My gaming group’s preferred campaign setting is the World of Greyhawk. We adventured there for years with our Blackrazor Guild campaign, but while we’ve walked (and been kicked off of) the streets of Greyhawk, battled the humanoid invaders of the Pomarj, and sailed the waters of the Vohoun Ocean, there’s plenty of Greyhawk we’ve haven’t seen.
This is particularly true of the iconic modules that helped establish it as a go-to setting for many gamers, series like Slavers, Against the Giants, White Plume Mountain, and Saltmarsh influenced our campaign, but we never actually played through the source material.
Over the last few years, that’s been changing. Starting with Gygax Day one-shots, we’ve been going back to the classics we never played together (though some of us may have visited on our own in our youth). We figured out how Brant Bladescream, found of the Blackrazor Guild, acquired the legendary Blackrazor sword in White Plume Mountain. We dared The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, ventured into the Tomb of Horrors, and barely survived the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan.
Those were largely played as one-shots, or perhaps a series of interconnected one-shots. Now we’re playing through one of Greyhawk’s most iconic adventures – the Saltmarsh Trilogy – and settling down into something like a campaign.
Wrestling with our Ghosts
This return to Greyhawk’s history is enabled by Wizards of the Coast’s new Ghosts of Saltmarsh hardcover sourcebook and adventure collection. The book binds together a number of nautical-themed adventures including the aforementioned Saltmarsh trilogy (The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater, and The Final Enemy), but also Salvage Operation, Isle of the Abbey, Tammeraut’s Fate, and The Styes). It’s Dungeons & Dragons first 5th Edition book explicitly set in the World of Greyhawk, set in the early 570s before the Greyhawk Wars and the rise of the Scarlet Brotherhood.
There’s a lot of nostalgia packed into the first few pages of this book, but a in-depth understanding of Greyhawk isn’t required to appreciate it. WotC does a good job of setting up the situation using just enough of Greyhawk’s history – the Kingdom of Keoland, of which Saltmarsh is a part – has been fighting a war of expansion. After suffering several defeats on the northern front, they’ve withdrawn their troops to within their own borders, and King Skotti has decided to focus on rebuilding his own territory while enhancing trade.
That means the sleepy town of Saltmarsh, located in the southern reaches of Keoland on the shores of the Azure Sea, is starting to receive unwanted royal attention. The town’s livelyhood is largely based on fishing, but it does a robust smuggling trade as well … something the royals may not approve of. Meanwhile, there’s the constant threat of piracy from the Hold of the Sea Princes, a patchwork kingdom ruled by landed pirate lords who never gave up their old past times.
The book details Saltmarsh and its immediate environs (something that also happened back in 3rd Edition with Dungeon Masters Guide II) and augments its numerous updated adventures with enough material to ignore those selfsame adventures and run a sandbox campaign. There are encounter charts for the nearby Hool Marsh and XXXX Forest as well as smattering of details about those locations, rules for sailing ships (as well as deck plans for those ships), and a handful of drop-and-go ocean-based adventure locations.
For me, and my gaming group, Ghosts of Saltmarsh looks like it might hit the sweet spot of adventure design. We’re bad at staying inside the pre-set boxes of your standard adventure path-style adventure, but we’re all super busy with work and family. Saltmarsh provides us with some canned adventures that I – or another dungeon master in our group – can easily run, but also gives us enough latitude to go one some side quests (or launch into an entirely unrelated, and unpublished, story arc).
Gaming with the Kids
Outside of the Blackrazor Guild, I’m thinking of running the Ghosts of Saltmarsh for my son and his friends this winter. They’re all 12 and 13, which — despite what you see on Stranger Things means shorter attention spans. They’re not at the point where they’re ready go launch into a full, multi-year storyline. But something like Saltmarsh lets them play a series of connected adventures while building up their role-playing chops.
Even better, the Saltmarsh trilogy is very much about role-playing – several of its component stories require the players to engage in diplomacy and conversation rather than simply hack’n’slash. That’s an important skill for the kids to learn (in-game and in-life) and I think that will make it a better fit than the myriad linked dungeon crawls of Tales from the Yawning Portal.
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Cover art for The Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Credit: Wizards of the Coast.