In 2014, D&D fans had the opportunity to play through a two-book (Hoard of the Dragon Queen/Rise of Tiamat), epic campaign against rampaging evil dragons hoping to bring their evil deity into the world. The latest D&D release, Storm King’s Thunder, follows up on some activities in that campaign, and gives players the opportunity to interact with the dragons’ ancient rivals, the giants.
Hoard of the Dragon Queen/Rise of Tiamat and the other fifth edition D&D adventure books (Princes of the Apocalypse and Out of the Abyss) presented long-term, epic campaigns, taking players from about 3rd level through 15th (with something small thrown in to take the players through levels 1-2). Storm King’s Thunder deviates from that path, effectively running from levels 5-10 (there is a lead-in adventure to go from level 1 to level 5, but it’s being extremely generous with the levels).
The feel of Storm King’s Thunder is consistent with that shorter level count. As Rise of Tiamat had dragons rampaging, there is some background of giants rampaging here, but the attacks are much less concerted or organized, and more importantly, the PCs are not necessarily part of any organized effort against them. Instead, Storm King’s Thunder takes the PCs through a series of set-piece battles and (relatively) small dungeons. The encounters are deadly, but they are confined – as there isn’t much about the background situation, the PCs’ ultimate victory (if they have one) likewise does not have a global feel to it.
I’ll go into more detail below the break, where spoilers await, but in general terms I found Storm King’s Thunder lacking compared to previous D&D 5E books. If you’re really looking for those giant-focused battles, Storm King’s Thunder will deliver, but it doesn’t deliver much else. The extra page count gained by having the adventure only cover six levels is not used to make those six levels richer or more detailed, but instead to provide the GM will multiple options for which set-piece battle/small dungeon will be used in a couple of different situations (there’s also some really nice-looking double-page art). Getting the PCs between those set pieces also involves frequent heavy-handed use of NPCs just telling the PCs to go wherever for no apparent reason, and there’s a good helping of people just randomly working with the PCs or helping them to keep the adventure moving, so there is not a very organic feel.
OK, spoilers below …
Introduction: I normally wouldn’t stop and spend much time on an adventure introduction, but I found myself pretty confused after reading the first few chapters of Storm King’s Thunder, and part of that goes back to the adventure flowchart presented in the introduction, so I’m starting here. In general, here’s a very abbreviated flow of the adventure:
- Characters are at a location that is attacked by giants (Chapter 2);
- An NPC shows up telling the PCs go visit a temple (Chapter 3);
- At the temple the PCs learn more about what’s going on, and that they need to loot an Uthgardt ancestral mound (Chapter 4);
- PCs go loot a mound (back to Chapter 3);
- PCs go back to the temple, where they are directed to a giant leader they need to obtain an item from (Chapter 4 again);
- PCs go get that item (Chapter 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9);
- PCs go onto the final confrontation chapters (10 then 11 and 12);
The overall story of Storm King’s Thunder is that Annam the All-Father, god of the giants, is disgruntled by the recent activities of the dragons (as depicted in Rise of Tiamat), and has broken the traditional giant social structure in order to shake up his children. On top of this, the king of the storm giants (the top of the old food chain) has gone missing. This has resulted in a leader from each of the other giant bloodlines rising up and trying to accomplish something great in order to gain the favor of Annam (I’ll discuss them more below). These visions of glory involve lots of death and destruction, which is where the PCs come in. If the PCs are successful, they will ultimately expose the disguised dragon and the giants who kidnapped the storm giant king, rescue the king, and then along with the storm giants will engaged in epic battle with the ancient blue dragon (because, even when the book is about giants, the game is still D&D, not D&G).
A Great Upheaval (~20 pages): This is the escalator adventure to get the characters to fifth level. The characters are visiting a fortified village, only to find it in shambles because some giants dropped rocks from one of their flying castles on it. Goblins have since arrived and are looting the place. The characters must clear out the goblins, deal with a group of Zhentarim who have come to take over the town and some orcs who try to attack, and then rescue what’s left of the villagers from the caverns where they were captured. The PCs gain a level after each of these. With the situation in the town in hand, a good giant’s castle arrives. The PCs are assumed to accept the invitation to visit, where the owner, having received some divinatory insight, whisks the PCs off to the beginning of the real campaign. There is an attack or two en route, and once the adventure is done, the PCs go up to fifth level. I rather like the Dripping Caves, where the prisoners are held, as it has some interesting encounters and realistic options to intimate or politick with some of the inhabitants. But it’s mostly aimed at getting the characters up to the level they need to be to get the real part started.
Rumblings (~35 pages, including NPC appendix): Depending on the GM’s preference, the characters will be in one of three locations when a group of giants attack. Regardless of which they are in, the combat presented in this chapter is essentially just one big fight, after which the characters will go up a level. As I referenced above in the spoiler-free section, Storm King’s Thunder is characterized by not a lot of encounters, but deadly encounters, and this chapter I think exemplifies that. It’s really just the one fight, but a group of fifth level characters up against some of these giants is a tough row to hoe. Regardless of which location the GM chooses, there is a technique used where each player is also assigned one local NPC, and has to handle their role in the attack as well. If the NPC survives, the party will get a small quest from the NPC. This seems like a really neat idea, but the quests are mostly fetch or delivery tasks without much tie-in to the campaign, so there isn’t a lot of payoff, especially for the pages used to discuss the NPCs and give their stats. The three battle options are a group of frost giants looking for a magic item near Icewind Dale, a couple of hill giants leading a group of humanoids in attacking a fortified farm/monastery, or a pair of fire giants and their retinue attacking a town in search of an ancient construct component. The hill giant attack might be the most interesting, just because of the interplay of the different kinds of humanoids and their incredibly stupid hill giant leaders (also, ogres wearing goblin huckers to fling goblins with spiked helmets as projectiles is great). But the hill giant options of this campaign have a somewhat comedic bent to them that, I think, doesn’t really jibe that well with the tone of the other parts of the campaign.
The Savage Frontier (~55 pages) – I’m not sure what this chapter is aiming for, which I find a bit problematic for a chapter that takes up a fifth of the book. The bulk of the chapter is given over to a listing of a variety of locations in northwestern of Faerûn. The underlying issue with this material is that there’s almost no reason for the characters to go to any of it, and none at this point in the campaign. The characters are given mini-quests by the NPCs in the prior chapter, which I suppose gives them some direction on where to wander in this part of the world, but there’s almost nothing that the PCs can do that matters in the story. Instead, this is a holding pattern until the GM decides to introduce an NPC, who will take them to the next chapter (the PCs will then gain a level). On top of that, although there are a variety of notes about individual meetings the PCs might have through the Savage North, Storm King’s Thunder really doesn’t have the space to present that broad an area in much detail. For that, the GM will have to rely on The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. I would think maybe this chapter is intended to provide some on-the-road spice for the PCs as they travel later in the book, but since the PCs get a lot of alternative means of transport, I don’t think they’re going to spend much time on the ground. Ultimately, the first time through this chapter, there are two or three pertinent encounters. First, the characters can learn about the Harpers’ teleportation circles, so they can start working on reducing travel times. Second, if the GM is heading down the hill giant path, the PCs can pick up an ally of sorts. Third, there’s the good-aligned frost giant, who will show up and then tell the PCs where they need to go.
The Chosen Path (~15 pages): The frost giant takes the PCs to the Eye of the All-Father, an oracular temple of Annam. The temple is big only in that it is designed for giants, and after a couple of encounters the PCs have to figure out how to get into the main part of the temple. This primarily involves the NPC frost giant. Once in the heart of the temple, the PCs will get to question the oracle and can learn almost everything about the plot (except where the storm giant king is). In order to get to Maelstrom, the home of the storm giant king, the characters will need to teleport using a specific magic item, and the five of them available happen to be in the hands of the giants who are causing problems. But first, the characters must retrieve a giant “relic” from one of those locations back in the prior chapter. These “relics” are essentially random objects (nose ring, spear tip, cracked horn, etc.) that are now located in Uthgardt spirit mounds, and there doesn’t seem to be much story there. So the characters have to go find and take one of those, and bring it back. This will not take long because when the characters leave they are given an airship with crew. When the party brings the object back, the Eye of the All-Father will direct them to one of the giant lords (and give a hint about where in the lair the conch may be found). In the book, it associates item with a particular (seemingly random) giant leader, but as the GM I would be inclined to override this and pick (1) whichever giant lord’s castle I thought was most interesting and (2) (if applicable) whichever giant type the PCs faced in the Rumblings chapter. When leaving the temple with directions in hand, the ancient blue dragon who is one of the conspirators behind the storm king’s disappearance will attack the party, with the frost giant NPC ally perishing while the PCs escape. The PCs gain another level at this point, putting them at 8 for challenging the giant lords.
Versus the Giant Lords (~60 pages) – Each giant lord has its own chapter, but I’ll combine them here. The hill giants are led by Chief Guh, whose plan is to eat so much that she becomes the biggest creature on the planet, and thus earn the favor of Annam. Her troops have been raiding the countryside for supplies. This seems like the easiest giant lord to tackle, as the party can literally walk in through the fort’s front door (taking out a dozen orcs and one hill giant who were out front), find the morbidly obese and immobile Guh in the first room, wipe the room out, and be on their way. The stone giant leader, Thane Kayalithica, seeks to destroy civilization, which is probably something the PCs like having around. The stone giants here are enhanced with spellcasting ability, and Kayalithica must be defeated. About half of the cave system can be evaded if the characters are sneaky and lucky, but alerting the sentry outside makes things much tougher. Jarl Storvald of the frost giants is reclaiming a giant iceberg village, and hopes to use an artifact to bring eternal winter to the world. Rather than a single fortress, Svardborg presents the characters with a ring of lodges. If the characters pick the right lodge (entirely possible, given the clue from the Eye of the All-Father), that lodge can be taken down without outside interference (a human mage, two frost giants, and some winter wolves). Once the characters have the teleportation device in hand, but before it can be attuned, the Jarl will return, requiring the characters to take down him and five of his closest friends. A longer stay in the ice will mean not only more frost giants, but also the mated pair of white dragons the giants have coerced into working with them. The fire giant lord, Duke Zalto, seeks to rebuild the Vonindod, and ancient adamantine colossus, and has been causing destruction while scouring northern Faerûn for components. His fortress, Ironslag, is more difficult to take down with a minimal number of fights. The party will most likely need to go through a village of yakfolk, before even getting to Ironslag, and there are a lot of inhabitants in the fire giants’ mine. Additionally, both the village and the mine contain many slaves, who will surely perish if not rescued, making it morally more difficult for the players to simply smash and grab. On the other hand, the PCs may have the option to take Zalto’s children hostage, and extract the teleportation device that way. Finally, Countess Sansuri the cloud giant seeks to recover ancient draconic magic. To this end, she has captured and is torturing a young bronze dragon. This castle will most likely start with conversation with the Countess, but since she is unwilling to turn over her device, combat will be the end result. The easiest option is to simply down the Countess right there, since sneaking around will likely result in even more combats, and it is impossible to succeed without defeating Sansuri (unless, again, you kidnap her children and hold them hostage). After defeating the giant lord and teleporting, the party gains a level.
Hold of the Storm Giants (~15 pages): Possibly armed with almost full information on the machinations behind the recent giant troubles, the party then heads to what’s left of the court of the storm giants. The king is kidnapped, the queen is dead, and the legitimate heir is (unknown to her) under threat from her sisters and the blue dragon hiding in their midst. The PCs can potentially just end up in combat here, killing all of the remaining storm giants (and later the dragon), but that is essentially a failed campaign. So the PCs are in a very tough spot, one where I can see a GM needing to provide nudges. They first encounter the evil sisters and a group of giant lords (not the ones listed above). The sisters, of course, have no intention of letting the PCs see their sister. Since starting a combat with the evil sisters (or killing them for any reason) means permanently alienating the good sister, the PCs must go along with what the evil sisters want. Shortly thereafter, one of the sisters will bring the giant lords to where the PCs are being housed, and try to have them kill the party. The PCs could parlay with the giant lords, but I’m not sure how many parties are going to think to start talking when the giants are ordered into combat (plus it’s unclear what parlaying actually accomplishes, since the book also says that the giant lords will not act against the storm giants in their own fortress). And there are two storm giant guards present as well, although apparently do not join in the combat? Or maybe the PCs are allowed to kill the guards, so long as they only subdue the sister? So somehow the PCs have to defuse that situation (without killing the sister), then be permitted up into the throne room. The new ruler will essentially believe them over her sisters and advisor (the one that’s really a dragon), even with basically no proof (the blue dragon has likely fled by the end of this conversation). Ultimately, to proceed, the PCs are given a clue, and are off to the next chapter.
Caught in the Tentacles (~10 pages): So, I haven’t mentioned it so far, but the storm king was kidnapped by the cultists of a chthonic squid. The clue received from the storm giants (a gambling token) leads the PCs to a particular gambling den, where the owner will admit to knowing where the storm king is (that being a scrying-shielded ship). Retrieving the storm king is fairly easy work at that point, although PCs who hang around too long after rescuing him may find themselves on the wrong end of a suction cup.
Doom of the Desert (~5 pages): Having now reached level 10, the PCs cap off their adventure by joining the storm king and a hit squad of storm giants for one last set piece battle against their blue dragon foe.
Beset by a thin plot, forced transitions, and a lot of dead pages, Storm King’s Thunder does not live up to the standards of most of the prior D&D 5E adventures, especially Curse of Strahd and Out of the Abyss. I love to see an effort that, like Storm King’s Thunder, takes the page count of one of these gorgeous hardcovers and only tries to deliver 5-6 levels of content, instead of 15 (my time is limited at this stage in my life, so from a GM point of view I always appreciate adventures that detail as much as possible to minimize the time I have to spend filling in the blanks). But I want that effort to focus on richly developing a story, characters, and place, and not just teleporting (or air traveling) the party around from deadly battle to deadly battle.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.