Thursday, September 22, 2016

D&D 5e: Storm King's Thunder - Quick Critiques

TLDR Summary: Storm King's Thunder has a lot to like within its covers, but also has some glaring adventure design issues that will annoy you and require some extra DM modification.

Introduction


If you've been living under a rock (or just don't pay attention to social media much), you might not know that Storm King's Thunder is the latest adventure path for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

In previous adventures, the PCs have had to deal with Dragons, Demons, Drow, Elementals, and Undead. This iteration, it's time for the Giants.

This isn't technically a full review. I've only read through the first few chapters, and this is more of a first impressions post. This is not a "buy or don't buy" review article, but just some [very subjective] observations of mine. I may follow up with a more thorough review once I've read through the whole book and start running it for my group.

SPOILERS AHEAD


I'm not going to go into all of the adventure details, but in discussion of the highlights and flaws, there will be some plot-level details. I will try to be somewhat circumspect, but some of my complaints name specific plot points, so be warned.

If you are in my gaming group, stop reading now.

Since it's set in the Forgotten Realms, I am going to have to make significant changes to fit in my home brew, but even so, I would not want any surprises ruined by my ramblings. You have been warned. Meta-gamers will be punished!

Heaps o' Praise


I've seen a number of articles online praising Storm King's Thunder and it is worthy of praise. It has a lot of fun, interesting and epic moments within its pages. The art is beautiful and evocative. A few of the chapter opening pieces appear saturated a bit too dark to my eye, but it's a minor quibble. Also, there are a few location maps that I wish were half-page or full page spread instead of 1/4 page, but at 256 pages, I understand the need to manage the total page count. For the most part, there appears to be little to complain about in art and layout. It is a beautiful, well designed book.

The adventure also implements a few extremely helpful ideas that I hope will continue in other published modules. In the introduction, there is a list of major NPCs containing the page reference for their first appearance (and primary description). There are also stat blocks of important NPCs at the back that are laid out in such a way to make them easily copied/scanned and printed. Another point of note is the Adventure Flowchart. This shows the different paths the PCs can take to achieve the final adventure goal.

However, the most hugely helpful tool is the Encounter Roster. This chart lists all of the enemies/NPCs in a given encounter area (in addition to their description from the numbered room text) as well as what adjacent areas they will reinforce when combat is heard nearby. This is absolutely the best tool for helping DMs run the giant encounter areas. This is the new "must have" enhancement for any designer writing adventures.

These are just a few examples of changes that have been made to make the DM's job a bit easier. The book is 256 pages after all. Anything that makes running the adventure easier is an awesome thing.

There's a lot to like in the book, but lets get to the nit-picky, nerd-ragey annoyances... Because those are honestly so much more fun to write than the "Yeah, this is great, you should buy it"-butt kissing article.

Sandboxed Rails


So, one issue that all published adventures have is the requirement to appear open-world while confining the players to a specific path. I don't fault adventure paths for this. It is unavoidable. An author can't possibly anticipate the actions of any given group of players. However, there are ways to disguise the rails to give the players some choice in how they want to resolve the overall plot.

In Storm King's Thunder, the designers came up with ways to allow the characters to wander around a bit. In addition to the Adventure Flowchart, there are brief descriptions for a broad variety of locations across the Sword Coast and Savage Frontier. Each location denotes important NPCs and suggested encounters linking those places to the larger plot.

I love this idea, but the implementation of the sandbox section of the book falls short in a few places. A good DM can make up for this, but it did tickle my annoyance barometer.

Weak Premise, Weak Hooks


Firstly, the premise of why the giants are suddenly attacking everywhere is a little feeble. I like the idea that the Ordning is broken, but it seems arbitrary that all the giants are running around wreaking havoc in order to "impress the gods". Meh. I can work with it I suppose, but it could have been meatier.

The adventure could have played up the rivalry between the different giant factions more, and from what I've read so far, it doesn't. There is very little rivalry between the different giant types in their missions to redefine their place in the giant hierarchy. This is a hugely missed opportunity because it would better allow the PC the ability to pit any one faction against another by allying with one. Instead, very late in the adventure, it pre-supposes the PCs will ally with a specific storm giant.

Again, I understand adventure paths have to be linear to a certain extent, but there were opportunities to add more player agency in shaping the overall plot and they are completely missed.

One of the other flaws in the adventure design is the flimsy adventure hooks. For example, after the introductory adventure, there are 3 hooks to get the PCs to one of the next locations.
  • [NPC 1] died. Go to [Town 1] and tell his/her relative(s).
  • [NPC 2] died. Go to [Town 2] and tell his/her relative(s).
  • [NPC 3] died. Go to [Town 3] and tell his/her relative(s).

Why would you want to go there?
Because I asked, of course!
All three of the adventure hooks after the introductory quest are the exact same. Not only that, but the players have no connection to these random dead people, so the motivation to travel hundreds of miles to notify next-of-kin is extremely thin... Basically non-existent (except the players meta-know that if they don't follow the NPC quest giver, there is no adventure).

In addition, the events in the next town are also basically the same. Giants attack the town in search of some McGuffin. They differ only in that the giant type varies between Hill, Fire, or Frost depending on the town. I can't even begin to tell you how irritating this is. It's an illusion of choice that barely maintains the illusion.

Granted, each attack has a slightly different in scenario, but it's more like changing the color of the icing on a chocolate cake. They're all still chocolate cake at the core. It would be nice to have other dessert options. To be fair, the reason the Hill Giants attack is the most amusing, except the players won't know it to be amused at the time of the attack.

Another issue is that the players don't have any connection to the town or NPCs being attacked. Sure, the PCs will help out because they are "heroes", but there is little in the way of player motivation. This appears to be a problem for much of the first few chapter of the adventure. There isn't a strong reason to get involved beyond "Yeearrr! There be giants that needs killin'! Arr!"  (No, I'm not sure why my PCs talk like pirates). In order to artificially create a connection, the players are given certain important NPCs to play alongside their own PC during the attacks . I'm not yet sure if this is a fantastic idea to get players into a plot that they are not yet entirely invested in, or the worst idea ever to try to artificially inject some investment. I have to mull this over for a bit.

Throw-away NPCs


Another major gripe is that there are a number of NPCs that appear to do nothing but give the players presents as if it were Christmas (or some other similar boon).

The very first major NPC appears to be nothing more than an Uber driver.

"Hi, I'm Zephyros... a kooky, eccentric, half-sane Cloud Giant wizard. My prices are so low, you'll think I'm craaaaazy! I stopped to pick you up in my floating castle for no reason, because even the adventure text says I don't know who you are until you introduce yourselves!" 

And then... "I will take you anywhere in the world you want to go... as long as anywhere means Town 1, Town 2 or Town 3 that you already knew about... and I've been told I'm not actually allow to aid your quest in any other meaningful way... so, Toodles!"

Zephyros is god-awful... err... giant-awful. You could not come up with a worse example of a throw away NPC. He doesn't know who the PCs are, but for some reason picks them up anyway (I guess there's an app for that).

When he does find out about the PCs, there is an elusive note about the PCs being "mentioned by beings from other planes" as if there were some kind of prophecy or what not... but then there appears to be no other reference in the entire adventure to this vague "chosen ones" reference. He then forces the PCs to follow the rails they were already on. At first glance, he appears to be some kind of behind-the-scenes patron for the PCs, but he never appears again in the rest of the book.

Zephyros is a fantastic idea that fails horribly across 4 pages of text. His cloud castle also serves as a setting for two other encounters that appear on the surface to be important to the overall plot, but are also throw away encounters that impact nothing in the plot.

I can't even.

The adventure doesn't make quite the same mistake with Harshnag the Frost Giant, but they could have tied his (optional) reappearance to to Zephyros. The designers could have pulled several plot threads together using a few giants of different types working together with the PCs to re-establish the status quo.

The problem is not just the giant NPCs. There are a number of other odd (normal sized) throw away NPCs as well, but at least they only use up a paragraph or two.

Random NPC #4: "You are fighting giants? Here, take these priceless magic items to help... even though I just met you... like 5 minutes ago..."

For me NPC motivations are nearly as important as player motivations, but many of the NPCs don't appear to act or react to the characters in any normal way. They appear to be present only to keep the PCs on the rails. Even more frustrating are NPCs who appear to have absolutely no use in the plot, except to point the players to yet another NPC somewhere else.


Random NPC #5: "I know NPC #4 sent you to me, but I have nothing to tell you. Perhaps you should seek out NPC #6 in yet another different town hundreds of miles away."

The NPCs in Storm King's Thunder sometimes feel a bit like the 8-bit Ultima games. You talk to one who sends you half-way across the continent to talk to another, who then sends you back toward the first guy.

Now, again, to be fair, not all the NPCs are like this. There are several NPCs an a number of better adventure hooks that are more interesting and useful. The problem lies partly in that the players are expected to travel all over the Sword Coast and Savage Frontier, so they never can create any real in-game connections to NPCs. They meet an NPC once and then that NPC is rarely, if ever, seen again.

This is not an easy problem to solve for an adventure that spans a wide geographic area. However, it would have been better to try to tie large parts of the plot together using some patron NPC or NPC organization. NPCs from the various factions are sprinkled in here and there, but it does not feel like there is much faction activity going on behind the scenes. It's more like "Oh yeah, this person is from Zhentarim, or that person is a Harper". I would have liked a section about "Here's how each of the factions is attempting to respond to the threat" which a DM could then use to tie into the PC's activities.

As a DM, I recommend picking a faction that has ties to your party, such as the Harpers, Lord's Alliance or Emerald Enclave. Think about how that faction might aid (or use) the PCs to further their own goals and use some of the NPCs in the book as their contacts. There are threads of this idea already present in the adventure, but it will take some work by the DM to weave them to be integral to the story.

Not Quite Final Thoughts


As I noted, I haven't read through the entire adventure. I've only read through most of the lead up to where the PCs engage the giant strongholds directly.  However, some of the adventure design flaws are already glaring. I don't hate the adventure. To the contrary, there is a lot to love in the book so far... But I am somewhat disappointed by the missed opportunities or the encounters and NPCs that are so tangential to the plot that they may as well not exist.

I am hopeful the sections on the giant strongholds are a bit more solid than some of the undirected, meandering "wander around the North for a while" parts of the adventure. Some parts of the sandbox look fun, while others are just ok. With a little work from the DM, the players really shouldn't notice most of the flaws... but as a DM, I shouldn't have to do much work when using a published adventure.


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