikis to get up to speed, you’ll instead need to spend time making everything fit the Forgotten Realms.
- Busy dungeons masters: If you are looking for a campaign that’s ready to run then Ghosts of Saltmarsh isn’t for you. It’s best left to folks who like to spend the time pulling out bits here and there to adapt to their narrative.
You can pre-order Ghosts of Saltmarsh here.
[Disclosure: Wizards of the Coast sent Nerds on Earth a copy of Ghosts of Saltmarsh in exchange for an honest review.]