The newest official WotC product has landed: Ghosts of Saltmarsh. With seven adventures spread over 200+ pages – and a whole bunch of rules for handling ships, sea travel and much more – you can’t complain about a lack of content. (We’ve even added to that content here at Valeur RPG with our newly published DM’s Resources for The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and maritime archetypes in Heroes of Saltmarsh I).
So yes, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is both adventure anthology, sourcebook for seafarers, and tour guide to the coastal pearl that is Saltmarsh.
But it’s not a campaign.
I’m sure that some – perhaps even most – prefer the bite-sized adventures in anthologies like Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Tales from the Yawning Portal. Personally, however, I prefer long campaigns with a cohesive plot and a red thread flowing from one adventure to the next, stringing each session neatly together. So, while the authors have put some effort into making Ghosts of Saltmarsh more cohesive by centering it around Saltmarsh(p. 27), I think there’s potential to make an even more complete campaign out of it. Below we’ll try to do just that, giving you a short summary of the adventures, our ideas for the campaigns main threat and the overarching structure of the campaign, as well as an example of how that might look in practice.
So, all hands on deck and up anchor – we’re setting sail!
The Adventures – a short summary
First, a quick overview of the adventures featured in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. I won’t bore you with the full details of all seven adventures, but if we boil them down to taglines, we essentially have:
- The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (1st level) – The party unravels a smuggling ring delivering weapons to a tribe of lizardfolk.
- Danger at Dunwater (3rd level) – The party investigates the lizardfolk’s lair and discovers that they’re mustering to fight the evil sahuagin.
- Salvage Operation (4th level) – The party recovers a lost treasure from a sunken ship that’s being crushed by an elder octopus.
- Isle of the Abbey (5th level)– The party travels to an island to secure an abbey inhabited by evil cultists and recently razed by pirates, so that a merchant guild can establish a base there.
- The Final Enemy (7th level) – The party finally deals with the sahuagin threat discovered during Danger at Dunwater, as they investigate – and perhaps even assail – the sahuagin’s fortress.
- Tammeraut’s Fate (9th level) – The party discovers the destruction of an island hermitage and must fight with servants of Orcus to stop a tide of undead crashing onto the shores.
- The Styes (11th level) – The party investigates a string of murders that lead them to confrontations with dangerous cultists, aboleths and a juvenile kraken, all beholden to Tharizdun.
Adventure 1, 2 and 5 obviously fit well together, even though they’re separated by a few levels, while the remaining four have no obvious relation, beside their aquatic and nautical themes. So, we need something to bind them together, and for that, there’s nothing better than…
A Main Threat
The thing that really binds a campaign together – and what we’re missing here – is a main threat. An evil villain or catastrophic event that is always lurking just beneath the surface (pun intended), and which our heroes must ultimately defeat or prevent.
A quick account of the various ‘threats’ in the adventures gives us this list of foes:
- Cultists of Lolth and an elder octopus
- Cultists who wield necromancy
- Undead servants of Orcus
- Aboleths and a juvenile kraken maddened by Tharizdun
Since we don’t want to make too many changes to the adventures, it makes sense choosing our final villain from one of the latter adventures – Tammeraut’s Fate and The Styes – which are also the adventures were we find the ‘heavier’ foes: Orcus and Tharizdun. Both adventures also have an impressive conclusions, that are quite similar: sealing Orcus’ Pit of Hatred and destroying Tharizdun’s Pit of Negative Energy and slaying the juvenile kraken.
So, Orcus or Tharizdun? The answer is, it doesn’t really matter. You can pick either – or any other evil deity – and reflavor small parts in the other adventures to make it fit. Regardless of the evil deity, they both seem to have roughly the same goal: kill innocent people to fuel a pit of hatred/negative energy that corrupts and causes evil.
Okay, so we have our main threat: an evil deity who is killing people and causing corruption. Now, how do weave this threat into the other adventures?
First off, we have the whole sahuagin theme in the three Saltmarsh-adventures (The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater, The Final Enemy). The main plot here is that lizardfolk and other aquatic races are mustering a defense against the evil sahuagin, who’ve taken the lizardfolks’ lair and now threaten the coast. We can easily tie this with our greater evil – either the sahuagin are subservient or corrupted by the same evil deity, driving them to assault the coastal region, or they’re being forced from their normal hunting grounds by the minions (drowned ones etc.) of the evil deity. We can plant evidence of this during Danger at Dunwater and The Final Enemy, or even have the sea elf Oceanus inform the party about “a great evil emerging from the deep” as early as The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh.
In Salvage Operation, the ship have been invaded by cultists revering the evil deity, or perhaps the elder octopus is corrupted by the evil deity (it could even be the kraken the party later fight in The Styes, giving them a chance at revenge!). In Isle of the Abbey, the pirates who ransacked the temple are replaced with drowned ones, or other minions of the evil deity. And, as previously mentioned, the deity in either Tammeraut’s Fate or The Styes is simply replaced with the other, depending on which evil deity you choose.
But, a common threat isn’t enough to make a truly cohesive campaign. We also need to make…
An Overarching Structure
Depending on your choices and preferences, there’s a multitude of different ways you could fit the adventures together. Here, we are giving an example based on Orcus being the main threat. We choose Orcus because Tharizdun has already been the main villain in another WotC publication (Princes of the Apocalypse), so we get the chance to introduce our PCs to a new threat. Umberlee – if you’re basing the campaign in the Forgotten Realms – is also a perfectly fine choice for the campaign’s aquatic villain.
We’ll start the campaign with the first adventure – The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh – but we’ll swap the last adventures, so we get a different ending. The Styes is an awesome adventure, but because of its urban and investigative elements, it doesn’t seem like the fitting end-point for a nautical campaign. Instead, we’ll want to end things in Tammeraut’s Fate, with waves of undead assailing the characters, before a final delve into the Pit of Hatred.
Because we start with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, we’ll want to also use Danger at Dunwater and The Final Enemy. Here I disagree with the book’s assessment of The Final Enemy’s difficulty – it’s been designated as an adventure for characters of 7th level. I’ll argue that the way The Final Enemy is meant to be played – using clever tactics and stealth, and not brute force – it’s perfectly fine for a party of 4th or 5th level adventurers. This allows us to place these three adventures closer to each other.
Additionally, just because we want to end with Tammeraut’s Fate, it doesn’t mean we have to skip The Styes. Because of the many natural breaks in that adventure – ample time to rest and regroup between the various parts – we can reasonably expect a party of 8th level adventurers to handle it (although we might want to take steps to ensure the party doesn’t try to pick a fight with the two aboleths near the end of the adventure).
Salvage Operation and Isle of the Abbey end up being more ‘filler’ adventures, than anything else. They both have strong elements of sea travel – which is nice – and elements we can tie into the overarching campaign. We can have the ship in Salvage Operation carry weapons or information that can aid the player characters against the sahuagin, while the Isle of the Abbey becomes a place the characters must go to start unraveling Orcus’ evil designs. This means moving the adventures around a little, but we should be able to scale foes slightly to make them fit our party’s strength.
Okay, so what does this campaign look like, when we fit it all together?
An example campaign
Act 1 – The Sahuagin Invasion
- The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (1st-3rd level) – the party unravels the smuggling ring and discovers that a tribe of lizardfolk are mustering for war.
- Danger at Dunwater (3rd-4th level) – the party confronts the lizardfolk tribe and learns that lizardfolk and other aquatic races are preparing for war against invading sahuagin.
- Salvage Operation (4th-5th level) – the party are sent to investigate a wrecked ship to find a weapon or information, that’ll aid them against the sahuagin.
- The Final Enemy (5th-6th level) – the party helps defeat the sahuagin and learn that the sahuagin were driven to the coasts by “a scourge of undead under the waves”.
Act 2 – The Scourge of Orcus
- Isle of the Abbey (6th-7th level) – the party are sent to an abbey of evil cultists dedicated to Orcus to find out more about the scourge of undead. They learn about the evil rifts, and that yet another group of clerics are behind a string of murders in a nearby coastal city.
- The Styes (7th-8th level) – the party investigates the murders and find the trail leading to a corrupted aboleth who’s murdering people to unleash an undead kraken (we can reskin the juvenile kraken to a kraken carcass, if we want to) upon the city. They learn that the corruption stems from somewhere near Firewatch Island.
- Tammeraut’s Fate (8th level) – the party travels to Firewatch Island to find the source of the evil, where they must defeat waves of undead before their final battle with the drowned ones and sealing the rift.
Obviously, the above structure doesn’t address all the minor changes you’d have to make along the way, but they give us a blueprint for stringing the adventures together. The best thing is, that in the whole first act, you don’t really need to worry too much about the second act and how the Scourge of Orcus plays into everything – sure, you can leave subtle clues that something larger is going on (perhaps the cultist in Salvage Operation bear dire portents, or are even cultists of Orcus), but it’s not a requirement.
By splitting the campaign into two acts, we also allow ourselves to end the campaign after the first act, if we find our players tiring of sea travel, or if we’re itching to get started with Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus. If you want the campaign to continue, you can leave clues of a greater evil in the sahuagin’s lair, such as defeated sahuagin pleading the case, that they’re only fleeing from “the horde of the drowned”, or fresh murals showing the unholy union between the sahuagin god Sekolah and Orcus, that has incited the sahuagin’s invasion. But, if you’re ready for the campaign to end, you simply don’t include these portents, and the sahuagin just took the lizardfolk stronghold because they wanted it. As is the nature of evil shark-creatures.
In the DM’s Resources for The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, we briefly cover this idea of a greater threat as a hook for the adventure, but don’t go further into tying The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh to a broader campaign (for the aforementioned reason that you don’t really need to think about it that early). However, we plan to make DM’s Resources for more adventures from the Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign book, in which we’ll try to elaborate on some of the ideas here (in addition to all the other resources, that will be included), so anyone’s who’s interested will find it a bit easier turning Ghosts of Saltmarsh into a full-scale campaign. But, don’t worry, we’ll make sure to write it here as well, so you don’t miss out even if you’re not throwing down your dollars. If you want to be notified, make sure to sign up for the newsletter in the sidebar, or follow us on Twitter.
As always, we’re interested in hearing what you think. Have we missed anything? How would you go about making Ghosts of Saltmarsh into a full campaign? Is there anything else, you’d like us to cover?