Okay, so I’ve got this great new D&D adventure for you. Giants! Dragons! Rollicking cross-continent adventuring! Sure it has some problems, like it starts with fighting goblins in a cave- no wait don’t go!
Storm King’s Thunder is a campaign-length adventure for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, designed to take characters from either 1st or 5th to 11th level. In the story, players travel to and fro in the northern Forgotten Realms fighting cranky giants and trying to figure out why they’re all up to various destructive plots, apocalyptic shenanigans, and general tomfoolery all of a sudden.
The adventure takes advantage of 5th Edition’s simplicity. A streamlined campaign structure drives action from place to place quickly, constantly offering up a new shiny toy or scenario for both Dungeon Masters and players. It’s well written at that scope, from encounter to encounter, but suffers from a lack of compelling plotting in the overall narrative.
Storm King’s Thunder greatest strength is that it’s structured as branching paths, varied dungeons, and mini-adventures within one greater story. The Dungeon Master is given free reign to point characters at various paths within the story at various points, but those paths all converge back into big set piece encounters. It’s a story structure familiar to players of open world video games like The Witcher 3, exploding with possibilities, but contracting back into certain singular points to ensure that the story stays on track.
Depending on what kind of D&D campaign you run, that means you likely won’t be using some of the stuff in this adventure book while you’re running the adventure. To those players who prefer more linear, plot-driven, or discrete modules, Storm King’s Thunder won’t be a very impressive choice. To those who prefer a more improvisational, DM or player-driven style, the loosely-strung dungeons and adventures in the campaign are likely just what you want.
Being a campaign about, focusing on, and starring a rainbow of elemental giants, Storm King’s Thunder is walking in the oversized footsteps of D&D classic Against the Giants. Storm King’s Thunder utilizes the tropes and structure established in that nearly forty year old series, including themed dungeons based around individual type of giant. Forty years ago these were separate adventures. That’s what Storm King’s Thunder reads like: Thematically connected adventures with a string of central plot connecting them. (No, it’s not the plot from Against the Giants, if you don’t know.)
The Small Folk are the Best Folk
Storm King’s Thunder is much more successful in utilizing a distributed campaign structure than last year’s Out of the Abyss, and I’d certainly recommend it over that campaign any day of the week. Though OotA does have much more compelling antagonists, Storm King’s individual components are simply higher quality. The fifty pages of the book that roughly outline the larger campaign area give you solid foundation for adventuring just outside and on the bounds of the campaign and have clever mini-adventures strewn throughout them, ready to be dropped on players as they journey from place to place. The dungeons and set piece encounters all have some small structural twist or character that makes them downright memorable. When I’m talking set piece, I mean it – they’re odd mechanical moments that wouldn’t be fun all the time, but are fun in short bursts: Allies that players control during a large-scale combat, quirky locations with odd rules, and some particularly inspired magic items using unique giant rune magic.
The antagonists and oddballs of most individual segments are also well written – from the hill giant who wants to become as big as possible to the stone giant who regards the surface world as a consequence-free dreamland. They’re the kind of characters players latch onto for the length of a campaign and remember for years.
All of this has the same sort of high fantasy meets fairy tale narrative you might expect from lead designer Chris Perkins. The adventure does not hesitate to hand players large power, because it knows that this leads to large fun. An airship? Sure. A rod which perpetually locates objects? Sure. A giant adventurer to be buddies with? Definitely. A friendly dragon to bribe into helping? Why not?
However well that whimsical storytelling works in the small scale, it fails to impose good structure at the campaign scale. Coming off of the emotionally charged, deeply personal stories of Curse of Strahd, it is, very frankly, hard to care about the protagonists and primary antagonist of Storm King’s Thunder and their high fantasy problems. The involvement of a litany of obscure giant gods, Forgotten Realms personages, tangential organizations, dragons, and unbeatable primeval monsters muddles the story significantly. The plot’s biggest stakeholders, a stock assortment of storm giant royalty, that most players and DMs won’t have time to build much sympathy or empathy with them before they’re swept aside by events.
Storm King’s Thunder is, therefore, best-suited to the kind of campaign where overarching story is less important than week-to-week fun. It has segments that cater to most kinds of players, whether they’re highly tactical dungeon crawlers or off-the-cuff method actors. Preparation for play, however, won’t be minimal. Working in direct contrast to the fast-and-loose structure of the campaign itself, the dungeons and encounters are complex, requiring the Dungeon Master to have skimmed and read them a few times to really get what’s going on. As is the case with most of the fifth edition D&D adventures, you can’t just pick this up and run it.
There’s a Giant But(t)
Structure aside I have great news: If you’re the kind of person who buys modules so that you can take them apart later, this is a good one for you. You can hack this apart into its discrete dungeons and encounters, cherry pick the best of its random encounters and situation sketches, and set an entire campaign of your own in the spaces between this book’s adventures. You could also integrate it pretty seamlessly with Out of the Abyss, which the book’s authors suggest, and of which I wholly approve, because it uses many of the same Forgotten Realms locales, organizations, and characters for its events. (You’ll do some minimal work scaling up encounters as your players level up. C’est la guerre.) Players of old school D&D systems will find it pretty easy to rework this one, probably just adding some treasure here and there to keep players leveled up.
As a series of adventures, I think Storm King’s Thunder is good. It updates and modernizes some classic D&D giant’s lair tropes, adds a few new ones, and clarifies the boundaries of what a 5th Edition D&D campaign looks like. As a campaign, though, as a story, I can’t particularly recommend it. Storm King’s Thunder lives in an awkward space where as a game artifact it’s useful and fun, but as a map for structured gameplay it’s just not very compelling. For some that will be enough, but to the others looking for a D&D campaign to buy I’d recommend Curse of Strahd for its more compelling narrative, even if its individual components aren’t quite as good.
The publisher provided a complimentary copy of this product for review purposes.