Wherein I talk about Storm King’s Thunder . . . again . . .
I sketched out the outlines of the thoughts I’m about to present on Twitter, but I wanted to take some time and let them expand in an environment that isn’t quite so constraining. Lately there has been a lot of talk about how different species and cultures have been presented in D&D, how that has changed over time, and how it has not. This put my mind to pondering the plot of Storm King’s Thunder once again.
I love giants, and I really appreciated that at least some of the giant lore specifically created for the Forgotten Realms was utilized in the plot of this adventure. It also took place in the Sword Coast North, a location I’ve loved since I picked up The Savage Frontier back in the 1st edition AD&D days.
However, the more I think about the adventure, and what it could have said, and what it failed to say, I’m a little less thrilled with it than I was when I first read it. Some of this insight really didn’t hit me until I ran an Adventurers League adventure that alludes, briefly, to cyclops history in relation to other giants. The adventure never expounds on this, but the particular “story” of cyclopes in the Realms is that they believe they are true giants, while other giants often assume they are “giant-kin.”
The Problem with Annam
What’s the difference? True giants are descended from Annam’s sons, so they have a direct bloodline to him. Giant-kin have bloodlines that come from his wife Othea or his daughters in later generations. In the Ordening, giant-kin fall above all the small ones like humans and dwarves, but below all the true giants. Ogres and trolls, for example, don’t really labor under any illusions that they aren’t true giants.
But just looking at how this separation between true giants and giant-kin is established says a lot about giants. Mainly, that their religion is dominated by a huge, arrogant jerk that values sons more than daughters and expects his commands to be followed to the letter. Annam is not a nice deity. He makes declarations, doesn’t value women, and turns his back on his people whenever his demands aren’t met.
Content Warning: Rape and Misogyny
In the old 2nd edition lore around giants, Annam looks even worse than he does at a cursory glance. While some places cite that Annam is hostile to Othea, one of his wives, because she took Ulutia as a lover, it’s also in the lore that Annam was upset when Othea was raped by Vaprak, the progenitor of trolls and ogres. That is 100% messed up and inexcusable, and I’m not advocating a deep dive into this storyline ever be attempted by Wizards of the Coast. But there are still a lot of elements at play in the story of the giant gods that never get addressed.
In addition to his sons, who are the gods of the Storm, Cloud, Fire, Frost, Stone, and Hill giants, Annam also has daughters like Iallanis, Hiatea, and Diancastra. These goddesses are generally given “support” roles in the pantheon or are the patrons of giant-kin species. They aren’t as “important” as Surtur, Thrym, Stronmaus, or the others.
There is also another concept in giant religion, the Stormazin, essentially the highest of high priests among the giants.
What we got in Storm King’s Thunder was Annam having a fit, breaking the Ordening, and telling his children they weren’t worthy because they didn’t stop a dragon cult from summoning their goddess, and he really hates dragons. In other words, to be worthy, giants had to hate and punish what Annam hates and thinks is worthy of punishment. He’s going to let his family tear itself apart because he’s not happy with them.
The resolution to Storm King’s Thunder, as presented, is a little soft. Maybe you restore the king, and maybe the Ordening is restored, but pretty much the giants aren’t a problem anymore. But given that we’re unlikely to see these themes revisited, what would have happened if, instead of just not mentioning that all the “true giants” happen to be descended from Annam’s sons, or just not mentioning how Annam treats his wife, we go one step further.
Wizards of the Coast has been working to not include as much problematic content in their rulebooks and adventures. Some of it is so entwined that it still shows up, but for the most part, they avoid adding in new problems, while still letting a little of the old bad stuff just sit there in plain view, like barnacles they fail to scrape off a ship. I don’t want to give them no credit at all, because they have done some work. But what if in some instances, instead of not adding in problematic content, we saw some addressed? This is what we could have had in Storm King’s Thunder.
We get an oracular giant wizard played for laughs early in the adventure that nudges the PCs in a direction, and vaguely tells them something is up with giants that they should solve. What if, instead of a vaguely prophetic giant wizard, we instead had a new Stormazin–a giant kin woman who was given the position by Hiatea, to unite giants to throw off their caste system while reaffirming their familial bonds to one another.
What if the point of the adventure is to find out that Annam allowed King Hekaton to be killed by a dragon to teach the giants a lesson, and the PCs were finding evidence of this to present to the assembled giants, so they could decide to forswear Annam? Let Hekaton’s youngest daughter take the throne, forge a new council of giants to make treaties and draw borders on equal terms, and maybe make the whole adventure about throwing off the trappings of an outdated, toxic patriarchy?
Instead of having the last few chapters kind of meander to a sort of conclusion, this would have potentially been a bold ending with lasting consequences. If the PCs don’t get the council to agree, giants continue to war against each other. They might help form a partial consensus, so that fighting slows and consequences for the small folk eventually lessen.
Given that this adventure already featured a good aligned frost giant as an ally, using diplomacy to highlight that not all giants fall into the overall assumptions of the species would have worked well. It might have even worked to have added in a sequence where the PCs help Harshnag depose Storvald for control of that faction of frost giants.
It’s great to see momentum in the wrong direction stop, but the more I think about it, and the more I read the ideas of others and see the exciting directions they are taking the RPG industry, the more I would love to see the momentum start up again in a new, more positive direction.