Ghosts of Saltmarsh – a campaign?

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 really complain about a lack of content. (We’ve even added to that content here at Eventyr Games with our DM’s Resources for Ghosts of Saltmarsh)

Tailored to reduce your preparation time with advice and suggestions, full-color battlemaps, DM’s cheatsheets and neatly arranged creature statblocks.

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 – DMs 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:

  1. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (1st level) – The party unravels a smuggling ring delivering weapons to a tribe of lizardfolk.
  2. Danger at Dunwater (3rd level) – The party investigates the lizardfolk’s lair and discovers that they’re mustering to fight the evil sahuagin.
  3. Salvage Operation (4th level) – The party recovers a lost treasure from a sunken ship that’s being crushed by an elder octopus.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:

  • Smugglers/pirates
  • Lizardfolk
  • Cultists of Lolth and an elder octopus
  • Cultists who wield necromancy
  • Sahuagin
  • 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 impressive conclusions, that are quite similar: sealing Orcus’ Pit of Hatred and destroying Tharizdun’s Pit of Negative Energy and slaying the juvenile kraken.

Orcus is certainly a worthy foe, and who says he can’t swim?

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.

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 in the future?

And, if you want to stay up-to-date with our posts and other content like this, consider signing up to our mailing list, where we send out news about exclusive content, special promotions and other cool stuff.

Thanks for reading!

J. A. Valeur

19 thoughts on “Ghosts of Saltmarsh – a campaign?”

  1. Perfect timing! Our group decided to start GoS next. I’ve been using your products for the past three years and I look forward to what you release for this book.

    1. Hi Brian

      Wow, that’s amazing – thanks so much for the support! 🙂

      I hope to release content for at least 3-4 of the adventures, but it takes some time putting the resources together. Hope I can keep up with you and your group 😉

  2. Frederick ter Haar

    As a new DM interested in using this book as a summer-time adventure with my friends, this was a great post and a nice starting point. Purchased the first adventure content you created as well and it seems top notch. Still not entirely sure what to do with the expanded story options you present, but that’s something I can hopefully figure out when the time comes.

    Thank you for your effort and taking the time to write this!

    1. Hi Frederick

      Thanks, really appreciate it!

      I understand – even though this post outlines how to make Ghosts of Saltmarsh into a campaign, it’s still broad strokes, because everyone is likely to have different ideas about how the campaign should look in the end. If you have any questions, you’re always more to ask, and I’ll give any advice I have! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Ghosts of Saltmarsh in Forgotten Realms (free maps!) – Valeur RPG

  4. Erïch Jacoby-Hawkins

    The original version of The Final Enemy, module U3 from 1983, was aimed at character levels 3 – 5. This is much lower than the version in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. But it included one crucial tool to help the players – a map of the complex provided by the Lizardfolk, as a pull-out page in the module. This only makes sense, they lived there for who knows how long before the Sahuagin kicked them out recently, and they are part of the allied force sending the PCs on this mission. It even seems like the plan WAS to include this map in GoS, b/c in the introduction to that chapter it mentions the Lizarfolk providing a “great gift” and says “see ‘The Great Gift’ ” – but there is no such section in the book! I’m sure this great gift was the map. It’s not perfect, b/c it may not be to scale and it doesn’t include the modifications the new residents have made. But it is a HUGE asset for a scouting mission, as it indicates which way each passage at a fork goes, and shows how you can find another way up/down/out if you are being chased. Without this map, it’s hard to imagine how the players could explore most of the complex (their mission) without alerting the whole complex and facing all of the inhabitants in a huge battle or series of running fights.

    The original module U3 also had a chart to gauge how successful the scouting mission was by listing various items of information about the Enemy the party would need to have in order to provide meaningful advance intel and determine if their mission succeeded. This part has been left out of GoS, instead using a chart based on how successful the party is on their return engagement as the advance group to the main attack. In fact, it seems a bit slammed on, as the reward for intel seems to be missing, instead replaced with a reward based on how well the party fights in the actual battle. As written, there is no reward offered or given for the highly risky scouting mission, which makes me wonder why the party would even undertake it.

    1. Hi Erich

      That’s a great point – and a weird omission. Unfortunately, there’s a few of these scattered around in the conversions of these classic adventures. This one seems particularly problematic, however. Good catch!

  5. Hassan Abdul-Wahid

    Thanks for posting this and doing all the work! Due to the pandemic I’ve recently revisited Dungeons & Dragons and am introducing it to my family. I haven’t played since 1989 so the 5e stuff has been really fun to relearn. We’re playing “Lost Mine of Phandelver” with the provided characters and having a blast. I remember some of the modules in GoS from when I was a kid so I bought the book and am now making notes to integrate it into Forgotten Realms. This article totally helped crystalize some half-baked ideas and provided me with a lot of guidance. Can’t wait to finish Wave Echo Cave and get the fam out to sea!

  6. Hassan Abdul-Wahid

    Just picked up the bundle and wondering why The Styes and Tammeraut’s Fate aren’t in the bundle. Everything is amazing and wonderfully laid out so just curious about those two bits. Thanks!

    1. Hi Hassan!

      That’s true, the guides for those two chapters aren’t written yet. But they are underway, luckily, so they will be coming. You’ll have to ‘rebuy’ the bundle (of course only paying the discounted price for the new parts) as they come out, but they will be included eventually 🙂

      You can sign up for the mailing list if you want to be notified when they arrive.

      Best regards,

      J. A. Valeur

  7. This is gold! As a DM who isn’t on anyone’s payroll this fills the voids WOC chooses to ignore. I find it interesting how committed the writers are to pushing a progressive agenda with unnecessary details, i.e.. the married men, Tom and Will Stoutly, but choose not to give a story arch which ties things together. You have filled done a fine job of tying things together.

  8. This is great! I’m a first time DM and I have a couple of questions regarding the bundle:

    Can I use this with the Roll20 bundle for Ghosts of Saltmarsh?

    And if I use your bundle, am I required to move the adventures to forgotten realms or can I stay in Greyhawk?

    1. You certainly can – and you don’t need to move to the Forgotten Realms! Everything in the bundle is supplemental. You can pick and choose what you’d like to use, and most of the advice and resources are setting neutral 🙂

  9. Hello! I’m starting to plan a campaign base don GoS and this was super helpful! I was curious how the intrusion/interference of the scarlet brotherhood might play into this outline, or if that plot just isn’t relevant in this structure.

  10. In my game, it all boils down to Panzuriel’s plan to bring havoc and destruction to all of the seas. There’s an alliance of Sekolah and Orcus inspired by Panzuriel’s machinations. The Sahuagin started invasion on other aquatic races (starting with Lizardfolk) while Orcus’ army of the dead is being raised.

    I started the campaign with Sharkfin Shipwreck / Coral Colosseum arc and my PCs are almost local legends (or at least are known for their crazy story, one that all sailors and fishermen are likely to have).

    Scarlet Brotherhood knows about Lizardfolk’s efforts to gather an army and hires two siblings to fetch the alchemist’s treasures. SB are hoping to expose the smugglers’ operation in order to escalate the conflict between Saltmarsh and the aquatic races.

    Party is hired to go and check the Hunted House after one of the siblings – the sister – is washed ashore, dead, and with a goat’s skull put on like a mask. This is the first omen, foreshadowing Orcus. In the house, the party finds the brother who says he thinks they were hired just to be kidnapped by the smugglers. He helps PCs to learn how to get to the Sea Ghost. The brother takes Ned’s place in the Hunted House, but he just runs back to Saltmarsh.

    The way I plan it, misinformed Ned will lead them to believe it’s Primewater who’s behind the smugglers. In my game, Primewater wanted to break ties to the criminal past and has been a more or less honorable merchant for the past few years, but likely will lose his station in the city council. Anders unknowingly supports Brotherhood’s machinations by suggesting (as per Skerrin’s advice) one of the PCs to take the position.

    To prove themselves worthy of the title and place in the city council, the PCs are going to explore Danger at Dunwater. The crocodile attacking Lizardfolks is going to be the second omen (after the girl who was found dead on the beach). One of the party members will likely be named a city council member after that.

    Now, to their surprise, the disgraced Primewater reaches out for their help. He had already saved enough coin to leave Saltmarsh behind and bought an estate up in Amn, however the dead were lost in the shipwreck – he basically asks them to go to the Emperor’s wreckage (Salvage Operation). From there, the party will find leads to Sahuagin. In The Final Enemy, the goal is basically to find out that Sekolah and Orcus work together.

    I plan to have the second chapter just like you describe it, the twist is that it’s all aimed to bring death and chaos to the seas in order to clear the path for Panzuriel to return.

  11. Hello, looking to run this as a campaign. Does the DM’s Bundle give supplemental material to support your campaign structure? For example, does it tell me what changes/additions to make in the chapters to support the overarching narrative?


    1. Hello! Yes, the DM’s Bundle includes chapter-by-chapter overviews, suggested changes, cheatsheets for encounters, and more. You can purchase the bundle through DM’s Guild or only buy the specific chapters you need help with.

  12. Hi. I’m looking for a good weapon for the adventures to find in Salvage Operation to fight the sahuagin. Basically, I want the party to track down the boat in order to be successful in The Final Enemy with what they find.

    1. Hi Fred,

      We have some cool nautical and maritime-themed items in Wanderer’s Guide to Merchants & Magic (the Thunderbolt Trident might be especially appropriate, and the Iceshard Whip could be another useful suggestion). Aside from these suggestions, unfortunately, nothing occurs off the top of my head.

      Best of luck!

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