What Do I Know About First Impressions? The Treasure of Shipgrave Reef (Pirates of the Aetherial Expanse Episode One, 5e OGL)
Now that it’s July, we’re moving into the second half of the year, and given that Ghostfire Gaming Fables series launched as a monthly series, with six adventures per campaign, that means it’s time to start a whole new campaign. Unlike the previous volume, which was set in Ghostfire Gaming’s existing Grim Hollow setting. For the new Fables campaign launching this month, Pirates of the Aetherial Expanse, Ghostfire Gaming introduces a brand-new campaign setting.
My review is based on my own personal subscription to the Fables series, and I was not provided a review copy. While I have not played through this adventure or used any of the material within, I am familiar with D&D 5e both as a player and as a GM, and I’ve reviewed several Ghostfire Gaming products in the past, including the previous campaign of Fables.
The Primary Directions
The first volume of this campaign of Fables, The Treasure of Shipgrave Reef, is 126 pages long. This includes a title page, a credits page, a table of contents, and a full page OGL statement. The adventure is formatted with a dual column format. The headers, tables, stat blocks, and call out boxes all appear in a comparable manner to the official D&D 5e products.
Many of the ships detailed are color line art, while the rest of the artwork consists of full color paintings. Many of these are half or quarter page images, with double page artwork decorating the beginning of individual chapters. Because of the nature of the new setting, much of this artwork is marked with blues, purples, and pinks, reflecting the conglomeration of the sea, the astral, and the elemental planes.
The Starting Lineup
The PDF is divided into the following categories:
- Setting Guide
- Aetherial Expanse
- Realms of the Sea
- New Mechanics
- Welcome to Fables
- Washed Ashore
- Exploring Shipgrave Reef
- The Legends of Lost Treasure
- New Monsters
Of the 126 pages, the first 100+ pages are setting material.
This campaign takes place in a specific corner of the Astral Plane. This region of the Astral has portals to the elemental planes, which has created a chain of islands and a sea of magical fluid. Unlike the rest of the Astral, time moves forward, and people need to eat and rest and have all the usual mortal failings.
The fluid Aether is toxic to most mortal beings, although some creatures that swim in the Aether seas have been mutated to survive in the depths. In some places, the Aether crystalizes into Aetherium, a magical material that can be used to power various magical devices.
Two Prime Material plane nations dominate the seas of this region and have portals that lead from their home worlds to this expanse of the Astral. The kingdoms fought an open war in this region until recently, and they use the Aetherium to create things like magical engines for ships and advanced magical cannons.
The islands not controlled by these two nations exist at the suffrage of the powerful nations. One chain of islands, the Isle of Drakes, is controlled by pirates from across the region. They coexist, but do not specifically cooperate.
Several ports are detailed, as well as several NPCs that can be found at these ports. In addition to the NPCs and ports, there are also several example ships that can be used for seaborne encounters.
There are a lot of new mechanical aspects introduced in this book. The most standard are the new player races. These omit an alignment entry, but retain the specific ability score bonuses, without any specific reference to freely assigned ability bonuses.
The first of these is the Astral Emergent, which is a sapient dream that has inhabited a newly deceased body. The fusion heals the body and allows the sapient dream to use the body. While Aether cannot poison them, they may take force damage from being drawn back into the stuff of the Astral plane. Astral Emergents don’t need air, food, or drink, and when they die, they either cannot be raised, or they require a special process that requires finding a new body for them to inhabit.
The second is the Astral Merfolk, a species immune to Aether poisoning (since they live most of their life in the fluid). They can transform their legs into a tail, eventually learn animal friendship and animal messenger as an ability. They can also move especially fast when dashing underwater. They use the more current proficiency bonus limit to their spellcasting, but unlike some of the more recent options, they are locked in to using Charisma as their casting stat.
There are also new fighting styles that can be taken by fighters, paladins, rangers, and people that pick up the right feat. This includes gaining advantage on attacks when surrounded, additional dice of damage on piercing weapons when fighting underwater and gaining a charisma bonus to AC with light armor and no shield.
The Big Stuff
The biggest round of new mechanics goes to the complete reworking of naval combat away from the D&D 5e standard.
- Standard D&D ships have a speed, crew, passenger, cargo, AC, HP, and damage threshold statistics.
- Ghosts of Saltmarsh added physical ability scores, actions, and separate armor class and hit points for distinct parts of the ship.
These statistics are determined by the individual ship type. In other words, there isn’t an overall rule saying that a ship of X size will have a specific number of hit points or damage threshold.
Under these rules, ships are assigned a size, which is separate from creature size. Ships range from tiny to gargantuan, and the size of the ship sets a number of rules, from the ship’s movement, maneuverability, number of fires it can have before its powder explodes, and damage threshold.
Because of this separate scale, the ship hit points don’t run analogous to creature hit points either. If damage exceeds the ship’s damage threshold, it does one point of damage to the ship. If it doubles, triples, etc., it does 2 or 3 points of damage. The cannons and other ship weapons introduced in this section are all scaled for this level of damage.
Ships have different roles that need to be filled, and the number of ranks a character has in those roles will allow them to do things like put out a number of fires or remove a number of casualties each round of ship combat. Player characters add their proficiency bonus to their ranks.
Different weapons might do hit point damage, cause fires, or cause casualties. If a player character is in a particular role, and that role is indicated as a casualty, the character loses 50% of their hit points and they count as a casualty until they are healed above this threshold. Ships also have a Maximum Crew and a Skeleton Crew, which act as thresholds for how many actions the ship can take on its turn.
Some roles, like the Quartermaster, have abilities that affect the number of supplies needed to travel for a leg of a journey. The Captain directly contributes to the Mettle of your ship, a number of d4s that represent morale and willingness to act. Mettle can be affected by supplies and dropping to 0 Mettle triggers a mutiny. When a ship attempts a boarding action, it’s a Mettle versus Mettle roll to see which crew prevails. Taking casualties removes Mettle, and you lose more if your casualties are ranked members of the crew.
Ships have reputation and flying a distinctive flag may allow you to steal Mettle from a ship you are attempting to overtake. There is a set of chase rules that tracks the number of tokens between ships and getting more than 10 tokens ahead of another ship usually indicates that a ship has escaped.
Combat has the following phases:
- Movement Phase
- Attack Phase
- Pass Weather Gage
- Assign Hits and Resolve Damage
- Boarding Action
- Status Phase
- Check for Ship Explosions
- Surrender and Victory
Initiative can change from round to round, as the ship upwind has an advantage on the ship downwind. Each phase is resolved separately, so both ships move before either ship attacks, as an example. Each ship has its own Weather Gage, which is passed to the upwind ship, and can be spent to reroll attacks.
Of this, there is a section on converting monster damage to ship damage, and ship combat rules towards hitting creatures, and converting damage upwards. There are also some notes about adjudicating these rules without a grid by tracking advancing and retreating and creates opposed checks to determine maneuvers between ships.
That’s a lot to take in. I know the core rules for ships are pretty simple–ships move and ships attack. I know the Ghosts of Saltmarsh rules are a bit more complicated in adding in specific regions of the ship with their own hit points and armor class. But I don’t know that this seems a lot faster to resolve to me. I could be wrong, as I haven’t tried them out.
I do suspect that these rules make a character’s level matter less during the ship-to-ship phases of sea battles. Applying damage thresholds seems like it’s going to keep even powerful spells in a relatively constrained range of damage when focused on a ship. If the purpose was to make ship combat that is meant to mitigate higher level abilities, I don’t know if I’m all in on that, but I would have liked a little more information on exactly why this system made sense for this series of adventures.
If you only want to stick with the DMG rules, I realize they are a bit thin, but I think there is a bit of difference between “add some additional actions to make combat more detailed” and “redesign some of the core concepts of the game to use during a specific recurring part of the campaign.”
I do like the explanation of the chase rules and I’d like to give these a whirl, especially when dealing with ship chases, where distances can be more abstract for most of the chase. I am wondering how well these adventures will run if you do attempt to reframe ship combat in terms of what appears in the DMG or Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
I also can’t help but wonder what, if any, changes to ship combat will look like when Spelljammer arrives. My hope would be that it builds on the Ghosts of Saltmarsh paradigm rather that rebuilding them from scratch, but that’s drifting a bit out to sea for this first impression.
And Now, The Adventure
The assumption of the adventure is that the player characters are survivors of multiple ships that were sunk in a multi-faction battle. They wash ashore together, find that they are all poisoned by the Aether in the sea, and have a limited amount of time to explore the small chain of islands before their poisoning gets worse, and they can no longer benefit from a cure.
Like the previous Fables campaign, this one starts off with a framing device that puts the PCs in a perilous situation right from the start. Unlike the previous campaign, this one goes into extensive explanations on how to run a session zero, including pitching the adventure series to the group, and getting their buy-in about being from different ships and starting off together, trying to survive the island together. I’m way happier that this was included, considering the number of “gotcha” moments that came up in the previous campaign.
Characters can reach up to 3rd level in this adventure, and there are specific story points at which they advance. While the PCs are exploring the island where they wash up, they can find a rowboat. As they explore other islands, in addition to finding the ingredients they need for the antidote, they can find the wreckage of other ships, a hostile captain looking for a legendary treasure on the island, and a cursed captain that has managed to patch together a working ship.
I like the use of the captain’s log to communicate the potential treasure and a ship from which to escape the island, and I like that the adventure gives measurements for when to tick off hours during the search, to keep the player’s operating under a time crunch until they complete the cure. I also appreciate that the cursed captain can be seen as a monster to fight to gain the final treasure and the ship, but he can also be reasoned with, to a degree, and even brought along as part of the crew.
This particular adventure doesn’t interact much with the new ship rules introduced in the previous section, but it does introduce some of the factions, the concept of Aether poisoning, some of the creatures native to the setting, and even a shiny new Aetherium treasure to underscore the value of the material in the setting. It feels like a good introduction to this adventure that (I think) will set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
I’m an easy mark for pirate adventures, and I really like that they managed to not only come up with a pirate themed setting, but one that is a little bit different due to its location and the magical underpinnings. I also like that right from the start it introduces some key elements to the setting, including colonial powers, people caught in the middle, and an island of pirates that may just be waiting for a new leader to forge them together into their own power. It made me want to start watching Black Sails all over again.
The starting adventure is exactly the kind of adventure I like for a new setting, one that works in what makes the setting unique, and sets up the adventurers for the kind of things they will be doing for the rest of the campaign. I also greatly appreciate that they take the time to add in a sales pitch for the group, and stress having a session zero to get everyone on board. The adventure content was very satisfying.
As far as the new rules go . . . I don’t know how I feel about them. I’m not sure the degree to which it’s going to curtail players getting to feel like D&D superheroes. I also wonder if people brand new to D&D and picking up adventures to run want to turn around and learn a new subsystem that doesn’t quite do things the way they are done in the rest of the system. I just have flashbacks of all the mass combat and seaborne combat rules from my days in AD&D 2e.
I’m really curious the degree to which ship combat will be central to resolving plots, and the degree to which you could still swap it out with either the DMG or Ghosts of Saltmarsh rules without spending too much time adapting the adventure. I’m also hoping that even if the finale is a battle against a gargantuan warship, the PCs will have a chance to be awesome as D&D characters at least as much as they are contributing to ship resolution.
I really like a lot of these setting elements, and I’m looking forward to seeing the factions interact with one another, and how the campaign deals with the potential for the player character’s to rally the pirate islands to their cause.