Review: Dungeons and Dragons – Ghosts of Saltmarsh
The latest D&D 5E hardback’s greatest strengths lie in its strong seafaring tone and incredible versatility. Depending on your needs it can form the strong spine of an entire campaign or be pulled apart for one-off adventures, each of which are solidly built and stuffed to the gills with imagination.
In many ways Ghosts of Saltmarsh acts as a companion piece to 2017’s Tales From the Yawning Portal. Both are built on re-worked spin on classic adventures, but where the older book kept things strictly dungeon-based, the seven quests that make up Ghosts are united by their nautical themes.
This gives the adventures a more modern feel and creates space for investigations, sea voyages and above-ground exploration – all aspects that the book is keen to explore. The very first adventure, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, may open with an investigation into a dungeon-esque haunted house, but before long the players are likely to find themselves raiding a ship on open waters.
These kinds of varied experiences spread their tendrils through every single part of the book and mean that you could happily run through the entire thing without things becoming repetitive. Depending on which chapter you jump into you may be trying to make friends with swamp-dwelling Lizardfolk, defending an island monastery against a horde of undead or investigating a Lovecraftian murder in a dank, depressing suburb.
A Place by the Sea
A secondary theme to run through Ghosts is the town of Saltmarsh itself. Originally based in the thoroughly old-school world of Greyhawk – though it can easily be transported to any other D&D world – the small port town provides a base for any players looking to spin the book into a campaign and acts as the starting point for several of the adventures.
It’s an interesting old place with plenty of plot hooks lingering just below the waterline, such as tensions between an old guard of sailors and a band of newly arrived dwarves. At first glance it can seem like a shame that so many of these threads aren’t plucked on by later quests, but tying the entire thing together in that way would make it harder to adapt things into one-off games and in all honesty probably won’t be needed in the first place.
If you take a look at the recommended levels for the adventures contained within Ghosts you’ll see that things are fairly dense at lower levels but get much more sparse when the party’s around level five or so. By this point, however, even brand new DM’s should hopefully have enough experience under their belt to feel comfortable setting up side-quests and intrigues to plug the gaps, especially with the aid of some extensive suggestions laid out in the opening chapter.
When you run a campaign of Ghosts of Saltmarsh the adventures themselves won’t make up all of the content. In fact, I’d be surprised if you spend even half your playtime running straight out of the book. What the seven pre-written adventures offer is a strong spine to build the rest of your narrative around – a narrative that is very likely to involve the party finding a way to get hold of their own ship.
There can’t be too many DMs out there who haven’t dreamed of running a nautical campaign at some point. Whether the party are pirates, explorers or just some down-on-their-luck salty sea dogs, the idea is brimming with all kinds of swashbuckling potential.
If this sounds familiar, Ghosts has you 100% covered.
A solid chunk of the book is given over to rules covering sailing, naval combat and – best of all – how to crew and upgrade your very own vessel. These are fairly similar to the ‘Of Ships & The Sea’ Unearthed Arcana article put out a few months back but have been tweaked and streamlined in several places. The expanded section on magical gear is especially welcome, and with a bit of effort (and gold) players can take charge of a vessel that fires explosive ballista rounds, is powered by clockwork oars and has a fire-breathing dragon figurehead.
Even if the party don’t lean into the fantasy quite that hard, there’s plenty here for DM’s to plunder throughout their games and campaigns. Between random encounter tables and ideas for NPC ships that roam the waters around Saltmarsh you could probably run several weeks of games with minimal prep and still have a damned good time.
If there’s an issue with the sailing rules it’s that they do add another layer of complexity to the game that all players need to be at least familiar with if you want to make the most of a system. At the same time, managing crew roles isn’t going to be every player’s cup of tea, even though it does add a chance for new NPCs to grow attached to.
Beside the Seaside
Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a very solid adventure book for D&D 5E, sitting in a strange but powerful place between campaign and one-shot collection. It requires a fair bit of work from the DM if it’s to work as a full-blown campaign, but there’s enough support to make this feel exciting and brimming with possibility rather than a slog.
The lack of an all-consuming story can feel like a drag and if folks want to feel like they’re saving the world then earlier books like Storm King’s Thunder probably offer more guided experiences, but as you’d expect from a seafaring title Ghosts makes up for this with the lure of open-horizons and boundless freedom. Between the sailing rules and the free-form plot threads in the hub town, the games it inspires can easily spiral off in countless different directions.
A flexible, fun burst of classic D&D freedom, coupled with solid writing and some nifty new sailing rules.