Review: Ghosts of Saltmarsh

The spring 2019 release for Dungeons & Dragons is a compilation of older adventures. Like 2017’s Tales From the Yawning Portal. Like that product, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a “low energy update” of adventures from previous editions: it replaces monsters with ones from the current rules and updates the math in the adventurers themselves, but otherwise makes few revisions or changes. This isn’t like Curse of Strahd where the adventure is revised, updated, and expanded.

(Very likely because working on a big storyline adventure takes more than 6 months, so adventure designer Chris Perkins doesn’t have the time to manage two full original adventures each year).

Unlike Tales From the Yawning Portal, this product features slightly less well-known modules as well as some deep cuts pulled from Dragon Magazine. While this book may not contain new content, it might easily contain adventures that are new to even experienced gamers.

Personally, I wasn’t familiar with any of the adventures in this book, as the U-series escaped my notice as a young gamer. This was my first reading of those modules: I’m coming into them fresh and without nostalgia.

What It Is?

A 256-page full-colour hardcover, Ghosts of Saltmarsh contains seven adventures running from levels 1 to 11. At 157-pages, these adventures fill the majority of the book. But only just.

Prior to the adventure is a 29-page introduction to the small town of Saltmarsh, which is the starting point of three adventures, and can serve as the opening location of a number of other adventures in this book. Following the seven adventures is a 40-page appendix called Of Ships and the Sea (recycling an old title from 2nd Edition). This contains 14-ish pages on running and managing sailing ships, with the rest detailing hazards, ocean environs, 5-pages of random encounters, some mysterious islands, before ending on a couple underwater encounter areas.

The book ends with 27-pages of monsters, containing roughly 56 stat blocks. Some of these are new, but a few are being reprinted from past monster books, so owning those books isn’t required to run this adventure. Notable new monsters include the locathah, variant sahuagin and lizardfolk, skum, and even koalinth (aquatic hobgoblins).

Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

Originally 32 pages for levels 1-3. Now 23  pages for level 1.

Published as U1, a stand-alone module. This adventure reads… okay. The hook is the adventuring party investigating a haunted house, which turns out to be less haunted than expected. (This feels obvious from a metagame perspective: what adventure would put 1st level characters against ghosts?) At its core, this adventure is basically a dungeon crawl through a rotting house and its cellar with a secondary follow-up dungeon crawl. At the time it was probably revolutionary, but thirty-five years later and the twist is less… twisty.

Nitpicky complaints aside, this adventure holds up fairly well. I imagine this module plays much, much better than it reads. The players’ paranoia can make them overreact, and a skillful DM can play off their expectations. You can have a lot of fun with this adventure. I’ve run a few fake-out adventures in my years, starting a Ravenloft campaign with something similar: beginning a horror campaign with an un-haunted haunted house is fun. (It would be easy to port this one into Ravenloft, moving Saltmarsh to Mordent or Souragne.)

If I ever need an introductory adventure on short notice, this has jumped to the top of my list.

Danger at Dunwater

Originally 32 pages for levels 1-4. Now 25 pages for level 3.

Published as U2, a stand-alone module and a direct sequel to Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh; while its predecessor holds-up well, this one has not nicely weathered the passage of time. The basic plot of this adventure is the party investigating a lizardfolk lair and, after some encounters, discovering the lizard folk are not unreasonable & potentially striking a truce. Or just murder hobo-ing through the entire lizardfolk community.

When written, this was a role-playing focused module. You talked to the lizardfolk, heard their concerns, convinced them you were on their side and then “won” the scenario. Now, with skill checks, you walk into the room, the party diplomancer declares they’re being friendly, rolls a dice (with a 75-50% chance of success) and then moves onto the next room. Repeat until you beat the module.

Role-playing is still possible, but it doesn’t feel like there’s enough here. A modern adventure might have listed the concerns of the various lizardfolk, as well as what the PCs could say or promise to win them over. It might also have been possible to have a series of tasks and side quests that could be undertaken to win favour with various lizardfolk (finding lost objects, helping end an argument, fixing a damaged wall, locating lost youths, etc). Instead, this adventure is dominated by the large map and dungeon crawl through the lizardfolk lair; it gives you the tools for if the adventurers fail to negotiate rather than supplying the tools for if they attempt the otherwise assumed peaceful solution. While the resulting adventure is clearly runnable (as people have been running it for decades), it doesn’t do much to reduce the DM’s workload.

Salvage Operation

Originally 8 pages for level 2. Now 9 pages for level 4.

Published in Dungeon Magazine #123, from June 2005. This adventure is fairly unremarkable. It’s a straight dungeon crawl, only the “dungeon” is a boat. The climax is interesting though, with the added complication of a rampaging giant squid. But the overall story felt nonexistent.

This feels less like a full adventure and more like an extended random encounter. A filler location-of-interest encountered while travelling at sea. Unfortunately, it’s a little too long to just drop into the middle of a session. Trimming it down would certainly turn it into a nice diversion on the high seas. It would also work if your players jump the rails and sail off on a ship and you need *something* for them to encounter, especially if this module starts in the middle of a session and finishes it at the beginning of the next session.

Isle of the Abbey

Originally 10 pages for levels 1-3. Now 13 pages for level 5.

Published in Dungeon Magazine #34, from March/April 1992. This adventure is simple, almost bare bones. I’ve seen similar adventures in organized play campaign (Living Greyhawk and Pathfinder Society), where the hook is little more than a justification to head to the location, where you engage in 3-5 combat encounter, explore for treasure, and then call it a success. It’s hard to be critical of such an adventure, because it does exactly it sets out to do. Heck, this is basically a Johnn Four’s Five Room Dungeon.

As written, this adventure feels anaemic. There’s just not much there. But, like many 1st Edition adventures, it’s a good framework to add your own content. A story MacGuffin in the treasure room that needs to be recovered, or the PCs have been tasked with turning the island into a naval base.

This would be a good one-shot, especially as you can modulate the challenge by having diplomacy work in a few places or removing a few fights. Adding a time limit might also be a good idea, preventing a five-minute workday. It might work especially well for a first time Dungeon Master who is an experienced gamers but is testing out the other side of the screen. There’s not too much to manage or remember, it’s a one-and-done tale, and there’s potentially a mix of combat and minor role-playing.

The Final Enemy

Originally 48 pages for levels 3-5. Now 29 pages for level 7.

Published as U3, a stand-alone module. U3 is another dungeon crawl. Because it’s not a 1e adventure if there’s not a major dungeon complex to explore room-by-room. This one is curiously a stealth adventure, where the players “win” by investigating a sahuagin fortress. Combat is optional. Like U1, this is another adventure that likely plays better than it reads, with the fun being the players’ various attempts at sneaking, distracting guards, and avoiding patrols. And the amusing chaos that results from poor rolls or bad luck.

Like U2, this module suffers from advancements in RPG storytelling and general game design over the intervening thirty-five years. Stealth games have become a trope, especially in video games. This adventure not only feels significantly less original, but also has the problem of not including elements expected in stealth games. Plus, stealth missions are inherently complicated once you include an entire party of adventurers. The rogue shines, but the fighter and barbarian get antsy. A skilled DM should look for opportunities to let combat-focused PCs scratch that itch: lone sentries in isolated rooms, wandering patrols, guards that need to be quietly knocked out to continue, etc.

Originally, this adventure lacked a firm end. The PCs reported back that the sahuagin were preparing for war along with details of their numbers, resources, and the like. Then the PCs were off onto another adventure… This reprint adds a new ending where Saltmarsh and its assembled allies can confront the sahuagin, and the PCs are allowed to participate. It’s a nice addition.

Tammeraut’s Fate

Originally 29 pages for levels 6-10. Now 21 pages for level 9.

Published in Dungeon Magazine #106 from January 2004. This adventure has a lot of overlap with Isle of the Abbey, as both are undead-focused adventures where you explore ruins on a deserted island. But contrasting the two really highlights the evolution in adventure design in the intervening decade. The residents of the ruins are survivors who can be saved and not just evil cultists to be killed. The undead aren’t just incidental encounters lurking in the sand but besiege to the building and have an evil scheme. The adventure doesn’t end after you’ve killed everything in your first pass through the dungeon and have looted everything of value. There’s more to do and a secondary goal.

Like Salvage Operation, this feels overly long for the story. Like many 3e adventures, there are quite a few superfluous fights to get the necessary tactical combats in for the adventuring day.

The most interesting part of this adventure is what could happen next. As the adventure suggests, the PCs could be given the deed for the island as a reward, providing a cool base of operations for naval adventures. And there’s a nice house that can be repaired and customized.

The Styles

Originally 23 pages for levels 6-12. Now 23 pages for level 11.

Published in Dungeon Magazine #121 from April 2005. This adventure is modern enough that this book actually recycles the original art. (Not that you could tell.) It’s the odd duck in this aquatic tome, as it’s more of an urban investigation that just happens to take place by the sea rather than a firmly nautical adventure.

I rather liked this one. It has a neat Lovecraftian vibe and makes good use of an aboleth, which is a creature that should be the mastermind of more adventures but are seldom used as more than a mid-tier filler encounter in the “flooded level” of dungeons. And the adventure makes creepy use of skum, bringing that monster into 5e. I also have a soft spot for investigative missions.

The location of this adventure is odd. The setting invents a neighbourhood that’s designed as part of a large city, but the actual region is quite large. Much larger than it needs to be for the adventure. It works better as an independent city. The “big city” people in Saltmarsh sell their wares to. Or a DM could just drop the included city descriptions and port it wholesale to a seaside city of your choice.

The Good

This book makes efforts to weave the seven adventures together, doing more than just updating that stat blocks but making them part of a consistent narrative. This is great, as direct updates aren’t particularly hard to write: 5e is so similar to 1e it’s possible to update adventures on the fly. While minor, the connective tissue and expanded details provide a reason to buy the book.

For fans of the originals, very little was changed in these adventures. This is certainly a feature/bug as it doesn’t try to revise or update the adventures to modern design standards, but it also doesn’t remove favoured elements.

I quite enjoy that this adventure keeps original setting of Greyhawk. Saltmarsh is firmly located on Oerth and locations in that setting are name dropped, and factions common to that world are included in Saltmarsh. There are actual references to the Scarlet Brotherhood! The adventure doesn’t try to wriggle the adventure into the Realms or force the Adventurers’ League factions into the product.

(It should be noted that Saltmarsh was only kinda sorta in Greyhawk. The setting was referenced as a potential site for the city, but this was just an option for those who wished. Still, assuming Greyhawk should make fans of that setting happy.)

For those uninterested in Greyhawk/ the world Gary made, this product provides small sidebars for relocating adventures to Eberron, the Forgotten Realms, or Mystara. The last setting is a bit of a deep cut, not having been published since 1996 and the days of Basic Edition. I’m surprised they chose Mystara rather than Ravenloft or Dragonlance.

The ship combat rules seem… okay. They’re pretty simple really, just giving a few extra action options to the captain and first mate as well as details of attacking parts of a ship. This allows you to functionally disable a ship without having to have ship weapons do ridiculous amounts of damage and risk them breaking the game by being deployed against creatures. But it also skirts around having large vehicles have tiny amounts of hit points so mundane weapons are useful against them. Sinking a ship is HARD but stopping one is relatively easy.

The Bad

Most of the adventures don’t update NPCs with additions such as Personality Traits, Flaws,or Bonds. This would have been especially useful in Chapter 3: Danger at Dunwater.

I’m inherently not a fan of this style of update, preferring the full expansion and revision of Curse of Strahd. Adventures that don’t just tweak the rules and swap out suggested monsters but that improve the adventure based on innovations and new ideas introduced over the last twenty or thirty years. I’m sure that when Dave J. Browne and Don Turnbull wrote The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh in 1981 they had several years of experience writing adventures. Perhaps as much as 7 years! But there are DMs out there with two or three decades of experience as Dungeon Masters. These adventures have quirks and oddities that could be improved, even if these additions are just included in sidebars or as optional sections.

I’m still not a fan of the simple line maps used throughout this book. They’re not BAD by any means. I just don’t like the aesthetic. The simple blue line maps made sense in the various Waterdeep products, which had too many maps for fancy well-illustrated maps. But this product has far fewer maps. I prefer maps I can display or that include details I can quickly use to strengthen by descriptions. To say nothing of people running on Virtual Tabletops. Simple line maps are fine for smaller publishers, but this is a book by the biggest name in the industry. I expect gorgeous maps. This is especially jarring with the newer maps. With the older maps, at least you’re getting a map of comparable quality to the original. But the maps in Dungeon #106 or #121 are arguably better.

Having played a couple games that make heavy use of adventuring parties in vehicles (I’m playing in Starfinder and Star Trek Adventures campaigns), the ship rules seem weak in a few places. There’s not really any rules for turning or moving the ship in combat (so a big sailing ship can do a U-turn ridiculously fast). Furthermore, the absence of roles for half the party is problematic. I’d have liked actions for the helmsman, carpenter/ engineer, and master gunner.

The Ugly

Let’s get to the big element of weirdness. There’s zero reason for this product to contain the ship combat rules. At no time in any of the adventures will the party engage in ship-to-ship combat. While these adventures are aquatic, boats are simply a way to get to the dungeon. People who want the big book of underwater adventures (and water-adjacent dungeon crawls) end up with a book that is 1/6th unnecessary rules, while people planning a pirate campaign end up with superfluous adventures that have little to do with swashbuckling adventures on the high seas.

(This is especially unfortunate for people who may have purchased the $250 Falling Star Sailing Ship expecting that to be useful in this adventure.)

Similarly, the cover is misleading. At no time will you fight a massive kraken while also battling sahaguin at the surface of the sea.

My final complaint shouldn’t be a surprise: another “collectable” alternate cover. I got tired of these when they stopped being special, around Tome of Foes. And having one for an adventure seems like a poor choice. A sourcebook you use, but not every session and only for a short time. The length where the limited edition cover is on the table and in danger of cola damage, Cheetos stains, and clumsy rips is limited. But an adventure? They might be in play for the entirety of every session for several weeks if not months. That’s asking to damage the rare collectable book. Which is anathema to this librarian. I tried running an Adventure Path using a deluxe collector’s book one (Rise of the Runelords for Pathfinder) and never freakin’ again.

The Awesome

In the original product, little attention is given to the village of Saltmarsh. There’s no map or details given, and you’re expected to just use a town of your own creation. “Saltmarsh” is really just a placeholder name. It’s effectively the seaside town of S______. This product gives the town sixteen pages of detail, including NPCs, locations, places of interest, and downtime activities. The introduction to this product also details the role of various backgrounds in the region, giving a paragraph on how each fits. I love this, and it’s a great way of tying PCs into the adventure and region. There’s also four new backgrounds added for this book, which are always a neat addition. You could have an entire party of four PCs with different nautical backgrounds (five if you count the sailor/pirate in the PHB).

The ship rules contain several new options for customizing ships. These are fun and fantastic, and the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a world of wizards and dragons. Magical ships that are made or living wood and enchanted prows that breathe fire.

The monster section has a lot of fun beasties. I liked seeing the skum return, and they look extra horrifying and inhuman. Like were-aboleths. The juvenile kraken will be useful, being of a much more appropriate level range for most tables. And there’s a skeleton swarm! And a large skeleton made of smaller skeletons that sheds small skeletons over time. Those are just cool.

Final Thoughts

This book is what Tales From the Yawning Portal should have been. It’s not just random adventures slapped together but a series that is connected, both thematically and potentially as a campaign. And the inclusion of lesser known adventures great.

Ostensibly, the selling feature of this book is it’s a way to introduce the new generation of gamers to “classic” adventures. Which is a noble goal. But… the adventures still need to be good. Fun to play. If they feel dated then you’ve just ruined these adventures for this generation. It’d be silly to have a book of adventures that make use of old rule design (like THAC0 or quadratic wizards). So why is it okay to employ old adventure design? That feels weird.

Sadly, because the book only makes use of old adventures, none of them take advantage of the ship combat rules. Even the brand new underwater locations featured in that section don’t really make use of ships! The book could have easily dropped the 8 pages for Salvage Operation or ten pages for Isle of the Abbey and maybe added a ship combat scene to one of the other adventures. Such as further expanding the climax to The Final Enemy, perhaps having a player controlled sailing ship facing a sahuagin-trained giant octopus.

The adventures are hit-and-miss, with most of the more recent ones being arguably better. However, the introductory adventure is one of those surprising classic that deserves it’s reputation and is still highly playable. And a couple of the middle adventures can easily be adapted or incorporated into an existing campaign, especially if you need an island dungeon quickly or high sea encounter.

Shameless Plugs

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