Friday, 6 September 2019

5e: Hacking the Game, Horizon Zero Dawn Part II

Read Part I of this series!

Last time, we covered the general themes and gameplay elements this game hack seeks to support in play. We also talked about the concept of character taxonomy in D&D and how Horizon Zero Dragons reworks that taxonomy. Finally, we made a start on changes to the rules as they apply to player characters: specifically, we went into how Horizon Zero Dragons handles abilities and hit points. This week, I'd like to talk about the hack's alternative to classes: the Hunter, a single overarching origin to which all player characters belong.



The Hunter

Note: a complete first draft of the hunter is already written and available for you to read: you can find it here. Please take a look as you follow along with the rest of this article!

As the only "class" in the game, the hunter has to achieve two goals.

First, to quote myself from Part I, "characters need to have the necessary abilities that they can engage with parts of the game players are naturally going to expect when you tell them they're going to be playing in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn". The burden is therefore on the Hunter to provide all characters the necessary capabilities to engage in the expected pillars of play. They need to be capable survivalists, skilled combatants, and versatile explorers. These traits can be reinforced in the proficiencies granted to all hunters, as well as the features gained. The 1st level features are particularly important: along with any proficiencies, these features must enable a bare minimum level of engagement with the pillars of play we're looking to support.

Second, the Hunter "has to be designed to allow a lot of flexibility, giving lots of choices so that no two hunters in the same party need feel the same".

Note that these design goals might seem contradictory, since the first requires the Hunter to be oriented toward a small number of specific things, while the second design goal needs us to open up a considerable variety of options. In fact these goals are not necessarily at odds: it's possible to create a broad selection of choices within a singular theme.

To achieve both design goals, there are certain features that all Hunters must have in order to be Hunters within the context of the Horizon Zero Dawn world. These features should, in my opinion, be immediately available at first level. Any other features should not be prescriptive: they should offer the player choices, ideally between a considerable variety of options.

A screenshot from Horizon Zero Dawn.


Hunter Features

The following are features of the Hunter. 



Abilities

I'm not going to spend much time on this as the variant rules Horizon Zero Dragons uses for abilities were discussed in detail during Part I. In summary: 
  • Assign an array of modifiers (+2, +1, +0, and -1) between Might, Finesse, Acumen, and Spirit. 
  • Increase one ability of your choice by +1. 
  • Assign an array of grades (A, B, C, and D) to the four abilities. The grades work in conjunction to modifiers to allow finer comparison between two creatures' relative power in any given ability: for instance, +2 (A) is weaker than +3 (D) but better than +2 (B), +2 (C), or +2 (D). 


Hit Points

I talked about hit points in Part I too. The default method of generating hit points in HZD is the stamina check. It's a method that tends to be a little more generous, which may be beneficial in a game where immediate damage healing is somewhat less accessible.


Proficiencies

Outfits. Horizon Zero Dawn uses a system of light, medium, and heavy outfits which grant various of defensive benefits. In this hack, outfits will replace D&D's armour subsystem. I'll talk more about this when we start discussing equipment! 

For now I see no practical benefit to restricting outfit proficiencies, and it also doesn't reflect the video game experience to do so. All hunters can wear all kinds of outfit.

Weapons. Likewise, we see Aloy wielding all kinds of weapons with apparently practiced ease in the video game, and I can't see it adding to the fun to require players to spend precious character resources to unlock access to any weapons we see from the video game. Hunters are proficient with all weapons they wield.

Tools. Hunter's are proficient with the herbalism kit (to make potions) and woodcarver's tools (to help them make arrows). I chose to also allow the player's choice of one other tool as an easy means to contribute towards each hunter's individuality.

Saving Throws. Since there are four abilities in Horizon Zero Dragons, there are also only four corresponding saving throws. Given how physical being a hunter is, it felt essential that all hunters are proficient in one of the two physical saving throws (Might or Finesse). To allow as much flexibility as possible, I've left that up to the player's choice. Similarly, the player may also choose between the two mental/social saving throws (Acumen or Spirit). 

Skills. All hunters are proficient in survival, because how could they not be? Other than that, I didn't want to dictate skill choices as this is an area where players should be able to make choices that help give their hunter individuality and specialist purpose within the hunting party. As well as survival, hunters get proficiency in three skills of their choice.


Tribe

The world of Horizon Zero Dawn is populated by a number of distinct tribes. The video game and its Frozen Wilds DLC focus on just four tribes (Nora, Carja, Oseram, and Banuk), but representatives of two additional tribes (Tenakth and Utaru) do appear in the game. For this reason I wanted to create character options for all six canonical tribes, even if it meant taking even greater creative liberties with the tribes we know less about!

Carja concept art by Ilya Golitsyn and © Guerilla Games


Your choice of tribe actually has a fairly minor impact on your character. This decision aligns with the principles of choice that guide the hunter's design: I didn't want a player's choice of tribe to dictate a large number of their features. A tribe typically offers one mechanical feature and one ribbon feature. It also provides recommendations for how you might want to spend your +1 floating ability score increase if you want to play a "typical" member of the tribe, but these are suggestions only.

Your tribe choice replaces a D&D character's Race and Background, though you'll notice you get less features. Most of the other mechanical benefits Race and Background would normally grant were absorbed into the overall Hunter package.


Hunter's Prowess

This is the core feature of the Hunter's design, and the primary mechanism through which the design goal of choice is achieved. Essentially, every time you gain this feature you get to choose a new prowess from among a long list of options.  Some of these options are derived from D&D's core classes. Others are new: either derived from the video game's skill tree or conceptually suitable options created from scratch by me. The current class design grants a Hunter's Prowess choice at 1st, 3rd, 7th, 9th, 13th, 15th, 17th, and 20th. As of now there are 42 options, some of which can be taken more than once. That's more than enough for all player characters to have wildly different builds, and even more might be added going forward. Meaningful variation through feature choice has definitely been achieved! If you're not already reading the hunter alongside this article, be sure to visit its wiki page to check out all the different prowess choices available!

Tribal techniques and prestiges both use a similar model to hunter's prowess and are roughly equivalent to the point that they each interact with hunter's prowess in one way or another. Both are both described later in this article.


Machine Hunter

One of several features that all hunters must possess to provide the expected game experience, this feature grants Machine Knowledge, a combination of acquired lore and practical hunting experience relating to machines. Of course it's unreasonable that less experienced hunters know much about rarer and more deadly machines, so to begin with hunters gain Machine Knowledge for specific machines only. By default, the feature unlocks new Machine Knowledge as the hunter gains levels. The aim of this design choice is simplicity. However, the feature provides for the option of ignoring the level restrictions and instead granting new Machine Knowledge after new types of machine are encountered, tracked, and fought in-game.  

This feature also grants hunters the ability to craft items from machine salvage, allowing access to that portion of the crafting subsystem.

A screenshot from Horizon Zero Dawn.


Survivalist

This feature is also to guarantee all hunters essential skills. In this case, it guarantees the hunter's ability to provide for their own survival, and perhaps the survival of others. Dehydration and starvation aren't issues we need to concern ourselves with in this hack: quite the opposite. Although Horizon Zero Dawn is technically a post-apocalyptic game, its setting is lush and full of life. Food and drink aren't particularly scarce: indeed, animals like boars and turkeys are quite numerous in the wild, and waters are teeming with fish. Since all characters are hunters, it should be trivially easy for the party to keep themselves sustained.

Survivalist also provides access to another essential part of the crafting subsystem: brewing potions.


Action Surge

At 2nd level, the hunter borrows this feature from D&D's fighter. As physically capable, heroic types it makes perfect sense for hunters to be able to push themselves past their normal limits. Combined with all the possible actions a hunter might take through use of their prowess selections or simply player creativity, action surge was a no-brainer that opens the floor to limitless awesome moments in play. 


Ability Score Increase

Like 5e's core classes, the hunter gains ability score increases, which they receive at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level. Since Horizon Zero Dragons does away with ability scores in favour of just using the modifiers, the feature is slightly simplified: you can only increase one ability by +1 (the equivalent of spending both increases on the same ability score within the core D&D rules).

I opted to remove any mention of feats, as I'm disinclined to include feats in the Horizon Zero Dragons hack. That's a discussion for another time, but bears mentioning now to explain the absence of feats within the wording of this feature. 


Tribal Techniques

To fill out the remaining class progression, I conceived the idea of tribal techniques - special features that are only available to hunters who've received the training of a particular tribe. I wanted this to be a separate feature from the level 1 tribe choice because I wanted an option for players to choose a different tribe for this set of features. This flexibility opens up less usual character backgrounds, like a Nora youth who is exiled along with their family to the lands of the Banuk, or maybe a Carja who was trained by an Oseram mercenary.

Initially I envisioned tribal techniques as being equivalent to a class archetype, but I decided that was dictating too many of the character's features. Instead, I changed tribal techniques to be similar to hunter's prowess, though limited to hunters who've received training from the right tribe. They are gained at 6th, 10th, 14th, and 18th level. 

To begin with I've created six tribal techniques for each tribe, though may come up with more in time. Additionally, since a tribal technique is mechanically equivalent to a hunter's prowess, it seemed reasonable to allow a player to select a hunter's prowess instead if they so wish. 

Banuk concept art by Ilya Golitsyn and © Guerilla Games


Hunter's Excellence

Every class progression needs a capstone, but the hunter's capstone needs to be flexible so that all player characters in the game aren't just getting the same thing. I opted for a+3 worth of bonuses to be divided among the character's abilities, and one final hunter's prowess.


Prestiges

Certain abilities gained by Aloy throughout the course of the video game are extremely rare, if not unique. In part, because there are barriers preventing most normal hunters from utilising the same abilities. Many of Aloy's powers rely on her ownership and understanding of a device known as a focus, for example.

In order to include the abilities in the game but also limit access to hunters who meet certain prerequisites, I conceived prestiges. Conceptually, these are similar to the notion of prestige classes which exists in other versions of the d20 rules. Mechanically, they're not quite the same. You don't need to take levels in a new class to gain access to prestige features. Rather, when you meet the prerequisites and join the prestige you simply gain access to its features. A prestige's core features are mechanically equivalent to a hunter's prowess, and you can simply select one instead of a standard prowess whenever you gain that feature.

As of now, I intend to add three prestiges to the game:

  • The Focused Hunter has access to a working focus and its capabilities.
  • The Lodge Hunter (still a work in progress) has proven their skills in the hunting trials and joined the Hunting Lodge in Meridian.
  • The Machine Master (still a work in progress) has gained the ability to override machines and make them temporary allies.

Next Time...

That'll do for now! When we visit the hack again, I'll talk about some rules changes.


Share your thoughts!

As always, thanks for reading! Let me know what you think about some of these changes, as well as any ideas you might have for further development of the Horizon Zero Dragons hack! Either leave a comment, or reach out on twitter

Sunday, 25 August 2019

5e: Hacking the Game, Horizon Zero Dawn Part I

Way back in the mists of mid-2017 (doesn't time fly?) I began a series of articles called Hacking the Game: Fallout. Over the course of 11 posts, I outlined the process of modifying the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition ruleset, from initial concepts to mechanical changes, in order to facilitate tabletop roleplaying in the setting of the Fallout video game franchise. That hack eventually evolved into a massive undertaking which produced a 231 page PDF and a wiki version of the rules!

Today I'm starting a similar series, with another popular video game as my inspiration: Horizon Zero Dawn. But I'm doing things in a different order this time. By far the biggest single undertaking in Fifth Edition Fallout's life cycle was adapting all the content in the PDF (which at the time was already something like 150 pages) to the wiki. Afterwards, I found updating the wiki to be straightforward, and the wiki to be a useful reference format, while continuing to update the PDF became more and more of a chore. Accordingly, this time I started with the wiki. That means there's already content available for you to see, right now! In fact, there's rather a lot of it, enough to start playing immediately. Currently, players can build hunters of one of four tribes (Banuk, Carja, Nora, and Oseram) and up to 5th level. I also have no immediate intention of creating a PDF version of the rules. If there's demand for it, I might do so as and when I can say that the hack is pretty final.

This time the articles are more of a design diary, explaining why I made various choices after the fact. Referencing content already on the wiki will also make it easier for me to produce these posts as I won't have to reproduce significant bodies of text and sizable tables.

By the way, I'm calling the hack Horizon Zero Dragons ('cause it's a Dungeons & Dragons hack but there's no dragons in it... you get it).

One final thing: a key principle of Fifth Edition Fallout was to reskin rather than rebuild. While some brand new mechanics were absolutely necessary to facilitate the Fallout experience, the core game experience hewed as closely as possible to the Dungeons & Dragons game. This time around, the changes I'm making in the Horizon Zero Dragons hack are considerably more extensive. Some are more necessary than others, but in all cases there is reasoning behind the alteration. I'll be explaining these changes and why I like them for Horizon Zero Dragons as I go.

Now, on to the content! In the first of this series I'm going to briefly describe the setting for the benefit of any reader who hasn't played the game (if you haven't and you get the chance, it comes highly recommended!). I'll then explore some key things the hack needs to factor in, before moving on to discussing Hunters, Ability Scores, and Hit Points.


A Spoiler-Free Summary of Horizon Zero Dawn 

The world is our world, but the time is a very distant future. Somehow in the intervening years our society disappeared. The humans living in the world belong to primitive tribes. These technologically primitive peoples share their world not just with flesh and blood animals, but also beasts of metal: the machines, robots formed in the shapes similar to animals of past ages. The tribal peoples of the world hunt the machines for salvage and use robotic parts in their crafting: they don't necessarily understand the science and engineering behind their salvage, but they've learned how to apply some of that advanced technology in practical ways that create items more advanced than their society's overall level might suggest. Previously the machines were quite peaceful and hunting them wasn't particularly dangerous, but over the last several decades they have become increasingly aggressive and dangerous new machines designed for killing have appeared one after another.

You play as Aloy, who was outcast from the Nora tribe at birth for reasons her father-figure Rost is unable to explain. To find answers she undertakes the Proving, an intense ritual hunt that will grant her the title Brave and the right to rejoin the Nora tribe and get her answer. As events unfold, she is tasked with leaving the lands of the Nora and becomes embroiled in a great conspiracy.


Key Themes and Gameplay Elements of Horizon Zero Dawn

The first thing to consider when hacking a rules system to suit a setting or genre of your choice is what the hack needs to achieve. In the case of a video game world like Horizon Zero Dawn, you're hacking for fans of the game. They'll want to insert their own characters into the world as presented by the game. This means ensuring the rules can support thematic elements of the setting and provide mechanical support to capture a feel as similar as possible to the original gameplay experience. With that in mind, here are some things that Horizon Zero Dawn either is or includes that the hack ought to consider:

Themes

  • The Hunt! In Horizon Zero Dawn, hunting increasingly larger and more deadly machines is a core feature of the gameplay loop. Furthermore, it's made pretty apparent that the world has become too dangerous for persons who don't possess survival and self-defense skills to travel far beyond their settlements. Since the core gameplay experience of both Dungeons & Dragons and Horizon Zero Dawn involves adventure and danger, that means every player character needs to have the skills of a hunter. I'm not saying that other professions don't exist in the world, and I'm also not saying player characters can't choose to have some of the competencies associated with those professions. But ultimately, characters need to have the necessary abilities that they can engage with parts of the game players are naturally going to expect when you tell them they're going to be playing in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn.
  • It's our future, not a fantasy. This isn't a world of magic, which means no playable races other than humans, no spellcasting classes, etc. This obviously eliminates most of the base game's options in one fell swoop, leaving very few choices. Factor in the fact we want every character to be a competent hunter, and the existing class system starts looking like a pretty bad fit for this hack. 
  • Post-apocalyptic. The world is reborn anew from the ashes of an advanced society. Some ruins of that society still exist, introducing an element of exploration and mystery just perfect for a game modeled on Dungeons & Dragons rules. Post-apocalyptic settings often have a scarcity of resources, but that's not necessarily the case here as the resources are abundant. However, gathering many of them requires effort and danger. In Horizon Zero Dawn, especially in the early game when you're not swimming in metal shards (the game's currency), you can often find yourself lacking the resources to craft ammo, potions, and traps you want on hand when undertaking the next quest. So you have to go hunting for them. The hack needs to recreate that loop, implementing a salvage subsystem so that many of the useful crafting items come from machines the player characters kill.
  • Tension between highly advanced and primitive technologies. The society that once existed had access to technology well beyond even our current limits, let alone those of the tribal societies that now call the Earth home. From the point of view of these cultures the machines and the things they're capable of appear practically supernatural. Meanwhile, although the general level of human technological advancement is fairly rudimentary they have learned to adapt parts from the machines they kill. Thus, the existence of the machines rationalises the fact that the tribes have access to some pretty unusual "mad science" weapons, armour, and other items that are well beyond what would otherwise be reasonable for them to create.

Gameplay Elements

  • Damage Types. Compared to Dungeons & Dragons, Horizon Zero Dawn has a fairly limited palette of damage types which should all be included in the game. This includes impact, laser, fire, freeze, and shock. Other damage types may reasonably exist in the world (for example, there is no thunder/sonic damage in the game, but a scenario absolutely could exist where an advanced technology caused such damage. The hack will focus on the damage types absolutely necessary, but acknowledge that other rarer damage types may exist to allow GMs the freedom to utilise them. 
    • Impact Damage. Impact damage is caused by most weapons (and will therefore replace Bludgeoning, Piercing, and Slashing), as well as explosions. Due to the existence of armour modifications that specifically resist only melee damage or only ranged damage, we can therefore further subdivide impact damage into three: melee impact damage, ranged impact damage, and explosive impact damage. 
    • Tear Damage. This is a special type of damage that doesn't particularly hurt a machine, but tears components off their body. Depending on the component, this might prevent the machine from using an ability, grant additional salvage, or pull a weapon from the machine that can then be used by the player! This is something that absolutely has to be included, which necessitates the creation of a whole new subsystem. 
    • Elemental Effects. In the video game, fire, freeze, and shock damage build up over time and eventually cause the target to suffer an effect such as catching on fire, being frozen, or briefly paralyzed. The Horizon Zero Dragons hack should account for these special effects on all elemental ammunition types and other sources of elemental damage.
    • Horizon Zero Dawn also includes a damage type called Corruption, but we can exclude it because:
      • The trail left by corrupted creatures is described as acidic, so it would be more useful to include a damage type that covers all kinds of acids, alkalis, and chemical burns. Fifth Edition Fallout includes a chemical damage type to cover these sources, and that seems a good fit here too.
      • Corruption arrows deal no actual damage, and the effect they cause can be classified in Dungeons & Dragons as a condition. 
  • The Focus. Aloy finds a special device, a sort of miniaturised personal computer called a focus. Among other things, it lets her scan machines for weaknesses, detect and follow difficult trails, and find resources and tactically useful objects in the environment. Focuses are pretty rare in the world so player characters don't necessarily have to have access to them straight away (or at all), but they'll absolutely want the option! The hack needs to support them.
  • Outfits, Weapons, and other Items. Outfits are the game's armour, and they often have special defensive abilities. Using the armour table from the base game won't cut it. Similarly, the hack needs a whole new ranged weapons table, reproducing the various ranged weapon types available in-game. Further, although the only melee weapon Aloy has access to is a spear, we see Carja soldiers with glaives and many other melee weapons could reasonably exist. The melee weapons table will be somewhat speculative, and somewhat slimmer than the base game. Aloy can also buy or craft various potions as well as cool traps, so the hack needs to support those as well.

On the Taxonomy of the D&D Character

A Dungeons & Dragons character is made up of several separate modules that interlock to form a larger whole which interacts with the larger rule set to determine what the character is capable of. These interlocking parts are hierarchical: the hierarchy is fairly flat, but it's there. You can't decide on any options from character modules lower in the hierarchy without first making choices higher up the hierarchy. 

The modules will largely be familiar to you: ability scores, race, class, background, and so on. The whole that they make up is the adventurer. The hierarchy looks like this: 

The Taxonomy of an Adventurer

A Matter of Class: or, "We're all Hunters Here"

Why is this taxonomy relevant to the Horizon Zero Dragons hack? Well, as I've noted in my discussion of the key themes and gameplay elements of Horizon Zero Dawn, many of the character modules that normally make up an adventurer should either not be available or are severely limited by the laws of the setting. This has a significant impact on the hierarchy.

Firstly, "adventurer" in Dungeons & Dragons is a broad category describing the role of all player characters in the world they live in. It includes all manner of fantastical archetypes with powers strong enough to survive adventures full of monsters and magic. Whereas, anyone daring enough to be an "adventurer" in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn has to be a human (as only humans exist), has to be able to avoid machines where possible and have a chance of surviving battle with them when stealth fails, and has to be self-sufficient in the wilderness. Therefore, in Horizon Zero Dawn "adventurer" is synonymous with "hunter". Thus, "Hunter" replaces "Adventurer" at the top of the hierarchy of player character modules.

But "Hunter" could also be said to be a character's class, right? Conceptually, it's about the same as a "Ranger", say. We could have different classes exist below "Hunter" in the hierarchy, as different types of hunter. But how many classes could we include? We already know we can't use most of the classes that exist in the base game. Not even the ranger is quite right, owing to its use of divine magic. Practically speaking we're left with the barbarian, the fighter, and the rogue, and only a handful of viable archetypes for each. None of them feel quite right. Furthermore, allowing players to choose from only these three classes doesn't provide enough choices to ensure significant variation between all player characters in a game.

Instead, I opted to run with that first instinct: Hunter is every character's "class", as well as their role within the world. Accordingly, it has to be designed to allow a lot of flexibility, giving lots of choices so that no two hunters in the same party need feel the same!

As a consequence of this, all other decisions you make about your player character become subordinate to being a hunter. Decisions like your tribe (which is somewhat equivalent to the D&D adventurer's race) become decisions you make while undertaking the process of what D&D would term your class. It's as though you started making a Fighter and one of your first level class features asked you if you wanted to be a Dwarf Fighter, an Elf Fighter, or so on.

The hierarchy of the Hunter looks like this:

The Taxonomy of a Hunter

As you can see, it's significantly less complex. Though it may seem a little odd at first, incorporating the various player character modules into the same write-up as the Hunter's "class" features effectively streamlines the character creation process. You don't have to go look at multiple chapters, or more than one wiki page: everything you need to do is all in one place.

From the point of view of a designer, having only one "class" has another benefit: while I still refer to D&D's classes for benchmarking, I don't have to worry about balancing multiple classes against each other. It doesn't matter if the Hunter ends up overpowered compared to core classes since it's not intended to interact with classes that don't exist in Horizon Zero Dragons: the only thing that matters is the players end up having a fun and sometimes challenging experience.

Backgrounds are a Thing of the Past

You'll notice that backgrounds have been removed from the hierarchy entirely. This is because I deemed backgrounds an unnecessary part of a Horizon Zero Dragons character. We already know exactly what the character's background looks like: we have their choice of tribe, and the fact that they've been trained from a young age to become a hunter.

Note that the mechanical benefits provided by the base game's background features are still part of the character in some form or another, absorbed into the Hunter's features.


Ability Scores 

The six D&D ability scores have frequently been the subject of intense debate among my circle. It's undeniable that some of the six are more useful than others, except in the case of specific classes that are designed around "weaker" scores. It's also possible to make any number of fairly sound arguments about why a certain aspect of the rules might be equally or better handled by a different ability than the one it's currently assigned to. Further, there's some conceptual overlap between the mental and social abilities. These factors combined lead me to the belief that six abilities may be too many, and the responsibilities of those six scores might be better if divided among fewer abilities. Four, say. That would help ensure that every ability score is fairly important to any character, and reduce if not eliminate confusions about which ability is really best suited to a given task.

Especially in Horizon Zero Dragons, in which magic doesn't exist and social functions may be considered a secondary concern for many hunters, I feel it's disadvantageous to use the current model which dilutes the cerebral and social ability functions between three scores. We want the ability options available to players to be as tempting as we can make them in comparison to physical abilities. Reducing down the number of abilities is one way to achieve that. Making sure there are ways to use all abilities in varied situations, such as combat, is another. However, the first method can help with the second: from a design perspective, ensuring that the mental and social abilities are used in varied ways becomes easier if there are less of them to consider.

After due consideration, I decided on the following four ability scores: Might (essentially absorbing Constitution into Strength), Finesse (Dexterity), Acumen (combining Intelligence with portions of Wisdom and Charisma), and Spirit (combining the rest of Wisdom and Charisma's functions).

The Final Score: Modifiers +1, Scores 0.

It might not have escaped your notice that ability scores in Dungeons & Dragons are practically pointless. They're essentially vestigial things, there now only because they always have been. What's important in the current edition of the game is your modifier. About the only time you'll refer to your score is in the context of either a tie-break situation, such as when you want to quickly assess which of two characters with the same modifier is slightly better than the other and make a declaration without rolling. I don't deny this is sometimes useful, but in those situations there's only a 50-50 chance that the comparison will be useful. The other 50% of the time, both characters have the same score.

So why keep ability scores? Other versions of d20 before this have successfully abandoned them (True20, for instance). For Horizon Zero Dragons, I've chosen to follow in their footsteps.

Making this change does mean that current methods of generating ability scores don't work any more. I plumped for the simplest alternative method: assigning an array, which is +2, +1, 0, and -1.

Grades

As I mentioned, however, the option to compare abilities for quick tie-breaks can sometimes be useful, though it's hit and miss in its current form. I think we can add it back in but do it better. What if an ability modifier was further broken into four bands?

If you've received education in a system that uses letter grades, you'll be familiar with the method I chose: As well as having a modifier, each of a character's abilities is assigned a letter grade out of the following options: A (the best), B, C, and D (the worst). The letter grade helps us decide which of two characters with the exact same modifier has the advantage over the other. To illustrate, imagine that each character that possesses Might +1 took a practical exam to measure exactly how much might they have compared to other characters at their level. Although they all have nearly the same Might for most practical purposes, under rigorous testing conditions it can be shown that some in the exam are just a little bit more mighty than others. The top 25% are given an A grade, the next 25% are given a B grade, and so on. These small differences may not matter in the context of battle, such as hit point damage; they could, however, be a deciding factor in a direct contest of strength like an arm wrestle. Particularly when said contest isn't significant to the story and you might want to avoid bothering with a roll. When we want to make such comparisons, four variations of each bonus is much better than two: That's 75% odds that two characters will have different values when we need to compare them!

Four grades pairs really nicely with four abilities, as it gives us a very elegant solution for determining a character's grades: you get one of each and you choose how they're arranged among your four abilities. Alternatively, they could be randomly assigned by groups who like some randomness in their character creation.


Hit Points and Stamina Checks

A little while back I posted a variant method of rolling hit points which replaces Hit Dice with a Constitution ability check. I really like this as a default for Horizon Zero Dragons. (substituting Might for Constitution, obviously). Here's why:

Firstly, and definitely primarily, characters in Horizon Zero Dragons are going to have access to less healing than Dungeons & Dragons characters typically have. Sure, they can buy or craft healing potions, but they don't have access to convenient curative spellcasting. Additionally, any serious injuries or other consequences of lost hit points (death, for instance!) are a lot more permanent: without magic, there's no way of undoing such outcomes. Therefore, it makes sense to give hunters an extra buffer, making them tougher in the first place. The stamina check variant generally results in a character getting more hit points than they would otherwise have received using Hit Dice.

Secondly, although Constitution is often less useful than Strength, combining the two into Might creates something of a power stat. A consequence of the stamina check variant is that Constitution, or in this case Might, has less of an impact on your hit points: 0.5 per +1, instead of 1 per +1. The impact is nowhere near enough to change the fact that Might is a great choice for a hunter, but it does decrease the comparative value of Might, if only by a little bit. And as they say, "every little helps".


Next Time...

That's it for this installment! Next time, I'm going to explore some more Hunter features, including Proficiencies, Tribes, and more. 

Share your thoughts!

Thanks for following along this far. Let me know what you think about some of these changes, as well as any ideas you might have for further development of the Horizon Zero Dragons hack! Either leave a comment, or reach out on twitter.


Friday, 16 August 2019

5e: Want to play D&D 5e with me? Sign up for the Ramshackle 1-Shots!

I intend to run a series of 1-shot games set in my upcoming nautical city setting, Ramshackle. In part this is to introduce the city to more people, in part to playtest some of the player content (like archetypes) going into the product!

If you'd be interested in taking part, please fill in the doodle which you can find here!

A mock cover for the Ramshackle city-setting! 


Tuesday, 11 June 2019

5e: Seven Far Realm Spells

Today I'm presenting a set of new spells! Like last time's fire spells, this group share a theme: they're all designed to capture the alien horror of aberrations and the Far Realm. They're therefore perfect for spellcasting monsters of the aberration type, eldritch cultists, and Great Old One pact warlocks!


Stock Art © Gary Dupuis.

The spells described below belong on the following class spell lists:

Class Spell Lists

Bard Cleric Druid Paladin Ranger Sorcerer Warlock Wizard

Cantrips

Alien Terror
Alien Terror

2nd-Level

Void Warp
Void Leech, Void Warp

3rd-Level

Call Lesser Horrors
Call Lesser Horrors

4th-Level

Call Greater Horror
Call Greater Horror

6th-Level

Madness Spiral
Madness Spiral
Aberrant Parasite, Madness Spiral
Madness Spiral


Aberrant Parasite

6th-level conjuration | Classes: Warlock

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S, M (flesh from a tsochar tentacle valued at 500 gold pieces)
Duration: 13 rounds

Select one target within range which must not be a construct or ooze. A writhing alien worm appears in the target's belly. The target must immediately make a Constitution saving throw, forcing themselves to retch out the worm on a success. On a failed save,  The target is poisoned for its next three turns as the worm grows rapidly within, and may spend its action on each of those turns to grant itself another saving throw.

If the worm is still in the target's body at the end of the third turn it fuses with the target's nervous system. The target becomes charmed by you and recognises your allies as its allies. It continues to be charmed for 1 minute, until you fall unconscious, or until there is a distance between you greater than the spell's range (60 feet).

While the creature is charmed, you have a telepathic link with it. You can use this telepathic link to issue commands to the creature while you are conscious (no action required), which it does its best to obey. You can specify a simple and general course of action, such as "Attack that creature," "Run over there," or "Fetch that object." If the creature completes the order and doesn't receive further direction from you, it defends and preserves itself to the best of its ability.

You can use your action to take total and precise control of the target. Until the end of your next turn, the creature takes only the actions you choose, and doesn't do anything that you don't allow it to do. During this time, you can also cause the creature to use a reaction, but this requires you to use your own reaction as well.

When this spell ends, the worm dissolves into goo which the target immediately vomits out. This costs them their reaction, if they haven't already used one since their most recent turn. 

Each time the target takes damage, it makes a new Constitution saving throw against the spell. If the saving throw succeeds, the spell ends. If you or creatures that are friendly to you are fighting it, it has advantage on the saving throw.


Alien Terror

Divination cantripClasses: Sorcerer, Warlock

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: Instantaneous

You utter a few words in Deep Speech, briefly exposing the mind of a creature you can see within range to horrifying visions of the Far Realm. 

The target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or take 1d4 psychic damage and loses its reaction if it hasn't already spent it this round. 

This spell's damage increases by 1d4 when you reach 5th level (2d4), 11th level (3d4), and 17th level (4d4).


Call Greater Horror

4th-level conjuration | Classes: WarlockWizard

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S, M (the brain of a humanoid killed within the last 24 hours, a vial of black sand laced with crushed meteorite)
Duration: 1 hour (concentration)

You utter words in Deep Speech, tearing open the walls of reality to summon forth an aberration from the Far Realm. You choose the aberrations’s type, which must be one of challenge rating 5 or lower, such as a chuul or otyugh. The aberration appears in an unoccupied space you can see within range, and the aberration disappears when it drops to 0 hit points or when the spell ends.

Roll initiative for the aberration, which has its own turns. When you summon it and on each of your turns thereafter, you can issue a verbal command to it (requiring no action on your part), telling it what it must do on its next turn. If you issue no command, it spends its turn attacking any creature within reach that has attacked it.

At the end of each of the aberration’s turns, it makes a Charisma saving throw. The aberration has disadvantage on this saving throw if you say its true name. On a failed save, the aberration continues to obey you. On a successful save, your control of the aberrations ends for the rest of the duration, and the aberration spends its turns pursuing and attacking the nearest non-aberrations to the best of its ability. If you stop concentrating on the spell before it reaches its full duration, an uncontrolled aberration doesn’t disappear for 1d6 rounds if it still has hit points.

As part of casting the spell, you can form a circle on the ground with the black sand used as a material component. The circle is large enough to encompass your space. While the spell lasts, the summoned aberration can’t cross the circle or harm it, and it can’t target anyone within it. Using the material component in this manner consumes it when the spell ends.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the challenge rating increases by 1 for each slot level above 4th.


Call Lesser Horrors

3rd-level conjuration | Classes: WarlockWizard

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S, M (the brain of a humanoid killed within the last 24 hours, a vial of black sand)
Duration: 1 hour (concentration)

You utter words in Deep Speech, tearing open the walls of reality to summon forth aberrations from the Far Realm. Roll on the following table to determine what appears.

Horrors Called

d6Aberrations Summoned
1-2Two aberrations of challenge rating 1 or lower.
3-4Four aberrations of challenge rating 1/2 or lower.
5-6Eight aberrations of challenge rating 1/4 or lower.


The DM chooses the aberrations, such as slaad taadpoles or starspawn grues, and you choose the unoccupied spaces you can see within range where they appear. A summoned aberration disappears when it drops to 0 hit points or when the spell ends.

The aberrations are hostile to all creatures, including you. Roll initiative for the summoned aberrations as a group, which has its own turns. The aberrations pursue and attack the nearest non-aberrationss to the best of their ability.

As part of casting the spell, you can form a circle on the ground with the black sand used as a material component. The circle is large enough to encompass your space. While the spell lasts, the summoned aberrations can’t cross the circle or harm it, and they can’t target anyone within it. Using the material component in this manner consumes it when the spell ends.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th or 7th level, you summon twice as many aberrations. If you cast it using a spell slot of 8th or 9th level, you summon three times as many aberrations.


Madness Spiral

6th-level enchantment | Classes: Bard, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 ft.
Components: V, S, M (a shard of stained glass)
Duration: 1 minute (concentration)


This spell creates a whirl of kaleidoscopic energy in a 15-foot radius sphere centered on a point within range. When a creature other than yourself enters the spell's area for the first time on its turn or starts its turn there, it must make an Intelligence saving throw. On a failed save, a target rolls a d8 to gain a randomly determined madness from the following table, which lasts for the duration of the spell.

Madness Spiral Random Madness

 d4  Madness
1
The target screams, laughs, or weeps uncontrollably. The creature is restrained and incapacitated
2-3
The target's mind wanders, hardly present, and they find it difficult to remember and apply the things they used to know. The target is incapacitated. On their turn, the creature may attempt an Intelligence saving throw against your spell save DC to try to briefly focus their mind. On a successful save, they can take an action (but not a bonus action) this turn. On a failed save, they may move this turn but can't do anything else. 
4-5
The creature is filled with undirected rage. It must use its action each round to make a melee attack, ranged attack, or cast a damaging cantrip against the nearest creature. If multiple creatures are the same distance away, determine the target randomly.  It may only move if that movement brings it closer to the creature it is currently attacking, or if there are no creatures it can currently attack, in which case the creature uses as much of its movement as necessary to be able to attack the nearest creature it can see. 
6-8
The target is frightened of every creature it can see. If that means it can't move in any direction on any given turn it remains in its current space.

At the end of each of its turns, as well as at the end of any turn on which it took damage, an affected target can make a Wisdom saving throw. If it succeeds, this effect ends for that target.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the radius of the sphere increases by 5 feet for each slot level above 6th.


Void Leech

2nd-level conjuration | Classes: Warlock

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S, M (a jar of living leeches)
Duration: Instantaneous

A spatial rift opens in an unoccupied space adjacent to you and an alien tentacle emerges from within and connects with your chest. Another identical rift opens in an unoccupied space within range, and a second tentacle appears from the rift to attack one creature within 10 feet. Make a melee spell attack against the target. On a hit, the target takes cold damage equal to 1d6 + your spellcasting modifier, and you regain hit points equal to the damage you dealt. The tentacles then withdraw into their rifts, which disappear.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you create an additional tentacle for every two slot levels above 2nd. The tentacles must attack different targets, which must be within range of you but need not be in range of each other.


Void Warp

2nd-level conjuration | Classes: Sorcerer, Warlock

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 300 feet
Components: V
Duration: Instantaneous

You are swallowed up by inky blackness, only to reappear instantaneously at any other spot within range. You have no clear recollection of where you went or what happened there, only remembering that it was a nightmarish place, hostile to humanoid life.

You arrive at exactly the spot desired. It can be a place you can see, one you can visualize, or one you can describe by stating distance and direction, such as "200 feet straight downward" or "upward to the northwest at a 45- degree angle, 300 feet."

You can bring along objects as long as their weight doesn't exceed what you can carry. You can also bring one willing creature of your size or smaller who is carrying gear up to its carrying capacity. The creature must be within 5 feet of you when you cast this spell.

You and any creature you take with you take cold and psychic damage, the amount of which depends on the distance you try to travel, as shown in the table below.

If you would arrive in a place already occupied by an object or a creature, you are rejected by the void  and the spell fails to teleport you. You still take cold and psychic damage according to the intended distance of the teleport.

Void Warp Damage

Distance (ft.)Damage
1-100
1d4 cold and 1d4 psychic damage
101-200
2d4 cold and 2d4 psychic damage
201-300
3d4 cold and 3d4 psychic damage

Friday, 7 June 2019

5e: Ghosts of Saltmarsh - a Breakdown and Review.

Today I'll be reviewing the recently released campaign book, Ghosts of Saltmarsh. This review is intended for DMs, who are the product's intended audience (there is only a very little amount of player content). As part of the review, I'll break down the contents of the book, summarise the adventures and other content within, and highlight any issues I might perceive in the content.

In short: this review is not spoiler free. If you are intending to play in any adventures from this book, or you think you might watch a video stream or listen to a podcasts of other people playing, don't read this review in full. Instead, here's a very brief summary for you to take away:

  • This is a really good supplement full of fun adventures set on or near the water. 
  • It contains supplemental rules your DM is bound to find useful while running these adventurers or if your homebrew campaign ever goes near the sea. 
  • Likewise, the adventures include a decent collection of new monsters that will add value to your DM whatever their campaign.
  • As you'd probably expect, there is very little content aimed at players. There are four new backgrounds, but you'd be better off talking to your DM about the new options available than purchasing the supplement yourself. 
  • I recommend this product: I think your DM will get a lot of value out of the content and should enjoy running the adventurers within for you. Likewise, you should enjoy playing them! 
  • Point your DM in the direction of this review if they'd like further details!

From this point on, the review begins in earnest. Time to turn back if you don't want spoilers!


What is Ghosts of Saltmarsh?

Ghosts of Saltmarsh is the latest set of published adventures by Wizards of the Coast. This is an interesting product, because it falls somewhere in the middle of previous adventure books in terms of its presentation and purpose. Like Tales from the Yawning Portal, it collects and updates a set of unrelated classic adventures and a DM can cherry pick from among them. Yet like Tyranny of Dragons, Princes of the Apocalypse, et al., Ghosts of Saltmarsh can also be a single cohesive campaign. Three of the converted adventures were already a trilogy, and the additional adventures can be slotted in among them to flesh out the character's adventures in and around Saltmarsh.

Here's what Wizards of the Coast have to say about what this product offers:

Ghosts of Saltmarsh brings classic adventures into fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. This adventure book combines some of the most popular classic adventures from the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons including the classic "U" series, plus some of the best nautical adventures from the history of Dungeon Magazine: Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater, Salvage Operation, Isle of the Abbey, The Final Enemy, Tammeraut's Fate, The Styes.
  • Ghosts of Salt Marsh includes a variety of seafaring adventures, enough to take characters from level 1 to level 12.
  • This supplement introduces the port town of Saltmarsh, the perfect starting point for a nautical campaign.
  • Each adventure can be played individually, inserted into your ongoing game or combined into a single epic nautical campaign.
  • Dungeon Masters will find rules for ships and sea travel, deck plans for various vessels, an appendix with rules for new and classic monsters, and much more.


Production Values

Ghosts of Saltmarsh (hereafter referred to as GoS) runs to 256 pages, which is the typical length of a Fifth Edition product by Wizards of the Coast. It has a recommended retail price of $49.95 in the US, and £38.99 in the UK. As with other official titles, two covers exist: the limited edition cover (available for pre-orders and limited quantities in local game stores) and the regular cover.

Ghosts of Saltmarsh Standard Cover Ghosts of Saltmarsh Alternate Cover
The Ghosts of Saltmarsh Cover (left) and Limited Edition Cover (right)


Honestly, I think the standard cover is more attractive and the alternate cover looks too dark. Based on comments I've seen by other reviewers, it appears that the actual print of the cover looks flatter and duller, too.

Naturally, GoS is also available on DnDBeyond, with the usual variety of purchase options: all content, compendium content only, and cherry-picking individual content. It's also a content pack for Roll20. I have the DnDBeyond version of the content, which means I can't comment on the physical quality of the book or its interior design, but if you already own official fifth edition products in hardback you should already know what kind of quality to expect.

I've noticed a meager handful of editorial errors in the form of minor typos. It's hard to know if they're actually in the book, or whether they've slipped in during the transfer of content to DnDBeyond.

You'll either love or hate the maps in GoS. The map of Saltmarsh is full colour, but the majority (including the hex map of the region) continue the trend of recent Waterdeep products to return to a more old school line art style. The maps look as though they were taken straight out of a 2nd edition module and given that many of the adventures in the book are converted from older editions, this approach lends the product an additional feel of nostalgia.

The Cellar
The Cellar


Content

GoS includes an introduction, 8 chapters, and 3 appendices, which are broken down as follows:


Introduction

The book's introduction provides a brief summary the content of the book and how to use it. It hints that some of the adventures in the book might make ideal side quests for campaign set in a port town (eg. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist/Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage), and can also be interspersed with the adventures from Tales from the Yawning Portal to build out a larger campaign.

We also learn that the official setting for Ghosts of Saltmarsh is within the region of Keoland in the Greyhawk campaign setting, not in the Forgotten Realms. While it's not the first time Fifth Edition has used a campaign book has a gateway into another world (that would be Curse of Strahd, which acts as a gateway to the larger Ravenloft setting), this is still a huge deal. A vocal subset of fans have been asking for the return of Greyhawk for a while now. This may or may not be a sign of more official Greyhawk to come. On balance, I think probably not, though that certainly depends on how well the product does and how much demand for more there seems to be. However, it is almost certainly a sign that Greyhawk is about to be added to the list of supported settings on the DMsGuild, which would enable fans to update Greyhawk themselves.


Chapter 1: Saltmarsh

This chapter is dedicated to describing both the town of Saltmarsh and the region around it. It's further broken down into the following sections: a brief introduction to the town, followed by Politics and Factions, Saltmarsh Overview, Downtime Activities, Saltmarsh Region, Adventures in Saltmarsh, and Saltmarsh Backgrounds.

Politics and Factions is where we learn about the Traditionalists and the Loyalists, as well as secret interference in the town by a third faction I won't name here. It's also where the major NPCs of the town are described. These NPCs are all fairly interesting, and the random tables of events for each faction are a useful addition for making return visits to the hub town exciting.

Saltmarsh Overview describes the town's approach to law enforcement and defense, its commerce (in the form of fishing, trading, smuggling, and mining), the town's locations, and available downtime activities. Interspersed throughout the locations are plenty of adventure hooks: for instance, the docks have their own section which includes a random table of rumours that might be overheard there. There are also several tables for generating jobs that various NPCs might want help with. There's even a section dealing with how to determine the mood of the town on any given visit, depending on whether the town's fishing industry is doing well!

The region around Saltmarsh is described, and is fully laden with adventure hooks which you can use to expand your GoS campaign beyond the adventures already fleshed out in subsequent chapters. Included is a list of shipwrecks that characters might try to find for their lost treasures, and tables for random encounters. The table for encounters at sea includes four pirate ships! Their colourful crews are described immediately after the table.

The Adventures in Saltmarsh section is very useful. It begins with suggestions for how the DM can tie the standalone adventures in the book together into a cohesive campaign. Following this, it provides recommendations for where within the region of Saltmarsh you could drop in adventures from Tales of the Yawning Portal! This latter advice is honestly one of my favourite parts of the book: in a few brief paragraphs, it massively increases the play potential of a campaign set in and around Saltmarsh for anyone who also owns TotYP.

Finally, Saltmarsh Backgrounds provides four new background options (Fisher, Marine, Shipwright, and Smuggler) which are useful additions for GoS specifically but also great new options for any character in any campaign. The section also provides ways for characters of old and new backgrounds alike to be tied to Saltmarsh - these are tools intended for characters who are local to the region.


Chapter 2: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

The first adventure in the book happens to be the first adventure of a classic trilogy which also includes Chapter 3Danger at Dunwater and Chapter 6: The Final Enemy. These three adventures introduced Saltmarsh to Greyhawk and together form the backbone for the book's optional campaign arc.

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh feels like two short adventures, rather than one: it's divided into two parts, The Haunted House and The Sea Ghost. Completing both parts is expected to take 4-6 characters from 1st to 3rd level.

During The Haunted House the adventures investigate the abandoned cliffside abode of a long dead alchemist, which seems to be haunted. They discover the so-called haunting is actually trickery on the part of a band of smugglers who are using the house and the sea cave beneath it as a base of operations.

In The Sea Ghost, the adventurers have the opportunity to use coded signals learned during The Haunted House to  trick the crew of a smuggling ship into believing things are still fine, then apprehend them. On the Sea Ghost, the adventurers also meet a party of lizardfolk, and find other clues that suggest busting the smuggling ring isn't the end of Saltmarsh's problems.

Boarding the Sea Ghost
Boarding the Sea Ghost


A sidebar provides recommendations for where a DM might place the adventure if they choose to use it in one of three other settings. Naturally these include the Forgotten Realms and Eberron. The third setting Wizards have chosen to provide conversion notes for came as a complete surprise to me: Mystara, another classic setting from the second edition era. They're certainly going out of their way with this product to cater for nostalgic fans hungry for settings which previously had no support. Note that a similar sidebar gives localisation guidance for each adventure in this book. I'm mentioning that now so I don't keep repeating myself in my summaries of the following chapters, though I won't mention it again in my descriptions of the following chapters.

It's worth noting that if you're playing in a world other than Greyhawk and you intend to run the book as a campaign rather than pick stand-alone adventures from it, you might find it difficult to include some adventures in your campaign. This is because the guidance for placing the adventures relies on suitable geography that exists in the world. For example, the book recommends placing Saltmarsh (the setting of The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and its two sequels) on the Sword Coast between Baldur's Gate and Waterdeep, but suggests Tammeraut's Fate be set off the coast of Cormyr. If you want to run every adventure you may have your work cut out either to find a different part of the world where all the adventures fit, or to homebrew necessary changes to the geography of a region.


Chapter 3: Danger at Dunwater

Danger at Dunwater is the second adventure in the through line trilogy that started with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. It was an oddity in its time and is still a bit of an oddity now: if played smart the adventure requires absolutely no combat. The adventure is for 4-6 3rd level characters, but depending on their current XP the awards they gain may not level them, in which case you'll want to run a shot side trek after this chapter to get them ready for chapter 4.

In the events of the previous adventure, it was discovered that the smugglers were supplying weapons to a tribe of lizardfolk living in a colony near Saltmarsh. Fearing an attack, the town's leaders send the adventurers to investigate.

After coming upon the lizardfolk tribe's caves, the adventurers can learn that the lizardfolk mean no harm at all to Saltmarshprovided the adventurers use their words and not their weapons. If they do come in hot, there are opportunities to redeem the situation if they haven't done anything the lizardfolk can't forgive.

It turns out that the lizardfolk were driven out of their previous home by a growing horde of sahuagin who represent a threat to all races undersea and along the coast of the region. When the characters arrive, diplomats from several groups of aquatic races are present for negotiations to join an alliance against the sahuagin. The lizardfolk have been purchasing weapons from the smugglers to arm themselves for their planned counterattack.

The sahuagin are indeed a threat to Saltmarsh and it would be in the town's interest to help, but the lizardfolk hadn't previously considered them a useful ally against a primarily underwater foe. But if the adventurers favourably impress the lizardfolk and the visiting diplomats of other races, then they may be able to forge ties between the alliance and the town of Saltmarsh.

Whether Saltmarsh is invited to join the alliance depends on the player's actions throughout the adventure, and is resolved by way of a point system.

The adventurers only ought to end up in a fight if they fail to act diplomatically, or if they end up helping the lizardfolk with some local problems in order to earn goodwill.

This adventure is the first appearance within the book of an adventure site roster, which are brief summaries of what creatures are in which rooms and what might cause them to leave their current location. These tables are paired with more complex adventure sites in an effort to make them more manageable. This is the first campaign book I've read through properly, but I understand these rosters also appeared in previous campaign books. I want to take this opportunity to talk about them for a little bit, because I don't think they work. While any effort to improve the DM's running experience is fantastic, the actual execution of trosters is nowhere near as helpful as it could and should be. It surprises me that what seem like glaringly obvious issues have never yet been improved upon.

Here's how the adventure site roster currently works: it's a numerically ordered list of rooms or areas. The entry for a room only tells me who is in the room and where else in the dungeon those creatures might go. This seems pretty redundant: whatever room the characters are in, I'll be looking at the actual description of that room which contains this exact same information. What would be far, far more useful would be a summary of what creatures might arrive in a room from elsewhere. I can currently get that information from the roster but only by an unnecessarily convoluted process:  First I need to check the map to see which other room numbers are nearby, then I have to check each individual entry for those rooms on the roster in order to be confident I know which creatures might move from their room to the current location, and what triggers that movement (noise, a messenger from this room, etc.). This process is slightly more efficient than reading each of the room's full entries, granted. It's also true that rooms nearby on the map are mostly also nearby on the table. However, this isn't always the case (for example, in Danger at Dunwater creatures might move between room 10 and room 29).

A far more logical and helpful approach would be to summarise who might arrive in a room and why in the roster, so that you only need to glance at one entry on the table: the one for the room the characters are currently in.  The roster would be far more effective a tool.

The first of tables below is an example of how the roster currently presents information, while the second shows how I would personally change the roster for improved clarity and quicker reference in play:

Lizardfolk Roster (Original)

Area
Occupants at Start
Notes
2
5 lizardfolk
These guards are alerted by noise in 1. If they are challenged, one of the guards tries to escape to 3 for help.

Lizardfolk Roster (Updated)

Area
Occupants at Start
Notes
2
5 lizardfolk
  • These guards are alerted by noise in 1.
ARRIVALS
  • The guards in 3 reinforce this room if summoned (see below).
DEPARTURES
  • If they are challenged, one of the guards tries to escape to 3 for help.
  • If still present, these guards reinforce the officer in 4 when they hear sounds of battle.

Unless and until Wizards of the Coast change how they present their rosters, I'd recommend making your own version before running any such adventure so you can add key information.


Chapter 4: Salvage Operation

In this adventure, the characters are asked by a struggling merchant to help salvage his wealth from a former ship of his fleet, long thought lost to the sea. The ship has mysteriously reappeared in local waters, providing a once in a lifetime opportunity for him to reclaim the property deeds and promissory notes aboard, which he intends to sell in order to regain his lost wealth and prestige. He offers 10% of the profits of the sales to the characters, plus of course the friendship of a wealthy and important person may have other benefits. The adventure is for 4-6 level 4 characters.

Since chapters 2, 3, and 6 are the trilogy that form the through line of the larger campaign, this is the first of what we might call side quests. However, a sidebar does provide the necessary information to run a sahuagin attack on the way to the adventure site.  This is presented as optional but if you are intending to run the whole book through as a single campaign, my recommendation is to consider the attack extremely non-optional. The last thing you want is for the sahuagin to be a distant threat right up until the adventurers face them. It's valuable to show that the menace is growing, that they're willing to attack surface vessels now, and to start making it personal for the characters.

While the events of this adventure are very exciting, it has significant problems. The disappearance and reappearance of the ship relies on a detailed background story that there is a good chance the characters will never learn. If this happens, the adventure is reduced to the level of an old school dungeon crawl of seemingly random monsters dropped into a location without context (in this case a Lolth-worshipping half-orc druid, spider-themed monsters, and a random group of ghouls which are somehow aboard the vessel).

The background in question: the lost ship was not sunk in a storm as thought, but actually driven off course. Its crew dropped anchor at an island to look for food and water, only to fall victim to the cannibalistic tribes which lived there. After the island broke into war between two factions, one group escaped the conflict using the ship. At some point afterward the ship was attacked by a giant octopus (which is still pursuing the vessel), and only one of the cultists that was crewing it remains alive, along with various monsters.

The trouble is that the captain's log may not be found as discovering it requires a DC 15 Perception check. In any case the log only describes events up until the captain and crew were defeated and consumed by the cannibals. The cannibal cultists of Lolth have left no written records which might shed further light on events. Since only one cultist survived, he's the only person capable of telling the next part of the story. However, the adventure directs that he "attacks at the first sign of intruders", meaning his death before he can tell his story is a very strong possibility.  Furthermore, neither the captain's log nor the druid can explain the presence of four ghasts in the cargo hold (though the druid falsely believes them to be emissaries of Lolth). We are given the background to this: these were a group of thieves who stowed away on the ship before its last voyage and drowned in the storm. But the means of their death makes it unlikely we can provide any further context to our players: we might think about adding a letter on their persons, but how would such a document have survived water damage when the thieves drowned?

The adventure ends with a dramatic timed scene in which the ship is torn apart during a sudden attack by a giant octopus. If they have managed to talk to the druid, the characters will know that the octopus already attacked the ship once and can deduce that it is pursuing the vessel. Otherwise, the attack comes out of nowhere and feels contrived.

There's potential here, but it's a shame there are holes that need patching by the DM. As things stand,  I would probably wouldn't use Salvage Operation. The effort involved to rework what I perceive as the adventure's flaws could be better spent homebrewing my own adventure that actually ties into the sahuagin arc.


Chapter 5: Isle of the Abbey

This second side quest takes the characters to the island abbey of an evil group of clerics. The abbey has seemingly been left empty after the clerics quarreled violently with local pirates, but there are undead present. The characters are contracted to clear the site of monsters so a lighthouse can be built at the location. In addition, there are optional rumours about the site you can use to encourage the characters to take the job. This adventure expects 4-6 characters of 5th level.

The first conflict of the adventure is a pretty creative encounter, or series of encounters as the case may be. The characters attempt to land upon and cross a region of sandy dunes in which a large number of skeletons are buried in the sand. Crossing the dunes is akin to crossing a minefield, except choosing the wrong path results in an explosion of undead from the sand. If the characters can find signs of the single clear path, they can follow it safely through the dunes.


Complications on the Dunes
Complications on the Dunes


After successfully traversing the dunes and arriving at the abbey runs, the adventurers will discover that the clerics weren't wiped out after all. Upon encountering the clerics, the adventure might branch from its original path: although it is very difficult to do so, the characters may be able to avoid fighting the clerics and might decide to help them to the mainland so they can get help to rebuild the abbey (if they agree to this and aren't deceiving the clerics in order to deport them, they obviously cannot complete their original contract). If the characters forge on and fight the clerics, the abbey ruins are essentially a straightforward dungeon crawl.

I like this adventure. It has a unique and likely memorable opening encounter, and depending on how characters handle things events on the island could go very different ways. As written the adventure is pure side quest: it has no obvious links to the sahuagin arc or other adventures in this book. However, it's the perfect place to add such links. Here are some ideas:


  • Guildmaster Tabeth of the mariner's guild is aware of the town council's alliance with the lizardfolk, and their fears of sahuagin attack (as a lead figure in the mariner's guild, he certainly should be in the loop). Although this quest isn't directly related he can negotiate using this information: he can talk about how the sahuagin are not the only menaces the people of Saltmarsh have to fear, and hint that the sahuagin may even make surface allies of their own. A fortified lighthouse on Abbey Isle makes the shipping lanes safer and can also give Saltmarsh advanced warning of invasion by sea.
  • Lean heavily and expand upon the additional adventure hook or hooks you choose to use for motivating your players.
    • Gilded Rumours: make it clear with the rumours that people think whatever treasure or treasures are hidden in the abbey are probably magical: they're kept by clerics after all, would they be so mundane as mere gold or gemstones? Plant the idea that its treasures would be useful to the characters in their upcoming battle: Now that the abbey appears to be abandoned, and with the sahuagin threat the dominant issue facing the citizenry of Saltmarsh, it's quite natural that talk should turn again to old rumours about the abbey's hidden treasures. After all, there may be something there that would help Saltmarsh defend itself. And what if the Sahuagin got hold of whatever is there first?
    • For the People: people might suspect that the dangerous fogs on the waters near Abbey Isle aren't natural, and that the source of the fog is some sort of magical item hidden on the island. If such an item exists it would be very dangerous if the sahuagin got their hands on it and used it to help mask an invasion. It's up to you whether this rumour is really true, but if you want to lend credence to the  fog being unnatural you could use one of the three kinds of eldritch mist described in Appendix A: Of Ships and the Sea. Either way, if you rely on this rumour it would be worth having the characters encounter the fog on the way to Abbey Isle. They may be at risk of crashing against the rocks around the island, in which case they and Major Ursa might wash ashore upon the beach.
  • The main arc of Ghosts of Saltmarsh concludes with chapter 6 and the two final adventures are unrelated to the sahuagin threat, or each other. Consider introducing another arc by somehow tying the events of this adventure to chapter 7 or chapter 8. 
    • Maybe they worship Orcus, like the undead pirates in Tammeraut's Fate? This is a really good fit considering how many undead guardians serve the cult. The clerics and pirates probably aren't working together, but the characters might find references in their unholy texts to the Pits of Hatred and ta prophecy that suggests the coming of Orcus' hordes is nigh.
    • Alternatively, or perhaps in addition, the evil clerics here once belonged to the same order of monks that occupy Firewatch Island in Tammeraut's Fate. Written records in the abbey might reveal this fact, though its relevance will only become apparent later. 
    • Another option is to make them cultists of Tharizdun. The characters might find communications from the cult in the The Styes, or a draft of a letter from Ozymandius to "D" (Mr. Dory). 
    • Be wary that determining the clerics follow Orcus or Tharizdun make a diplomatic solution to the adventure even less likely, if the characters figure out who exactly the clerics worship. 


Chapter 6: The Final Enemy

The Final Enemy concludes the trilogy which began with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. It's designed for 4-6 characters of 7th level, so the characters may need to undertake another side quest after Chapter 5.

The characters are once again asked for help by Saltmarsh's town council on behalf of the alliance against the sahuagin. This time, the characters are tasked with an essential role: they are to infiltrate the sahuagin stronghold in the former home of the lizardfolk, and return with intelligence that will bring about the enemy's defeat.Their goals are determine the sahuagin's strength of numbers, identify key areas of the fortress (which has been modified since the lizardfolk were ousted), discover significant defenses, and learn how soon the sahuagin might attack. The adventure continues the trilogy's preference for thoughtful solutions: the characters are infiltrators, so should avoid fights where possible and defeat any enemies they do encounter quickly and quietly. If they do alert the stronghold as a whole, this adventure has the potential to go very wrong for the characters very fast.

The adventure site can be reached by sea or land. There are no encounters preceding arrival, so I'd recommend either skipping past the journey or spicing it up the journey. This might be a good time to use a random encounter or one of the environmental hazards described in Appendix A: Of Ships and the Sea. A storm, fog, or sandbars might fit here.

The sahuagin stronghold is a big place, and lots of sahuagin are present.  This means that the included adventure roster should be a helpful tool for determining whether the characters alert any nearby sahuagin as they move about the fortress. However, as you know by now it also should be far more helpful than it actually is. I'd consider it worthwhile prep to redo the roster with better organised information.

Slaves present in the fortress add an additional complication for moral characters, who may hate the idea of leaving the slaves even if they may be rescued in the subsequent attack. If given the opportunity to do so, they will flee the stronghold, but they're really in no condition to be wandering the corridors alone without an escort. If the characters allow them to do so, many may not survive.

After returning with their intelligence, the characters are rewarded, but of course there part in the plan isn't done: the alliance want them to join the attack on the fortress as a strike team so it's back to the stronghold they go! The alliance forces sweep through the stronghold, and they will win no matter what, but the degree of success is determined by the characters. Their own victories and achievements add points to a tally. The degree of success also affects the rewards granted to the characters by the Saltmarsh council at the end of the adventure. In addition, the DM is tracking the sahuagin's alert level, the raising of which has consequences for the battle. It looks like quite a lot of tracking, but the result seems like it should be a lot of fun!


Chapter 7: Tammeraut's Fate

If the characters have been playing through the entire campaign, they have by now been awarded with citizenship and a free house in Saltmarsh. With these ties in the area and other possible adventures to be had in the region, they're hopefully in no hurry to leave. That's good, because although the campaign's central story is now concluded, the book still has two higher level adventures for them to face! In Tammeraut's Fate, the characters travel to the nearby village Uskarn (a choice of hooks are provided to help you get them there from Saltmarsh), where they accept the request of a druid to investigate the hermitage on nearby Firewatch Island. He's concerned that the monks that live there haven't been heard from in some time. For this adventure the party ought to have 4-6 characters of 9th level, so do another side quest if you need them to level up.

The monks have become victims of a crew of undead pirates who serve the demon lord Orcus. They need humanoid corpses to feed the Pit of Hatred, a rift to the Abyss. The corpses go in, and drowned ones come out. If not dealt with, the drowned ones will spread to skarn, Saltmarsh, and beyond,  continuing to seek new victims and build an undead army.

The adventure briefly describes Uskarn. The village description even has an Intrigue section which includes information about local smuggling operations, providing an adventure hook entirely unrelated to the main quest.

The characters will have to explore the Firewatch Island Hermitage, while avoiding or overcoming a particularly nasty peryton that hunts in the area. They then must defend it agaisnt a horde of drowned ones, before venturing underwater to face the drowned ones' leader and seal the Pit of Hatred.

The Monstrous Peryton
The Monstrous Peryton


Aside from the smuggling operation noted above, the final sections of this adventure pertain to further adventures characters could have that are connected to Tammeraut's Fate. If you do the work to flesh them out the three adventure seeds provided, it's feasible to significantly expand your GoS campaign with a second major arc.


Chapter 8: The Styes

The final adventure of the book describes events on a decaying port which can be established as a self-contained town or as a district of any large coastal town in your campaign world. Saltmarsh itself is not large enough to contain the Styes (and we see that it isn't included on the Saltmarsh map), meaning that this is another adventure that requires the characters to travel elsewhere. The notes in chapter 1 recommend placing it in an isolated harbour city on an island in the Azure Sea. The expected level for this adventure is 11th, and it's once again designed for 4-6 characters.

As with the last chapter this adventure first describes a new location The Styes, and provides potential hooks to get the characters to the town. This provides the backdrop we need for the following parts of the adventure, which kicks off with a murder mystery. This sets off immediate alarm bells because of the expected level: 11th-level spellcasters have significant ways to steamroller through this sort of adventure. Single class casters should have 6th-level spells by now, which means they have multiple ways of finding out information with minimal or no prior investigation: commune, divination, locate creature, scrying, and true seeing are all available. Fortunately, an awareness of this seems to have factored in at the design stage: indeed, the adventure references divination and commune specifically as options for characters who have lost the trail. Just don't be surprised if your players manage to skip big chunks of the investigation with well-reasoned and well-phrased questions to higher powers.

The investigation eventually leads the characters to the mysterious Mr. Dory, and an investigation of his warehouse leads to a fight with he and his skum minions. This is one of the memorable encounters I've seen, as it includes a decommissioned ship held aloft by a crane in the warehouse yard. Mr. Dory uses this ship as his lair.

Mr. Dory's connection a cult of Tharizdun and a being called The Whisperer, believed to be Tharizdun's messenger, who gives the cult orders. They find an aboleth at the temple (which is of course the Whisperer) recuperating after being attacked by its kin. Here they may defeat it, make a deal with it, or perhaps succumb to its psychic enslavement...

The final stage of the adventure involves finding and exploring a sunken temple known as Landgrave's Folly, where the aboleth keeps and protects a juvenile kraken touched with madness. The kraken is fed kidnapped beggars and other folks no one would miss, while all the negative emotions of the people of the Styes feed dark magic that accelerates the kraken's growth. To foster the fear of the citizens, the kraken manufactured the Lantern Ghost, enslaving a local fisherman and forcing him to kill.

The juvenile kraken must be slain. If not dealt with, it will soon emerge and begin a reign of terror in the area. Causing the kraken to flee avoids that horror, but taking the long view it may be a worse result: hidden in the ocean depths the kraken can grow to adulthood unopposed. Any kraken is a catastrophe in physical form, but one touched by Tharizdun's destructive madness could become a threat of apocalyptic proportion in the fullness of time.

This is a very cool adventure with intensely high stakes and a whole raft of interesting encounter locations. As mentioned, access to high level divination spells might bypass some of the adventure, but after reading it through I'm fairly confident that it should still be a good play experience, with enough meat on the bones of the adventure even if the investigatory aspects are largely skipped.



Appendix A: Of Ships and the Sea

What good would a supplement about sea-based adventuring be if it didn't include new rules governing sea-based adventures? This appendix will be invaluable not just in running GoS, but other nautical adventures as well. Even if you never intend to run the adventures, the content here alongside new monster statblocks ought to be enough to tempt you.

The appendix starts with rules governing ships. Unsurprisingly, the actual rules governing ship aren't significantly changed from the version of the rules we saw in Unearthed Arcana. Most differences are ultimately cosmetic: some rules have been slightly reworded, and the appearance of some sections within the rules has even been reordered. I noted a few major differences:

  • The actions section of a ship's statblock has changed. Rather than their exact attacks be specified, ships can now take a certain number of actions chosen from a list (this section of the statblock looks similar to a monster's legendary actions). The number of actions that can be undertaken goes down as crew are slain or incapacitated.
  • Each sample ship also gets a detailed description as well as a statblock, including a breakdown of a typical crew (including which statblocks to use if necessary). The descriptions summarise what can be found aboard the ship, and larger ships are broken down into multiple sections as though they were an adventure site to help you find things ("main deck", "officer's quarters", "forecastle" etc).
  • All sample ships come with a map (with the exception of the rowboat, which obviously doesn't need one).
  • The rules here now include ship upgrades, which grant your ship special benefits/powers. The upgrade system has been made intentionally simple: rather than price everything separately, each upgrade costs 15,000 gp and requires 1d4 weeks of work. In play, I'd suggest using these numbers as a baseline but introducing a small amount of variance to the price and construction time for upgrades slightly based on current market conditions, availability of materials and skilled workers, rarity of the technology, etc.
  • The hazards section has been significantly expanded, and now includes rules to govern a number of specific types of hazard. These include crew conflicts, fires, fogs, infestations, and storms. There's a table you can use to determine a hazard type at random.
  • The section "Owning a ship" has been removed entirely, along with the downtime action Managing a Ship. This is a slightly surprising omission, as this downtime action specifically resolved finding a crew which many DMs would no doubt find helpful. If you ever need such a rule, at least you know you can find it on page 9 of the Unearthed Arcana version of these rules.

Smaller Ships
Smaller Ships


The section Ocean Environs provides rules for a variety of environmental hazards and sites of interest. These include blue holes, coral reefs, currents, depth, kelp forests, sandbars, shipwrecks, and whirlpools. There are also a few less more mystical environs: eldritch mists, kraken's graves, lure lights (the souls of dead aboleth!), sapping snow, and magical storms.

Encounters at Sea provides Open Water Encounters tables for ships travelling out on the deep blue. This is an adventuring environment not catered for by the tables in Xanathar's Guide to Everything, though look there for coastal and underwater encounters! Some of the encounters on the Open Water tables are ships, but the nature of the ships isn't specified: they should also be generated at random, which can be achieved using the guidelines in the subsequent Random Ships section. Likewise, you might roll a "mysterious island", which can also be generated using rules in this chapter.

It's worth remembering that there are also two random encounter tables in Chapter 1: Saltmarsh. Although those tables are intended specifically for the Saltmarsh region, there's no reason you couldn't use them every now and again to add variety to any other nautical campaign. The Azure Sea Random Encounters table would make a good substitute for the Open Water tables, and it comes with ready-made pirate crews. Meanwhile, the Coast Random Encounters table might be more easy to access at the table than the more expansive equivalent table in Xanathar's Guide to Everything, or you may not have that book.

The Random Ships section includes tables to generate the following:

  • Type of ship (taken from the sample ships earlier in the appendix)
  • Ship name
  • Crew names. These aren't given names, you could use other tables for that: they're meant to be  sailor nicknames. This table is a fun idea but only moderately useful in my opinion. How much use you'll get out of it largelydepends on your tolerance for very silly names, as only some of the results of this table really sound like hardened sea dogs. To give you some idea, it's perfectly possible to get results like "Drizzly Patches", "Silky Angel", and "Pretty Charm". Drizzly Patches must be an unfortunate character indeed, and the latter two sound more like magical girls than grizzled sailors!
  • Ship Purpose (cargo, passenger, fishing, military, piracy, mercenary, or ghost)
  • Attitude and Race. As well as determining who is crewing the ship and whether they're friendly, indifferent, or hostile, this section has tables to determine their disposition: whether they're willing to trade, have an emergency, etc. Personally I'd not use the race tables very often (with perhaps a few exceptions I'd rather crews be of mixed backgrounds) but your mileage, or nautical mileage in this case, may vary. 

Overall the Random Ships section is pretty decent for throwing together a ship encounter, but if you can I'd recommend coming up with a few in advance so you're not rolling one up in play. Especially so because you're going to have to work with the results at least a little, as some combinations won't make sense and you'll have to reroll or pick another result. You're unlikely to encounter a galleon which is intended for fishing, for example.

The mysterious island section of this appendix describes and provides tables for generating a variety of uncharted isles ripe for adventure.  The section describes 6 island themes:

  • Alien islands are ruled over by strange, eldritch creatures (aberrations) and inhabited by humanoids or cultists indoctrinated into their worship.
  • Cursed islands are steeped in the residue of dark magic, and are typically inhabited by undead.
  • Hostile islands are inhabited by intelligent creatures that actively want to harm visitors to their shores. It's a bit of a generic concept, and ends up being less exciting than some of the other islands for it. 
  • Sanctum islands are inhabited by creatures that want to protect themselves from raiders or live in isolation. They may or may not be willing to entertain visitors.
  • Wild islands are those on which nature and wild magic reign. Typical inhabitants include beasts, plants, and fey.

I like this section a lot for what it is. I could wish for more specific types of mysterious island because I think there's a lot of untapped potential still, but perhaps we'll see a collection of additional types on DMsGuild one of these days. 

The final section of this appendix describes and provides a map for three generic underwater locations that you might find useful for insertion into an underwater adventure: a reef, a shipwreck, and a ruin. Alternatively, these locations can be used as a starting point to inspire adventures: each location has a section of guidance for generating adventures that might take place there. Each also has a collection of ready made encounters that use the map, and each of these encounters has a hook that you can use to tie it into the GoS campaign. This whole section is well though out and fantastically useful.


Appendix B: Magic Items

The second appendix is a short one, containing just six magic items. These are the Charm of Plant Command, Cursed Luckstone, Helm of Underwater Action, Pipe of Remembrance, Pressure Capsule, and Sekolahian Worshiping Statuette.

They're fun, and mostly useful. The Charm of Plant Command and Helm of Underwater Action in particular need no explanation. The Cursed Luckstone lets you roll with advantage, but then inflicts disadvantage on your next two rolls. And of course, the typical curse that you can't easily get rid of the item. If used carefully, this still might be considered worthwhile.

A Pressure Capsule is a consumable that allows you to ignore effects of swimming at depths greater than 100 feet (if you're not aware, these effects are described in the "Underwater" section of Unusual Environments in the Dungeon Master's Guide. The Pipe of Remembrance has no mechanical benefits, but is very cool all the same since it lets you conjure smokey images of your past achievements and victories.  I can see a lot of characters wanting to take possession of it, especially since you don't need to attune. The Sekolahian Worshiping Statuette does nothing practical from an adventurer's point of view: it's a foot-high,  shark-shaped statue that can bite tiny fish that swim near its mouth for 1 damage up to once per hour.


Appendix C: Monsters and NPCs

This appendix includes statblocks for a number of creatures. Some are republished from Volo's Guide to Monsters for convenience. A number of others are converted, new to 5e but not new to D&D. The appendix contains the following creatures:

  • Amphisbaena - if you ever want a more deadly version of this CR 1/2 monster (which is CR 1/2), my own CR 5 take on the amphisbaena can be found in Monstrous Monograph: Monstrosities Volume 1
  • Bard - also in Volo's Guide to Monsters
  • Bodak - also in Volo's Guide to Monsters
  • Bullywug Croaker
  • Bullywug Royal
  • Deep Scion - also in Volo's Guide to Monsters
  • Drowned Ascetic
  • Drowned Assassin
  • Drowned Blade
  • Drowned Master
  • Fathomer
  • Giant Coral Snake
  • Giant Sea Eel
  • Harpy Matriarch
  • Juvenile Kraken
  • Koalinth
  • Koalinth Sergeant
  • Kraken Priest - also in Volo's Guide to Monsters
  • Kysh (Triton) - though Kysh is a named NPC this statblock is useful because Kysh is typical triton warrior, and to date we only have a triton player race and not any monster stats).
  • Living Iron Statue
  • Lizardfolk Commoner
  • Lizardfolk Render
  • Lizardfolk Scaleshield
  • Lizardfolk Subchief
  • Locathah
  • Locathah Hunter
  • Maw Demon - also in Volo's Guide to Monsters
  • Maw of Sekolah
  • Merfolk Salvager
  • Minotaur Living Crystal Statue
  • Monstrous Peryton
  • Mr. Dory - a named NPC, he's an unusual variant of skum (which also appear in this appendix).
  • Oceanus (Sea Elf) - those who own Storm King's Thunder already have stats for a sea elf warrior, but Oceanus is slightly stronger so you could use this statblock for leaders of sea elf patrols.
  • Pirate Bosun
  • Pirate Captain
  • Pirate Deck Wizard
  • Pirate First Mate
  • Rip Tide Priest
  • Sahuagin Blademaster
  • Sahuagin Champion
  • Sahuagin Coral Smasher
  • Sahuagin Deep Diver
  • Sahuagin Hatchling Swarm
  • Sahuagin High Priestess
  • Sahuagin Wave Shaper
  • Sanbalet - a named NPC smuggler. He's a 3rd-level wizard, you could use his statblock as a template for other lower level mages.
  • Sea Lion
  • Shell Shark
  • Skeletal Alchemist
  • Skeletal Juggernaut
  • Skeletal Swarm
  • Skum
  • Storm Giant Quintessent - also in Volo's Guide to Monsters
  • Swarm of Rot Grubs - also in Volo's Guide to Monsters
  • Thousand Teeth - a legendary giant crocodile
  • Vampiric Jade Statue

A Skum
A Skum


As you can see there's quite a lot here that's new - to Fifth Edition at least! If you like picking up new sources of monsters to help diversify your own adventures, there's good value in this appendix for you.


My Rating and Summary 


18 out of 20! A superb hit.


DMs looking for their next published campaign have a lot to look forward to if they choose GoS. As mentioned, the adventures are mostly superb: they're highly competent conversions of the older material, expanded and improved and tied together into what amounts to a pretty satisfactory campaign. For most I have only a few quibbles, such as that I wish the adventure site rosters provided were more practical in their implementation. The only adventure I'm less than keen on is Salvage Operation. I regret to say that in spite of its exciting setting I'm surprised this is considered a classic adventure. I'm equally surprised that it was found worthy of inclusion in its current form alongside so many better thought out adventures. If I run a GoS campaign, I'm not sure I'll include this one. Fortunately, it's completely disconnected from the main arc and is easily replaced. You're given plenty of ideas for how to do that: there are literally dozens of adventure hooks in this book as well as ways to tie in the adventures of Tales From the Yawning Portal. Whether you agree about Salvage Operation or not, whichever adventures you personally like or dislike, the designers have made it trivially easy to weave whichever parts you're prepared to use into a full-length campaign. This is probably the book's greatest strength.

The fact that there is no overarching story (three out of eight adventures aside) may be considered a weakness by some. For DMs intending to run the whole sequence of adventures as a full campaign, there may be some extra work to be done here to tie things together more cohesively and bring about a satisfactorily epic conclusion. There is a very loose connection between all the adventures that it might be worth exploring: every single one pertains in some way to an evil deity/power. The Saltmarsh trilogy has the characters face off against sahuagin, who worship the shark god Sekolah. Salvage Operation involves a cannibal cultist of Lolth. Isle of the Abbey introduces evil cultists who worship a deity of your choice. In Tammeraut's Fate (along with the hooks for further connected adventures described in this chapter), undead hordes of Orcus are on the verge of being unleashed upon the world. Finally, The Styes involves a cult worshiping Tharizdun. There's definitely something here to build upon if you want a grander story. While these entities are different enough that it's not easy to tie them together into a single conspiracy, perhaps the connection is simply that the power of evil is waxing. The rise of all these dark powers may be a sign of a coming apocalypse?

Another strength that can't be overstated is the fact that the book actually includes three adventure hubs. Saltmarsh gets a whole chapter, of course, but if a DM wants to do so they also have enough information about Uskarn (the village from Tammeraut's Fate) and the Styes (from the adventure of the same name) to run additional adventures based in and around either location. Any of the three locations can be dropped into your campaign world in a place of your choosing, which means you can save yourself a significant amount of world-building work even if you only used the locations and never actually ran a single adventure from this supplement.

All in all, this is an excellent supplement that oozes potential and inspiration. I'd love to run GoS! But even if you don't intend to use the book's adventures, GoS still comes highly recommended for all 5e DMs who might ever expect the player characters to venture out to sea. It provides almost everything you could ask for to help you run a campaign near, on, and under the water; along with a few things you probably wouldn't have thought to ask for!