by Mike Shea on 5 December 2016
Storm King's Thunder marks the fifth hardcover campaign adventure for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons and it takes quite a departure from previous adventures. In short, Storm King's Thunder is huge. Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat were also huge, but they had one big central plot going on—stop the rise of Tiamat. Storm King's Thunder is huge but its central story is much more relaxed. As written in the adventure, there is no doomsday clock going on in this adventure. The characters are free to explore the wide range of the Sword Coast as much as they desire.
Though it spans roughly ten levels of play, there is no reason we can't fill this adventure out into a huge level 1 to 20 adventure, filling in the gaps wherever and however we see fit. Storm King's Thunder is one part adventure and one part campaign setting, giving us this freedom with lots of blanks for us to fill in.
We'll likely be writing a lot about filling these blanks in articles to come. In the mean time, as he did with previous published adventures, Sean McGovern of the Power Score blog has an excellent guide to Storm King's Thunder along with a pay what you want PDF on the DM's Guild. It's an extremely thorough article, much more thorough than we will get into here, so give it a look.
In this article, we'll narrow down to our very first session and how we might steer the campaign from the moment our players sit down to run it.
Dungeon Masters have talked about the concept of a session zero quite a bit in the past but this adventure, moreso than most, really benefits from a strong session zero. A session zero is a session that focuses on building characters, sharing backgrounds, setting guidelines for the campaign, and generally just relaxing with the players to get everyone comfortable with the theme of the adventure.
Players don't have to come with anything at all to join in a session zero. It's a time to build characters and fill in the blanks along with the rest of the group. It can be a high improv session with lots of "what if" and "yes, and" sort of questions coming up as players figure out what they want to play and how their characters relate.
That said, a session zero isn't totally freeform. It behooves the DM to spend time talking about what sort of campaign its going to be. I described Storm King's Thunder as a grand tour of the Sword Coast, with wide ranging travel, lots of interesting personal stories and plots going on, and no big overarching doomsday sort of event going on (which sets it apart from many previous adventures).
A session zero also gives the DM the chance to guide characters as they join together. "Did the two of you meet at Candlekeep?" or "did you two meet up when Leosin Erlanthar came into the Star Forest to find you?" are examples of questions that tie characters together and to the game world. There's lots of opportunities to build interesting interconnected backgrounds here. Because the adventure is so wide ranging, we don't have to get too specific into ensuring that the backgrounds fit the campaign. Any solid connection to the Sword Coast can help.
Because this campaign is set firmly in the Sword Coast, it has lots of potential interconnects with three of the previous adventures including Horde of the Dragon Queen, Rise of Tiamat, Princes of the Apocalypse, and Out of the Abyss. It can even tie into adventures published before 5e was fully formed such as Murder at Baldur's Gate, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, Scourge of the Sword Coast, Dead in Thay, and Legacy of the Crystal Shard.
If our players have played in these adventures, we can reference back to these locations and the NPCs within them to give our players a strong sense of connection with the world. If we haven't played in these adventures, we can use them to fill out parts of this larger campaign if we want offer a lot of options. There is no reason, for example, that the characters will get involved in the issues around Dragonspear Castle while they're investigating this whole Ordening thing going on. Depending on which adventures they've played, the world will fill out quite a bit more.
If the players have played in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, we might re-introduce NPC such as Leosin Erlanthar, Gemna Gleamsilver, and Ontharr Frume. Even if the characters in this campaign don't know those NPCs, the players will and they'll enjoy seeing them again. The same goes for NPCs from other adventures such as Sir Isteval from the older Sword Coast adventures. Whenever we can tie a connection back to previous adventures or campaigns, we can empower our players and give them a strong connection between this campaign and previous ones.
One way to start off Storm King's Thunder is to have the group decide together on a primary faction instead of each choosing separately. You can describe each of the five factions and have the group decide together which one they are connected to. Not every character need be connected to that faction but having a strong group connection to a single faction can build in a big hook that will matter to most, if not all, of the characters.
When they have chosen their faction, they might all meet up with their perspective faction leader at the Happy Cow tavern at Daggerford to begin their adventure. Here are some potential faction leader NPCs:
You can replace any of these agents with other NPCs the players might recognize from previous adventures.
Choosing a single faction has the advantage of setting a large scope of the campaign in a particular direction. It also gives good reason for the characters to all be together for one cause. Some might feel it is too limiting so bring this up as an option to your players and, if they don't want to do it, skip it.
Also, if they all choose Zhent, make sure they agree that group cohesion and general civility are still the rules of the table. No one wants to run a group of five murderous assholes.
You might mention to your players that this campaign can go hand-in-hand with the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. Players can use that book to read up about places you visit or places they hear about. They can tie themselves closer to the campaign by choosing backgrounds found in the book. They might even choose one of the class builds that focuses closer on the events of the Realms. This whole book can act as a giant set of handouts for the players if they're willing to invest in it.
If you have the means, you might consider investing in an awesome Sword Coast map to use as a continuing table prop. You can buy a massive digital download of the Sword Coast map from the artist, Mike Schley, and then have it printed and laminated at Kinkos. This will run about $50 but you'll have a beautiful big map of the sword coast that will last a lifetime and you can even draw on it with a dry-erase marker like a huge table battle map.
If you choose to start the campaign at level 1, which I recommend, remember how much level 1 can suck. There is no level more dangerous than level 1. For this reason, I suggest one house rule you might mention at your first session—there is no instant death due to massive damage until level 5. This helps ensure that the campaign doesn't start off with a single bad critical hit ruining the night for someone. If you're group prefers more hard core play, however, go with the gods.
Getting from level 1 to level 2 shouldn't take much more than a strong conversation at the Happy Cow and maybe a fight with a giant vulture along the Trade Way. By the time the characters start getting involved in the events of Nightstone, they should be well on their way to level 2.
Stay tuned for further articles on this fantastic adventure as we continue our epic trek across the Sword Coast!