It’s the one book that offers a campaign guide as well as adventures. It’s something of a sourcebook and an adventure book. It’s usable as one long adventure path, but it also allows DMs to pick and choose what adventures to use.
You could use The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh as an introductory adventure. Or you could drop The Styes as a bridge adventure after finishing up one of the longer books such as Curse of Strahd.
You could use the robust town of Saltmarsh as a home base for any number of adventures including those from this book and others. You can pick up this book for only the ship and combat rules, which are robust and expansive.
That’s not to be a criticism of past 5e adventure modules. They’re enjoyable , but they tend to act as one long adventure path. The one that didn’t, Tales From the Yawning Portal, is a disparate set of fun and classic adventures that, even with the Yawning Portal framing device presented within, would be hard to bridge together into any sort of cohesive campaign.
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This adventure bases itself around Saltmarsh, a seaside town in the D&D world of Greyhawk. (Though, as the book states, you could easily put Saltmarsh anywhere. It even has suggestions on where to place it in other worlds.)
The whole first chapter lays out the town of Saltmarsh, its major NPCs, major factions and various events. It is extremely detailed. You could base a whole campaign around just the town with all of the events, characters, factions and nearby locations that are up for contact and exploration.
The book even helpfully suggests how and where to fit in the adventures from Tales From the Yawning Portal, and I love the idea of basing a campaign here and letting the adventurers pick and choose what they do based on what they explore and encounter.
That introductory chapter also offers several brand new character backgrounds (fisher, marine, shipwright and smuggler) as well as new options for previously published backgrounds that will better tie characters to Saltmarsh.
The book, of course, takes its name from The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, originally AD&D adventure U1. The adventure involves investigating a haunted house that (spoiler alert!) turns out not to be haunted at all and is instead a creepy and booby-trapped front for a smuggling ring.
I personally have a soft spot for that particular adventure since my longest-running gaming group played it as our first-ever adventure together, but it’s honestly a fantastic low-level adventure that has great hooks for Saltmarsh including its local politics and connections to smuggling.
From there, the book also features 5e updates of Danger at Dunwater and The Final Enemy, both sequels in the AD&D U series. Dunwater features a group of lizardfolk buying weapons near Saltmarsh, and Final Enemy builds on the two previous adventures and involves investigating a sahuagin lair.
This version of The Final Enemy adds a new element: A final assault on the sahuagin fortress.
Salvage Operation takes adventurers out to sea to investigate a ship that’s been missing for years that suddenly turned up. But, uh, it’s been taken over by a druid cannibal and his crazy pets. The fun in this one comes from a dungeon crawl on a decrepit ship that can and will fall apart at any time.
Isle of the Abbey takes players to a nearby island off the coast. But, as happens with these things, the island is overrun with undead. It also involves a lot of exploration to find the proper, non-lethal path and feels something like a treasure hunt with a pirate map. Once you arrive at the abbey ruins, it becomes another dungeon crawl.
In Tammeraut’s Fate, the adventurers are tasked with discovering what, exactly, happened to the residents of Firewatch Island. They have all vanished. Well, it turns out a group of undead pirates took them all, opened the Pit of Hatred and turned them into drowned ones. The adventure has a layer of mystery and intrigue as well as thrilling combat and exploration.
Lastly, there’s The Styes, a 11th level adventure about a mysterious series of murders, a cult and an aboleth. The Lovecraftian feel of the adventure is exciting as is the wild setpieces such as a decaying ship held aloft by a crane that the characters must infiltrate.
Though every adventure within is a remake of the old adventures, don’t expect them to be exactly the same. Levels and monsters and some small details were altered for this book. Salvage Operation was changed to Level 4, and the orc druid no longer worships a vermin god, he worships Lolth.
We were a little surprised they didn’t straight-up reuse some of the maps or artwork, but we imagine they wanted to keep a consistent look with the minimalist style of black and white maps that don’t detail every little thing. (That said, it was cool to see the original art from The Styes reused in this book.)
When we get around to running these adventures, we may go back and use the full-color maps from Dragon Magazine, where Salvage Operation was originally published.
Last of all is an impressive 42-page appendix, Of Ships and the Sea, which details resources for water-based adventures. There are ship stat blocks, sample ships and crews, a variety of ship maps, details for officers and crew, lists of ship upgrades and a large section of combat and travel rules.
It’s done in the usual 5e style, which is to be generalized for simplicity and ease of play. We also enjoy the Pirate Campaign Compendium from Legendary Games, which has its own stat blocks as well as extremely detailed fleet battle rules and brilliant tables for shipboard activities.
The ship-to-ship combat rules in the Pirate Campaign Compendium are far more in-depth, and they cover boarding actions, withdrawing and rules for repairing ships.
Sometimes you just want more.
The appendix also features a fantastic set of sea encounter tables, three separate tables that range from levels 1 to 20. They’re a great compliment to the coastal random tables from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.
Along with included tables to make random ships, ship names and crew members as well as create islands, shipwrecks and underwater locales, they’re essential for any seafaring campaign.
All-in-all, the book is a great resources for Dungeon Masters, whether you’re looking for a long, sea-faring campaign, rules for taking your adventures on the open ocean or just an adventure or two to drop into your ongoing campaigns.