Review: Storm King’s Thunder

DnD_TRPG_StormKingsThunder_CoverThe fifth story-line adventure for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is Storm King’s Thunder, which evokes memories and concepts from the classic adventure series, Against the Giants, adventures G1 through G3 for 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Initially published as three separate modules way back in 1978 (Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, and Hall of the Fire Giant King) the small adventures were compiled and republished in 1981, becoming the first “classics” of D&D to warrant republication. Hall of the Fire Giant King also gave us King Snurre, arguably the first named D&D villain, memorable in his white dragon pelt (now further immortalized on the cover of the 5e Player’s Handbook).

TSR reprinted the giant series once again in 1986 with the combo superadventure Queen of the Spiders, as the original Giants series led into the equally famous D-module series. Wizards of the Coast has also previously returned to the classic adventure twice before: first in 1999 for 2nd Edition and again for 4th Edition with Revenge of the Giants. For this, WotC author Chris Perkins added Warrens of the Stone Giant Thane to the mix, created for Dungeon Magazine.

Unlike either version of Against the Giants or Queen of the Spiders, Storm King’s Thunder is not a reprint of the existing adventure but a complete reimagining. This is also markedly different from Curse of Strahd, which was just a reprint with bonus material at the beginning. In addition to the three new dungeons for the hill, frost, and fire giants there are also lairs for stone, cloud, and storm giant clans. All five big giants are represented.

The Good

Photo 2016-08-31, 7 33 03 PMAs mentioned above, Storm King’s Thunder is not just Against the Giants redux, but instead features a brand new story. The High God of the giants has broken the ordning: the divine mandated caste structuring of giants which determines the place of each type of giant in the overall hierarchy as well as each giant in their clans. Which is cool, but this is effectively just the backstory to SKT. This overarching plot doesn’t largely feature into the adventure itself instead as a background motivation. This makes Storm King’s Thunder just one story in this larger tale. Unlike past story-line adventures, the main plot of the “event” is not addressed or highlighted by this adventure. Somewhat like Tyranny of Dragons or Rage of Demons, this tale is expansive enough to work nicely as part of a larger canvas, spreading out to the Adventurer’s League modules and the Neverwinter video game, which can tell their own stories set during this event. This makes this story-line feels more like a historical event or incident, and less like three or four retellings of the same event, the opposite of Rage of Demons where Drizzt, the heroes of Neverwinter, and the PCs all separately fought and defeated Demogorgon.

Storm King’s Thunder is also somewhat of a sequel to Tyranny of Dragons, which creates some neat continuity in the neo-Forgotten Realms. It makes the events of that story have an impact, even if there were no lasting changes to the Realms as a result. It highlights how you don’t have to make sweeping changes with a Realms Shaking Event (or “blow up the moon”) to make an impact.

This adventure makes good use of bounded accuracy,  when you fight giants early in the adventure, and again when you face an ancient dragon. While these encounters take place at too low of a level for characters to theoretically win a fair fight, NPCs are provided to even the odds. Being able to use numbers to the advantage of the heroes is a nice perk of the system.

The centerpiece of the adventure is an expansive sandbox exploration of the North, that leads to the next chapter, before you return to exploring. It’s very freeform, and even the slight rails largelu unseen as the party can choose their own path. There are numerous plot hooks that direct adventurers between the various locations, and far more areas and locales than one party can experience in a single playthrough. In theory, you could run the initial half of this adventure up to three times with very little overlap until the end. This is also handy as the encounters in this adventure are challenging and potentially deadly, so there is almost a built-in method of recovering from a TPK.

Because there’s so much modularity (three starter towns, five different giant clanholds) the adventure is very easy to pillage for information and locations. You can steal multiple settlements, NPCs, and three or four big dungeons for a home game and still be able to play through this adventure without issue.

The book features a number of excellent maps, including a new Mike Schley map of the North. This map has a nice wide gutter, lots of white space between the pages: very likely in response to feedback from Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. The few Jared Blando maps are also pretty useful; sometimes his maps skew more towards art than usability at the table, but these are decent and functional (while still being lovely).

The Bad

Photo 2016-08-31, 7 33 20 PMDespite being one of the broader stories, ironically, there’s no larger story-line name: Storm King’s Thunder is both the event and the adventure. Contrast this with Rage of Demons whose main story was told in the Out of the Abyss adventure. This is easier to remember (one name rather than two) but of all story-lines, Storm King’s Thunder the hardcover adventure feels like its tale is secondary to the event, and the giant themed adventures in Neverwinter will have much less to do with the eponymous Storm King.

Because this superadventure is based around one small story in a larger event, there’s less resolution in this adventure. Like actually none. At the end, the ordning is still broken, and giant hierarchy remains in flux. This could be resolved in a novel or even a video game, but that seems to unfortunately sideline the primary heroes of D&D: the players. The conclusion paragraph even mentions this somewhat, leaving it open ended if the Storm King is right and the god will restore things or not. However, this is incredibly unsatisfying, as the ordning will invariably and inevitably be mentioned in later Realms products, so the lack of a resolution feels like an oversight. Especially as I highly doubt the breaking of the ordning will have lasting impact: changing the CRs of giants is unlikely, so it’s highly improbably that hill giants will replace storm giants at the apex of giantkind. This makes Storm King’s Thunder feels somewhat like a bad sitcom episode that doesn’t get around to resolving the change before the reset button is hit for the next episode. (“So the children learned how to function as a society, and eventually they were rescued by, oh, let’s say… Moe.”)

The restoration of the ordning or potential restructuring of giant hierarchy feels like a missed opportunity. It would be fun way to work one of the newer giant types into the mix. Such as having death giants sneak their way into the top spot or something. Or, in a homage to 1st Edition giants, some hill giants might ascend in status to be mountain giants, becoming the mightiest of giants.

The adventure is also a little light on plot hooks. It’s assumed that the party just decide to murderhobo their way through much of the adventure’s opening with little motivation, especially in the introductory adventure. For situations like that, I miss Paizo’s Adventure Paths, which all have free Player’s Guide PDFs outlining potential motivations for the characters, including traits that serve as personal character hooks. Some guidelines for good character tropes and archetypes for this adventure would be nice. (Wanted: Brave Adventures. Must be interested in looting the tombs of dead barbarians, but also selflessly defending towns from far superior threats. Disliking giants a plus.)

Because of the structuring of the chapters, there’s some story issues. The big sandbox description of the North comes before the real reasons why you want to sandbox through the North. If this were a Pathfinder AP, the North section would be its own 64-page companion product, and the adventure would just detail the burial mounds and refer you to the accessory for side explorations. Which would also free up a few dozen pages for more relevant adventure information and encounters. I’m not sure if I’d prefer the setting sandbox separate or not, but I do know I read and re-reread Chapter 2 and chunks of Chapter 3 looking for the reason the Uthgardt burial mounds were so important and why the adventures were expected to be looting them (apart from “because they’re there”).

Similarly, the end of the adventure is weak. When the adventure needs to get on the rails for the climax, the adventure struggles with providing enough content and direction. If you don’t take the single provided hook (or repeatedly fail the single possible check to advance the story) you very quickly hit a wall. It’s terrible adventure design. Which could be excusable if the story was decent but the “killer accidentally dropped a very obvious and identifiable item” is horribly cliché. It’s so obvious, my players might dismiss it as too obvious, viewing it as a red herring.

But, of course, much of this is moot: if the players just charge into the storm giant’s hold and start killing giants, like they’ve done in probably every other encounter location, they’ll be dismissed as assassins and not even receive the final clue, prematurely ending the adventure.

Following this, you’re given another very odd and tentative clue that guides you to the next encounter location and then you just wander around the ocean having random encounters until the bad guy’s ship “spawns”. I wish I was joking about that. So long as you’re in the right area, you just lurk until it randomly appears, which could be a long or short period of time which is randomly determined. It’s very literally a spawn timer.  

A lot of the potential treasure at the start of the adventure assumes you’re going to just rummage through a city, looting people’s houses. This is especially cold when you save these people later, and might escort them back to their pillaged homes.

The Ugly

Photo 2016-08-31, 7 33 43 PMI’m not a fan of how several WotC superadventures ostensibly begin at level 4 or 5 but also include a prequel adventure that fills the gap between level 1 and the start. If you’re going to start the actual adventure at 5th level then the adventurers should start at 5th level. As this adventure in particular focuses on high CR creatures like giants, it makes sense to start at a higher levels. The prequel adventures was released digitally for free, so it would have been easy enough to just include a URL in the book or direct people to the Dungeon Master’s Guild. Omitting the intro adventures would free up several pages for more high level adventure content and giant killing action (18 to be precise).

A related complaint is that in many sections there’s precious little experience, forcing Dungeon Masters to rely on milestone levelling. This is especially pronounced at the end when as few as two or three fights might lead grant players a level. While I know many DMs have switched to milestones, I’d prefer it remaining an option, to give DMs the choice to play straight and use xp or ignore encounters and level depending on the story, rather than mandating an optional rule.

Returning to the plot, very little of Storm King’s Thunder actually seems to relate to the breaking of the ordning. It feels like much of the actual plot of the adventure (the absence of the Storm King) would work just as well without that backstory, with the giants just being giants behaving badly because the king is missing. Which also makes the climax of the adventure come out of left field. The adventurers and party find out about the breaking or the ordning and abduction of Hekaton at the same time, but they have little reason to ask about the storm giants, and every reason to focus on all the other giants. The one question players are very likely to ask the giant oracle, “how do we restore the ordning?” isn’t answered. And Hekaton’s disappearance really seems like the least pressing issue compared to all the other giants that are an immediate threat.

There are also two other fundamental problems with the plot. The first is why is Hekaton even alive? Nothing is gained by keeping the giant alive. And the creature responsible for holding home doesn’t need him alive: it very happily kills him if adventurers rescue him and tarry. Second, what are the two evil sisters doing? Their scheme doesn’t seem to benefit them remotely, as it doesn’t get them the crown. But they have no schemes, not active attempts to disrupt things, and there’s really no reason to think them anything but paranoid storm giants (reasonable after the death of their mother) and victims of the scheme of the blue dragon. They never really do anything. They’re entirely superfluous to the plot.

Included in the magic item section of the book are several runic items. These allow you to transfer the properties of the rune to a location or a nonmagical item. This is okay, but there’s not many options. It’s a neat idea that feels a little under-served. But we’re highly unlikely to ever see more runes in future products, so it feels like a preview for a rules expansion that doesn’t exist.

The Awesome

Photo 2016-08-31, 7 32 27 PMAThe end of the adventure includes a small section on Linked Adventures: how to tie Storm King’s Thunder to prior story-lines, to use them as introductory experience (levels 1 to 5) or enable people to skip from the game they’re playing to the new story-line. It’s a pretty cool idea, and shows the various connections between Storm King’s Thunder and the adventures of the past.

The book begins with cast of characters, identified as the “Dramatis Personae”. This highlights the the characters and their location, while also showing off the adventure’s Shakespearean inspiration. Plus, it’s super handy to know where to look for more information on characters.

There’s a pretty awesome adventure flowchart early in the book. Given the potential nonlinear chapter order, this is handy. I’m sure many groups would have liked a similar chart of Curse of Strahd or Princes of the Apocalypse.

The second chapter features ogre goblin huckers. That’s ogres mounted with trebuchets that launch goblins, being far more effective at harming goblins than their targets. The sole advantage seems to be the self-loading feature. Silly goblins.

The fire giant duke has a maul with a cage for a head that holds a prisoner. That’s just cool.  Duke Zalto also has an alliance with the drow, which serves as the connection between this adventure and Out of the Abyss but also a nod to the drow being a part of the original Hall of the Fire Giant King module. 

There’s a number of fairy tale references in the book, including a castle in the clouds and a golden goose, albeit in a nonliving variety. I enjoy this, owing to the folklore origins of a couple of the giants. More than other monsters, giants owe as much to fairy tales as mythology.

Partway through the adventure you acquire a frost giant ally, Harshnag. He’s been an established character in the Forgotten Realms since 2e and a member of Waterdeep’s Gray Hands (recently renamed Force Grey for… reasons).

The book has lots of NPCs with fun and evocative names, especially its goblins. And many modified monsters. I remain a fan of how 5e quickly modifies and customizes monsters with a few bullet points. This is used to great effect in this adventure. One neat example is how the adventure makes sea elves by just tweaking the merefolk entry.

The formatting and presentation of the dungeons is excellent. Each dungeon has a sidebar summarising its traits, such as illumination and the walls, and there is a second box that summaries the contents of each room. At a glance you can tell what monsters are where. Handy.

At the end of the book are new options for modifying giant, alternate powers to customise giants. I wish this had been done for past adventures as well.

I love that the map for Grudd Haug, the den of the hill giants, includes both an map and an illustration of the building and terrain. It’s excellent, and something I can show my player.

Lastly, you get a flying ship. Any adventure with an airship gets a big thumb’s up.

Final Thoughts

I was worried at the thought of an Against the Giants: Take Four, as we’ve seen this adventure before and there was not much substance. Storm King’s Thunder really goes all out in giving the adventure a different story, just using the original for inspiration rather than simply updating the stat blocks.

The dungeons are excellent, and you can use this product to update the classics or embrace the wholly new experience. Each of the dungeons is radically different, and there’s a lot of unique flavour. A heck of a lot of work went into making cool giant clanholds, complete with some amazing maps. The book is also incredibly useful to Realms fans as a guide to the Northlands. And there are a number of fairly detailed settlements, completely with NPCs. For DMs planning on stripping this adventure for inspiration, it’s a fabulous product.

If the product has a flaw it’s too much story that doesn’t really do anything but exist. There’s lots going on beyond the Breaking of the Ordning: the missing Storm King, traitorous daughters, a dragon, a kraken, plus the Rod of Seven Parts story seen in both Force Grey: Giant Hunters and Acquisitions Incorporated the Series. But none of it really matters.

The adventure was hyped as being inspired by Shakespeare—which I won’t dispute—but the play in question is actually Much Ado About Nothing. The ordning breaks and just kinda sorta gets fixed off camera. The evil daughters don’t do anything and may or may not receive their comeuppance. The kraken is very likely unseen. And the main plot of the adventure—the kidnapping of the king—could easily be missed if players too distracted by the very real threat of evil giants that need to be put down. 

While there are all serious problems with the plot of the adventure, you can still run it just fine pretty much as-is. You just need to seed and foreshadow the Storm King. Play around in the royal court a little more. Perhaps have the sisters doing some scheming or trying to betray the adventurers in the final moments. A good DM can easily work around these problems.

Alternatively, there’s probably room for a great Dungeon Master’s Guild product that replaces the final two or three chapters of this adventure with something actually related to the ordning. Perhaps heading to the “Hold of the Storm Giants” to find an altar to the High Father, where you can plead with the giant god to change their mind, followed by a quest to prove their worthiness. However, the fact you could just entirely swap out the climax to this adventure and your players would never know is incredibly problematic.

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