We here at Meeple Mountain have been playing through Ghosts of Saltmarsh, the latest adventure module collection for Dungeons & Dragons. We gave our first impressions of Ghosts of Saltmarsh when it was released and now we’ve returned to give you an update on how the playthrough has gone so far. As the DM, I will also be giving my observations on running the adventures and providing some tips if you are looking to run your own game.
Fair warning – there will be spoilers about the first adventure, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, along with some of the overarching Saltmarsh campaign setting provided with it. If you want to know our overall impressions of the first adventure as well as the setting without getting into detail, feel free to skip to the Wrap-Up section.
The Party Comes Together
Our weekly group of Meeple Mountain writers consists of myself (Than Gibson) as Dungeon Master, Andy Mathews as Gorebash – the Goliath Fighter, Marcus Cathey as Peile – the Human Fighter, Jonathan Elder as Kolyan – the Water Genasi Sorcerer, and Kurt Refling as Scamper – the Gnome Rogue. Since we were starting at the beginning, everyone made 1st level characters and we found appropriate places to work them into the story of Saltmarsh.
Gorebash and Peile are guards in service of the King Kimbertos Skotti who had been sent to bolster the defense of the region as new industries and interest in the region grows. They serve under Captain Eliander Fireborn, who has been charged with bringing law and order to the area and end the smuggling that is rampant along the coast. This aligns Fireborn with the growing Loyalist faction.
Kolyan and Scamper are sailors employed by Primewater Shipping. Galen Primewater is a town leader and owner of the most successful shipping company in Saltmarsh. Primewater, being a pillar of the community, is very much concerned with keeping Saltmarsh simple and local. As a leader of the Traditionalist faction this sets him at odds with the King’s people who have come into town.
DM’s Observations: From my perspective, this lined up great. I had hoped to be able to take advantage of some of the great setting material pulled together by co-designers Kate Welch and Mike Mearls and this natural division that happened as they chose their backgrounds allowed me to dig in further and bring Eliander and Galen into the story.
These adventures can absolutely be run as stand-alones. However, if you are able to do so, I recommend building this out as a full connecting campaign. The design team has done a great job of giving you plenty of material to work with to make an entire campaign centered just around this small port town and yet you can definitely make it your own.
The Spooky House on the Cliff
Gorebash and Peile are called in to investigate strange occurrences at an old, abandoned house outside of town. Anders Solmor, a young businessman who has recently inherited his family’s shipping business has received word from some of his men that they saw ghost lights coming from the house as they sailed past it. Rumors around town also speak of ghostly voices and in one case, a local man was attacked. While Solmor and Fireborn both doubt ghosts are to blame, there is concern about a possible connection to smuggling and also to the Sea Princes, a fierce pirate nation to the south who once made slaving raids on Saltmarsh.
Eliander sends the two guards, who are also known for their investigative skills, to find the truth in the tall tales. They interview Handsome Grover, the local who was attacked by ghosts and find out that he’s a sot looking for a free drink. This interview takes place in one of the local taverns, the Empty Net, known for its seedy clientele and is overheard by Kolyan and Scamper. After the guards have only partial success, Scamper wanders over and buys Grover a drink, showing pity on the guards while also getting the scoop on the house. Grover tells a story of how he had wandered into the house looking for a place to crash and possibly some leftover booze. When he went to the cellar ghosts came out and attacked him from which he barely escaped with his life.
Scamper and Kolyan offer to sail a small boat up to the house so they can get there quicker and the two guards agree and the group sets off. After a short trip and a difficult climb, they find themselves at the abandoned house which is nearly falling into the sea. Their first scouting of the house reveals no ghosts but lots of wildlife that have taken up residence. They are attacked by giant weasels, centipedes, and spiders as they explore the house. They find that it is mostly empty until they head to the cellar. As they open the door, a terrible chorus of ghostly shrieks manifests and all but Scamper high tail it into another part of the house where they find a poor man stripped bare and tied up.
The man tells them his name is Ned and that he was attacked when he stopped here for shelter on the way to Saltmarsh. Ned sticks close to the party as they look for Scamper and soon find that he had ignored the obvious magic trick and moved deeper into the cellar, revealing a secret doorway that led into a hidden base in the sea caves below the house. Hurt from their many run-ins with the local fauna, they opt to camp in the cellar and guard that door to see if anyone comes out.
Ned betrays them in the night and nearly kills Kolyan before the others are able to dispatch him. Before they strike the final blow Ned has run into the secret base yelling for someone named Sanbalet to help him. A quick search of the base raises concerns that he may have alerted an entire pirate crew causing the party to head back to Saltmarsh under the cover of night. As they sail back down the coast they see a light flashing a pattern somewhere out at sea.
DM’s Observations: This first part of the adventure was difficult for a party of four 1st-levels! Obviously, with no healing capabilities they had to take more rests, but we still had death saves during the first two sessions! They also leveled up at this point but there were still concerns about being over run. There are lots of empty rooms in this house that you can customize. I would advise that DMs consider dropping a hidden Cure Wounds potion or wand in one or two if it appears that your party is struggling a bit.
Older modules often leave a lot of empty space. Whether this is actual empty space on the map or empty space in the narrative, there is a lot of room to fill in the gaps. The Ghosts of Saltmarsh adventures are no exception. Handsome Grover was not a named character. He was just a town drunk. Adding in flavor like that helps build your narrative. Make sure you read through in advance and make any modifications or notes you need to close that empty space.
Raid on the Smugglers
Upon returning to Saltmarsh the party alerted Eliander to what they discovered and a meeting of the town council was called. The town council of Saltmarsh consists of members of both the Traditionalists and the Loyalists factions. Galen and another prominent businessperson, Eda Owland represent the former. Eliander and Manistrad Copperlocks, the leader of a dwarven mining expedition, represent the other. The fifth member of the council is Anders Solmor who tends to side with the Traditionalists but also wants an end to the Sea Princes who killed some of his family in the past.
The council all agree that the threat of smuggling and possible Sea Prince activity is worth further action, this time led by Eliander himself. They also agreed to give the party of investigators reinforcements given the possibility of a large number of enemies. They set sail towards the house once more. As they enter the secret base, they find that the smugglers have been clearing camp. Much of the furnishings from last time have already been vacated and a trap has been laid for them. Within the secret caves laid the undead remains of the original owner of the house, a skeletal alchemist consumed with anger over his failures in life. The smugglers had trapped him and his skeletal minions in his former lab but released them to lie in wait for anyone that came behind them. After the skeletons were dispatched they found some of the alchemist’s belongings including his spell book. They then pressed onward.
Moving into a hidden passageway, the contingent from Saltmarsh find sea caves utilized by the smugglers. They catch the smugglers as they are clearing out their stores and a fight ensues. Battling their way deep into the caves they encounter Sanbalet, the smugglers’ leader. Sanbalet, a wizard, gives them a fight but as he tries to flee in a jollyboat, he is struck down.
On his body, they find his spellbook and a letter signed by “Galen” ordering them to clear out the base. The two sailors recognize this name as belonging to their employer (and town councilman), Galen Primewater! Interrogating a surviving smuggler, they learn that there is a ship off the coast waiting for their return.
The party takes a bit of a rest to tend to their wounds and make a plan to board the ship. During this rest, they all take a moment to reflect on the events that have transpired and find they have learned new things about their abilities. Gorebash the Goliath “brute” found that he actually understood the magic spells in the books they found and managed to quickly commit a few to memory!
DM’s Observations: The battle in the caverns could have been a lot worse for our players. They lost a few of the militia men (one to a particularly nasty bit of slime hiding in a side cave) but convincing the Saltmarsh Council to send reinforcements kept them from being overrun. While that’s not part of the original module, always allow the players to come up with their own ideas to try out and just roll with it!
That particular session ended with the rest after the battle. I thought that made for a better place to give them their third level than at the end of the adventure. This way, they got their 3rd level subclass to use in the final battle. They each chose a subclass that made for an interesting character story. Peile, the strategist of the group, took Battle Master. Kolyan took Storm Sorcery which fit with his Water Genasi sailor background. Scamper and Gorebash both picked up spells from studying the spellbooks they got off the skeletal alchemist and Sanbalet moving into Arcane Trickster and Eldritch Knight respectively. I’ve never heard of a Goliath Eldritch Knight and I absolutely loved this idea when Andy suggested it! Unique character combinations are the best!
The party uses the jollyboat to raid The Sea Ghost, the pirate ship waiting offshore for the smugglers. They use deception to get aboard but are quickly met by a hostile crew who don’t recognize them. A battle ensues and they nearly lose Bart, the lone militiaman they took with them. The pirates are mostly defeated (their wizard managed to escape and disappeared). A search of the ship finds an imprisoned sea elf (possibly to be sold as a slave), three lizardfolk who appeared to be guests of some sort, and documents confirming the connection between this smuggling operation and Primewater.
DM’s Observations: This was a battle with a lot of moving parts and multiple terrain levels. There were simultaneous fights on the deck, the forecastle, quarterdeck, and even a small fight down in the jollyboat! Using the wizard, Punketah (who I modified to be more of a sea witch since they had just fought Sanbalet, a traditional wizard) I dropped a fog cloud on the ship which complicated the battle even more. We were playing online but if you are playing on a table and have the luxury of miniatures and ship terrain, this would be a great tabletop battle.
Punketah did get away but they managed to kill the Captain and First Mate, leaving the Bosun and a few crewmen to be arrested and interrogated. This allowed them to take their time exploring the ship as they sailed it back to Saltmarsh which I would recommend if you are DMing this module. The setup for this encounter will almost certainly lead to an ondeck battle unless the players are very sneaky. After that, there’s no need for a room by room dungeon crawl of the ship.
Sailing back to Saltmarsh, they find the docks in chaos as the Primewater Shipping vessels are trying to sail away. Eliander has already made his way back and arrested Galen and all Primewater assets are to be seized until an investigation can be performed.
The party escorts their prisoners (including the lizardfolk) to the jail where interrogations can commence. They learn that the lizardfolk belong to a nearby tribe who were buying weapons from the smugglers. Galen has been removed from the Town Council for secretly employing smugglers (and possibly slavers) and will be put on trial.
All of this has caused the simmering tension between the Traditionalists and the Loyalists to come to a boil. Saltmarsh is dividing itself while a possible lizardfolk threat looms!
As a reward for their work and compensation for losing their jobs, Scamper and Kolyan are given The Sea Ghost to start their own business.
DM’s Observations: As I mentioned at the beginning, the added layer of Saltmarsh political intrigue adds an excellent source of connective tissue between these adventures. While this adventure by itself would be a lot of fun, connecting it to the larger Saltmarsh campaign allowed me to drop two or three adventure hooks for later down the road!
Recommendations from the Other Side of the DM’s Screen
Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a really fun campaign setting grounded in classic adventures. It’s challenging and rewarding and has all of that salty flavor from a good seafaring campaign.
My recommendations if you decide to run your own Ghosts of Saltmarsh adventures:
- Connect it up. Run it as either a standalone campaign or part of an existing one using the provided story material to connect the adventures. This provides a deeper, richer story.
- Read ahead, plan accordingly. Find those “empty spaces” and put something cool in them.
- Customize! Make it your own. Add in your own flavor and nuances. Switch things up! There are a lot of humans in Saltmarsh. Make it more diverse if you wish. Throw in that Tortle Bard you’re fond of! The default setting for this is Greyhawk, but if you’re not familiar with Greyhawk use another D&D setting (this could easily take place along the Sword Coast in Forgotten Realms) or set it in your own.
We’ve had a blast with Ghosts of Saltmarsh and highly recommend you and your D&D group try it out for yourselves!
Ghosts of Saltmarsh is available now at your Friendly Local Gaming Store or digitally on D&D Beyond.