Welcome to Saltmarsh: An Introduction to D&D’s Saltiest City

Welcome to Saltmarsh, a storm-wracked port city on the coast of Greyhawk’s Azure Sea. Saltmarsh has appeared in a number of D&D books over the years, but it’s now appearing as the hub of a hardcover adventure anthology in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, releasing on May 21st, 2019. But if you’re excited to get a Saltmarsh campaign going, you may not want to wait nearly three months to start planning. You’re going to want to know what’s in store for you right away!

Saltmarsh of Old

Fortunately, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is an anthology adventure in the same vein as Tales from the Yawning Portal—meaning that if you’re willing to go back to the original material, you can start preparing your campaign before the fifth edition versions, updated with new art, mechanics, and naval rules, are even released. The core of this anthology is a trio of classic D&D adventures published in 1981 known as the Saltmarsh Trilogy, made up of U1 – The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, U2 – Danger at Dunwater, and U3 – The Final Enemy. (If you want the whole trilogy, there’s a discounted bundle containing all three on the DMs Guild.) 

Unlike most adventures of the era, however, this trilogy gave precious little description to the town of Saltmarsh itself, focusing primarily on the locations where the adventures’ action took place. Even its broader setting, the World of Greyhawk, was only given two minute sentences of detail. Kate Welch has noted that the book Ghosts of Saltmarsh will present the city as a location you can easily drop into any setting. I suspect this means that, just like the adventures in Tales from the Yawning Portal, the adventures in Ghosts will have sidebars suggesting locations in settings like Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, and Krynn that you could set them.

The Dungeon Master was left to populate and create institutions and rumors for this little city all on their own. That’s no mean feat! It would take nearly 25 years for Saltmarsh to receive a proper description—as a sample town included in the third edition Dungeon Master’s Guide II—a book well worth reading for its astute and relatively edition-neutral DMing advice, much like the fourth edition DMG.

Saltmarsh Revised

The version of Saltmarsh fleshed out the DMG II is over 30 pages of locations, NPCs, dungeons, adventure hooks, and other useful tools for any Dungeon Master to have on hand.

Some have speculated that this version of Saltmarsh will simply be lifted wholesale from this book and reprinted in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. I can’t confirm or deny this rumor, but I suspect it’s false. The two most significant aspects of the revised Saltmarsh that give me pause are its omission of spoilers and its timeline.  The DMG II notes “this chapter [description of Saltmarsh] omits details of [U1, U2, and U3] to avoid spoiling their plots for newer players.” Furthermore, “the town of Saltmarsh presented [in the DMG II] exists several years after the events in those adventures.” It even advances the timeline of the Greyhawk setting somewhat, noting that the nearby city of Seaton was sacked by slavers, and now refugees from the attack are flooding into Saltmarsh.

Wow! I suspect that the Saltmarsh we see in Ghosts won’t feature these events—namely because adventures U1–3 are included in the book, and still have yet to occur! Ultimately, I think that the version of Saltmarsh presented in Ghosts will be an entirely new vision, perhaps with some choice elements borrowed from the version in the DMG II.

That said, if you’re planning to run Ghosts of Saltmarsh and want to start brainstorming ideas for your own version of this salty city, acquiring the DMG II and familiarizing yourself with its NPCs, locations, and points of intrigue will help make your campaign even more robust. If there are any elements of the “future” Saltmarsh that pique your interest, you can lift them straight out of the DMG II and insert them into Ghosts. Don’t feel guilty about that; old-school modules like the U-series were designed for the DM to muck about with them and make them your own. Steal with pride!

Speaking of stealing, if you want a suitably nautical prologue to your upcoming Saltmarsh campaign, consider using my latest encounter from Encounter of the Week: Sharkfin Shipwreck. It introduces ships, storms, and sahuagin, all of which will be of paramount importance in Ghosts of Saltmarsh.

Saltmarshed Renewed

But the expansion of Saltmarsh does not stop there. More adventures than simply the U-series are being revised and retooled for Ghosts. While many of these adventures are set on a forlorn coast or tide-scarred island somewhere, one adventure takes place in a mysterious and grungy part of a coastal city known as the Styes. While this location was originally designed to fit into any city of the DM’s choosing or creation, this adventure will likely fit the Styes into a scummy part of Saltmarsh.

While once a regal port to a major city, the Styes have grown old and corrupt over the years. Now, the wretched slums are filled with “sadists, cultists, and hungry things that flop and writhe.” D&D fans on EN World have likened the Styes to weird fantasy locations like the setting of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station.

The Styes was originally published for third edition D&D in issue 121 of Dungeon Magazine. If you want to pick it up ahead of schedule, you can buy a PDF copy and look through The Styes in its original incarnation in that magazine. It even got a sequel adventure—The Weavers—in issue 138 of Dungeon. That adventure won’t be remastered for Ghosts of Saltmarsh, so you may want to pick it up and see if you can reverse-engineer it into fifth edition yourself to continue the fun. A handful of other adventures were included, but they mostly seem to be locations beyond Saltmarsh itself, whereas the material in the DMG II and the two Dungeon Magazine adventures set in the Styes could give you valuable insight into the city of Saltmarsh as it could appear in Ghosts of Saltmarsh.

Are you excited for a wet and slimy aquatic campaign, filled with ghosts, monstrosities, and fish-headed abominations? Let us know what piques your interest most about Ghosts of Saltmarsh in the comments!

James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of  Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of  Worlds Apartand a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their sweet kitties Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.


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