D&D 5E Storm King's Thunder Post-Mortem (Spoilers)

Retreater

Legend
Each time a campaign ends, I try to learn from it. This will be about my Storm King’s Thunder campaign.

About the Group and Selection of the Campaign

If my memory serves, this might’ve been the first 5e campaign adventure I ran with a regular home group. I had DMed “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” with a drop-in organized play group at the local game store and my own homebrew Ravenloft campaign.

The players included my old college friend I’d been gaming with for around 20 years, who is kind of a casual player. Another was a friend from community theater who really enjoyed story and role-playing opportunities. A third player was new to D&D but organized a lot of local board game clubs. Two other guys I had met through local organized play and were very much good support-style players. Lastly, I brought in a girl I was dating - we later got married (no big deal).

This was one of those issues where I was running for players who had been in other campaigns, so I had to pick an adventure none of them had played yet. Storm King’s Thunder it was!

Preparation

This was during the era when I foolishly thought campaign adventures would be well structured, logical, and would need a minimal amount of preparation (I was just coming off Pathfinder, so I assumed the streamlined rules would make 5e a cinch to run). You’ll see how wrong I was. So no real preparation work besides reading over the first chapter of the book to prepare for the first session.

The Mega-Plot

It didn't take too long for me to get completely overwhelmed with a vast conspiracy plot involving noble politics, shape-changers, ancient history, and stuff that didn’t really concern the party at all. This wasn’t going to be a simple adventure to fight giants. By the time I got going, making up details as needed to keep the story going, I had no clue what was going on. Which was probably fortunate because….

Literally the Dumbest Info-Dump I’ve Ever Seen in a Modern Adventure

The writers thought it was a good idea to front load the adventure with all the plot elements and the only source of this information was going to be from a source the party would absolutely not trust. The party comes to a ruined town where rocks had been dropped from the sky by flying giants. And the person who comes to share information with the party in the town is … right, a flying giant.

Like any sensible group of adventurers, they hid from the giant. And the plot of the campaign flew right past them, disappearing into the clouds, never to return. I’d use what adventure locations I could, but I’d write my own plot. If what was written by WotC didn’t make sense to me, had been misconstrued to the players already, and the only info dump wasn’t going to happen, it was up to me to convey something to the group that worked.

The New Plot

Dragons and giants have been enemies for a long time. The copper dragon in the adventure decided to weaken the giant tribes by pitting them against each other. How would he get them to fight? Obviously, there were going to be hidden artifacts that needed to be uncovered. In ancient times the giants banded together to fight the titans and were only able to defeat them using weapons tied to each clan (hill, fire, stone, frost, etc.) After the titans were defeated, each giant swore an oath that the future of their clan would be tied to the weapon. It would be protected and never used.
Millennia later, a scheming dragon found the location of the hidden artifacts, scattered across the North. The dragon “slipped” this information to the different giant clan leaders. So, for example, the fire giant leader would want to get the axe of the fire giants and use it to destroy the weapons of the other giant tribes. This would allow him to channel the strength of his tribe in a powerful magical weapon while denying the other giants their source of power - and if the artifacts were destroyed, the other giant tribes would physically wither and die.

New Source of Information

Who knew this, since a flying giant wouldn’t be trusted? The titan oracle!
Inspired by an image I found online of a titan skeleton staked to a mountain by an enormous sword, I created a series of skill challenges for the party to climb the mountain and conduct a ritual to reawaken the skeletal titan, who knew the location of all the artifacts. During this time the dragon started attacking, but they got enough information and fled to safety.

The giant artifacts were hidden in dungeons. The party had to find them, deciding which giant tribes to trust, which to fight, which to pit against each other. Leading an epic attack with Harshnag the mammoth rider leader of the Frost Giants against the fortress of the Fire Giants, witnessing the heartbreaking withering of the Hill Giant steading when the party destroyed their artifact - all made for memorable scenes.

What I Learned

The players ended up having a great time, not knowing that we had gone so far off the rails. A simple story eventually worked better for us than what a team of WotC writers tried to convey in epic paragraphs of convoluted backstory.
As a DM I don’t need all that stuff. The story is what happens at the table. No one remembers legends and ancient backstory. The players walk away with memories of the moments that mattered to their characters. I wish more adventure writers would just get out of the way and let the adventure happen.
 

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Retreater

Legend
The titan oracle...

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Smackpixi

Adventurer
Not sure your memory of the part before you decided to just do whatever is quite accurate. I mean maybe it is, but it doesn’t seem to exactly track with the book.
 

pukunui

Legend
Interesting how different people's experiences can be. Granted, I did not run the opening mini-adventure of this campaign, but I found that this was probably one of the easiest adventures to run with minimal modification. SKT is one of my favorites. (I've both played in and DMed it and loved it both times.)
 

Retreater

Legend
Not sure your memory of the part before you decided to just do whatever is quite accurate. I mean maybe it is, but it doesn’t seem to exactly track with the book.
If you're talking about the flying wizard's tower with the wizard's hat on it with the giant that appears overhead after the party explores the ruined town, I think that's pretty right. As far as what the actual quest was, I believe it had something to do with the dragon kidnapping the daughter of the storm giant chief and trying to trick him into going to war with another giant clan. Or something.
I don't have the book on hand currently, but I can say that I labored over the actual book trying to get it to work at the time. It was a disaster.
Interesting how different people's experiences can be. Granted, I did not run the opening mini-adventure of this campaign, but I found that this was probably one of the easiest adventures to run with minimal modification. SKT is one of my favorites. (I've both played in and DMed it and loved it both times.)
Glad you liked it. To me, the plot was beyond anything I could convey to a group of role-players with only one way into the story, which was a ridiculous deus ex machina that was like a parody of D&D.
 

pukunui

Legend
Glad you liked it. To me, the plot was beyond anything I could convey to a group of role-players with only one way into the story, which was a ridiculous deus ex machina that was like a parody of D&D.
I agree that the opening adventure is clunky. It wasn't part of the closed playtest packet, and it shows. They write these adventures for shorter level spans and then someone comes along and says, "No, you have to make this playable from level 1", so they add in a little starter adventure to fill the gap. (Same thing happened with Curse of Strahd, which was originally intended for levels 8-11 only.)

I ran other adventures before segueing into Storm King's Thunder. I did use the cloud giant in the Mickey Mouse tower, but I had him show up during a prior adventure as the result of a magic bean-produced beanstalk. He was able to give the PCs some SKT foreshadowing and they saved him from the air cultists (whom I had show up later during SKT). The PCs befriended him because there wasn't that whole "Why would we talk to a cloud giant after defending a town that was attacked by cloud giants?" thing.

I had set up the PCs as Lords' Alliance agents (to make the whole "Lords' Alliance agents killed the giant queen" red herring more personal).

I ran "Trouble in Red Larch" (the starter adventure from Princes of the Apocalypse) as them cleaning up the Red Larch area in an attempt to convince the town to join the Alliance (to help make the road safer).

I then ran Scourge of the Sword Coast as another Lords' Alliance mission. After that, they got sent to Goldenfields to respond to a request for help from the Lords' Alliance agent there, and that set the SKT ball rolling. They went on the long and winding side quests from that area. Some of my players are Skyrim fans so they loved the open world nature of that part of the adventure.

Later, I had them meet up with Harshnag via their Lords' Alliance handler. He suggested they find some giant artifacts to take as tribute to the oracle (so they wouldn't have to come and go). I also had the dragon cultists show up with their airship early. Some of my players had previously played in my Tyranny of Dragons campaign, so they enjoyed that cameo.

I did end up with an extended side quest as the players wanted to find one of the other control rods for the Wyrmskull Throne. I ended up having them travel the Underdark to find Gravenhollow, where they learned that the Xanathar had one in its possession. I used the Xanathar's lair from Dragon Heist for that. They were then able to return to Maelstrom and free Serissa without having to fight Iymrith first.

It turned out to be a pretty epic campaign, and the players absolutely loved it. I wouldn't mind running it again.
 
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Smackpixi

Adventurer
The flying giant can be skipped, he mostly provides giant flavor and speeds travel so you get to one of the three towns to get attacked by giants, which establishes giants bad. Then party can wander around and do things, see the sword coast, learn hints and stuff, lose the plot, such that there is at this point. This is where most people think it falls down plot wise. But then the nice giant Harshnag shows up at a point of the DMs choosing and puts everything back on the rails. They do need him, but how and when he shows up is left to the DM to decide so it would seem quite possible to make him approachable.
 

Retreater

Legend
Yeah. It's certainly getting blurred now between what I ran and what was actually in the book. (This was several years ago.)
But I do have the basic memory of thinking it was terrible for my group, especially compared to how lauded the adventure was. I mean, based on reviews everyone expects Dragon Heist to be junk. This one was just as bad in my opinion.
 

So we didn't kill the one dude and take his castle, although for the life of me I can't remember why not.

This is also the adventure where the smartest party member was the cat (we all had dumped Int and a Tressym has an 11 there)
 

pukunui

Legend
Yeah. It's certainly getting blurred now between what I ran and what was actually in the book. (This was several years ago.)
But I do have the basic memory of thinking it was terrible for my group, especially compared to how lauded the adventure was. I mean, based on reviews everyone expects Dragon Heist to be junk. This one was just as bad in my opinion.
Wow. Like, I'm totally with you on Dragon Heist. It is an absolute hot mess and is by far the worst of the 5e adventures. But SKT is one of my top 5, for sure.
 

S'mon

Legend
This was during the era when I foolishly thought campaign adventures would be well structured, logical, and would need a minimal amount of preparation

:D Certainly matches my own experience! Not sure if Paizo or WoTC are worse.
 

Retreater

Legend
Wow. Like, I'm totally with you on Dragon Heist. It is an absolute hot mess and is by far the worst of the 5e adventures. But SKT is one of my top 5, for sure.
Maybe it's similar to watching a movie and it doesn't hit you right. The problem with D&D adventures is that you're unlikely to come back and re-experience it (unlike watching a movie again or re-listening to an album). So once you've had that bad experience, that's it.
I can certainly go back through my hard copy of the adventure to analyze it in a little more detail.
 

pukunui

Legend
Maybe it's similar to watching a movie and it doesn't hit you right. The problem with D&D adventures is that you're unlikely to come back and re-experience it (unlike watching a movie again or re-listening to an album). So once you've had that bad experience, that's it.
I can certainly go back through my hard copy of the adventure to analyze it in a little more detail.
Maybe. Although I have played/run some adventures more than once. But yeah, if I don't enjoy something the first time, I'm unlikely to want to use it again. (Dragon Heist is a possible exception, as its a great resource of urban set pieces and NPCs. It just fails miserably as an actual adventure.)
 

Retreater

Legend
Maybe. Although I have played/run some adventures more than once. But yeah, if I don't enjoy something the first time, I'm unlikely to want to use it again. (Dragon Heist is a possible exception, as its a great resource of urban set pieces and NPCs. It just fails miserably as an actual adventure.)
Exactly. If I were going to run an adventure again and commit to 6+ months of play, I'm not going to pick a campaign I didn't like the first time.
 

When I ran a 1-20 level 5E campaign, a modified version of SKT was the heart of Tier 3. I really liked it!

Yes, the published adventure has plot problems. Which is strange, because it really should not. The premise is simple: Giants are on the warpath across the North. Find out why, stop the giants, and get phat loot. Kind of hard to mess that up. And yet, somehow, WotC did.

Fixing the plot requires DMs to come up with their own answers to three questions:
  • Why are the giants on the warpath?
  • What do they want?
  • What is the best way(s) to stop them?
Additionally, DMs should decide which giant lairs and villains they want to spotlight. The lairs are uniformly great and the giant chiefs are good, too.

Giants hit hard and have a lot of hit points. They make great threats in Tier 2 and Tier 3. However, combat with them can get grindy, so DMs should have a strategy for how to mix up combat as the story progresses.

If you pull it off, SKT can feel truly epic. Player characters travel across the North as it's gripped by violence, chaos, and fear. They infiltrate towering strongholds in savage but striking locations, felling mighty giants, and recovering ancient artifacts. It's iconic D&D.

In my campaign, the giants' overpriest, Hekaton, had been captured and brainwashed by the Zhentarim. Under their influence, Hekaton ordered the giants to go to war. The Zhents used the violence to destablize their enemies and gain control of cities across the North. The forces of good were divided and squabbling, each faction beseeching the PCs to come to their individual aid. That gave the players the choice of deciding who to help and which giants to fight. In each giant stronghold they found a clone of Manshoon pulling the strings. Eventually they discovered Hekaton was held in a floating castle. They raided the castle and defeated the dragon that guarded Hekaton -- and then crashed the castle, killing Hekaton! Eventually, they freed Waterdeep from the frost giants that had conquered the city, defeated the original Manshoon, and celebrated as Harshnag became the new overpriest. Good times!
 

S'mon

Legend
It seems like with all the WoTC campaign hardbacks, you basically have to either build your own campaign using the book as a resource, or resign yourself to running a pretty crappy campaign. To a lesser extent this applies even to the boxed starter sets.

I ran Princes of the Apocalypse more or less as written and was pretty disappointed. Ironically when I started Odyssey of the Dragonlords last year, I did not realise Arcanum Press had actually put in the structural work (at least for the core, non-stretch-goal, campaign) and I initially had issues from not trusting the material, from not realising that what looked like throwaway comments were actually tightly integrated foreshadowing. It's been a learning experience running a 'plotted' campaign that actually works!
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
It seems like with all the WoTC campaign hardbacks, you basically have to either build your own campaign using the book as a resource, or resign yourself to running a pretty crappy campaign. To a lesser extent this applies even to the boxed starter sets.

No, it does not. Lots of people are really happy about the starter set. Lots of people love Curse of Stradh or Tomb of Annihilation.

After that, it's clearly about table preferences, but calling "pretty crappy campaigns" all the millions of people out there playing the modules mostly as written and enjoying them is not a nice way to call out your preferences.

You might like to customise (and so do I), your table might enjoy customisation and more sandboxing (ours do too), but they are usable more or less out of the box. That being said, these are fairly large campaigns, with lots of information spread in a large book, so you WILL have to do quite a bit a reading beforehand, and probably note taking.

I ran Princes of the Apocalypse more or less as written and was pretty disappointed. Ironically when I started Odyssey of the Dragonlords last year, I did not realise Arcanum Press had actually put in the structural work (at least for the core, non-stretch-goal, campaign) and I initially had issues from not trusting the material, from not realising that what looked like throwaway comments were actually tightly integrated foreshadowing. It's been a learning experience running a 'plotted' campaign that actually works!

And I'm playing in an extremely customised version of it tonight, and we do appreciate the extra work done by the DM who, on the other hand, says that he had to do the customisation otherwise some of the strings left right and left do not make sense.

Sure, WotC's work is of varying quality (I really despise WD-DH), but that comes also from wanting/needing to please an extremely large audience including millions of beginners with little experience, a problem that kickstarters have to a much lower extent. And it's not counting the thousands of crappy products out there.
 

S'mon

Legend
After that, it's clearly about table preferences, but calling "pretty crappy campaigns" all the millions of people out there playing the modules mostly as written and enjoying them is not a nice way to call out your preferences.

If other people do enjoy them, that's great. No problem with that at all.
 

pukunui

Legend
I ran Princes of the Apocalypse more or less as written and was pretty disappointed. Ironically when I started Odyssey of the Dragonlords last year, I did not realise Arcanum Press had actually put in the structural work (at least for the core, non-stretch-goal, campaign) and I initially had issues from not trusting the material, from not realising that what looked like throwaway comments were actually tightly integrated foreshadowing. It's been a learning experience running a 'plotted' campaign that actually works!
I tried running Odyssey of the Dragonlords more or less as written and was pretty disappointed. We found it railroady and half-baked. The “sailing around the islands” section was the worst. We gave up on it just as the group was poised to face Lutheria.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I tried running Odyssey of the Dragonlords more or less as written and was pretty disappointed. We found it railroady and half-baked. The “sailing around the islands” section was the worst. We gave up on it just as the group was poised to face Lutheria.

Whereas, for us, there were large sandboxes created on purpose at various points in the game, in Mytros in particular and now in the islands, and it's actually great and not railroady at all. We need to find allies for the end of the oath, we need to solve problems for our allies, we need to progress our various heroic quests in line with our background, we try to understand hundreds of years shrouded in mystery, and we decide exactly the path that we need to take, and discovering new lands at every opportunity. Really great, honestly.
 

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