by Mike Shea on 27 December 2016
The D&D hardback adventure Storm King's Thunder needs help from the DM to grow into a deep and fulfilling campaign for our groups. As a vast adventure exploring the North, the material in the book gives us a thin layer over a vast landscape but lacks the depth needed in both quests and locations for a powerful and memorable adventure. It's up to us DMs to add this depth to the vast breadth of this adventure in a few different ways. These ways include adding meaningful character-driven quests, secrets of the Sword Coast, and small dungeons everywhere.
Today we're going to look at all three of these categories so we can make our exploration of the Sword Coast as rich and deep as we desire.
As written, the quest lines in Storm King's Thunder are paper thin. Few players will get excited about traveling thousands of miles to the north to deliver bad news from Nightstone to Bryn Shander.
The quests don't get much better as the adventure goes on. Most of the adventure seems made up of side quests that do little to tie the characters to the main storyline until they meet up with Harshnag the Frost Giant and visit Annam's Temple in later chapters of the book.
Until then, there's the risk of the characters wandering about without a clear direction or clear idea what's going on.
We can see this as a deficiency in the adventure or we can see it as an opportunity to inject stories and adventures from our own ideas and the ideas of our players. We can start with a solid "session zero" determining more about the characters, where they came from, what they want, and what threads we might weave into the rest of the campaign. Each time we prep a session we can start with a review of the characters to see how we can weave the characters' backgrounds into the adventure.
Many times these personal quests will replace the vanilla quests in Storm King's Thunder.
As we discussed in our look at session zero of Storm King's Thunder, we might ask our players to choose a single faction for the whole group rather than split their alliances across a number of factions. If they agree, we'll have a strong bond between the characters before the game has even yet started. With this single faction, we can bring in key faction-focused NPCs who request that the characters investigate this recent uprising of the giants and stop whatever is causing it. Each faction may have a different reason for doing so, of course, but likely all of them want an end to the chaos of giant attacks.
These faction quests can form the backbone of the adventure. If Leosin Erlanthar is asking the characters to investigate the shattering of the Ordening and what effect it might have on the Sword Coast, it's a stronger tie than just some random NPC they run into on the road.
Early on, until the characters meet Harshnag, they don't really have a clear idea how they're involved in the whole shattering of the Ordening or how to restore it. Until they meet the oracle and hear the whole deal, they're just bumbling around on a bunch of one-off quests delivering messages or getting involved in local politics. It's very possible your group enjoys wandering around and getting involved in small adventures rather than having some big overall goal. Other groups, though, might like a strong central storyline they're always working on.
For this second group we can help bridge the gap between the earliest stages of the campaign and their meeting with Harshnag with a stronger campaign thread.
The core of this quest can come from any number of NPCs of importance to the characters including the above-mentioned faction quest giver. The core of the quest is "discover what's going on with the Ordining and fix it". We can break down the initial parts of this larger quest into various smaller components.
Discover the cause for the fall of the Ordening. This series of quests can take the characters across the Sword Coast meeting historians and archaeologists who know bits and pieces of giant lore and can piece together the cause of the fall of the Ordening. It might guide them Candlekeep where they can dig into old histories. It can also take them into old dungeons or other fantastic locations filled with relics and texts of the Ostorian empire. They might also discover clues that lead to the Eye of the All-Father.
Identify and disrupt the plots of the giant lords. This series of quests can take place as the characters deal with various giant threats. Giant attacks of all sorts might be taking place that demand their attention, including the three giant attacks on Triboar, Greenfields, and Bryn Shander. Interrogations with giants, their allies, or their captives could teach them much about their desires and send them on the way to disrupt these plots. The fire giant and cloud giant plots, in particular, are strong ones for the characters to disrupt. The hill giant gorge fest and the stone giant "screw with civilizations" isn't as clear. In the case of the stone giants, we can add in a whole new twist with the Dodkong, the Death King, a Stone Giant Lich who sees the fall of the Ordening as his chance to rise his giant death cult to new heights. You can read about the Dodkong in the Grand History of the Realms. Look for more on this in a future article.
We might be tempted to fill out a World of Warcraft-like quest tree with a thousand interwoven hierarchical quest chains but really we only need to know the next two or three of paths and the end goal. New quest ideas will come up as the characters go through them. As we discuss in the Lazy Dungeon Master we generally only need to know where we start, where we're headed, and what the next couple of steps are to get there.
The giants have a rich history in the Realms and the story of the Ordining is one that the characters can learn through their exploration throughout the Sword Coast. Their journey throughout the Sword Coast will reveal a great many secrets. Some may come from NPCs they meet, others from places they explore. As they travel, we can expose these secrets, or parts of them, in whatever way makes sense.
Here are some example big secrets. Likely these can be further broken down into a bunch of smaller secrets.
We can also weave in many general secrets of the the Sword Coast. We can make heavy use of the material in chapter 3 of Storm King's Thunder and also start really digging into the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide and letting our players dig in as well, using the book as a giant handout of sorts. We can dig into the lore of the Realms as much as we want, going back 50,000 years and getting into all of struggles of the gods. We can break all of it down into a whole big pile of tweet-sized factoids to drop in as our characters explore the world.
Of course, we should not expect or demand that our players will give a shit. We might dig into this deep Realmslore for our own fun but that doesn't mean it is, or should be, fun for them. Sometimes it's interesting to know that a strange shadowy blade once belonged to a Netherese assassin but they might not know or care what the Netherese were at all. That's fine, sometimes just knowing that the world is big and deep is enough for the players' minds to wander.
Storm King's Thunder lacks dungeons early on but we can add quite a few where we want them. Instead of vast complexes with hundreds of rooms, we have lots of opportunities to add in five-room dungeons, the perfect size dungeon for a session's worth of activities. If you need some maps for this, check out the vast selection of great maps by Dyson. You can also use the guidelines for building fantastic locations to fill these out as you need them. In short, outline three fantastic elements to each chamber of your dungeon.
You can place these small dungeons all over the Sword Coast. Each of those Uthgardt burial mounds could have a dungeon underneath it. Each of the towns likely has some historical dig going on that unearthed everything from an old Netherese tomb to a forgotten treasure vault of the Illefarn elves.
You need only put in as many dungeons as you want. If it feels like it's time for some deep explorations, throw in a dungeon. If you and your players have had enough with the historical digs, go back to roaming the countryside and getting into giant-fueled mischief.
If you haven't already played them, Storm King's Thunder can make for a great hub adventure to include with Out of the Abyss and Princes of the Apocalypse. There's no reason these three major timeline can't be going on at once. In our episodes of behind the DM screen Jeff Greiner used a similar approach for a long campaign, smashing tree big campaign adventures togeter and letting the players decide which plots they wanted to get into. If you choose this route, be prepared for them to end up focusing on one while the others languish. If your players end up delving into Out of the Abyss, you migt not ever see the events in Storm King's Thunder again.
As written, Storm King's Thunder is a solid adventure that guides the characters across the Sword Coast. As written, however, us DMs will have to add quite a bit to it to fill it out and customize it around the group we run through it. We can do this by ensuring we add quests customized for the characters, reveal secrets of the Sword Coast, and add dungeons everywhere. In the end we'll have an epic campaign that is as deep as it is broad.