In my experience, Dungeons & Dragons campaign books generally come in one of two forms: either a fairly linear progression of adventures that move along an overarching plot or a broader collection of individual adventures loosely related to a central theme or location.
Both types have their merits and their drawbacks. Linear campaign books provide a structure for new or time-lacking dungeon masters, but they also can present a challenge to both groups when players make decisions in-game that drive the campaign off the pages of the book. Meanwhile, the broader books provide a nice framework for a campaign, but the dungeon master must put in a certain amount of careful and subtle work in order to construct stories not written in the book, or players can start to feel like they’re just completing quests on a job board.
Enter Ghosts of Saltmarsh, the newest D&D campaign book from the fine folks at Wizards of the Coast. While Ghosts falls firmly into the second category, it also manages to tap into the first by providing a location around which these adventures are set, that being the coastal village of Saltmarsh. This village should be familiar to any long-term D&D players: it appeared in a number of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventures from the ’80s, and in fact some of the stories found in Ghosts are based on TSR’s critically acclaimed Saltmarsh trilogy.
Ghosts is presented in eight chapters, the first of which is devoted entirely to setting the fantastic stage that is Saltmarsh. This chapter delves into the prominent nonplayer characters, politics, geography, and stories occurring in and around Saltmarsh. It also provides players with some flavor for their backgrounds, should they wish to create a character from this region. It features both a map of the village and a topographical map of the surrounding area. It also offers some information on other notable places around Saltmarsh, random encounter tables, downtime activities, and even some sneaky little story hooks that might become adventures of their own for an ambitious dungeon master.
Saltmarsh and the land around it drip with character. Fog, mist, darkness, and undeath lurk in every corner, and these themes are threaded through each of Ghosts’ adventures with delicate care. I honestly think that I could build a campaign around just chapter one of this book, because it truly is detailed enough to let my players run in about 10 different directions. I would have to lay the road ahead of those directions, but the point stands that the setting is very detailed and very well designed.
The remaining seven chapters of the book present seven individual adventures. Each can be played as a standalone scenario that will fit into any campaign or can be tied to the Saltmarsh setting presented in the first chapter. Each also features tips for including it into a different campaign world, like the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Mystara. This flexibility is delightful, because it allows dungeon masters to make use of these stories regardless of where their campaign takes place. All of these adventures are based on stories written for previous editions, and thus it is worth noting that they may be familiar to some.
Honestly? That’s okay, and maybe even good. There’s a wonderful vault of D&D treasures to be found in older editions, and considering the boom that D&D is currently experiencing, I’d bet that most people have never played them. I love to see that Wizards has such reverence for this game’s history and that it’s happy to share these stories with us after applying a fresh coat of paint.
I think my favorite of the seven presented stories is called “Salvage Operation,” found in chapter four. Players are tasked with reaching a ship adrift at sea, a ship thought lost by an owner who is anxious to retrieve the treasure in its hold. The players will find a number of surprises both aboard and around the ship, from its former crew to an octopus with a grudge. While not tied directly to the village of Saltmarsh, this adventure is a great option to have on hand, because it can fit in at almost any time.
I’d be remiss if I did not mention the book’s appendix. There are nearly 70 pages of optional content at the end of this book, content I’d call absolutely essential for every D&D dungeon master, even the ones not playing out of this book. The appendix features additional rules and details for ship combat, including the statistics of various nautical vessels. It has a number of random encounter options for players at sea. It even features several fully optional locations and events, like shipwrecks, ruins, and even a few twisted cults. It is perhaps the most ludicrously extensive campaign appendix I have ever beheld, and I adore it as much as any of the proper adventures in the book.
In my opinion, flexibility is Ghosts’ greatest strength and a testament to the evolution of the Dungeons & Dragons product. This isn’t a book designed for a specific dungeon master or a specific party. Instead, each chapter offers its dungeon master advice on how to fit it into their existing story or how to build it into the Saltmarsh setting it provides. That choice of how to include these stories and when to include them lives at the heart of this book, right next to the themes that give it life. That freedom makes Ghosts ideal for new and experienced dungeon masters alike because it lets them use it however they want or need to.
I could give this book to 10 different D&D groups, and each would take it in a different direction. After a month, none of them would look even remotely similar. And I want to do that! Because I think the stories that live in this book, both the big ones found in each adventure and the little ones found in the appendix, are great. I play D&D specifically because of the great stories it lets me be a part of. Ghosts of Saltmarsh is full of great stories, and that alone is enough for me to recommend it.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh is available online and in game stores from Wizards of the Coast.