Monday, April 24, 2017

D&D 5e: Hex Crawling through Storm King’s Thunder

In a Twitter conversation, +Mike Shea ( - who you should definitely be following, btw), noted that he thought Chapter 3 in Storm King’s Thunder has an excess of information about the Sword Coast and the North. From the conversation, it can be inferred that the page count could have been better spent on detailing 10 to 20 specific locations with maps, encounter locations, deeper hooks, etc. rather than spend 60 pages on 164 distinct locations, many of which only get a very small paragraph or two. He further states that the kind of information in Chapter 3 is better in a book like Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide rather than an adventure like Storm King’s Thunder.

He is not entirely wrong… but he’s not quite right either.

It’s true, that with 60 or so pages, one could detail 10 or 15 really kick ass locations. If you are given 3 to 6 pages for each location, rather than just a few paragraphs, you can really do a lot with that page count -- several side quests, maps, hooks, etc.  However, I disagree with his with the premise that Chapter 3 is less useful than 10 or so more detailed encounter locations. It's more a matter of preference.

A few very mild spoilers ahead, so be warned.

Hex Crawling to the Storm King

For those not familiar with old school terminology, a “hex crawl” was a kind of adventure supplement published “back in the day”. It would contain a numbered hex map and a guide book. The guide would detail the terrain in that particular hex as well as some detail of note which may be an encounter, a landmark such as a ruin or geographic feature, or some other interesting idea the DM could use to add depth to exploring that particular area of the map. The details were often sparse, giving only a seed of inspiration for the DM to work with, but there were also those locations that were more explicitly detailed, such as a tomb or other mini-dungeon.

Hexographer can add some old school creaminess to your maps.
In general, a hex crawl map was not an adventure itself, but more of a region for adventures to occur within. There were a few adventure modules that combined the idea with a hex crawl with a thin plot line for the adventure itself that connected a few key locations. One of the most famous is X1 The Isle of Dread for Basic D&D (5e conversion here). More recent examples include Pathfinder's King Maker adventure path.

Getting back to the point of this post, the reason Storm King’s Thunder has 164 named locations in Chapter 3 is to allow a sandbox-style open world adventure. This harkens back to the the hex crawls of the old days. Instead of giving just a handful of in-depth encounter areas with detailed dungeon maps, SKT gives a short description of numerous locations with possible encounters or plot hooks. This provides a large, open-world feel because these description cover a huge geographic area. If you think of Chapter 3 as a hex crawl guide, it makes perfect sense.

As Mike noted in his tweets, he prefers these kinds of details and descriptions would be in a setting book like Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. However, he does not take into account that most of these entries also detail how events in Storm King’s Thunder are impacting these locations (such as a hill giant raid in Amphail, trolls attacking Calling Horns, or Fire Giants wandering through Mornbryn’s Shield… not to mention the differing faction activities going on during these events). A generic setting guide book would not give hints, clues and hooks related to the adventure path.

Additionally, a great many of the DM’s who run an adventure path like Storm King’s Thunder are not necessarily going to buy the full setting book. Having the details on many of the locations in the North present within the adventure path itself means those DM’s don’t have to have the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide or a Forgotten Realms box set from an earlier edition of D&D.

I don’t own SCAG because my campaign is set in the Nentir Vale. The huge list of locations and encounter hooks in SKT has been fantastic for me because I have been translating each location to a similar spot in my own game world. Each location inspires me to include similar details into my setting when adapting SKT to my home game.

So which approach is better?

Neither, really. Both approaches are valid depending upon the design goals of the adventure. I totally understand Mike’s point and I do love adventures with a more tightly defined adventuring space than what is offered within Storm King’s Thunder. However, I also believe the goals of SKT are slightly different from Mike’s preferred design style… and that’s ok, too.

I was also taken aback by how sprawling Chapter 3 is, but as I’ve delved deeper into the adventure, I’m finding tons of useful nuggets of lore and hooks that I can sprinkle into my own game. It does take a little more preparation, so I can see that being a detriment for a DM whose goal is to run a low-prep campaign (which is also one of my own goals).  However, given that the setting for Storm King is so far-ranging across the Sword Coast and the North, I do not fault the designers for writing a chapter that is reminiscent of a hex crawl -- light on detail, but broad in scope.

How to Manage the Data Dump

At the heart of the complaint, I believe the difficulty Mike Shea is addressing is that Chapter 3 is a huge data dump. There is so much raw data given over the course of 60 pages, you can’t possibly remember it all as the PCs travel around, but there are ways to mitigate that issue.

I built a Google Doc (or Word file, or OneNote, etc) that includes a two to three sentence (at most) summary of each location in Chapter 3. Just like cramming for an exam in college, writing out what I’ve read in a short synopsis helps cement some of those details in my mind, and makes it easier to recall when the party is traveling toward an important location.

Also, I now have a 2 - 3 page document that can help me at the table. Each week during prep, I highlight the text of those locations the players are traveling toward in the next session or two. This makes it easy for me to quickly refer back to the full text in the book as well as allow me to pre-seed adventure hooks and come up with creative ideas for side quests.

As an example, the paragraphs on Calling Horns and Nesme (and the Evermoors) lead me to a copy of Dungeon #144. I was looking through the adventure index in Dungeon #150 for level appropriate side quests when I found an adventure in #144 related trolls and giants attacking Nesme. Holy crap! It’s exactly what I was looking for and ties directly to the events in Calling Horns. I just changed the location in the adventure to Calling Horns (since Nesme is now a ruin) and I’m off to the races! Without those short encounter descriptions of all the locations around the Evermoors from SKT, I may never have found this old adventure to adapt.

Final Thoughts

The end point to this post is that the travel log of Chapter 3 may include a multitude of locations with what appears to some DMs as too little detail on any one location.  But for me and many others, the wide array of detail spread across the broad landscape has provided a larger backdrop for hooks and inspiration. The approach the designers take is not incorrect because the scope of the adventure is intended to feel sprawling and vast (whether you agree with this broad scope is a different discussion). While this may require a little bit more prep on the part of the DM, that is a matter of personal taste and not necessarily the right or wrong approach for this particular book.

In a perfect world, Chapter 3 would have both the features of 10 finely detailed encounter areas alongside 100 or more smaller “places of interest”. But given page count constraints and production costs, it is hard to achieve both goals in a single epic adventure path. Given the options at hand, I like that Storm King’s Thunder takes a broad view despite how overwhelming it appears to the DM at first glance.

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