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Friday, September 16, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons - Storm King's Thunder Review

Today I am going to try to write a review of Storm King's Thunder, a D&D adventure for characters level 1-11.

Disclosure: I was sent review copy of this adventure.

Lord Drylund, one of my favorite pieces of art

We're going to go over the good stuff, then the bad stuff, and then I'll give my overall thoughts. Real quick: Storm King's Thunder is pretty good and worth getting if you have time to sort through it.

The Good


More Improvement

One of my big complaints about previous adventures was that there was no adventure summary. When you don't have a summary, it makes preparing the adventure very tedious. You have to go through the whole book to figure out what the overall story is.

In this adventure, not only is there a summary, there is also a flowchart! That is greatly appreciated and very helpful.

There is also a large but concise outline of all of the major NPCs on pages 5-6. I do appreciate that, but honestly I didn't actually refer to it at all when I prepared this thing. I am trying to think of how it could be better utilized. Maybe a quick line of essential stats, including AC, HP, attack bonus and damage?

It's also a bit odd because they don't put page numbers in, but we'll get to that below.

It might have helped to list enemies on one page and allies on the other. In my guide, I made a list of every member of every faction in the book and it was very useful when I laid out my plan for the adventure.

I think the NPC list is good, but it needs some refinement.

Big Art


In Curse of Strahd, we got some full page art. In this adventure, we actually get double page spreads! That's pretty great. I really like the fire giant spread on pages 178-179.

The only problem here is that the binding eats up some of the central details. You really can't make out the huge demon idol tribute/forge in the background, and to me that is the coolest part about that painting.

I also don't like how they put a little bit of text over the art describing what it is. I'd prefer if there was a table that listed all of that information on the table of contents.

But I appreciate that this was done. To me, D&D art is very important and it helps a DM bring the adventure to life. Those big pieces can be shown to the group right at the table and the players will have no trouble making out the details.

I'd love it if they were able to make a little booklet with art to show the players like they did in the Hellbound boxed set.

Use of Factions

In the previous adventures, the factions were barely used. This made running these games in the Adventurers League a bit awkward. Players would sit down, make a character and pick out a faction... then the faction was barely mentioned at all. Sometimes it felt like factions were pointless.

In this, the factions are heavily involved, particularly the Harpers and the Zhentarim. I really like the Harper tower and the faction-connected ships that might see use in chapter 11.

Strange Bedfellows

I love that the heroes can team up with villains to battle the giants. Being an ally of a chromatic dragon like Klauth opens up so many different, fun possibilities.

I've always found that one key to running an interesting game is to give your bad guys some good qualities. That extra dimension opens a lot of doors and makes the NPC stick out in the group's mind.

Klauth goes out of his way to help the adventurers in this. I think that is really cool. Rubbing elbows with the cult of the dragon seems like it could lead to all sorts of wackiness.

Integrating the Lore


By far, the thing I like most about this adventure is that they took the time to use old material and build on it. I'm not a Realms guy so I am sure I missed a billion references, but you can just look at the list of products on the credits page and see that this adventure uses material from a wide range of old products, even stuff from Dungeon Magazine!

I also think it is great that they refer to other 5e products. Blagothkus from Tyranny is in this. Harshnag actually made a little cameo in Rise of Tiamat. The air cult from Princes shows up here early on. You can go to locations from every other adventure except Curse of Strahd. The Gauntlgrym information in Out of the Abyss is extremely useful if you use that drow scenario on page 85.

Easter Eggs: I used to be a huge fan of The Simpsons, and one of the things they went out of their way to do was something they called "rewarding you for paying attention." There were a million secret jokes in the background on the show. If you paused certain episodes at the right time, you could catch all sorts of things.

The more they could do of that in these adventures, the better.

Continuity: I love it when we are reassured that the old stuff "counts." I can't imagine how they could possibly integrate material from hundreds of old products, but it seems like that is what they did. I would imagine that Realms fans would absolutely love this, but I really haven't heard much talk about it online.

They even used stuff from the novels! I have always been a little fuzzy on what books "count." For example, did the events of the Rod of Seven Parts novel actually happen in official D&D continuity?

I think they should count whatever they can. I know a lot of people way back when that were very disgruntled when they would find out that the Star Wars books that they loved didn't actually happen in the movie continuity. It feels like making the effort to include all of that stuff is just going to build excitement and interest in future products.

In particular, I hope the people on the Candlekeep forums check this out. I would love to hear their thoughts on this adventure and how it relates to other Realms adventures and books.

Ahead of the Curve

Here's a sentence you will see a lot of in this book: "...good-aligned males and females of various ethnicities on riding horses." They go way out of their way to point this out repeatedly. I feel like D&D is way ahead of other forms of entertainment in some ways.

Milestones


In this adventure, it is suggested that you don't track XP and just level your characters at certain points in the story. I like that because I think that most groups stop tracking XP as they play and switch over to this method, anyway.

That said, it does make me sad to think that XP itself would ever go away or become irrelevant. Maybe in the future, XP is something that should be used solely to calculate encounter difficulty.

I do think there is a lot of fun to be had simply wandering around and killing monsters for XP. It sort of feels like that kind of game deserves its own separate adventure. In fact, that is what a "sandbox" is, to me.

Design

I love the quality of the paper. Some of the other books have paper that is a little "smudgy." I actually really liked the paper in the Tyranny books, but it did make the art come out a little dark. I would say this paper is pretty much perfect.

I absolutely love the page design. I'm talking about the white background with the blue/grey clouds and runes. It looks really cool and is much better than the "page rips" in the Player's Handbook. To me, this is by far the nicest-looking book in 5e so far. Because the background is white, it is less intrusive but it still has cool little designs that make the book stand out from the others.

The Maps

I think we'd all be happy if it was all Schley all the time, but the maps in here are really good. There are some really nice burial mound maps and I love the maps of the giant lairs, especially the ones that include an artistic rendition of the place.

Future Stories


We keep getting told that there are clues to future storylines in these books. In this one, we are outright told that Artus Cimber and his ring of winter are somehow involved in a future adventure.

If you look back to Hoard of the Dragon Queen, you will see a few sentences about how Blagothkus is trying to rally the lethargic giants and shake things up. This adventure came out about two years ago! They were planting seeds for this from the very beginning. I think that is really great.

I have also noticed that we are getting lots of mentions of devil-worshipers. In Curse of Strahd, there were the Wachters in Vallaki. In this, there is Othovir's family (page 56). I seem to remember something about a tiefling and her kid worshiping Asmodeus too, but I can't remember where it was from. It might have been an online game that Chris Perkins ran.

I enjoy trying to find these clues and I appreciate the effort put into it.

Final Battle

I really like chapter 12. I like the lair, the sinkholes, the gargoyles, the trebuchets, everything. Well, except the yuan-ti. I don't really get that. I kind of assume this is some stuff that will link to a future adventure..? The entity in the hole?

It just feels like a really epic encounter. One big, sprawling, chaotic assault. I think every dragon fight should be like this - fully developed and spotlighted with a lot of thought given to the various trappings.

The Bad


Before we jump in, I just want to point out that I think this adventure is probably the second-best one so far. I have a lot of issues with things in this book, but in general I'd say that if you have a little time to sort through this and pull out the stuff you like, it is worth buying.

Commitment to the Sandbox

Apparently, most people like the sandbox approach, where the adventures are not linear, but rather a collection of things for you to assemble however you like.

I don't like that, and I feel like a lot of other people don't like it either. Maybe I'm wrong.

It takes so much time to go through these giant books and figure out what to use, where everything is, what stats I need. It's a major chore and a little baffling considering all of the talk that people just don't have a lot of time to prepare (or even play in a weekly game!).

I can accept that this approach is just how they're going to do things. If it is working, then they should keep doing it.

But for me, this is definitely the adventure that gave me the urge to start using and converting Pathfinder adventure paths to 5e rules. I love how Paizo makes their stuff. They have it down to a science. They give you maps, sourcebooks and minis that all are designed specifically for their path.

Other Old Gripes


They are also committed to not giving us page numbers. That approach makes that NPC list on pages 5-6 kind of useless. It takes up a lot of column space when instead of saying "Page 128" you have to say: "Chapter 4 ("Eye of the All-Father," area 11)."

I realized something when I was reading this. My theory as to why they don't use page numbers is that if they add errata to a future printing, the page number references won't need to be changed.

If they do someday print updated versions of any of these books and the page numbers change, I will have to go through every one of these guides and change all the page numbers. I am weeping already.

Finding Monsters is a Pain: I can just imagine all of the DMs who are going to want to shoot themselves when they try to find the axebeak statblock. Same with awakened trees and shrubs. They're not even in the Monster Manual table of contents.

They Made Five Dungeons and Want Us to Use One

What is the deal with this? In chapter 2, there are three fully fleshed out scenarios. Giants attack the settlements. We are meant to use just one. What a tremendous waste of space!

I know you can still use the other ones, but now you're wondering how to work it in, if it will cause the group to level too quickly, all that stuff.

Worse, if you run this in a session and you let your group choose which of the three cities to go to, it is entirely possible you will need to have read and retained all three giant, complex areas each with their own batch of NPCs for the group to run. But you're only going to run one of them.

That's asking an awful lot of a DM who, in theory, bought this book so they wouldn't have to do a lot of preparation. It really feels like it is actually more work to use a published adventure than it is to just sit down and make something up.

Giant Lairs: Same thing with the Oracle in Chapter 4. As written, the group is probably going to go to just one of five fully-made giant lairs. One out of five! Again, what a waste.

I have read some talk of "replayability." How many people run these adventures more than once? Does anybody run the same adventure for the same group of players twice? I don't see the value in this.

One of the big problems of the early adventures is that they took too long to finish. By making an adventure that is, I guess, meant to be replayed, you are once again causing groups to end up spending a year or more on one adventure, meaning they won't need to buy the next one.

Maybe the thinking is that with all of these people running games on streams, that each campaign will be vastly different and worth watching. But from what I have seen in life, even extremely linear adventures come off completely different from one group to the next just due to the DM's style and the proclivities of the players. You don't need to go to these extremes to hand out a varied play experience.

Chapter 3


What the heck is this? I mentioned in my guide that this chapter is 46 pages long and details 164 locations. To me, this material belonged in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide rather than in an adventure where space is at a premium.

I do really like that they compiled all the lore. I love doing that kind of thing in this blog, and what they did here is a sort of mammoth achievement. It feels like this could be kept and used as a basis going forward. It could be updated when each adventure comes out to act as a really useful resource for DMs.

I can't tell you how much I love that they developed the story of Daggerford (from Scourge of the Sword Coast). D&D Next "counted!" I really do like Daggerford. I feel like I missed something, though. Where did the Duke go? What about his magic sword?

That said, this chapter was absolute torture for me to read. I had to go through each entry to see which areas I would actually want to use. Out of 164 places, I liked about 10 of them.

The worst part here is that the entries are so vague that they're almost useless.

Here's an example. In Port Llast on page 104, the place is in heavy fog and there are 20 frost giants destroying the town. The group can use the fog as cover and kill giants "one or two at a time."

That could (and should, IMO) be an entire 30 page adventure on its own, but we get half a page on it. It is completely up to you to unpack and design it. You need to come up with encounters, allies, events, stats, and contingency plans. When do the giants run away? What are the chances that other giants notice a giant being assaulted? How do we keep 10-20 giant fights from being boring?

There's good material in here, but they are asking a lot of you. Especially new DMs. It feels like every single adventure they put out has these giant roadblocks that are going to hamper or ruin a new DM's first campaign.

Underdeveloped Encounters


In general, the 5e approach to published encounters is broad. We get a few sentences and then the DM does the rest. I don't like that. I want details. I want terrain. I want cool moments, special flavor text, awesome twists. If I was able to always come up with a mind-blowing encounter, I wouldn't be buying this book.

That's really the thing that struck me the most when I read this. There aren't many "holy crap!" moments. There aren't any encounters that I got excited about. Usually in an adventure, there's at least two things that really blow your mind, something really different and fun.

Like having to dive into a monster's gullet to have an encounter with something else that was swallowed. Or a huge major NPC showing up out of the blue in the middle of an encounter. Or some kind of disaster that throws everybody for loop (like, say, getting sucked into a whirlpool and plopping out on the isle of dread or something.

I'd really love for someone to make a really well thought-out, developed chase scene. I don't think I've ever seen one that didn't require some pretty major tweaking in a published adventure.

Too Fiddly: In general, there are a lot of moving parts to everything in these adventures. As a DM, you are already multitasking. Keeping all of these movements and "if this, then this.." stuff in your head is impossible. The "alert" sections in each giant lair, to me, are just too complex. I think I would have liked it if they just said that in the case of an alert, the giant lord does this and a patrol of 5 giants goes to investigate the problem.

I just don't see being able to eyeball those alert charts while I'm running the game and it is too much information to keep straight without extensive pre-game memorization.

Typos

I didn't expect this. Early on in the book, there's about three very noticeable typos, including what looks like a few omitted words. I'm not sure how much I care about this.

I've noticed that typos are more common now than they used to be in the old days of the newspaper. I think I see typos every single day on major websites. Because most things are read once and then never looked at again, does a typo really matter?

In a book of this size, does anybody care about three typos? I think that a typo here and there doesn't really matter in the big picture. If there was an ongoing issue, I guess it would feel like the book is of a lesser quality.

Honestly though, I kind of wonder how many people actually read through these entire books. If I wasn't writing this blog, I think I would have skimmed vast swaths of this adventure.

Overall


If I were to rank this, I'd say that Storm King's Thunder is the second-best adventure for 5e yet. Curse of Strahd was quite a bit better, in my opinion. Curse of Strahd was extremely popular and probably a classic. It's almost unfair to follow it up with a return to the realms in an adventure with monsters that are kind of cool, but have been used a lot before.

There is plenty of stuff worth pulling out of this. I would use a streamlined version of most of the giant lairs. I really do love the idea of defending a city from a giant attack.

Rune Magic Items: The rune items are pretty cool, but I feel like there's something missing from them. They're a little confusing, too. I don't really understand the whole "transfer" thing.

Stone Giants: I like how effort is put into making stone giants cool, but when you have to choose one or two dungeons, I just don't see many people picking Deadstone Cleft. It's a very cool place, but if it's a choice between that and fire giants, I feel like the fire giants are going to win every time. Because they're fire giants!


Other Types of Giants: I wish that instead of using up pages to provide a bunch of dungeons that you choose one of, they used that space to include other types of giants, like:
Sticking to just the traditional types makes this adventure feel a little stale. I think this story might have been much cooler if some of the newer giant types tried to make their way up the hierarchy in the ordning. This was the perfect story to do that in!

In fact, I think I wouldn't have even used stone giants and hill giants in this. Not that they're bad. I like both of their dungeons. I just think this is too similar to the endless reiterations of Against the Giants over recent years.

All in all, this adventure is quite like the others. If you have the time to dig through it, organize it and pull out all of the stuff you like, it's definitely worth buying.

12 comments:

SkullAndScimitar said...

I can agree with most things said here and I like most parts of the adventure (the north, the giants, the plot...). Chapter 3 with its location list was very confusing at first, and can still be overwehelming after you think about it for a bit. The only thing that frustrated me was the forced choice between the five giant lords, it just went against my sense of exploring and completing in games. Of course you can run all five locations (before or after freeing King Hekaton), but it just doesn't feel right. I can't think of a better way to compose them right now, to be honest, and SKT is still a pretty good adventure overall.

Jason Raabis said...

Although I'm sure the plot is much different, your analysis of the Paizo AP that has much to do with giants would be a really interesting comparison. Perhaps Paizo could send you their line for review also!

Sean said...

SkullAndScimitar: I agree.. it feels like it would be hard to use all of the giant lairs. You could, but it just feels awkward. Thank you!

Jason Raabis: I am starting to plan a Hell's Rebels campaign for 5e! It might take a while for me to round up a group but I am going to do this thing. Thanks!

Bronk said...

Thanks for this awesome review! All the articles about this Giant adventure were fun to read!

I totally agree about how neat it would have been to add in more types of giants. For one thing, if they had done that, they could have left out the hill giants. Truly the gully dwarves of giants... and that hill giant chief lady sounded extremely offensive. They should really be ashamed of themselves for that one.

Interesting about the typos, although three seems like a low number! You mentioned how they put chapter sections in instead of page numbers for the NPC list, and it could be because they wanted to update it in the future (although I can't think of any time they've ever done that before), but it made me think back to all the old books and adventures when they tried to put in page numbers, but either got them wrong or left the placeholder 'XX' in there! It sounds to me as if they finally realized their editors have always phoned it in and tried to bypass the problem entirely. Too bad that they chose such a hard to use method as a replacement! If they did that, they should have put in those indentation flip guides like old timey dictionaries.

By the way, I love reading your adventure recaps from all of your games, and I think the way you can get all the best of out of all of these prepublished adventures is great. I never use them as written because I like a more free flowing game, and I've always thought boxed text was stilted at best. I usually just get the gist and some of the major place settings and items out and work it into a game already in progress.

I hear you about chase scenes! They usually require a new set of rules though, which can be confusing to spring on people.

Anyway, thanks for the great blog!

Anonymous said...

I decided to pass on this one, pretty much based on your play guide and review.
We're just finishing up Curse of Strahd right now, and after that it's time for me to take a turn running a PC and letting someone else do all the work ! Strahd was fun but I can't see doing even more work on this one - it sounds like a bit of a mess with some good parts .
DMing should be fun too, not a slog and I really think they need to improve and expand these from the ground up.
Going to take a look at some older stuff for my next run as DM.
Thanks for all the work !

Jonathan Waits said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jonathan Waits said...

I think maybe an overly simplistic way to solve the 5 lair issue is somehow saying that the pc's need 3 items to get to storm giant kingdom and that way you could make them go to at least three of the lairs. The ice and fire seem to be the coolest stories, the hill giant arc seems like it is there for comedic relief and doesnt fit the tone to me.

Sean said...

Bronk: I was wondering if people would find Chief Guh offensive. I love prepublished adventures. It's fun to integrate them into your world. I think a great chase scene can be done, but i don't think anyone has done it yet. Thank you!

Jonathan Waits: That would definitely work. I couldn't think if a tidy way to work that out. As far as the hill giants, I just think if you can only pick a few, I doubt many people are going to pick them. Thanks!

Grant Ellis said...

"In chapter 2, there are three fully fleshed out scenarios. Giants attack the settlements. We are meant to use just one. What a tremendous waste of space!"

That's not entirely true, as Chapter 3 points out that the two scenarios that aren't used can be run at a different time; I think it largely depends on what sort of group you DM for and if they follow an adventure hook that would take them to one of the locations that have a big giant battle.

It's similar to the end of chapter 11, the PCs might feel they need more firepower to take on the ancient blue dragon, so they follow a hook to take on another giant lord or two.

But where we can agree: This could take far more work than the majority of us "Lazy DMs" care to follow up with!

Sean said...

Grant Ellis: You are right. I guess what I meant is that it's a real pain to wedge them in elsewhere and it would be hard to give the group the option to go to one of three cities and then immediately run one of the three vast encounter areas complete with a time table and NPCs. It is a lot of work, definitely. Thanks!

Grant Ellis said...

I will say, within the context of an existing campaign it does get sort of interesting and a lot more filtered due to lingering hooks... I am using Appendix A, and my Out of the Abyss campaign has left the Underdark at fifth level, having finished their duties in Gracklstugh and have made their way to Triboar to rest up after their epic battle with the Drow... they are set on heading to Gauntlgrym, where they intend to bury Eldeth's bones. I like how the adventure has so many encounters/hooks littered all over (other groups I've played with would have similar connections to this story line regardless of locale)

With that said, its hard for me to prep props due to the vast open-ness of the campaign (as opposed to Strahd, where my props were pretty straight forward)

Sean said...

Grant Ellis: Poor Eldeth. It seems like she croaks in mos people's campaigns. You could always prepare props for entities you know the group will run into sooner or later, that way they are ready when the time comes.