Thoughts on Storm King’s Thunder–Structure and Pacing (Spoilers)
I just wrapped up my Storm King’s Thunder game last night, and I have a few follow up thoughts on the adventure now that I have finished running it. This isn’t quite a full post-mortem treatment, but rather the ideas that are most prominent in my mind as I wrapped the campaign.
You can travel all over the North in this adventure. Tracking the exact number of days feels very anti-climactic, but hand-waving travel also seems to diminish the feel of how large an area the adventure encompasses.
The exact distances may vary, but Adventures In Middle-earth game me the idea that instead of precise tracking, you may want to break travel into short/medium/long trips. A trip that takes less than three days doesn’t even count as a short trip.
- Short trips–1 encounter
- Medium trips–3 encounters
- Long trips–5 encounters
Characters without mounts make a con save based on how rough the terrain is at the end, and have a level of exhaustion until they can rest up. Characters with especially fast mounts or transportation move the length of the trip down one category.
For each long trip (3 short trips = 1 long trip, 1 medium trip + 1 short trip = 1 long trip, etc.) add in a specifically giant centered encounter. Several areas have planned giant encounters, but its really easy to end up going a really long time without giants being a big deal, and that makes the threat feel less imminent.
As written, there are several quest givers that ask the PCs to do a thing, and when they get there, or on the way, they run into the plot. The problem is, the plot is suppose to be threatening the North.
There really needs to be more faction members or local NPCs that are handing out quests that actually have to do with the main plot. Storm King’s Thunder starts to feel a bit like Skyrim, where there are plenty of things to do if you wander around the North, but if you ever want the players to see the plot unfold, it’s easy to get lost in minutia.
Since I had a PC that was bethrothed to a half-giant, I made Harshnag her uncle, and brought him in a bit early to nudge the party towards the main plot, but as written, we could have ended up doing a lot of unrelated adventurer busy work. That’s fine, if you don’t want the giant threat to be a consistent theme, but it seems to leech some of the impact from the back half of the adventure.
The Uthgardt Mounds
In my campaign, the Uthgardt Mounds all incorporated the giant relics in a more obvious manner, instead of burying them. For some reason, having the PCs spend time digging in multiple places felt less exciting that noticing weird things incorporated into the altars or totems at the mounds. Your millage may vary.
Changing the Climax
It really feels like the pacing of this adventure is based on King Hekaton disappearing, and giants running wild, and the PCs finding King Hekaton. But then the resolution is another chapter after King Hekaton’s rescue, where the PCs fast forward across the entire North to engage in a short dungeon crawl in an abandoned city to kill a dragon that could teleport in one encounter but not in the final battle (there is a note that she’s too proud to abandon her lair and will fight to the death here, but that seems out of place for how she’s been portrayed up to this point).
Given that the Oracle can possibly reveal the main villain, and she’s even given a specific bit of dialogue meant to allow the PCs to expose her in the throne room scene, it almost makes more sense to deal with her in that chapter. The final chapter already assumes the PCs will have giant allies, and the storm giant traitor angle plays better here, where Iymrith might end up with the two princesses AND a guard on her side. Just yank her ability to teleport, and come up with a plot reason that she can’t use it in the throne room. I’d think an ancient storm giant fortress might be warded against such things, and the only access point would be where the conch shell delivers visitors. You might even make the fight with the dragon a race through the fortress to the one area not covered by the ward.
If she escapes, it almost makes more sense to play down her future threat to the giants. She’s been exposed, they know what to look for, and the traitors in their midst have been uncovered. If they failed to pin her down and kill her, you can use her as a recurring villain in an ongoing campaign, but for this adventure, it feels like an epilogue.
Finding King Hekaton feels like the actual end of the adventure, and if I ran this again, I think I would shift things around to end on that note.
The Kraken Society isn’t even really hinted at until you get to the last couple few chapters. That makes them feel a bit random. Seeding in their interest earlier would make sense.
By no means do I think this makes sense for every group, but when my adventurers visited Luskan the first time, they ran into Jarlaxle, who “gifted” them with some mercenaries to help them. Those mercenaries were suppose to feed him information, but were actually subverted spies by an illithid working for the Kraken Society.
My PCs got the idea that there was something more going on outside of the giants and the dragons, but they misdirected their attention to Jarlaxle’s mercenaries. Even though it was a misdirect, it was a clue that there was another factor involved, and after the party sent an army of Treants to besiege Luskan to claim Jarlaxle’s head (long story), Jarlaxle got to drop, at least a chapter earlier than in the adventure, that the Kraken Society had something to do with everything going on, and that his agents had been compromised.
Depending on where they wander in this adventure, especially early on, leveling by normal XP awards may get tedious. I switched halfway through the campaign, but the milestone advancement felt a little at odds with the partial sandbox approach as well.
Had it been introduced earlier, the XP system recently introduced in Unearthed Arcana, on WOTC’s D&D site, seems to be a really good fit for this campaign. Under that system, PCs are going to be getting XP for visiting important sites in the North, talking to NPCs relevant to the plot, and finding lost relics. If they have a stretch of running into goblins or kobolds randomly, but then happen on one of the Uthgardt mounds, they would still be keeping a steady advancement pace.
Would I Do It Again?
I really love the Savage Frontier as a setting. I really like giants as monsters. I would love to run this adventure again, with the tweaks I have in mind, for the right players, that are interested in exploring and engaging the setting. It’s not the best adventure for people that are looking for discreet dungeons and a steady flow of action.
That said, I have so many games I want to run, I’m not sure I want to run it again with enough passion to displace some other adventure or game system on my list of things I want to run for the first time.