by Mike Shea on 16 January 2018
This article may seem one year too late but I've finally completed running Storm King's Thunder not once, but twice. Only now do I feel like I can speak with some authority about how we can make the most out of his huge epic adventure.
This article is likely the final in a series of articles about Storm King's Thunder here on Sly Flourish including the following:
This article will take a wide look at the adventure overall and offer tips on how one might squeeze the most out of this epic adventure.
Storm King's Thunder is different than other D&D 5e adventure Wizards of the Coast has put out. It has, by far, the widest scope of any adventure, covering nearly a quarter of all of Faerun.
Chapter 4, in particular, covers 164 locations over 46 pages. It offers little interconnection between these locations and the rest of the adventure. There's a lot of fantastic material in this chapter; material that parallels the player-focused descriptions we might find in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. It's easy to get lost in this chapter, however, both when you're reading the adventure to prepare for your game and when you're actually running it.
The two groups for whom I ran Storm King's Thunder both lost the thread of the adventure while they spent time exploring the various locations in chapter 4. This isn't bad, but it can be unexpected given how we're used to the adventures of the past. One group, for example, spent a handful of sessions dealing with interesting political intrigue between Daggerford and Cromm's Hold. It was great fun but had almost nothing to do with rampaging giants.
One could almost take out chapter 4 and run the rest of the book, with some quick leveling between the remaining chapters, as one big linear adventure. Doing so, however, loses the fun of a wide-ranging exploration of the North.
When you sit down to read through Storm King's Thunder, and you should definitely read the whole adventure if you plan on running it, it's worth taking note of which giant lords interest you. I never much cared for the hill giant chieftain eating herself to death. I also thought the frost giants were too far away and the red herring about the ring of winter made me think the whole section would fall flat when it turns out the characters can't actually find the ring.
I also thought the stone giants didn't have a particularly strong reason to do what they did so I replaced them with the Dodkong, which made for a much more enjoyable chapter for one of my two groups. Who doesn't like the idea of a thousand-year-old stone giant lich?
The fire giants and cloud giants both sounded great to me so they became major components in my groups although we paid much less attention to the fire giants as the story moved on during the campaign. They became much less of a threat once they lost the magic jar containing a primordial as their fuel.
Your own choices of giant lords may differ but feel free to choose whichever ones grab your interest and make them the focus of the campaign you run.
If we treat Storm King's Thunder as more of a campaign sourcebook than a streamlined adventure, we might find opportunities to drop in other smaller adventures in the middle of it. For example, I had Countess Sansuri hunting dragon artifacts of the thousand year war in White Plume Mountain. The characters were free to choose to recover these artifacts themselves (Wave, Whelm, and Blackrazor) or leave them be. Both groups chose to enter the dangerous dungeon, which turned out to be one of Klauth's many hidden treasure vaults.
There are lots of opportunities to drop in other adventures and even reshape the Storm King's Thunder campaign in the process. We could, for example, set our campaign far to the north around Icewind Dale and mix in components from Legacy of the Crystal Shard.
Sean McGovern has a wonderful guide to Storm King's Thunder also available as a "pay what you want" DM's Guild version (and it's definitely worth $5 so give him his due) that provides a wonderful summary and outline of the entire adventure, giving us a wonderful reference we can use as we run the adventure. Definitely give it a read-through and keep it on hand.
The strength and biggest drawback of Storm King's Thunder is the vast freedom the campaign adventure gives you. You can wire this adventure into a straight-forward linear adventure if you choose or let the characters explore the Sword Coast with the giant menace as merely a backdrop. This requires both planning and an ability to improvise as the players make their choices. If you want to return to the story of Storm King's Thunder, be prepared to drop in your own character hooks.
As early as we can, we might assign a patron to the characters. This patron may be a faction agent or another notable character that the adventurers will trust and follow. NPCs recognizable to the players can work well such as Leosin Erlanthar or Jamna Gleamsilver from Hoard of the Dragon Queen.
This patron can change throughout the adventure. It might become the ancient red dragon Klauth who wants to see the restoration of the Ordening himsef just to remove any potential threats to his vale. It might become Princess Serissa of the storm giants when the characters meet her.
As wide open as this adventure is, this NPC can be critical to guide the characters as they navigate the adventure.
As vast as it is, it helps if we have an understanding of the main thread that can tie this adventure together. While side-plots may become wonderfully abundant, it helps to know what the main thread is to drive the story when needed. Here is one potential abbreviated thread:
This is just one potential example of the main thread of Storm King's Thunder. As you run the adventure, you may want to modify this thread to fit what has happened in the adventure and what quests the players are likely to resonate with. The characters may discover many of the connections in this adventure in ways you did not expect. For example, in one of my games the characters learned of Hekaton's kidnapping and torment by Slarkrethel through the use of the dream spell. I had no idea they would use such a spell but I was able to drop in the right hints at that time and help guide the story through the direct actions of the characters.
Keeping the main threads in mind lets you drop them in whenever the moments seem right.
Throughout Storm King's Thunder, the characters may face numerous villains but two stand out among the rest: Slarkrethel and Iymrith. Iymrith, who we wrote about already is our cunning manipulator and secret engineer of the shattering of the Ordening.
Slarkrethel, however, is an alien intelligence deep in the sea. For a great side mission, consider having King Hekaton stashed and protected by the Cult of Slarkrethel in an ancient Abolitic ruin beneath the Purple Rocks. We can steal much from HP Lovecraft's Shadow over Innsmouth complete with creepy fish-people in old villages that have thrown away the gods we know in worship of Slarkrethel. Deep scions, sea spawns, kraken priests, and warlocks of the great old one from Volo's Guide to Monsters make for some great enemies in such an adventure. As the party tries to rescue Hekaton, they witness the horror and madness of Slarkrethel as the abomination tries to prevent them from stealing back the king of giants.
What, exactly, is Slarkrethel's motivations? The book has some suggestions but we might consider that Slarkrethel seeks its own mortal avatar through which to better understand and conquer the mortals of the Sword Coast. Should Hekaton be stolen away, the beast Slarkrethel might seek one of the characters to be its avatar instead.
It could be Iymrith herself who implanted this strange idea into Slarkrethel's mind, thus adding to the chaos of the Sword Coast and shattering the Ordening with Hekaton's kidnapping and enslavement to abomination of the deep.
Though different than the rest of the book, the chapter that takes place aboard the Grand Dame is a great way to break away from typical giant hunting. The situation on the Grand Dame is a great example how to let go of defined encounters. The party has to board the gambling barge and discover where King Hekaton was taken, who took him, and what is going on there.
While there, the characters can learn that Drylund is part of the Kraken Society, that Iymrith aided him in capturing Hekaton, and that he took him to the Purple Rocks to his horrifying patron, Slarkrethel. During this scenario, Drylund might be killed with a telepathic Power Word Kill from Slarkrethel if the abomination thinks Drylund is failing him or giving up too much information.
Likewise Iymrith might show up on the ship to see how Drylund is doing. If confronted, she will likely destroy the ship and leave instead of fighting the characters directly. This can be a fun open-ended heist scenario with lots of opportunity for deception, exploration, spycraft, and showmanship.
One way to guide characters around the Sword Coast and let them weave into and out of the story of Storm King's Thunder is to bait them with artifacts of the Thousand Year War. 30,000 years ago the giants and dragons nearly destroyed the Toril with their war of magic and military might. The remnants of this war still lay buried under the Sword Coast or in the collections of treasure hunters all over the lands. Whatever patron guides the characters can ask them to seek out these artifacts and finding one artifact can give clues to the locations of the others. These artifacts need not be useless maguffins, they can actually be interesting magic items useful to the characters.
As it stands, Storm King's Thunder is a truely epic campaign as wide in scope as the Tyranny of Dragons adventures but without the single clear path. As big as it is, Storm King's Thunder is also difficult to run. Give it a solid read, plan your big steps, focus on the parts of it you like, throw away what doesn't work, and let the story unfold between you and your players as you run this massive adventure.