This is a very interesting product, and a more varied one than I expected. It’s in the vein of Tales From the Yawning Portal but in many ways an improvement on that collection, with a more serious and coherent effort made to unify the included adventures, and deep and rich setting and rules material included. As with Yawning Portal, the actual adventure selection is a bit hit-and-miss – specifically, things start good, sag in the middle, and finish great. The appendix contains a robust selection of material to support maritime-themed adventures or campaigns.
It’s worth noting that there are level gaps between the included adventures, so if you intend to run them as a campaign you’ll probably need to supplement them by developing additional adventures from the included fertile material, or adding material from other sources.
Each of the 8 chapters and the appendix deserve individual consideration, and I’ll rate each on a 1-5 scale.
Chapter 1: Saltmarsh
A thoughtful and rich exploration of Saltmarsh and the surrounding region as a campaign setting. Includes locations, factions, politics, downtime activities, new PC backgrounds, local tie-ins for existing PC backgrounds, and suggestions on locating the seven included adventures in the region. One surprising and welcome addition is a section describing how and where the Tales from the Yawning Portal adventures could also be set in this region. This Saltmarsh is very much part of Greyhawk, with ties to that world’s deities, factions, and countries. One really positive aspect of 5E is that many of the books are positively dripping with adventure seeds and plot hooks for you to develop in your home game – and this is no exception. My only real criticism here is regarding the inclusion of some old school-style random encounter tables – Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation showed how random encounter tables can be evocative and atmospheric; going back to the old “1. 1d6 bugbears, 2. 2d4 stirges” stuff feels lame and retrograde in comparison. I finished this chapter wanting to run adventures in this setting. 4.5/5
Chapter 2: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (level 1-3)
A fun two-part adventure which probably seemed more ground-breaking and revelatory 39 years ago than it does now. Nevertheless, it holds up. First part is a haunted house exploration, second part is a raid on a smuggler ship which calls for players to get creative in their approach. Relatively easy to run and largely straightforward with some nice, evocative moments. Only major plot flaw here involves some lizardfolk discovered on the smuggler ship. They are not initially hostile – in fact the text explicitly says they will mistake the adventurers for smugglers – but the writers seem to assume that the adventurers will nonetheless slaughter them where they stand. There is literally no consideration for the possibility that this might not happen – and indeed, if the adventurers instead parlay with the lizardfolk and learn what their agenda is, then almost the entirety of the follow-up adventure, Danger at Dunwater, is rendered moot. This seems to be an attempt to teach players in 1980 not to kill every weird-looking thing they see on sight, but modern players mostly already know this. This plot flaw notwithstanding, this is a very solid adventure. If you’re looking to open a campaign with an enjoyable official WotC adventure that will run a few sessions and get the players to level 3…then may I suggest Sunless Citadel. BUT if you’ve already run Sunless Citadel…you should use Death House. BUT if you’ve already run both of those, then this one’s also pretty good. 3.75/5
Chapter 3: Danger at Dunwater (level 3)
Nobody would write this adventure today. Party journeys to a lizardfolk lair on what (hopefully) they will quickly figure out is a diplomatic mission. If they don’t…they are in for a grueling grind, fighting through room after room of lizardfolk due to a monstrous misunderstanding. I can’t imagine ever running this. The adventure clearly hopes diplomacy will prevail, but nevertheless almost the entire page count is devoted to describing what happens if it doesn’t. In that case, the party opts to fight their way through the whole place. It’s as if the writers understood that D&D needed a new kind of adventure, but at the same time couldn’t quite figure out how to create one with the tools at hand. So the options are either a) diplomatic approach, in which case this entire adventure is likely resolved in well under an hour b) violent approach, which likely results in a mind-numbing, multi-session repetitive combat slog. Sure, “a good DM can fix it”, but you know what? There are adventures out there you don’t need to “fix” this extensively. 1.5/5
Chapter 4: Salvage Operation (level 4)
Plot sounds cool on paper. Party hired to recover treasure from a drifting ship filled with monsters, undead, and a cannibal druid. Once they recover the treasure, a giant octopus attacks the ship and it’s a race against time to escape before the vessel is destroyed. Sounds awesome, right? And yet somehow it isn’t. I hesitate to pass full judgement here because it’s possible that this adventure plays better than it reads, and I haven’t played it. But as written it’s missing something, and I think that something is well-observed details to enliven it and make the characters and environments real and specific. It suffers particularly in comparison to Tammeraut’s Fate, which is also included in this book – there is a location in that adventure where the players investigate a scullery where ghouls killed some mendicants the night before. If they search a washtub where one of the victims was forcibly drowned face-first by an undead pirate, they find at the bottom of the tub the hermit’s well-made set of false teeth carved of elephant ivory. Nothing in Salvage Operation is that detailed, evocative, or gnarly. This adventure is fine. 2.5/5
Chapter 5: Isle of the Abbey (level 5)
This book has two different adventures that are set on islands where religious retreats have recently been attacked and overrun. This one is the weaker of the two. Island controlled by evil clerics was recently sacked by pirates. Party arrives in the aftermath, tasked with mopping up and securing the place for the local law. Traps, undead, surviving evil clerics, evil mercenaries, subterranean dungeon, treasure. There is nothing wrong here, but nothing great either. If your campaign is going to include Tammeraut’s Fate, it probably doesn’t need to also include this. 2/5
Chapter 6: The Final Enemy (level 7)
I’ll be honest, I couldn’t get through reading this one. I really tried. I maybe made it 1/3rd through. If you like fighting sahuagin, have I got an adventure for you. Three levels and 60 keyed locations worth, in fact. Of course, you don’t have to fight all of them. You can take an infiltration and stealth approach. Until you fail a skill check, which pretty soon you’re going to. Then you fight. Presumably until you die or retreat, because you can’t conceivably fight the entire society’s worth of sahuagin that are described here, in room after room, on page after page, forever and ever, amen. Depending basically on how much of the lair the party saw before they escaped, they can go back there, this time with an army, and chances of success in the ensuing battle are influenced by how much information the heroes gathered during their first visit. I just didn’t care about this and will never play it. 1/5
Chapter 7: Tammeraut’s Fate (level 9)
Excellent site-based adventure set on an island hermitage recently devastated by undead pirate attack, with undead set to return at sunset a la the Redcliff quest in Dragon Age: Origins or the recent excellent Netflix K-drama The Kingdom. Shows off the potential of a site-based adventure – starts off as a dungeon crawl/investigation with strong environmental storytelling as the heroes piece together what happened and eventually locate survivors. Second phase involves fortifying/preparing the hermitage for a return visit by the undead, and fighting them off. Third section involves stopping the undead at the source – an undersea shipwreck and open rift to the Abyss. I hadn’t previously heard of this one, and I’m surprised because it’s really good. Great use of descriptions, detail, and specificity in the writing without ever being over-written. This is very much the style of adventure I enjoy creating for my own players. Cheap plug: if you like this, you’ll probably like this: https://www.dmsguild.com/product/267835/Secrets-of-the-Blind-Palace4.5/5
Chapter 8: The Styes (level 11)
A deservedly well-regarded adventure which also provides a fully realized small city or district that could serve as the site of future stories. This one is different in tone from any previously published 5E material in that it’s quite Lovecraftian, with an atmosphere of Victorian squalor and decay, industrial pollution, and moral pessimism. At times it’s so gothic and macabre that it threatens to become unintentionally(?) comic (particularly with regard to place names – Hopene’er Asylum, Lamplicker Way) but imo it lands on the right side. It has deep content, interesting details, and is never boring. Genuinely disturbing. 4.75/5
There’s a lot going on in this section, and by the time I read through it I was really appreciating the depth of content included in this book. Appendix A consists of: 15 pages of stats and rules for ships and crews, including some magical ship features; 8 pages of rules and tables for combat, hazards, travel, and different kinds of ocean environs; 5 pages of tables and ideas for generating encounters at sea (including other ships & their crews & missions); 4 pages of tables and ideas for generating mysterious islands, including their themes, inhabitants, and what those inhabitants might want; and 14 pages of what amounts to a selection of mini-adventures centered on three locations (Cove Reef, Wreck of the Marshall, and Warthalkeel Ruins). Each of the three locations offers 4 different adventure scenarios over a range of levels, so you could use these to fill in gaps between the 7 main adventures offered (although there still isn’t quite enough here to fill all those gaps). There are a total of twelve scenarios across three locations, and I think most DMs will find at least one scenario in each location that they’d like to run. This bit reminds me of how areas and maps are re-used in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist to offer options to the DM. Appendix B is one page of new magic items (nothing earth-shattering) and Appendix C is 26 pages of monsters, some of which are original to this book and others of which have appeared previously in Volo’s, Tomb of Annihilation, Mordenkainen’s, or elsewhere. A good selection of monsters, particularly if you don’t own all those non-core books. How much you will use all this material will vary a lot. For most campaigns, you’ll use it for that one marine-based quest or story arc and that’s probably it. But for a sea-faring campaign, you’d get a ton of use out of this stuff. All in all, they did not skimp on content here and it’s hard to argue with the depth of material and the amount of hooks and story ideas that are good enough that you will actually want to use them. 4.75/5
This feels like a good value to me, with plenty of thoughtful content. Between the Saltmarsh setting, the seven adventures, and the robust appendix, there are months or even years of material in this book, much of it very promising. Where it falls down is in the selection of some of the adventures. Of the seven included, two are great, one is good, two are middling, and two are bad. After reading the Saltmarsh setting section, I would love to have seen some of the old adventures here replaced with new original ones that explored this region specifically. I’m sure U2 and U3 are here to draw in older, nostalgic fans, but I would rather have seen these two get re-imagined rather than reprinted. The modern editors did some stuff to try to “fix” some of the issues with them, but honestly I’m not sure what’s in them that’s even worth the trouble. And Salvage Operation and Isle of the Abbey are just sort of there. They’re not bad, but you’ll find plenty of stuff just as good or better on DMsGuild or already on your shelf. U1 does hold up as old school fun and Tammeraut’s Fate and The Styes are both excellent. So overall this book has 5 excellent sections, 2 middling ones, and 2 bad ones – but by page length it’s more like 75% good-to-great vs 25% middling-to-bad. For me that’s enough to get this an overall 4/5 rating.
This book is what Tales From the Yawning Portal should have been. It’s not just random adventures slapped together but a series that is connected, both thematically and potentially as a campaign. And the inclusion of lesser known adventures great.
Ostensibly, the selling feature of this book is it’s a way to introduce the new generation of gamers to “classic” adventures. Which is a noble goal. But… the adventures still need to be good. Fun to play. If they feel dated then you’ve just ruined these adventures for this generation. It’d be silly to have a book of adventures that make use of old rule design (like THAC0 or quadratic wizards). So why is it okay employ old adventure design? That feels weird.
Sadly, because the book only makes use of old adventures, none of them take advantage of the ship combat rules. Even the brand new underwater locations featured in that section don’t really make use of ships! The book could have easily dropped the 8 pages for Salvage Operation or ten pages for Isle of the Abbey and maybe added a ship combat scene to one of the other adventures. Such as further expanding the climax to The Final Enemy, perhaps having a player controlled sailing ship facing a sahuagin-trained giant octopus.
The adventures are hit-and-miss, with most of the more recent ones being arguably better. However, the introductory adventure is one of those surprising classic that deserves it’s reputation and is still highly playable. And a couple of the middle adventures can easily be adapted or incorporated into an existing campaign, especially if you need an island dungeon quickly or high sea encounter.
I am writing this from an Adventure League (AL) DM viewpoint. YOU MISSED THE BLEEDING SHIPS.
The good is 7 adventures with 3 being Classic AD&D modules which have been updated. So 7 for $7 is a good buy. The Bad Appendix A gives stats, blueprints, and information for ship to ship combat, but no combat exists. Also after a quick review, pcs will have to occasionally adventure in other modules to get to the min level to play in the chapter.
Chapter 1 gives some decent encounters and backgrounds for the townspeople. However with no guidance from AL at this point, swap out the Brotherhood with Red Wizards. Since this is a town I would low ball or give no AP unless the encounters get the party to where they need to go.
Chapter 2. Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. I ran the original and they do a good job of updating the adventure. 3 out of 5.
Chapter 3. Danger at Dunwater. I ran the original and they do update the adventure. But if the group tries an out all attack it will go badly for them. 2 out of 5.
Chapter 4. Salvage Operation. This a quick chapter. I will be surprise if the run time is over 4 hours. However the map is unusable. The blue on blue makes the grid lines impossible to see. 2 out of 5.
Chapter 5. Isle of the Abby. It does have an interesting landing encounter section. It looks like it will be fun to run. 4 out of 5.
Chapter 6. The Final Enemy. Reads like a straight update. 3 out of 5.
Chapter 7. Tammeraut's Fate. This adventure will be either a great adventure or bore depending on what type of gamers sit at the table. An item to help the party is missing from the treasure list. 3 out of 5.
Chapter 8. The Styles. Another adventure which depends on the players. 3 out of 5.
Appendix A. Ships, more ships, crew numbers, and rules for crew. CCC-Priory-01 Maritime Mayhem had some similar skill checks to help out a ship. But none of the ships or rules are used in the adventures. I pray appendix A gets sold separately on DMs Guild for those DM who don't run AL or buy Adventure books. 1 out 5.
Appendix B. The magic items add flavor to adventures. But nothing to float my boat. 3 out of 5.
Appendix C. The new monsters are nice and in the future will add some nice encounters to later adventures. 4 out of 5.
This will be a Season 0 book which means all current and future pcs get the full rewards from running in them. I would ask DM buy this from local game store if you have one. But if you are unhappy with seasonality, and your players want to run though them, buy at a discount.
- The adventures included are of variable quality; the good ones, in my opinion, are only two: Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and The Styes.
- This book is good to have - and it's better than Tales of the Yawning Portal - because it connects the adventures not in a linear way but as opportunities in a sandbox campaign. The first chapter even states that you can mix these adventures with the ones in TotYP!
- The art is very good.
- I appreciate the fact that we finally have Greyhawk
- The greatest limit of the book is that Wizards chose some very weak adventures from Dungeon Magazine. Please choose only the best in the future!