For the past two years since the official release of the 5th Edition ruleset, Wizards of the Coast has been busy trying to keep the mass of new and returning players satiated with materials that DMs could use to keep them playing and enjoying the experience of roleplaying. Storm King’s Thunder (officially released Sept 6th, 2016) brings DMs and their players back to the Forgotten Realms, an adventure in an unknown frontier with consequences that could shake the realms. Don’t take my word for it, even the synopsis for this adventure seems bleak.

Image by Wizards of the Coast
Image by Wizards of the Coast

As per Wizards:

Giants have emerged from their strongholds to threaten civilization as never before. Hill giants are stealing all the grain and livestock they can while stone giants have been scouring settlements that have been around forever. Fire giants are press-ganging the smallfolk into the desert, while frost giant longships have been pillaging along the Sword Coast. Even the elusive cloud giants have been witnessed, their wondrous floating cities appearing above Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate. Where is the storm giant King Hekaton, who is tasked with keeping order among the giants?

The humans, dwarves, elves, and other small folk of the Sword Coast will be crushed underfoot from the onslaught of these giant foes. The only chance at survival is for the small folk to work together to investigate this invasion and harness the power of rune magic, the giants’ weapon against their ancient enemy the dragons. The only way the people of Faerun can restore order is to use the giants’ own power against them.

This review is going to be largely spoiler free, I will do my best to avoid revealing too much detail regarding the specifics of the adventure.

My Favorite Features

There is a fair amount of praise for this adventure and it’s worthy of them. I enjoyed the NPCs that are introduced throughout the adventure especially since they were also designed to be agnostic in other games, adventures, or settings. There is a new race featured in this adventure which was a nice boon though unfortunately it was not available as a character option which regrettably is the one aspect of this adventure that I find lacking (more on that later).

There are an assortment of new magical items, which are also on short supply in 5th Edition. My absolutely favorite feature are the items that possess runes on them, especially the ability to transfer some of the magical traits onto new items or weapons. Sadly I wish there was more items and perhaps even more rulings regarding the runes but that’ll be discussed elsewhere as well.

The narrative for the story was equally thrilling, at a glance there are layers to the giants and their lore. The party encounters many of the variety of giants and there are even bits of intrigue as well. There is a balance between the combat, the exploration, and even the social aspects of the game which often seems lost or lacking. The NPCs the party interacts both in the storyline and from side quests are varied and unique giving a rich and fulfilling experience. For a DM, this adventure truly exemplifies the varied nature and cultures of a setting, especially within a race such as the giants.

Another aspect I thoroughly enjoyed would be the tie-ins to previous D&D products like the Rise of Tiamat, Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss, and even the Mines of Phandelver. This has been done in some of the later products but only predominately given a section in Curse of Strahd due to the chronological heritage it possesses. Princes and Out of the Abyss do include tie-ins to Rise of Tiamat and Mines but are loosely mentioned or given a paragraph at most.

The Wild Frontier of the North

Chapter 3 of the adventure sets the adventurers to journey through the savage frontier of the North, a region of icy mountains and snow-covered taigas. The entirety of this chapter, a staggering 55 pages, full of details and encounters of the various sort of locales the party may interact while marching through the North. The adventure highlights 3 main encounters that eventually tie into the events that start Chapter 4. It feels like the Out of the Abyss again in regards to exploring or wandering through the Underdark once the party escape their Drow captors.

Chapter 4 is title “the Chosen Path” which reflects a moment in the adventure where the party chooses where to take their adventure. The following chapters detail quests regarding different giant lords, what I found most useful were the roster for monsters in the adventure and the ability for reinforcements to play as well. This really is a useful tidbit especially if the party is much stronger than the DM anticipated and need a means to elevate the difficulty of the quest itself beyond simply improving the monster stat blocks (as per the Dungeon Master’s Guide).

Lots of Studying for the Dungeon Master (or What they’re supposed to do)

Storm King’s Thunder has in almost every major quest chapter mentions for the DM to read up on details and information about the various kinds of giants from the Monster Manual, which are perfectly reasonable suggestions and instructions. This adventure has many facets for in order to understand the culture of the giants that it can seem a bit more daunting than previous published adventures. But the product has plenty of feedback to help the new DM run this adventure even if it seems insurmountable.

TONS OF MAPS. I could be believe the amount of maps that were simply in the Table of Contents alone, even in previous published modules there were generally a dozen or so such maps. Because we are dealing with giants and potentially their strongholds, it made sense that there plenty of dungeon maps just on those places alone.

The Adventure is Never Over

While the Storm King’s Thunder has an integral storyline, many aspects of the book can be played out of turn. Some of them can be even be done after resolving the main events itself. The player progression for the main storyline has the players being close to level 10 or 11. But resolving the adventure does not necessarily require the party be at those suggested levels by story’s end. There are plenty of aspects of the North to explore and its even suggested that the DM encourages it to their players which gives a sense of longevity. Out of the Abyss and Curse of Strahd do offer some ways to extend the fun beyond the main storyline but often it feels that once the adventure is done, the party is resolved to settle quietly or seek the next adventure elsewhere. Again the tie-in section has ways to integrate the other adventures and segway into Storm King’s Thunder which leaves some of them open to be continued afterwards.

Thunderous Applause?

With every iteration of published adventures, Wizards of the Coast continues to improve in their quality and storytelling. Granted this adventure received the largest amount of advertising compared to any other product to date. You can read my article when Storm King’s Thunder was announced, but the amount of media coverage from Acquisitions Incorporated’s YouTube series to Nerdist’s Force Grey, the inclusion of their Neverwinter product were all-star hits. In addition, Fantasy Grounds and Roll20 received much acclaim from Wizards and in addition prior to this adventure’s release, Roll20 became an official D&D collaborator.

The overall success of this adventure and its reception comes largely from Wizard’s embrace of the live-stream or live-play D&D experience. Wizards has done an impeccable job listening to the feedback surveys and have truly polished their skill set.

Where Are the Player Options?!

Unfortunately, since Princes of the Apocalypse, there have been no additional character options available which has left many fans of the adventure perturbed or alienated. I too wished for more player options and had hoped that since rune items were to be featured with giants that we would seem Rune Magic be integral with the adventure. The Rune Magic Unearthed Arcana playtest introduced the concept of prestige classes back into 5th edition but any further develop since has been largely silent and has been left to the devices of homebrewers.

Fans have been clamoring for more player content and while the DMsGuild has remedied some of the rabid desires, it has been only a partial or temporary solution. Official content is always highly regarded and sought after, the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide was a partial splatbook mixed with lore for the Sword Coast region of the Forgotten Realms. While Wizards has been hesitant to release more splatbooks as history reminds us that such rabid printings create an intimidating paywall that inadvertently alienates your audience. This problem also escalated the digital piracy of their products due to the large monetary wall that it created. Wizards has been extremely careful with their release of products and materials, adventures are very popular for casual or new players/DMs. But the more hardcore fan-base has already moved on to personalized campaigns or settings and would prefer content that offered more variety to their gameplay as opposed to guided play.

The rune magic items in Storm King’s Thunder have a unique trait to bestow some of their magic to new items or forms by typically drawing the rune upon the item. The original magic item is destroyed but some of the magic is transferred to the new item.

There is more work on the DM I feel in this particular adventure than any of the previous products which is all well and good for veteran DMs or those who have run at least a previously published adventure already. But they do have plenty of hints and suggestions placed throughout the entire book so honestly it’s mostly me nitpicking.

Conclusion

Storm King’s Thunder is a wonderful adventure that introduces players the varied cultures of giantkind, it is narratively stunning and well crafted and presents many different challenges that will keep players clamoring if not squirming. Players will have to think with their wits and ingenuity besides their brawn, though it is still a viable option but sometimes a good word helps. There are plots and intrigue which have been largely underplayed in previous products and actually has a viable place in this particular product. There are new magical items, new monster races and stats, there pages of NPCs that can be transplanted to anywhere and any setting.

While player options are still absent, the reasoning is partially justified but still feels too conservative for the growing player base.


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