Storm King's Thunder Review

Here is my full review of Storm King's Thunder. I'll start out with my first impressions, and I'll discuss some innovations about the adventure I quite liked. I'll then get into reviewing the actual adventure itself. 

You can also listen to this review in podcast format. I discussed the innovations and first impressions in episode 123 of Game Master's Journey, and I give the rest of my review in episode 126.

If you're going to pick up a copy of Storm King's Thunder, please use this link to buy it on Amazon and help support Starwalker Studios in the process.

Image Copyright Wizards of the Coast

Image Copyright Wizards of the Coast

Innovations & GM Tricks of the Trade

Right away I noticed some innovations in this adventure that I haven’t seen before. I’m really impressed with what Wizards is doing here, and I think there are some great things a DM can learn from this and apply to any adventure or session. Each campaign Wizards publishes has new innovations. I really like what they’ve done in this one.

Dramatis Personae

A list of the major NPCs in the adventure with descriptions and where you can find them in the text.

Full Spread Art

More of this please!

Milestone Advancement

This has become the standard for Wizards-published adventures, and it’s even more simplified and streamlined in this adventure than it was in CoS.

Adventure Flowchart

Yes.

Deadly Encounters

p. 16. Wizards spells out that these encounters are intentionally deadly. I find myself wondering if they always have been, all the way back to Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and they’re just now sharing that with us to alleviate confusion.

Guidelines for what to do when a TPK happens. CoS had some guidelines for character death. I think all adventures should have these two things.

Treasure!

I love what they do with the treasure in this adventure.

Random Coin amounts

Instead of rolling for the amount of coins in a treasure, you can choose an amount within the specified range. Eg. if PCs have more loot than they know what to do with, use the minimum; if they are light on treasure, use the average, or even the maximum amount.

Random Magic Items

One thing this adventure does that I really like is it doesn’t spell out all the magic items for you. Instead, it will say something like “roll twice on Magic Item Table B in the DMG”. Of course, the DM could choose an item from the table instead, and sometimes it even suggests letting the PCs choose an item from that table.

Not only is this a great way to handle magic items in a published adventure, but it also shows DMs how they can handle random treasures in their own adventures and just in general.

Of course, if an item is important for the campaign, then it is specified, so not all the treasures in the adventure are random.

Items in a Giant’s Bag

This is a great table to use anytime PCs encounter a giant. P 18

Special NPCs

This adventure uses a cool innovation where the PCs play special NPCs in a settlement. The intent is to make the settlement matter more to the PCs, since they’re playing NPCs. I’ll have to see if that actually works or not (I have my doubts), but regardless, it could be a fun diversion.

I could see lots of uses for this. You could use this to show the players scenes their characters aren’t involved in, if for some reason you want the players to have that information. They get to play out the scene using NPCs.

Part of the players’ task is to keep their NPCs alive. After the battle, each special NPC that survives gives the PCs a quest. These quests have rewards when completed, usually one or more magic items and/or a substantial amount of gold (usually in the form of expensive gems).

This is a great way to reward magic items! It’s also a way to give more specialized or personalized items, because these items are given by an NPC, not randomly found in a hoard somewhere.

It’s also a great motivator for PCs to explore side quests and sides plots. In a given session they can choose to either follow the main story, or they can choose to investigate a side-plot or perform a side-quest for an NPC. If they go after the side-quest or -plot, then they will likely get a useful reward, either a significant amount of money or a useful magic item. These are great times to let PCs choose items from the specific chart instead of rolling. This is also a great time for you as DM to award an item you’ve created for a specific character (even better if the quest was a solo quest for that character).

Side quests are a great way to pull in PC backgrounds, relationships with NPCs, etc. I just love the idea of giving a substantial reward for players following through on these.

It also, in a way, gives the players a way to manage the difficulty of the campaign. If they’re worried about their next encounter, maybe unsure if they’re up to it, then they can follow some side quests and either earn gold they can use to buy better equipment, or earn magic items to aid them on their main quest.

UPDATE: Since originally writing this review, I have actually run the first encounter of the adventure (I did the encounter in Triboar). Unfortunately, I found using the player-run NPCs to be a dismal failure. In hindsight, I should have seen this ahead of time, but having each player run a PC and an NPC effectively doubles the number of turns at the table. It took what would have already been a long encounter (with two giants and multiple orogs and orcs) and turned it into a way-too-long gruelling slog. The NPCs didn't really add anything at all except the time each round took. I didn't notice any increase in player engagement due to running these NPCs whatsoever. About halfway through the encounter, I think we were all ready to just forget the NPCs existed.  You can watch us play through the encounter in the video below.

That said, I think the idea of using player-run NPCs could be successful, but you would need to find a much better way to use it than what is done in this adventure. I'd also recommend either not using such NPCs in combat, or at least not using them in combat at the same time the players are running their PCs in combat. This really makes me wonder if Wizards play-tested this adventure at all, because I can't imagine this idea surviving an actual play-test.

Linked Adventures

Gives guidelines to tying this in with LMoP, HotDQ, PotA, OotA. I’d really like to see this continue in future adventures. Also I’d love to see an adventure that begins at level 11-15, and is intended to be what comes next after finishing one of the other campaigns, and takes you to level 20.

New Giant Options

New special abilities for cloud, fire, frost, hill, stone and storm giants. These are pretty cool.

I also like how they modify monsters from the MM to make them more unique, interesting, and/or deadly. Eg. one of the dragons is a spellcasting variant dragon with some additional special abilities. We also see legendary versions of some standard monsters, which is also really cool.

Both of these show you how you can take a monster and beef it up for a boss encounter or even to be you BBEG.

Monster Roster

One of the lairs in the adventure has a chart that lists all the NPCs and monsters in the lair. It shows which room each is in, how many there are, and has a notes section.

This is a fantastic way for the DM to keep track of a facility with a set and finite number of specific monsters. I plan to use something like this in my own adventures from now on. It lets you see the enemy forces in a glance, and is a much easier way to keep track of how much impact the PCs’ incursions have really made.

Structure

This adventure has a rather interesting structure. Chapter 1 is a short intro adventure, called A Great Upheaval, that can be used to get PCs from level 1-5. Or you could use another adventure. Some thoughts are given for using other adventures published by Wizards instead of A Great Upheaval. By far the most successful of these are the guidelines for using Lost Mine of Phandelver. Less useful are the pointers given for transitioning from HotDQ, PotA, or OotA.

Personally, although I appreciate the thought behind this, I feel like it was a waste of effort and valuable space in the supplement. You can’t finish one of these other modules, and then go into SKT. Instead, the writers assume you’ve started one of the other modules, didn’t get very far, and you and your players want to do SKT instead. In this instance, you’re given some tips on transitioning from one to the other. The advice given is decent, but how many groups is this really going to be relevant for?

On the other hand, the advice on transitioning between LMoP and SKT works much better, as you can run that complete adventure and then go into SKT.

Once the PCs are level 5—whether you run A Great Upheaval, LMoP, another adventure, or start the PCs at 5, you then have 3 choices for starting points—Bryn Shander, Goldenfields or Triboar. This is kind of nice because you can pick the location (or adventure) you like better to start. Each basically involves a giant attack that the PCs hopefully get involved in. However, the downside is chances are good you’ll only use one of the three locations (although it’s possible the PCs could go to the others in their wanderings, and then you could run those encounters if you wanted).

This leads us to one of the strengths AND weaknesses of this products. Opinions will likely vary on whether it’s a strength or weakness. You have three decent sized sections on these areas and the encounters within them, but it’s very likely you’ll only use one of the three. This kind of thing crops up a few times in the campaign, leading to the very real possibility that there will be whole sections and chapters of the book you never use.

From the perspective of a DM running this campaign, I’m honestly not sure where I stand on this. I think I’d have to run the campaign, and only after I’d finished it would I feel qualified to give an opinion on whether I felt I’d used enough of the material, or whether too much of it was wasted on me.

I’m a little unsure why the adventure is structured this way. The DM chooses which of the three locations to use. The players or PCs aren’t given the choice. (Although you could maybe rework the adventure so they get to choose between the three. That could be interesting, but to make it work, I think you’d need to come up with better hooks, and you’d definitely need more hooks, because as written the hooks that lead to the three different settlements are virtually the same. I’ll discuss the hooks more later.) So I suppose the benefit is as DM you have three choices of where to do this part of the campaign, so you can pick the one you like the best. However, that means you’ll only use 1/3 of this chapter, and I feel like the pages of the other 2/3 could have been better spent on something you’ll definitely use. Now, it is possible that the PCs could travel to one or both the other locations during the course of the campaign, and if they do, you can run those encounters then.

After you deal with the encounters at the location you’ve chosen, and the PCs have advanced to level 6, you come to the next chapter (chapter 3) in the module, The Savage Frontier. In this chapter you’re given a list of locations in the area in alphabetical order, as well as random encounter tables. Many of these locations and also many of the random encounters point the PCs to important locations that will take them into the next chapter of the adventure.

This chapter is one of my favorite parts of the adventure. I love overland adventures and wilderness exploration. Many of the adventures I ran in the 2e days were exploration or travel-type adventures. This chapter has a lot of locations detailed to a greater or lesser degree. There are LOTS of great adventure seeds in here! Some of the locations include actual encounters.

This may (or may not) make this part of the adventure seem more sandboxy, as the PCs can wander around the area as they wish. However, this results in that same double-edged sword—namely that there’s a good chance you won’t use a good portion of this chapter. Also, the adventure is still ultimately linear as all roads eventually lead to the next chapter.

However, at least for this part of the campaign I think you will be able to capture that sandbox feel. The PCs do have objectives, but thankfully this adventure doesn’t have any kind of ticking clock (and DMs are encouraged to make players aware of this), so the PCs can take as much time as they want to explore the area. Between the described locations and encounters and the random encounters, a DM will have plenty to pull from his sleeves no matter where the PCs go. I think players will really enjoy the freedom of this part of the adventure, however they may find it less enjoyable once they return to the railroad later in the campaign.

This chapter is a goldmine for GMs not interested in necessarily running this campaign, but looking for encounter and location ideas. Most if not all of these locations and encounters could easily be transplanted to your setting of choice. For instance, a location called the Grandfather Tree, which I’m a big fan of, will definitely be in Primordia. This is a giant oak tree, surrounded by regular sized oak trees and protected by dryads and centaurs. The tree has a magical nature, and this encounter is a great example of how you can add some magic to anything in your world, complete with some in-game mechanical affects (eg. those defending the tree gain the equivalent of a bless spell).

There are also numerous NPCs in this chapter that can be mined by a GM for her own adventures.

Finally, if you’re running in the Realms, this chapter gives you a bunch more information and details on locations in the North.

Once the PCs reach chapter 4 they’re 7th level and journey to a ruin with an NPC they meet. This is a part of the adventure I really don’t like as this NPC basically leads the PCs by the nose where they need to go. It feels very contrived. It’s also an odd choice, I think, in an adventure that is giving up so many pages for redundant encounters to try to create a feel of a sandbox. Feels like the writers are stepping on their own feet here.

However, one thing that I really do like in this chapter are the guidelines given on running the NPC that guides the PCs for a while. Specifically we’re given guidelines on how to use the NPC in combat so he doesn’t outshine the PCs or make things too easy. We’ve all heard people talk about the dreaded “DM PC,” and the term almost always has negative connotations. This is when the DM has an NPC that adventures with the party, but this NPC is really just a PC that the DM plays. The DM can get into problems if the DM PC is overpowered, always has the answer, tries to influence where the players go and what they do, and things like that. Unfortunately, though, this can lead to DMs being afraid to use NPCs that travel with the PCs at all, or at the very least being unsure of how to do so. Wizards gives us an example here of how we can take a fairly powerful monster or NPC and have them fight alongside the player characters without stealing the show.

Once the PCs complete chapter 4, they’re level 8. They now have a choice of 5 different giant lords they can go after, and each of these adventures is covered in chapters 5-9. Each of the giant lords is a different type of giant, so here the players have a real choice of where they want to go next, and they can have some control over what kind of adversary they want to face.

It’s suggested the GM can allow the PCs to seek out as many of these lords as they want, gaining a level for every 2 they defeat, so you may get use out of more than one of these chapters if your players bite on that. But I don’t think most groups will use them all, and I think a lot of groups will only use one.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter which giant lord the players choose, as they get the needed McGuffin from whichever one they choose. This leads them to chapter 10 and level 9. They can then proceed directly to chapter 12, or they can get there via chapter 11.

Reactions

I have mixed reactions to the structure of the adventure, and I anticipate there will be a pretty wide spread of GM feeling on this. On the one hand, I think chances are good that there will be a good portion of this book that you don’t use. Like me, you may end up wishing all those wasted pages had been spent on more NPC development, more detailing of locations in the North, more new monsters and magic items, etc.

On the other hand, though, this structure may make this campaign a little more useful if you’re going to mine it for encounters, locations, etc. You could even do this if you run the campaign, because you likely won’t use all the encounters, or even all of the chapters. So you could use those in future adventures and campaigns.

I discussed in episode 123 the various innovations in this adventure I really like. You can check that out for more info, but they include how treasure is determined and handed out, the special NPCs, dramatis personae, adventure flowchart, monster roster and new giant options. I think this adventure is the most useful of the 5e adventures Wizards has put out so far for DMs who ultimately don’t run the actual adventure. There’s a lot that can be taken from this book as for as ideas on how to structure adventures and campaigns, interesting ways to use NPCs and monsters, as well as the actual encounters, locations, NPCs, etc.

I like how chapter 3, The Savage Frontier, allows PCs to explore the area and gives you some cool set encounters and random encounters to use. It also gives you a lot of information on locations in the realms. Now this will ultimately get super-annoying for DMs running in the realms as they find their Realms information strewn between numerous books, many of them adventure books—so far LMoP, SCAG, HotDQ, RoT, PotA, OotA, and now SKT. It would be really nice to have it all in a campaign setting book as opposed to bits and pieces in all these books.

I also like how most of the chapters in this book could be run as stand-alone adventures, or worked into a completely different campaign. I really like this approach, and I hope this is the beginning of a new trend by Wizards—making their published campaigns as useful as possible to GMs NOT running the campaigns.

The Story and Adventure

Unfortunately, this adventure suffers from the same problem that plagues the other 5e adventures by Wizards—namely hooks. By hook I mean your character’s motivation for participating in the adventure. We strive for as much realism and verisimilitude as we can in RPGs, and part of that is giving the players a good reason that their characters should undertake the adventure the DM has planned. With a good hook, players should feel that it makes sense for their character to pursue the story. The players should follow the adventure organically, without feeling that they’re doing something just because that’s what the DM wants them to do.

The hooks that are given for the PCs’ involvement in the story of SKT are not very satisfying. Ultimately, your players will have to decide to just “play along” because these hooks won’t really hold up for a lot of characters. The hooks provided aren’t convincing and aren’t going to make them feel like their character has a true motivation for going on the adventure.

The hooks to pull PCs into the intro adventure, A Great Upheaval, are pretty standard fare. One involves the PCs hearing there is a reward offered for someone able to deal with a goblin threat (goblins again?). Another involves the PCs hearing they can make money working as guards (at least it’s for a hunt, and not a caravan). The other involves PCs traveling to the town to mediate a dispute (what 1st level party is going to bite on this one?). The final hook is the PCs hear the inn has great food (I’m not kidding) and the innkeeper is good at finding adventuring opportunities. All of these are pretty weak, and if I was a player faced with any of these, I definitely wouldn’t be very excited or expecting anything cool to happen in pursuit of these hooks.

The hook that guides the PCs from the intro adventure, A Great Upheaval, to the next part of the campaign boils down to an NPC asking the PCs to travel to one of the three locations to tell a family member of the death of someone lost in the giant attack that kicked off A Great Upheaval. Now this may be a fine hook for some players or groups, but for many groups it’s going to fall flat. Players will wonder why their characters would travel to a distant town to tell a family they don’t know that a relative, whom the PCs also don’t know, has died. There’s no reward offered for doing this. Even if there were, it either wouldn’t be enough to really motivate a profit-minded character to accept the quest, or if it were enough, it wouldn’t make any sense why this humble NPC would be able to scrape together so much money (a problem we see in a lot of published adventures—overly rich NPCs—but that’s a topic for another day). Instead the adventure assumes that for some reason the PCs will agree to do this out of the goodness of their hearts. Even if the party is filled with nothing but goody-two-shoe PCs (and how often does that happen?) I think it’s very likely they’d have better ideas of more effective ways to spend their time serving the greater good than taking a voyage to inform someone of a family member’s death. What’s much more likely is that the players will agree to do it just to keep the story going, but they’re not going to be satisfied. Or, the players may refuse the quest and expect you as DM to give them a better hook, so I suggest you have one in your back pocket in case you need it.

Honestly, the only adventure yet I’ve seen with a halfway decent (or at least effective hook) was CoS, which was basically, you’re trapped in Ravenloft now. If you want to go home, you have to do the adventure. Pretty heavy handed, but at least it makes sense why your character is on the adventure.

UPDATE: Michael Schmidt wrote this blog post with some great alternative hooks for Storm King's Thunder. These are far superior to the ones in the book, so definitely check them out if you're going to run this campaign.

This adventure also exhibits the problem seen in so many FR adventures, which is namely that feeling that your player characters are just tagging along—that it’s the NPCs that are really moving the story, not the PCs. The story is really about the NPCs, not the PCs. This is really unfortunate.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, I have to grade this book from two different points of view—the first that of a GM who wants to run this campaign, and the second that of a GM that wants to mine this for ideas, encounters, locations, and just examples of how to put these things together.

I think the first GM may be a little disappointed. There are some real missed opportunities in this adventure. Despite chapters devoted to alternate encounters, the adventure is still very linear. Some DMs will use more of the book than others, depending on the choices the PCs make. If a group is very driven to complete the main thrust of the adventure, there may be fairly substantial portions of the books that aren’t touched. The biggest missed opportunity in my mind, though, is that there just aren’t good enough reasons for the PCs to even be on the adventure, other than just out of the goodness of their hearts. After Curse of Strahd, this feels like a couple steps back. I think you could get an awesome campaign out of it, but you’re really going to have to spend some time smoothing the rough edges—especially making sure the PCs have real motivations to participate.

Now the second GM, the GM who wants to mine this for ideas and material, that GM may be quite happy with this book. You’ve got a lot of encounters to go through, and some of them are quite fun. There are also random encounters, and some of them are quite imaginative as well. You’re also given some fleshed out NPCs that you could use in your own stories. There aren’t any new spells, character options, or anything like that, but there are some new magic items. Also the idea of letting players play important NPCs and giants is pretty cool, so you can see how that’s done and run with it in your own stories. You’re also given a few locations you can use as well.

Finally, if you are a FR GM, especially if you’re new to the Realms, you’ll get some more information on locations in the North. Hell, if you’ve collected all the adventures so far and the SCAG, you have a decent sourcebook for the North altogether (although you have to drag something like 6 books around for a chapter or so in each of information you want).

So if you’re looking for encounters, locations, NPCs, and just ideas and examples, I think you’ll be very satisfied.

I really like how much value you can get from this book without running the adventure. I really hope that this is something Wizards continues and expands on in the future. Personally, I’d like to see future campaigns be the same page count, but be shorter campaigns and fill those extra pages with more NPCs, locations, backgrounds, random encounters and tables, magic items, spells, etc. I also like how they gave some examples on how to expand the adventure, for instance by creating your own giant lords for the PCs to face. I’d like to see more of this in the future too—give us ideas and examples of how we can take the campaign in different directions, or follow along with the players when they take it in a new direction. One of the problems with these adventures for 5e, in my opinion, is that they’re so long. The longer an adventure, the less likely a given group will finish it. I’d rather have a shorter adventure, with a higher chance of completing it, and more supplemental material provided.