Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review - Storm King's Thunder

Storm King’s Thunder Wizards of the Coast
Released: Sept 6, 2016
List Price: $49.95 Product Page [Affiliate Link]:

Hello, this is the RPG Crawler and welcome to another product review. This time I’ll be covering the Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition adventure ‘Storm King’s Thunder’. Released in late August, or early September for those who ordered it from places like Amazon, it is, as of this post, the latest of Wizards of the Coast’s adventure arcs, and actually only the second one I’ve purchased and read through, so please forgive the fact that, among the WotC stuff, I only really have the Curse of Strahd campaign to compare it to. The style of these large scale adventures means that they don’t quite line up with other products outside of the WotC range. This can be a little problematic in terms of contrasting elements with other existing products, but I’m going to give it a try.

So what is Storm King’s Thunder? I mean beyond the obvious answer of ‘An Adventure’. Storm King’s Thunder is a sweeping epic involving the player characters’ attempt to stave off a war between the Giants and the smaller races. It covers vast swaths of the Savage Frontier, an area of Faerun that has been covered in many past adventures, and includes some familiar cities. Indeed, although this adventure is stand alone, having access to prior adventures set on faerun, the sword coast adventurer’s guide, and other similar products can very much help a DM flesh out some of the more open areas of this adventure’s structure.

So let’s start with the technical details. Storm King’s Thunder is a hardcover with a suggested list price of $49.95, clocking in at 256 pages. It is designed to take characters from level 1 to slightly beyond level 10, and may be entered at 1st level, 5th level, or beyond depending on where in the adventure one picks up. It has suggested access points for parties that have started in one of the other forgotten realms adventures, and who wish to cross over into this one instead. Build quality is on par with other wotc 5th edition hardcovers I’ve purchased, perhaps a little better, in terms of how it’s held up to my initial handling during the reading for this review. The pages are the typical full colour spreads of other hardcovers in the adventure series, and the art is as wonderful as we’ve come to expect from the majority of the 5th edition products, although i will admit that the cover illustration, by Tyler Jacobson, didn’t really strike me as quite as evocative of the feel of the adventure as prior 5e adventure covers have been. That could be attributed to the complexity of the adventure over all, however.

As far as the writing goes, in terms of general quality, it’s adequate. One of my criticisms of the Curse of Strahd was that the mix of old and new sections sometimes made for inconsistent writing, and some of the segments were very sub par. In Storm King’s Thunder, I have to say that after reading it, it feels more cohesive as an adventure, despite the breadth of the content and the variations between the different adventure paths. While I wouldn’t qualify it as one of the all time greats by any stretch, I was rather pleased with the story pacing, the detail, and the descriptions throughout, as well as the variety of scenarios presented.

When I initially heard about this adventure, I was worried that the premise: a war between the giants and the rest of civilization, would make for some rather repetitive play. That is not the case at all, and there are a good mix of town sieges, dungeon crawls, general hack and slash, investigations, overland travel, and even a segment of courtly intrigue in the palace of the Storm Giants. The epic scope of the adventure really does give room for a number of play types. I did notice a handful of editorial errors, including one rather dramatic omission of an associated NPC’s name in the writeup of another NPC. I honestly would have to reread through the chapter to see if the nameless NPC referred to was even included, because I didn’t catch it on my first read through. Overall, however, there’s nothing that really detracts from enjoyment or ease of running the adventure.

Mechanically, character advancement is on a milestone basis, and while that’s not generally my favorite way of doing things, I can understand why it was followed in this particular adventure. Many times, the party will be facing challenges that may not necessarily need to be resolved through direct combat, often they will be accompanied by NPCs of greater or lesser ability, and even when there isn’t the trouble of NPCs, it’s possible that the characters may be facing large numbers of what might be called ‘xp rich’ targets. All of this kind of conspires to make it difficult for standard experience tracks to keep an even keel through the adventure. Thus the milestone method will probably make for a more satisfying progression for most groups. Similarly, giants tend to be ‘treasure rich’, and there are many times in the aventure where, rather than giving out specific items, the DM is expected to either select a fair number or roll on the random treasure tables to determine magic items in a particular hoard. Many giants often carry bags, which have additional treasure, both monetary and magical, which can quickly make a thrifty adventuring party extremely rich. I for one am glad that 5th edition doesn’t have, strictly speaking, the same magic item economy of some other recent editions, but I could still see adventurers ending up very rich indeed after all is said and done in this book.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at the adventure’s general structure. Keep in mind this is just an overview, I’ll get into the specific details afterward. The adventure starts with Annam the All-Father, head of the giant gods, shattering the Ordning that keeps all the various giant types in their place, as a reaction to the events described in the Rise of Tiamat series of adventures, which makes this not necessarily a direct sequel to said series, but definitely a related chain of events. Oddly enough, a lot about the reasoning behind the shattering of the Ordning and its eventual restoration is left deliberately vague, so that no matter how the campaign turns out, it can be restored, or remain broken… however the DM wants. Supposedly Annam was inspired by the idea that the dragons had nearly brought one of their gods into the mortal realms, and by comparison the Giants looked kind of complacent, but as I said, things beyond that are rather vague, so I like to picture it as Annam basically throwing a fit and flipping the table without any care for where the pieces land. Real mature, Annam. Honestly though, I had to look up to make sure that Annam was an actual god. And yes, yes he is. I checked Monster Mythology from 2nd edition days and he’s in there, so I guess he goes way way way back.

Anyway, back to the plot. With the Ordning sundered, suddenly giants everywhere all automatically realize that the Ordning is broke, that they don’t have to do what their superiors tell them to do, but they’re given no real indication of how to make a new Ordning and claim their new place in life. So they start going about their best guesses. Some, like the Cloud Giants and such, make great plans, while others like the Hill Giants are kinda stupid, and their plans reflect that. During this all, some mysterious new giant present at the Storm King’s court causes trouble. Someone assassinates the Storm Queen Neri, it looks like the humans have done it, The Storm King Hekaton loses his temper, goes to hunt down her killers, disappears, and leaves his youngest daughter and her sisters to vie for the throne in his absence. So you’ve got trouble in the court of the most powerful giants at the same time these lesser lords are starting to go about their own plans to claim a new place, and throughout it all the humans and demihumans are just ‘in the way’ or actively being attacked. Sucks to be small, right?

So from here on, we’ll go to a very general structure, since this is the part where serious spoilers might detract from the enjoyment of the adventure. In the first chapter, characters are brought up to level 5 through a choice of routes. They start facing the aftermath of a giant attack on the village of Nightstone, and from there are left free to travel to one of three other locations: Bryn Shander of Icewind Dale fame, Goldenfields, or Triboar. This kind of choice will happen again a few times through this adventure, making the product seem larger than it really is, while providing some solid replayability if the same DM wants to run it by the same group a few times. Regardless, in each of the three locations, they are faced with giants attacking a settlement, the number and quality varying depending on type, and are given several npcs to partially control during the town siege and its immediate aftermath. If said NPCs survive, each one then gives optional quests to the party, and these quests are WIDELY scattered across the savage frontier. It’s basically a reason to stir the characters into motion and send them chasing back and forth across the entirety of the savage frontier.

And this is where the adventure goes into sandbox territory. There’s many, many side quests and locations to visit, and the characters are expected to piece together the fact that all this stuff is going down with the giants, and if they don’t have the whole story by the end of this wandering ‘filler’ time, they meet a giant adventurer named Harshnag, who as much as tells them that they need to visit a giant temple, and escorts them to it. At this point it just struck me as a ‘power leveling move’ since this giant is mostly around to help with the fact that the characters are still seriously underpowered to fight giants at this point, but are expected to fight giants. So they mostly play the support team against big enemies, while Harshnag sits back and takes a breather when he thinks the adventurers can handle it themselves. And yeah, if I sound critical of that design, it’s because it strikes me as a somewhat ill advised design. It’s like giving the party a task to save the world and ‘Oh, by the way, Drizzt Do’urden’s gonna accompany you. Hope you don’t mind! He’ll try not to killsteal too much.’ How about not having a frost giant with magic armor and weapons show up in the first place? Or if he does, maybe have him accompany them for only a very, very short stint. Oh, true, it says that he accompanies them to the temple and that’s it, but come on! They could be halfway across the savage frontier. We could be talking about weeks worth of encounters here with this frost giant on hand. And he’ll be either be an ass by dominating the combat, or an ass by NOT doing it. I mean what’s he going to do, sit back and be like ‘nah, you guys got this’. Or ‘here, let me help you, little man’. I mean either way, it’s condescending as hell.

But anyway, Harshnag can be played well and still let the characters get their day in the sun, so to speak. He helps them enter this abandoned temple to Annam where they discover that they need to fetch an item from one of the evil giant lords. And then a damn dragon attacks. And because the dragon way outlevels the group at this point, he’s supposed to have this epic set piece battle with Harshnag while the characters escape. But honestly if you have a giant as a tank, more than a few groups are going to want to stick around and try to take the dragon on. So it actually goes into a lot of detail as to just how to make the adventurers want to leave, and ends with instructions on how to basically load them up on the train to the next destination if all else fails.

And that… is honestly the crux of my main problem with the adventure. There’s so much choice throughout it all, but because of this desire to throw a giant into it that the players can interact with, you get not only some of the worst writing in the adventure, but also some of the most forced decisions in all of the pages, and what should be this cool epic feel is in serious danger of feeling like the DM is handholding the party throughout this entire section. It’s the weakest section of the book, but not unsalvageable. It does bear mentioning, though. After the characters are forcibly removed from the temple, one way or another, they are given a choice of not three but five different giant lords that they can go after. Which means that they hve to find said giant lord, travel to their lair, and then storm it. There’s several tidbits that can be gleaned thus far that can point them in the right direction, but by and large this is a continuation of the prior miniquest section, punctuated by a single rather dangerous dungeon crawl, where the party might well be facing several giants.

Fortunately by now they will have several options for traveling, beyond the basic spells that any party might get as they ascend through the middling levels, there’s the possibility that they can learn how to ride griffons, or even receive their own airship and crew. So there is some interesting content to uncover there. They only actually have to fight one of the giant lords, before coming up with this teleportation conch that takes them to the court of the Storm Giants. This is where the adventure turns into a mess of intrigue, as the party tries to convince the current storm queen to accept their help in the face of a hostile court, navigate the intrigues of the giant lords present, all while the storm queen’s sisters and the advisor plot against them. At this point there’s two ways the party can go. They can convince the storm queen to let them find her father, and then set forth on another investigation of the savage frontier, which culminates in a rescue of the storm king Hekaton from a prison ship, and Hekaton will not immediately recognize them as saviors, so it’s possible they may have to engage in some diplomacy in the middle of a pitched battle… on a boat. If they decide instead to expose the advisor’s manipulations, or after they rescue the storm king from his prison, the advisor turns out to be a dragon, and flies off to her lair, leaving the party to then track down and assault a dragon in their lair, with or without the help of some giants.

The ending fight is suitably epic, and there’s no guarantee the party will live to see the end of it. In fact, many of the fights throughout this adventure are pretty high risk, and I’m actually pleasantly surprised by that fact. It’s entirely possible to really botch things and up the difficulty immensely if the party isn’t careful. And it’s this aspect that really lends a sort of oldschool feel to quite a bit of this adventure. As much as I criticized the ‘Giant Adventurer’ section in the middle, the ending really does ramp up into the epic fights one would expect of a war with the giants, and I think that is more than enough to redeem the weak middle section. Another thing I like is the fact that entire sections of this adventure can be taken out of the adventure itself and used as stand alone modules in another campaign entirely. Each of the evil giant forts is well designed and fleshed out, and could make its own dungeon. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the old ‘G’ series of adventures from AD&D 1st edition without being a simple rehash of them, and I can appreciate that.

One other major criticism I have of this adventure, however, is in the way that it is laid out with the various choices. Because there are parallel paths in two major sections where the characters only need to complete one of them, it’s entirely possible that a party can get through the adventure and only see about half of the content in the book. Now yes, this nonlinearity does offer the feeling of choice to the players, as well as a certain degree of replayability. But it could also mean that the players reach the end, then feel like they’ve gone through an adventure only half the size as the one that’s obviously in the DM’s hands. Sure, they could run it again with a different path, or they could do as is suggested in the back and just go back to the prior giant forts and steamroller them with their new levels and gear. But by then that’s just playing mop up rather than going on to bigger and better things. Or you know, another adventure entirely. Further, while the adventure ends at around 10th, maybe a couple levels after, what are you reasonably going to do after you’ve fought so many giants and kicked a wyrm’s butt with the help of a giant army? Anything on the mortal plane is going to feel just a little bland at that point, and at this point the sheer power that’s in the party’s hands will make it a bit of a challenge for the DM to decide ‘where to go from here’.

 So there we have it. Decent writing, some pretty epic fights, marred mainly by an ‘NPC Hero Spotlight’ middle and the idea that a substantial bit of the content in the book won’t be used in any one playthrough. Is it worth purchasing? As I said, this is only the 2nd of the 5th edition adventures I’ve purchased, the first being Curse of Strahd because I was always a HUGE fan of Ravenloft. This one, I went into with no nostalgia goggles and looking at it as an entirely new product and I have to say that I, for one, was about as impressed with it as I was with the Curse of Strahd one. It certainly delivers on the epic premise, despite its flaws. But as for whether it’s worth it for your group? It’s going to depend a lot, quite frankly, on how well they can take being partially overshadowed by an NPC for at least a small part of the adventure. That’s the main part that I think will break some groups with low tolerance for such things. Everything else is pretty much gravy.

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