Saturday, November 5, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Dungeons and Dragons--Storm King's Thunder

Technically, I'm still working on the backlog. I picked this book up not too long ago, and instead of playing Princes of the Apocalypse with my Thursday night online game, we decided to go with Storm King's Thunder instead. So why not double dip and get the cover to cover review done while I'm reading the adventure for my group?


First off, let me just throw out my total lack of objectivity on a few subjects. The first edition supplement The Savage Frontier is one of my favorite Forgotten Realms accessories, followed closely by the second edition supplements Volo's Guide to the North and The North boxed set. The Icewind Dale PC games were some of my all time favorite CRPGs (I know it's heresy, but I love it more than Baldur's Gate), and I have had a deep, abiding love of Frost Giants since before I ever read a D&D rulebook, dating back to the first issue of Thor I ever laid eyes on.



Giants as a theme to a series of adventures is a tradition in Dungeons and Dragons. Way back in the beginning, the Against the Giants series had adventurers defending the Grand Duchy of Geoff from Giant invasion. In second edition Dungeons and Dragons, after Troy Denning wrote the Twilight Giants series of novels set in the Forgotten Realms, the Forgotten Realms product Giantcraft was produced. While it's likely that WOTC wanted to evoke some of the classic feel of Against the Giants in this product, much of the lore on giants, such as the ancient kingdom of Ostoria, and the Ordening, are firmly rooted in established Realms giant-lore.



Storm King's Thunder just came out this year (2016), and is a hardcover book that is 256 pages. In general, it is an attractive book, but there are some things to note. Probably more than any other 5th edition book so far, the art style varies a bit. None of the art is bad, all of it fits the theme of the book, but it isn't quite as consistent as the art in Princes of the Apocalypse. The cartography is all over the place. The maps are usable, and present the information that the DM will need to run the adventure, but for no particular reason, some maps are very bare bones affairs, while others are closer to artistic representations on their own. Certainly not a deal breaker, but it feels a little odd when compared with some of WOTC's other offerings.

Dramatis Personae

Right up front, the book presents a Dramatis Personae, listing all of the main NPCs in the adventure, and I love it. It is a great reference for DMs that need to refresh their memories on who all of the movers and shakers are in the adventure.

Introduction




The background puts the adventure in context with other events going on in the Realms (in this case, the Tyranny of Dragons adventures). It also introduces the politics of the giants, a run down of the giant lords involved in the adventure and their plots. The factions and how they relate to the ongoing narrative (including a faction that is important and not one that PCs will probably belong to), also appear in this section.

There are sidebars on the Forgotten Realms calendar and when the adventure is assumed to take place, and a nice spread of some giant runes and what they mean, as well as portraits or pictures of the giant lords involved.

There is a section on running the adventure that includes a flow chart showing how the chapters are related to one another. The default assumption of the adventure is to use "milestone" advancement, where characters gain levels based on achieving certain goals, rather than gaining XP, but the adventure should be able to support both (but see Chapter One for more details). There is also a note on treasure. Many of the treasures indicate magic items, but only by what chart to roll on (intentionally, to allow for more flexibility), and a chart for determining the random bits that might be found in a giant's bag.

Chapter One




The first chapter is an optional low level adventure for people that want to start the adventure with brand new characters. The set up is that  PCs are sent to a town and discover that it has been attacked by giants, overrun by goblins, and the locals have gone to ground in nearby caves. The goal is to clear out the town and save the people, but there are a few steps in between.

The goblins are largely played for laughs in this section. Just about all of them have names, which might encourage roleplaying over complete eradication.There are opportunities to interact with Zhentarim agents. In the caves you can possibly cut a deal with one goblin willing to sell out her chief, as well as negotiate with the chief himself for the release of prisoners.

What stands out to me is that, while this adventure isn't written to be "dark fantasy" or anything, the text also isn't assuming the PCs are heroes, and puts a lot of "grey" options on the table. Additionally, the Zhentarim, which is usually portrayed as the evil faction that doesn't do much evil except evilly gathering information, is actually doing some underhanded things. Those things are just underhanded enough, but not too overtly evil, that even good PCs wouldn't rule out working with them for the greater good.

Chapter One moves into it's endgame by having a Cloud Giant wizard show up because he read signs and portents, and attempts to deliver them to one of three starting areas for the main adventure. The trip to the actual starting location isn't without incident, as emissaries from the Cult of Elemental Air ask for an audience and the Lords Alliance attacks the floating castle due to a case of mistaken identity.

As this section is meant to take PCs from 1st to 5th level, and is the prologue, this almost feels like a mini-review. The adventure itself puts some nice twists into what could be a straightforward "rescue the town" scenario, but the milestones seem really rushed in this section, handwaving PCs through four levels really quickly. There is some roleplaying material to be mined when it comes to exploring the town and finding the various dead, and interacting with the surviving family members, but much of this information is made less usable, being buried in walls of text.

The Cloud Giant arriving because the PCs are the "heroes of destiny" strikes me the wrong way, but the concept is redeemed a bit between tying this part of the adventure to Princes of the Apocalypse and having the PCs attempt to sort out what to do with the Lords Alliance raiders.

Chapter Two




There are three starting areas presented in this adventure, Icewind Dale, the Goldenfields, and Triboar, and each is subject to a giant attack shortly after the PCs arrive. In addition to the giant attack, various NPCs will hand out some side quests that, if the PCs choose to take them, will have them running all over the Savage Frontier.

Additionally, there are several NPCs provided that each PC will run in addition to their own character, in part to head off that age old question of "why are we the only ones defending this place where these guys live?" Those NPCs also serve as quest givers, and a few have roleplaying hooks that could reinforce the theme of a given scene or complicate it.

Initially, it looks like whatever locations you don't use are a bit of wasted space, but given that it's possible to traipse all over the north in this adventure, it's entirely possible for PCs to wander into a different "starting area" later in the game, and as long as Giants are still a threat, the attack still triggers.

Chapter Three




This section gives a lot of information on the Uthgardt barbarians as well as a broad sketch of some of the most important areas of the Savage Frontier, as it stands in this era. Many of the locations aren't covered in depth, but most have a short encounter sketched out that reveals the character of the location when the PCs arrive.

One thing of note here is that it may not be evident to someone reading the book linearly--why there is so much space devoted to the Uthgardt and their ancestral mounds in this section. There is a payoff as the adventure progresses.

There is actually a lot of ground covered in this chapter, and for a DM just running a game set in the Northern Sword Coast region, the "flavor" encounters might be worth it even without running the full adventure.

There is a chance to have an encounter that actually short cuts one of the quests in the next chapter, by potentially finding one of the Giant Lord's strongholds early (though the PCs may not know that they need a thing that they find). After the PCs have been to a few locations or finished up their errands, there is a "plot advancing" encounter in the form of an NPC that nudges them towards the next phase of the adventure.

Chapter Four




At a temple to the ancient Giant gods, the PCs have to figure out a few puzzles to get some answers from a magical oracle about what is going on, then get directions to one (or more) of the hidden strongholds of the biggest threats among the Giant lords.

The objective is to pick up a magic item that grants them access to the Storm Giant's fortress, to unravel the political maneuverings at their source. In order to get information on where a fortress is located, the PCs again have to set out across the North, find ancient Giant relics stolen by the Uthgardt. For each relic recovered, they can find out the location of another steading. The PCs only need to reveal one of these to advance the plot, but they may want to have a few options, depending on if they have a preference for what flavor of giant ass they want to kick.

There are two complications that come into play here. One is that the dragon that is actually instigating this mess shows up at the temple at some point while the PCs are using the oracle. Another dragon, wanting to find out what kind of crap is being stirred up by the first dragon, grants the PCs an airship crewed with Cult of the Dragon fanatics.

The antagonist dragon encounter is meant to foreshadow her appearance as the main villain, but the way that the encounter is played out feels a bit strained. The Giant NPC that brings the PCs to the temple holds her off while they run, and it feels a little Quick Time Event for me (for anyone that doesn't speak video game, the encounter assumes the PCs do a thing so they can escape, instead of playing it out as a regular encounter).

The Cult of the Dragon airship could be a potential goldmine of roleplaying opportunity. The cultists are evil, twisted guys, but as long as the PCs are just asking them to fly them from one place to another, they will happily do their dragon overlord's bidding.

Chapters Five Through Nine




Each of these chapters involves PCs heading to one of the fortresses of the Giant Lords and trying to find a magic item that lets them gain access to the Storm Giant fortress. Each one is set up in a similar manner, explaining ways the PCs can approach the fortress and  how likely they are to be seen, and they all have a nice roster section for the fortress which shows where reinforcements will come from if the PCs set off an alarm or cause a ruckus.

While individual encounter areas mention this as well, I noticed back in Princes of the Apocalypse that it seemed to be a little confusing to only have that information in a given encounter area, so I like that they have this listed right up front.

Each steading is essentially a small to medium dungeon, and most of them have a good amount of roleplaying opportunity as well as combat options. The Hill Giants are largely (sorry) played for laughs, and the most complex interactions are probably found in the Cloud Giant section.

Some of the fortresses do seem to have a bit more going on. There is a visual reminder of what the Fire Giants are attempting to accomplish that seems like it would be really, really bad for them to succeed, but some of the other Giant Lords have less visible plans going on.

I wish this section had added two elements. First, the fortresses have huge amounts of treasure, and earlier in the adventure, as a "fix" for large amounts of treasure, as well as literally large treasure, they mention just using the optional encumbrance rules. I wish there had been more thought put into this, because having some guidelines about splitting the treasure with local communities in exchange for hauling the treasures out might have made for some interesting material. Second, I wish there was more of a chance to actually need to visit more than one of the fortresses.

As written, you only need to go to one. If you go to one early (the Hill Giant fortress), you may not know what you are looking for. But in this chapter, once you find one of the items, you don't need to deal with the rest. The end of the adventure suggests that the Storm Giants may want the PCs to clean up a few more Giant Lords, but that's not needed to bring the adventure to resolution.

Also, I know they are staples of D&D, but wow, I'm starting to get goblin, hobgoblin, bugbear, and ogre fatigue.

Chapter Ten

Finally, a Giant court where you may not immediately be killed by everything around you! Well, maybe. Essentially, once the PCs get access, they have to maneuver around the Storm Giants that have been turned by the evil dragon main villain in order to actually talk to the Storm Giant princess holding everything together with the disappearance of her father. Depending on how they go about this, they could end up getting into a fight, but they may not.

The goal is to discredit the other princesses, reveal the adviser as a dragon, and figure out what the princess wants to do next. As a side note, there are some options presented for what happens if the PCs use Raise Dead on a figure that was murdered at the beginning of this plot.

Also, Storm Giant musicians play giant crab organs. That's kind of awesome.

Chapter Eleven




Using a clue provided by the princess, the PCs are to hunt down the abductor of King Hekaton, and if he gets back on the throne, things might stabilize a bit among the Giants. The clue leads them to a gambling river boat, which leads to the Kraken Society. They have been trying to destabilize the North by keeping King Hekaton hostage, and the dragon helped set up his capture.

The investigation portion of this chapter could take PCs to multiple cities, which have different costs and DCs for gathering information, and while there is a "cost" associated with each failed check, I wish there was more consequence for the investigation taking longer. Once the Kraken Society agent is found, the PCs need to find a ship (if they don't have one) and track down the ship where King Hekaton is being held.

If the PCs hang out in one location for over an hour after rescuing King Hekaton, THE kraken of the Kraken Society shows up, which is bad. This is a perfect spot to have some kind of consequence for all of those failures in investigating. Instead of assigning an amount of time that seems unlikely, why not have a track of failures, and depending on how many failures the PCs get in the investigation, that's how long it takes for the kraken to show up?

Chapter Twelve




The Ordening (rules of Giant society set down by their gods) was broken because they didn't do enough to stop their ancient dragon rivals from almost summoning their god (in Tyranny of Dragons), so King Hekaton hopes that by definitively putting an end to a plotting ancient blue dragon, that will be a sign to the Giant gods that things should go back to normal.

Because of this, the PCs get recruited to raid the dragon's lair, and they get to play their own characters as well as a storm giant each. One of the storm giants actually has an axe to grind with Hekaton and the princess, so there is a little curve to throw one of the PCs running the character.

Even in this chapter, they mention that rescuing Hekaton could be played up as the end of the adventure, especially if the dragon was already revealed as a spy in his court, sowing discontent. It is also mentioned that King Hekaton might extend the adventure by asking the PCs to help shut down the other Giant Lords that they haven't dealt with yet in order to firmly restore order.

Appendix 

The appendix to the book has sections on moving characters from other published adventures into this one. It also includes magic items introduced in this adventure, monsters and stat blocks for creatures that appear in this adventure. NPC stat cards, for the sections of the adventure where the players will be running extras as well as their own characters, are provided. There is also a section on alternate Giant abilities that you might give Giant adversaries to make things more interesting.

One thing of note that this adventure doesn't do compared to, for example, Princes of the Apocalypse, is devote time to translating this adventure to other settings. While I don't think it would be too hard to do for Greyhawk, I can see the terrain and assumed adversaries making it a lot harder to deal with converting this to Dark Sun or Dragonlance, for example.

Of the new magic items, it's probably worth mentioning the rune magic items. When I first read about these, I thought they were going to be similar to the gemstone items from the Magic Item Compendium in 3.5, where you could take an enhancement and "slot" it onto another item. This is actually more interesting to me than that.

Rune items have a specific form and set of powers, but you can choose to inscribe the rune onto a location or item (depending on the base item), and the item loses its magic. The location or item you inscribe the rune onto gains different powers. The powers of the item and the inscription are distinct, but share a similar theme. I like it, and I'd like to see more of these rune items in future products.

Maug

There are still a lot of D&D-isms in this book, like burying potentially good roleplaying material in walls of text that the DM may have a hard time finding when running an encounter. There are a couple of Giant Ex Machinas in the story that might not sit well with the player characters. The story builds to an ending, then provides a second one, and maybe another one on top of that.

Maat

Suggested encounters as a way of showing the personality of a location visited. Morally grey options presented as viable examples of ways to resolve a situation. Quite a few NPCs with quirks enough to make they fun to run. An adventure that actually does a good job of showing the 5th edition pillars of D&D, exploration, interaction, and combat, in a well balanced manner.

The Ordening




This is probably the most "Forgotten Realms" an adventure has felt to me in 5th edition. The lore is used really well, and is just light enough to let you know the setting you are in, and that it matters, but not heavy enough that you feel the weight of decades of canon.

It really feels like the flip side of Princes of the Apocalypse, that felt like it was an homage to Temple of Elemental Evil first, set in the Realms second, and the size and scope of the dungeons were much more important than the above ground locations near the dungeons. In this adventure, the "dungeons" are places the PCs need to go to accomplish a goal, and tend to be small to medium in size, scattered all over the place across the North.

**** (out of 5)

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