Wizards of the Coast Review: Does Ghosts of Saltmarsh Hold Water?

In our fifth official review for Wizards of the Coast, we tackle the new setting and adventure book Ghosts of Saltmarsh. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering what the heck this book even IS – so I’ll waste no time: it’s a setting primer, 7 remade adventures, and dozens of pages of DM Tools for ocean adventures. Is it worth the wait and the cost of admission? Let’s find out.

The Book Itself

We’ve seen a lot of improvements as far as WotC’s quality control for their binding a overall book quality. We see a continuation of it, here. It seems the spine and the binding are well and away improved beyond early editions, including the DMG and MM I bought early on.

The Covers

There has been a little bit of a stink over the alternate cover of this particular book, but lets check out the original first.

Front Cover 9/10

Looks pretty great, yeah? an action scene of adventurers sailing away from a ship, which is being attacked by a KRAKEN in the background! A sahuagin approaching the ship, trident ready. The contrast of warm and cool colors, the action in the foreground and background, the sloshing waves – I think this cover looks incredibly good.

Back Cover 6/10

Here we see the wrap-around back cover. There’s that Kraken, again! Holy butts, it looks extremely Cthuloid doesn’t it? Short and punchy synopsis – it’s a pretty solid cover front and back. Though I do wish there was some of that same action-heavy flare here. Perhaps more sahuagin emerging from the sea or even shark fins slicing through the waves. But as-is, it’s not so bad.

Alternate Art Cover – Dark Seas over Dark Skies

So here is the issue in its entirety. We were showed this promotional issue for the alternate art cover, and I think we can all agree, it’s pretty incredible.

A sahuagin warrior, back to the moon. (digital print) 9/10

The image is nearly electric. The water doesn’t look so much wet as it does alive. Vibrant, brilliant, sharp, bright blue. It’s got layers upon layers of color and darkness and depth. Very nice. But, I’m sad to report, here is what it looks like actually printed on the cover of the book.

Oh dear. (scanned) 4/10?

The cover has a light holographic quality to every bright color. The holographic sheen helps in person a bit more than in photos, but it does suffer this exact fate. The color is washed out and flat. Notice the lack of depth. Not having true blacks wounds it quite a lot, the highlights are not as bright or vibrant, the Title plaque at the top is dingy and muted. It’s just… not very good.

The back sports incredible deep purples, which saves it. (scanned) 7/10

I wont lie, I enjoy theback cover MORE than the front! The holographic print makes the scars of the door and the suction cups on the tentacles shimmer and twist with an eerie purple and green glow. The deep purples are warm and offer cool highlights, and the two sahuagin guardians look stylized and cool, as well as the skulls. But still, it’s so damn dark you can’t really make it out as well as the original color.

TL;DR: What IS this book? Is it worth the money?

The short form review is: this book has seven adventures set around a well developed fishing village called Saltmarsh. It does a great job giving you everything you need to plug Saltmarsh into any setting you need. It also has Sea and Ship rules that are robust and fill a much despised hole in the original D&D rules for 5e. The Monsters are interesting and the magic items are completely forgettable.

If you’re running a coastal game or a game with loads of sea travel, buy this book, it’s worth it. If you are cool hand waving sea fighting rules and have no interest in the written adventures, you can skip this one.

Wanna quick full-book preview? Watch my Youtube first impressions video here:

Saltmarsh – The Anchor

The book goes to extreme lengths to set up and display the fishing village of Saltmarsh. NPCs, Factions, Law and Order, Downtime Activities, Features of the Region, Adventure Hooks/Payoffs, and brand new Character Backgrounds. Thirty-five pages devoted to establishing Saltmarsh as a hub for your adventuring career, complete with many charts to determine the mood, small quests, rumors, and more – so each time you see the city, it can be a little different.

Politics and Factions

Saltmarsh, as written here, is controlled and dominated by three factions: The Traditionalists, The Loyalists, and The Scarlet Brotherhood.

What I like most about the three factions is they have concrete goals that prevent them from being “the good guys.” The Traditionalists want to thwart dwarven mining efforts and protect smugglers. The Loyalists are more loyal to the potentially vicious Sea Princes and see common folk as traitors, despite their adherence to the law. And the Scarlet Brotherhood is just capital-b Bad: megalomaniacs and villains.

The lack of a clear “good guy” faction helps keep the triangle of drama working without forcing the adventurers’ hands.

Downtime

There are quick and easy rules for selling/buying magic items utilizing a very cool tiefling NPC named Captain Xendros. I love the idea of having a central merchant to go to with your Magic Item needs who is not a crazy craftsman wizard.

There are also special rules for Carousing using specialized locations in Saltmarsh (such as The Snapping Line or The Empty Net). It folds all of the roles back into the city, again, reinforcing the NPCs and story development of Saltmarsh.

The same holds true for Research, Employment, and Mercenary Work – all rotate back into the setting and other NPCs to help flesh out and develop more of the fishing village.

These ideas are great and are very well executed. This section was eye opening and fun to read, making me feel that this exact section should be included in every single major setting in future publications. Well done.

Backgrounds

The Acolyte, Charlatan, Criminal, Entertainer, Folk Hero, Guild Artisan, Hermit, Noble, Outlander, Sage, Sailor, Soldier, and Urchin each get a small snippet helping to describe how such a background can be tailored to Saltmarsh specifically.

An example: the Soldier background can be from the Keoish army, and have probably served as the town guard for a time and have made friends among their ranks. You automatically have a good relationship with an important NPC to Saltmarsh, and you have access to a small plot of land and a farm! Just for making Saltmarsh your home.

Along with those additions to pre-established backgrounds, four new ones have been added: Fisher, Marine, Shipwright, Smuggler. Each is fully fleshed out with proficiencies, equipment, features, quirks, and characteristics as well as ties to Saltmarsh. Meaning each of these backgrounds can be used in any setting as easily as those found in the Player’s Handbook.

Adventures – 7 Modular Options

Unlike an Adventure Book like Curse of Strahd or Out of the Abyss, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is more of a Setting Book (Like the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide) with adventures mixed in for you to use if you like.

Each of the seven adventures are modular, but tie back into the setting of Saltmarsh. Each has its own unique flare and structure, but most importantly, none are necessary to complete other adventures.

  1. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh: The party explores an abandoned and dilapidated house that was once home to an alchemist. Level 1-3, 22 pages long.
  2. Danger at Dunwater: Lizardfolk are rallying together and amassing a dangerous armory that puts Saltmarsh in danger; the party must figure out the truth of the situation before it’s too late. Level 3-4, 24 pages long.
  3. Salvage Operation: A missing ship appears at sea, sparking its previous owner to gather a party to recover its lost fortune from the hands of a mad druid and their insane pets. Level 4-5, 8 pages long.
  4. Isle of the Abbey: Undead have overrun a highly sought-after island as dark beings face off against pirate threats. Level 5-6, 12 pages long.
  5. The Final Enemy: A war sparks between the citizens of Saltmarsh and the denizens of the deep! Level 7-9, 29 pages long.
  6. Tammeraut’s Fate: The citizens of the Firewatch Island Hermitage have been slaughtered nearly to a man, sparking many inquiries as to what is happening and what further evil may befall the small island seclude. Level 9-11, 20 pages long.
  7. The Styes: A series of vicious murders befalls the harrowed people of the port the Styes. The party must follow the clues, expose corruption, and uncover a dark cult and their otherworldly puppet master. Level 11-12, 22 pages long.

What you can easily tell is that the adventures are fairly equal in length (other than the truncated “Salvage Operation,” which relies on combat and exploration to pad out the run time (not a bad thing, just a thing). I think they all connect enough to be an interesting Adventurer’s League style adventure platform, but being able to pick and choose which to run makes it exceptionally easy for DMs who might be stretching their legs with side quests that might fill the gap between level 4 and 5, for example.

Of Ships and the Sea – Rules Refined

This is, arguably, the biggest selling point of the entire book: rules for running sea vehicles and sea combat. It gives hard and fast, official rules for populating ships as well as how to maneuver them in combat based on what part of the ship a player (or npc) may be controlling. Each type of ship also comes with a drawn map, easy to copy and print, for use at your own table and suggestions for types of NPCs one could use to populate the officers of each ship.

In Practice. I ran a test encounter between two ships and found the rules, at first, cumbersome – but as time went on, the roles of each section of the ship (helm, oars, sails, ballistas, mangonels, naval ram) began to seem like an entire combat encounter encapsulated in each ship. As the hit point values of each aspect of the ship decreases, the ship, as a whole, becomes weaker. Much like a pack of wolves becomes weaker and weaker as wolves die.

Example Crews. But my favorite part has to be the Example Crews for each size ship: did you know a sailing ship has 30 crewmen? And a warship can have as many as 80 – many of which are guards? Seeing the different number of people required to man the various ships resonated with me quite a bit as well as their different specialties. These ships are not just buckets with 4-5 NPCs and the PCs aboard, they are floating taverns full of unique people all with jobs and responsibilities! Far cooler.

Ship Upgrades. There are a number of upgrades listed in the book but… they are very high fantasy magic. Rune etched iron chains that cause a storm, Shadowfell made totems that emit horrific energy, Hulls made of unmelting ice. It really stands in direct opposition to the idea of the rest of the chapter, which focuses on the realism of sailing on these ships, populating them with believable people, and navigating a mundane treacherous sea. I’d have much preferred 20 small upgrades (heavy sails, harpoon guns, hull armor, metal ram, etc etc etc) than these epic high fantasy ship upgrades.

There are also upgrades to movement (oars, sails, etc), Weapons, and Figureheads, as well as miscellaneous upgrades to add flavor and flair to your ship.

Rules for Combat, Travel, and The Sea. The rest of this chapter is devoted to how ships can be used in various circumstances. The long and short is – the ship is a vessel (heh) for the entire crew to act in a kind of unison. Each officer has a series of moves that can affect the ship, and the crew can fight as a single whole unit so you don’t have 30+ initiatives to roll and manage!

The combat I ran using two ships saw a lot of merit in attacking and killing the crew instead of sinking the ship (in which all treasure and information is lost). This can cause a situation where most of the crew take the “dodge” action or hide inside the ship while a select few stay above deck and face off against the powerful fighters of the other ship. The combat took a lot longer than facing off against a young dragon or whatever, but the combat felt harrowing – there was nowhere to run and adventurers were slinging spells from each ship and trying desperately to keep the crew alive. I really enjoy how the combat played out, but don’t expect it to be quick!

The Sea. Dozens of charts for hazards, conflicts, as well as natural happenstances like fog, storms, and infestations! There are tons of cool happenings under the waves as well inside the Ocean Environs. Anyone interested in telling an adventure down where it’s wetter, this chapter will be an absolute godsend.

Magic Items and Monsters

My most favorite part of any WotC book – the Magic Items and Monsters! Oh boy, I can’t wait to see how many Magic items there-

One single page. There’s one page of magic items. 6 total items. 3 common items, 2 uncommon items, and 1 rare item that controls plants.

Moving on.

The monsters are cool! 26 pages of various monsters and NPCs to populate your sea adventures. Many of them are reprints used in the adventure to prevent you from having to flip between multiple books and hunt for stat blocks, which I appreciate, but many are brand new creatures to help flesh out the ranks of Sahuagin (from CR 1 to CR 6), new variations of pirates, and any creature or NPC needed in the various adventures. I think there is a big enough list of creatures in this book to merit the purchase if you’re a monster fiend, like myself. Lots of cool stuff in here, but to keep this review from dragging on for ages, I’ll not do a deep dive into any particular stat block.

Overall

This book is unlike anything else released by WotC. It is a setting and resource book with Adventurer’s League style adventures added. It has tons of DM Resources and many useful Player options. There have been comments that the art in this book is bad, but I feel the style is uniform and very unsettling and cool, if not as polished and high-def as other books (like Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, for instance).

If you want to run an adventure on the open ocean or spend a lot of time in a coastal city, this book will more than likely save you $50 worth of time you’d spend cooking up these creatures, settings, factions, and adventures. Simple reskins and tweaks could make Ghosts of Saltmarsh a one-stop shop for any navy, pirate, island hopping, or underwater game.

If the sea and its murky depths do not interest you, I do not see a compelling reason why you would need to purchase this book outside of monster stats and possibly the cool easy-to-print maps.

It may not be for everyone, but I, personally, adore the bold direction WotC took with Ghosts of Salt Marsh – the only way I could appreciate the book more is if it came out several years ago – between Princes of the Apocalypse and Storm King’s Thunder, where I think this book would have gotten the most notoriety and praise for being a godsend to those desiring adventure on the high seas.

I don’t always advocate rolling, but when I do… be sure you have to Drop the Die.
Review by JB Little, Follow me on twitter for more “useful” information.

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