Ghosts of Saltmarsh: A Review with Concepts
I’ll just get it out up front: I am not a fan of the new Ghosts of Saltmarsh hardcover. I was hoping for something like Tales from the Yawning Portal, but with a strong nautical theme, and this was not a vague or unfounded hope, because that’s pretty much what we were told to expect. I was also hoping for a really useful expansion of the rules to cover sea battles and pirate attacks, and a way to fight a kraken or a dragon turtle from the deck of a ship instead of just jumping in there with them. I even thought there might be some improvements on the rules for underwater combat, which are present but somewhat unfulfilling in the core rulebooks.
Well, I didn’t get the things I had hoped for. That’s not to say that there aren’t good bits in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, because any book is going to have something useful to a creative player or DM who is willing to hack around the parts that are wanting. I’m just glad that I didn’t buy the book on Amazon, because one of the best things I can say about Ghosts of Saltmarsh is that the fifty bucks or so that I spent on it went to a local business.
So, a review. I won’t include any real spoilers, so this is safe for players to read, but the first part of the article will mostly be concept-level DM talk, so if you aren’t interested in that, you can skip down to the part about the new rules for nautical situations. And, if you aren’t interested in either one of those things, just don’t read this article at all, and also don’t go out and buy your own copy of Ghosts of Saltmarsh, either. And if you must, go to your local game store and buy it there, because Amazon stock is high enough and people in your community need to eat too.
What Ghosts of Saltmarsh Is
To start off with, here’s a summary of what you get when you buy the book. If you don’t like being surprised when you open up your expensive and glossy new purchase, this is your section.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a brief description of a small coastal town, not surprisingly named Saltmarsh. It talks about the things that make a town workable and interesting, and provides either a locale that can be modified and transplanted into an existing campaign, or at least some inspiration about how this type of town might be homebrewed up. If you’re a player, you may not want to read this, just in case your DM is planning on using it as is; there are some NPC’s detailed in this section who have traits and involvements that PC’s shouldn’t know all about, so watch out for spoilers.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh is seven adventures from classic modules that have been updated to run in 5th Edition D&D. Unlike the adventures of the same sort that were included in Tales from the Yawning Portal, these are all nautical in theme (or at least have the sea, ships, and coastline as common factors). Also, unlike Tales from the Yawning Portal, these adventures are not all unrelated; while all of the adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh should be able to be run independently, some of them are part of an overarching storyline. Obviously this is a DM’s-only section, and it’s most of the book.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a set of expanded rules for 5th Edition that have to deal with ships and the sea, and contains some extensive mechanics for dealing with sea voyages, ship crews, and nautical combat. There are also some character options available, like backgrounds for PC’s who come from a seafaring past. This is all player safe.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a few mapped and keyed underwater adventure areas: a shipwreck, a coral reef, and a sunken ruin. These have some mini-adventures written in for them, but could be used independently of any story or enemies that happen to be provided in the book.
Finally, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is an expanded bestiary of creature stat blocks for aquatic creatures, albeit only creatures that appear in the Ghosts of Saltmarsh adventures. Still, if you were looking for lots of different types of sahuagin, or aquatic humanoids other than sahuagin and merfolk, they are in here. If you’re a player whose DM is really rabid about not letting you know anything in stat blocks, you probably shouldn’t get into this either.
So that’s what’s in the hardcover book. Almost all of it is DM stuff, so unlike some of the other hardcovers (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, for example, or the Sword Coast Adventurers’ Guide) you probably have no reason to buy this unless you are a DM. And I would qualify that further by saying that you should not buy this unless you are already a DM, with some experience under your belt. If you are a first-time DM, and you’re looking for a book with short, stand-alone adventures in it, don’t buy this one. Buy Tales from the Yawning Portal instead. It’ll be less expensive (because it isn’t as new) and will serve you better, both in terms of providing quality content and also in terms of not getting you into a lot of bad DM habits that you’d be better off without.
A First Piece of Bread
If you haven’t heard the one about making a particular type of sandwich, meant to encourage writers and reviewers and anyone with something to say about something to start and end with a compliment and put all of the excrement in the middle, well, now you get the gist of it. Conveniently, I have two nice things to say about Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Well, at least it’s convenient for the purposes of writing an article; it’s not really a huge commendation for the book. Oh well, let’s get on with it.
A lot of the intricacies of the ship combat mechanics have problems, but one thing that was a great idea was creating monster-type stat blocks for ships. When you can just put the ship itself into the initiative order, and it moves and maneuvers and fires its weapons just like a PC or NPC would do, it really makes it possible to have ship combat that actually involves the ships, rather than just making them into handy places to stand so that we can have land battles where there isn’t any land.
Figuring out how to deal with dozens of crew members, passengers who might or might not be doing any fighting, and combatants moving between ships is another story. I probably won’t be tackling that issue anytime soon, although I am thinking about it a lot lately, so maybe I’ll actually come up with something to work out how my mental image of an epic battle at sea should look and act. It probably won’t be as cool as the movies I’m thinking of when I form that image, but somewhere between Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp there should be a place where D&D heroes can fight it out in that classic swashbuckling style.
But, whatever I come up with, I’m going to stick with the concept of a ship itself as a combatant. It’s just a simple, sensible way to involve ships and their crews in the actual battle. Good show, designers, and enough said.
The Middle of the Sandwich
I had originally planned this to be a very short article, because I try not to give advice on how to run an adventure that I haven’t run myself. Anything I’ve put into Here There Be Spoilers on this site is based on personal experience with actual games and real players, and I have not run any of the Ghosts of Saltmarsh adventures. So, I more or less figured that I wouldn’t have much to say about the book. Turns out that I do have kind of a lot to say about it, which shouldn’t surprise anyone by this point, but I’m still not going to tell you how to run any of the adventures.
What I’m actually going to give you in this section are some rather broad criticisms of the book. There are certain things that I’ve noticed about the book as a whole, and there are patterns there that keep turning up. This doesn’t mean that everything in the book is guilty of these particular sins, but it does mean that there’s enough of the same kind of problems to make me feel like some criticism is in order. So that’s what this part of the article will be about: not a how-to on any of the individual adventures, but a discussion of some of the concepts that are coming out flat.
A Lack of Variety, So a Lack of Quality?
I was expecting a lot of seafaring adventures, so I guess I shouldn’t be at all surprised that I got, well, a lot of seafaring adventures. That’s what we all bought this book for, right? I mean, I know that I shelled out my money in order to get the nautical adventures as much as anything. Even though I was interested in the rules expansions, but mostly I was hoping to get at least a few adventures that I would want to integrate into the Undermountain campaign I have been running (and will probably be running for a long time, so fitting new things into it is going to be a long-term issue). So, why am I so disappointed in the Ghosts of Saltmarsh adventures?
I think it’s because I feel that the designers compromised their selectivity as far as which adventures to include, because they wanted all of them to fit that seagoing theme. With Tales from the Yawning Portal it was different: all that those adventures had in common was that you could run them consecutively and keep about the right character levels as you moved through the book. Other than that, it was like they picked the adventures that would be the most fun, with the most variety, and also the ones that would adapt the best to 5E rules.
And, you know, that’s probably exactly what they did. So far I have run a few of the Yawning Portal adventures, and I’ll probably run all of them by some point. Except Tomb of Horrors, which I swear to God that I will never touch again. I really hate Tomb of Horrors. I’ve hated it for years, and one of these days I’ll write the scathing criticism of it that I’ve been letting fester in my guts for a couple of decades now. But never mind all that. We’re talking about Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
And the adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh just don’t seem as good as the ones from Yawning Portal. That’s highly subjective, of course, but I’m not sure how to quantify “good” for you. Maybe it’s just that, reading through as a DM, I didn’t really find any of the adventures that I really wanted to run. There was something about a beach which I thought was kind of cool (again, no spoilers, but you’ll probably be able to tell which beach I mean if you read it, which doesn’t really commend a book full of beaches, which basically border on all the oceans, but now I’m really starting to ramble, end parentheses), and I’ll probably try to adapt and relocate the Styes from Chapter 8 into Skullport somehow. But did I read any of the adventures and say, “wow, I really want/need to run that one”? No, not really.
The only reason I can think of for that problem is that the designers limited themselves to adventures that had something to do with the sea, and that made their choices rather more slim than when they chose the adventures for Tales from the Yawning Portal, when they had their pick of everything. And, honestly, some of the “nautical themes” seem a little thin: perhaps something is near the sea, or a beach, or has to be reached by crossing the sea, or maybe it takes place in a port town. Does that qualify? If you’re trying to choose seven adventures (because we have to have at least as many as Yawning Portal did), maybe it’s a stretch you have to make.
Did we maybe sacrifice overall quality in order to have a unifying theme for the hardcover? I think so. I also think I should have seen it coming, but of course I didn’t. I’ll think twice before I buy the next book of themed adventure module conversions, though.
The Problem with Scoreboards
This is something that I find rather disappointing about Ghosts of Saltmarsh, but only because I really have a larger conceptual problem with what I’m calling “scoreboards” in D&D. What I mean by “scoreboard” is when the DM is evaluating the players’ performance based on a system of points: when the players do something good (or get lucky) they gain points, and when they screw up (or get bad rolls) they lose points. And, at some point, the DM is going to add up all of those points and then decide whether the players won or lost, succeeded or failed, whatever.
I really hate the idea of scoreboards, because they always feel like an artificial construct that is imposed upon the game in order to create some kind of quantifiable success. One of the adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh really epitomizes this, and you’ll know it when you read it because you will reach the end and find a list of outcomes, each attached to a range of scores from the scoreboard that was created for the adventure. As in, if you get less than X points, you suffer defeat, but if you get more than X and less than Y, that’s a shabby victory. Get Y points or more, and that’s an okay victory, and so on. It really reads exactly like that, but with very verbose summaries of how each type of victory plays out in the scenario, interjected after the scoreboard numbers have been announced.
That’s very bothersome to me, and part of that is just that I don’t like adding up points to decide whether the players did well or poorly. When I run an adventure, I decide whether the outcomes are good or bad based on events themselves, not based on the sum of the points that the events were worth. To pick an example completely unrelated to Saltmarsh, let’s say I send the characters to the Temple of Evil, where they are supposed to disrupt the Evil Cultists from doing whatever Evil Cultists do. If they kill the Cultist Leader, and also disrupt the Evil Ritual going on elsewhere, and also breach the entrance to the Temple of Evil so that their allies can get through and mop up, then I’ll declare a victory for the party because they did three really meaningful things to disrupt Evil Cultist operations. I’m not declaring a victory because killing the leader was worth 50 points, and the ritual was worth 30, and the entrance was worth 20, and now I look at my chart and see that 100 points means that they won.
But scoreboarding can get worse, and in some of the Saltmarsh adventures, it does. Going back to my Temple of Evil example, let’s say I said that in addition to the other things, they also get 2 points for every Cult Acolyte they kill, and 5 points per Cult Priestess. Now we can have the situation where they walk out of the Temple 10 points short of whatever arbitrary victory threshold was set, and I tell them that they were ultimately unsuccessful in their temple assault. Of course, if they had done one more room of cultists, they wouldn’t have been 10 points short, and they would have won.
Hang on a second, though… I’m the DM, right? If I decide that they deserve a victory even if they’re 10 points short, I can just give them the victory, can’t I? That’s right, I can. So what am I doing with the scoreboard, anyway, then? After all, if I’m going to ignore the points and decide whether a victory was earned based on other things, why am I keeping track of points in the first place?
The other problem with scoreboards as a way of doing things is that you have to either show the scoreboard to the players, or else keep it a secret behind the screen. Either way you’re in trouble. If you let the players know that you’re keeping score, and how the score is calculated, and how many points you need to win, they’re going to base their strategies and decisions on the scoreboard instead of choosing the sensible things to do based on the situation.
A lot of video games work this way, and it actually works pretty well. The difference between D&D and video games is that video games are executed and evaluated by a computer, but D&D uses a person (the DM) instead. A computer needs to track points, because a computer doesn’t know how to decide between victory and defeat without some kind of numerical measure. Your DM’s brain isn’t limited in that way… so why try to use the same system?
By the way, if you don’t let the players know how many points they need and also how many points are awarded for any particular action, you aren’t really showing them the scoreboard at all; without both parts, you aren’t telling them anything useful. Maybe they might develop some kind of meta-knowledge like “we score points for killing cultists, therefore killing them must be in some way important.” Honestly, though, players are going to know that anyway, even if you don’t tell them.
What about hiding the scoreboard? If you don’t let the players know how to score points and how many they need, you’re creating a situation where they can give up when they’re ten points short of victory. Or twenty. Or fifty. Maybe if they knew, they would have used their safety potions and burned the last of their spell slots in order to clear out that last cultist guardpost. Or if they knew that using that spell slot for a fireball would have killed 10 Cult Acolytes and scored 20 points, whereas using it to kill 2 Cult Priestesses would only get you 10 points, then maybe they would have gone for the dormitory instead of the chapel. When you’re hiding the victory conditions, suddenly the players don’t know if they’ve done enough to win yet. So what do they do? Kill everyone, destroy everything, probably get themselves killed after they’ve already won, because the DM won’t tell them what they’re supposed to be doing and how they can tell if they’ve done it yet.
Maybe you give them a last minute opportunity to score the last few points, but they can score them using some method that wasn’t available before. I’m trying really hard not to put in Saltmarsh spoilers here, but what if the players needed 50 points to have a success for an adventure task, but they didn’t get enough. So then just suppose that you could let them boost their score at the end with some good old-fashioned bribery, say 10gp per point, just to get up to 50? Maybe the PC’s would just decide to shell out the 500gp at the beginning, and poof, no adventure. Trying to fix your broken scoreboard with points that can only be scored in a certain way and at a certain time in order to avert failure is always going to be trouble.
Not All Scoreboards Are Evil
Lest I come off as a total hypocrite, let me say that I do use something very much like a scoreboard in my games on occasion. But, of course, it’s different when I do it myself, because I would never use evil terrible scoreboards without a really good reason. That’s right, of course, and it’s actually different, and here’s how it works.
When I have a complex social situation come up, sometimes I’ll create a little mini-scoreboard for the encounter. Just like on a scale from one to ten, here’s the chat with the Duchess. I’ll start the party off at 5, because they have a pretty good reputation in the Duchy. When they say something useful or thoughtful or convincing, they’ll get a couple of points. If they decide to be smart-alecks, or to try the wrong conversational tactics, they’ll lose points. If they get to 10, the Duchess is convinced to help them. If they drop to 0, they get thrown in the stocks. If they haven’t gotten to either one within 5 interactions, they get thrown out of the castle, but not into the stocks, and now they have to do something to get her to talk to them again.
The difference is that the players understand this scoreboard, even if I don’t show them the numbers involved. I might not even know the numbers; it’s possible that I come up with them on the fly based on the relative effectiveness or stupidity of what the PC’s end up doing, or on how well their dice are rolling, or on how I imagine the Duchess’s brain working in her aristocratic skull. But the players know that they’ll get what they want or not based on how they act, and they also know the kinds of things that will work or not. And they also get feedback from me based on what they try: maybe flattery gets you nowhere with this Duchess, and when they try it she scowls at them… they know they just “lost points”, even if they don’t know that “score” is being kept. If she preens and bats her eyes instead, they know to butter her up some more, because it “gained points”.
But this isn’t for all social situations, just the ones that won’t be settled in a single conversational exchange, or in a couple of die rolls, and the fundamental difference between this good scoreboard and the bad kind is that the players understand it even if they don’t see it, because they know what kind of things to attempt and they get to find out whether their actions are effective or otherwise as they try them out.
More Scoreboards: Crew Quality
There’s another kind of scoreboard in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, and it comes in when you get to the expanded rules for sea voyages near the end of the book. They’ve developed a fairly complex system for determining how loyal the crew of your ship is, which they call “crew quality”. This is also a scoreboard, but this one is worse than the others, because it doesn’t just depend on how the PC’s act. The crew quality scoreboard is also dependent on random die rolls, and that creates an additional layer of wrongness.
Crew quality is used to compute a number of different things, and I’m not going to waste time here going into how it’s integrated into different calculations. Suffice it to say that crew quality is supposed to be a measure of how well the crew of your ship will perform in various seafaring tasks, and this is tied into how happy they are with their lot in life. This isn’t actually unreasonable, because happy employees who like and respect their employers will generally do a better job on task than miserable employees who are on the verge of quitting and leaving their employers to rot.
Reasonable or not, it still creates a layer of complication that I don’t think is worth the trouble it takes to keep track of it. I would never use it even if it had no other problems, because it’s just another number that I would have to keep track of and learn how to calcluate into various situations, and I have enough numbers to keep track of already. But, if you’re a DM who thrives on lots of calculations, you might even like having one more thing to track and a new set of rules to learn by heart and apply quickly enough not to create a drag on the gameplay. Some do.
But, even if you like having lots of numbers to crunch, the crew quality scoreboard is broken, because it creates scores based on chance. If there’s a hazard at sea (roll for random hazard) and it’s a bad one (roll for hazard severity, based on a DC) and the ship’s officers handle that hazard with a certain level of competence (an NPC skill check, basically, which players don’t make or see) and how their competence stacks up to that random DC (a table tells you how to change NPC skill check numbers and the random DC into degrees of success or failure), then your crew quality goes up, or goes down. Let’s be clear at this point that if your crew quality drops too low, your crew mutinies and executes you or maroons you or keelhauls you or some such terrible nautical fate. So enough random bad hazards poorly managed, and you end up in a watery grave.
Wouldn’t it actually be much easier to figure that if you pay your crew as agreed upon and treat them with respect, they won’t mutiny on you? Maybe you break out the grog after a bad storm to bolster their mood, or have a really dignified burial at sea for the ship’s carpenter who died like a hero fighting that kraken. Point is, you don’t need a crew quality score to keep track of whether the crew is being incited to mutiny. And you also don’t need another number to somehow calculate into situations where a crew might perform well or poorly.
A Heading Marking an Awful Transition
Do you know what you do need a crew quality score for? Just about all of the other rules for ships, and crews, and sea combat, and everything else that Ghosts of Saltmarsh had me really excited to read about. Yeah, that crew quality is calculated as a bonus for this and a bonus for that, and it pervades an undue amount of the other expanded rules. So, if you hate crew quality (and you should), then you now get to figure out how to make the rest of the rules system work without having to calculate it and track it.
The expanded rules really do form a rules system, and I’m left wondering how much of it is really intended to be at random and how much is just there to provide ideas and inspiration. There are a lot of d20 tables and that kind of thing in the rules for sea travel, especially concerning the weather. Do the designers really intend for me to roll dice to determine randomly how thick the fog will be, after I roll dice to randomly determine what kind of weather we’ll get?
The thing is that there are a lot of tables in the Player’s Handbook, and a whole lot in the DMG, that were never meant to be rolled on. Take a look at the tables of traits, flaws, and bonds that are in the PHB: you could roll a d6 to figure out which one you’ll get, and maybe you actually will roll a d6 because you can’t decide or you think it’ll be more fun to choose at random. That’s fine, of course, and that’s part of the reason that it’s marked such that it can be rolled on, but most people just look at the list of six options and pick the one or two that they like the best. They might even see one of the options and think of something similar, or related, or totally opposite that isn’t in the table at all but that they want to use for their character.
I’m used to seeing D&D books present lists of options as rollable tables, and I’m used to having the firm impression from a lot of them that you don’t actually need to roll on them if you’d prefer to just choose for yourself. Ghosts of Saltmarsh provides a lot of lists of options as rollable tables, but I’m not quite sure how many of them I’m actually meant to roll on, and how many are just there to provide some inspiration to the DM. The problem with a lot of them, and the thing that keeps me confused, is that many of them actually don’t provide any inspiration at all: you can roll dice to determine fog thickness, but are any of the options on the fog thickness table meant to provide creative energy for the DM thinking about fog possibilities?
Where the Nautical Rules Fall the Flattest
Yes, I actually started talking about creative energy and other hippie concepts there, but it’s really meant in a very concrete fashion, or at least as concrete as hippie concepts get. There are lists of choices that help you choose something interesting, and there are lists of choices that are all uninteresting and don’t help you choose anything at all unless you roll some dice at them. It’s not news to anyone reading this that the DM is the one who has to mentally create and maintain the state of the fantasy world, and then communicate what that fantasy world is like to the players. That isn’t hippie talk at all, it’s just a flat fact. The players only know about the world the characters live in because the DM narrates it to them, and even when the DM is running a published adventure, that world has to be formed in his or her mind before it can be narrated at all.
The best published materials help DM’s, and players, to do their best creative thinking. The tables in the nautical expanded rules section in Ghosts of Saltmarsh aren’t that kind of table. I keep harping on the fog thing, I know, so here’s how the fog system that’s given in the hardcover looks:
The Fog Process
Bear with me, because this actually spans three tables before it gets to how the fog affects the ship and the crew.
Deciding to have fog: Roll d20, and look at the “Hazard Type” table. Hazards like “Fire”, “Storm”, and “Infestation” are on it, too, but if you roll a 7, 8, or 9, you get “Fog”. Just like that, the single word.
The hazard DC: The next table also calls for a d20 roll, and gives you a DC for whatever the hazard is, between 10 and 25. This does make really awful hazards less common; you have to roll a natural 20 to get a DC 25 hazard. Of course, on a 1 through a 9, you get a DC 10 hazard, and if you’ve played any D&D, you know that a DC of 10 is laughably low. It’s hardly worth rolling the dice at all, and about half of your nautical hazards will be that easy to handle.
But, I digress (although not without a point). Now we take our hazard type and our hazard DC and go to the next table.
Getting a “description” from the DC: The last table lets you fill in your random DC with your random hazard, and provides what they have the temerity to call a “description” of the hazard. Here’s what the fog DC’s mean:
10: light fog
15: moderate fog
20: heavy fog
25: very heavy fog
What’s next: At this point, the DM would roll a skill check for one of the NPC officers of the ship, and then you would compare the result to the DC of the fog. Then there’s another table which gives some “effects” based on how well the check went, but none of them are very interesting. They basically either result in a crew quality (there it is again) increase for a really good check, or in slower speed or possibly moving in a random direction for a really bad check.
The fact is that there isn’t anything in any of these tables that help the DM create a world that is interesting. The descriptions are so lackluster that they might as well not be there; do I really need a table to tell me that a DC 25 fog would be “very heavy”? The effects from the check are boring, too, because they only matter for crew quality or movement speed, both of which are essentially tedious number crunching.
Here’s what I mean by “inspiring” and “interesting world” and all of that creative hippie language. And yes, this is me tossing off a table that beats hell out of something in an official published hardcover. And I’ll promise you here and now that it took less than 10 minutes from the time I started thinking about it until the time that it was put down in this document. No lie.
The Chaotic Neutral DM’s Fog Table
And yes, there is only one table for everything. I suppose you could use their table for hazard type, if you wanted to. I won’t bother to duplicate it here.
1-9: A low-level, wispy fog that covers the surface of the water. Obstacles and creatures in the water are difficult to see; take disadvantage on all Perception checks to see anything on or below the ocean’s surface. Creatures attacking from underwater do so with surprise.
10-17: A blanket of fog that settles in and around the ship. All light sources are dimmed, creating brightly lit areas within 15 feet. All other areas are lightly obscured in the daytime and heavily obscured at night. The fog muffles the sounds of the ship, take disadvantage on all Perception checks that involve sight or hearing.
18-19: Thick, swirling fog envelops the entire ship, dimming all light sources and making everything and everyone on the ship hard to make out. All areas of the ship are heavily obscured, day or night, except for within 5 feet of a lamp, torch, or larger flame. Small-sized creatures on the ship can’t be seen unless within 5 feet of a light source, and medium or larger-sized creatures can’t be told apart unless within 5 feet of a light source. Take disadvantage on all Perception checks, and creatures further than 5 feet from a light source risk falling overboard if they wander away from a fixed object, like a rail or rope.
20: Impenetrable fog covers the ship and ocean in all directions. All areas of the ship are heavily obscured, day or night, and all light sources do not create less obscured areas, but can be seen by creatures on the ship within 20 feet of them as a point of light only. Creatures on the ship of any size can’t be seen, but can be located if they are holding a torch or lamp only. Disadvantage applies to any check involving sight or hearing, including attack rolls. Dexterity bonuses to AC do not apply due to inability to dodge attacks. Risk of falling overboard applies to all creatures not holding onto a fixed object, with or without a light source.
There you go. Maybe you like the mechanical effects, or maybe you don’t, but I described the fog as more than just “light” or “very heavy”, and then I gave some concrete ways to imagine just how thick the fog would be. And, a lot of the ways to imagine the fog came in terms of how game mechanics like Perception checks and combat would be affected. Maybe you like the mechanical bits, or maybe not, but I bet you can imagine that pea-soup impenetrable fog, where it’s so thick that you can’t see anything on deck but moving lights bobbing around, and where you might fall overboard if you venture out into the open.
That’s where the mechanics in Ghosts of Saltmarsh fall flat. The effects are boring, because who cares about navigation and movement speed when you can’t tell your friends from your enemies in this blinding and deafening fog? Aren’t you imagining how a combat in that fog would play out? How are the PC’s going to deal with pirates coming over the side? Why do we care about abstractions about crew quality when we’re talking crew survival?
Again, I’m blowing my own horn here, but it was the table that got you thinking about that, and even if you don’t like the numbers or the mechanical things at all, that table helped you think about how the world would be when the fog got thick enough to be dangerous. I’ll also point out that none of my fogs are pointless; there are no DC 10 throwaway fogs here. Even the surface fog makes a difference to how things work aboard the ship, from safe navigation to attacks from below.
If you’re the DM, you don’t even need to roll dice to look at that table and think about what kind of fog to throw at the party. If you wanted random fog, yeah, roll a d20. But, if you want to choose your own fog, you have reasons to pick one that suits your purpose for whatever part of the adventure needs fog at sea to be interesting or different. You have the freedom to choose, and to make choices that are meaningful for the in-game world and everyone in it.
A Second Piece of Bread
You may remember something about how I liked the notion of ships as creatures, somewhere back before all of the analysis and pontification and self-aggrandizement. That was the first thing that I really liked about Ghosts of Saltmarsh, but it wasn’t the thing I liked the best about it.
The part of Ghosts of Saltmarsh that I really like, and like a lot, are the ocean areas that they give you near the end of the book. There are three of them: a reef, a shipwreck, and some ruins, all of which are solid undersea locations that you might find useful to include as part of an adventure, either en route to someplace interesting or as their own destination. You get maps, and area descriptions, and even a basic adventure to be had in that environment. But, the areas work fine even without using the suggested adventure, so you can fill in any creatures or treasures or perils you want to include.
This is the sort of thing that I was really looking forward to. I can use one of those environments to spice up a sea voyage, or when I need the party to recover some useful object or treasure or other MacGuffin that goes underwater. I can use the extra monsters (which are also pretty good material, and I’m only giving them half credit because they’re also all needed for the seven adventures, so no bonus creatures here) to adjust the level of difficulty, and I can choose what kind of monsters to include to adjust the flavor or just accommodate the adversary of the week.
To be completely fair, there are environments in the adventures that you could use in the same way, but I’m also giving half credit to those because an adventure module doesn’t really intend for you to take its maps and descriptions and everything else and break them apart for piecemeal use. The three underwater areas get full credit, because they’re versatile and adaptable and scalable, all of the things that make my job as the DM easier. I’m actually looking forward to using them in the way that I hoped I would look forward to running one of the modules. So, good show on that one, authors and designers.
Wrapping It Up
As I said earlier, I actually intended for this to be a fairly short review when I set out to write it. I knew that I had bought this book that I had looked forward to getting, and had badgered my local game store owner about ordering for me, and that I had carried around for a while hoping for a chance to read over vacations when I didn’t have the time. And I knew that I had been disappointed, but I decided that I wouldn’t review any of the adventures until I had actually run them, except that I wasn’t planning to. Except maybe the Styes, with some significant changes. We’ll see.
The fact is that Ghosts of Saltmarsh isn’t just a collection of mostly adventures that I won’t run and mechanics that I won’t use. They all seem to have problems and shortcomings that leave me saying “meh”. I like the treatment of ships as creatures, but I like it because I can use it to make something that I want to have: epic sea battles. I like the undersea areas, but I like them because I can use them to create adventures I want to run. Even the best parts of the book really only seem good because of something else I can use them for; I don’t get the feeling from most of it that I would use it just for itself.
So that will do it for Ghosts of Saltmarsh. If you’re a player, don’t buy it; all you really might want out of it are some of the character backgrounds, and your DM can give you those. If you’re a new DM, don’t buy it; the adventures aren’t that great, even when they aren’t riddled with scoreboarding and other lesser sins. If you’re an experienced DM, you probably want to buy it sometime, if only to get the extra monsters, but you can really afford to wait for the price to go down.
And, if you’re absolutely determined to go out and buy Ghosts of Saltmarsh, please support local businesses and buy it from your neighborhood game store. That actually is good advice for anything you want to buy for D&D, but it’s especially good for this book. It might not be doing me a lot of good sitting on a shelf, but at least I know I shelled out my money to someone who can use it to feed and house their family. Even if I don’t like Ghosts of Saltmarsh now that I’ve bought it, I can at least feel warm and fuzzy about the purchase. And that’s worth something.