Storm King’s Thunder: Episode 8
Storm King’s Thunder is filled with kernels of lore. You’ll read many passages and think “oh, that’d be cool if my players encountered that.” That’s probably how video game designers feel when they make open-world games like Skyrim, The Witcher III and Far Cry 4. Players can progress the main storyline, or they can help an old woman in the village find her son, go to the barkeep and discover how a rival has been stealing his kegs, or head to the town square and find work as a bounty hunter.
Designers take time to craft small quests that add depth to the world that their characters inhabit. But it’s easy to slip into sensory overload. When mishandled, players can’t walk a step without being asked to solve ten different problems. The thing that become tedious and frustrating is that the player really wants to get away and fight bad guys.
As a DM reading through Storm King’s Thunder, the temptation is there to throw lots and lots of these quests at players. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in there — from full encounters to small hints of a story that you could develop further on your own.
How your players want to play should dictate what you throw at them. Some players want to explore a region simply because it has a cool sounding name. Others want to complete the main quest without any distractions at all.
For me, if the players are heading into the forest, it’s nice to know the difference between the Coldwood and the Lurkwood, giving each location its own vibe. But just because I know the tortured backstory of a mage who opened the door for them, doesn’t mean I need to bog down my players with lore that I happen to find interesting. But I have it ready if they suddenly get curious.
(Adam) Auberon — Elf Druid
(Terry) Cygnus — Half-elf Warlock
(Matt) Xavian — Human Rogue
(Stacy) Zedrick — Human Cleric
The characters were about to leave the mines when they were confronted by the leader of the Blackfire Disciples. He presented an interesting offer to the party — he would split the town leader role with one of the halflings from town. That way, the town would have proper representation, but the cult would survive.
If you could boil down the essence of the best parts of playing D&D, the group talking with each other about what to do is near the top. It’s a simple act, and it comes up often. It’s a DM’s job to make sure these discussions matter and have consequences.
These moments tend to be even better when the group doesn’t agree on what to do. I was hoping that I could throw a reasonable “deal-with-the-devil” type of arrangement their way, and was curious about how the players would react. Terry tends to lead discussions at the table, and seemed surprised that the offer was fair. But his character, Cygnus, had probably been the most staunchly against the Disciples. So it was a treat to see him wrestle with the idea of accepting the offer.
The group discussed the merits of the deal. Matt piped up about his newly-found magical sword, which made its holder pursue Acererak and kill all those allied with him.
As I’ve said in the past, I don’t like “murder hobos,” but Matt was roleplaying his character precisely. Xavian wasn’t strong enough to fight off the temptations of a magical sword telling him to eliminate his foes. As Cygnus was coming around to accepting the deal, Xavian sliced straight through the cultist’s chest. No deal would be made.
With that, Xavian gave the sword to Thiadon, who said he would go back to Auberon’s old elven tribe. Thiadon said to come by whenever able, hoping to unite the warring factions of elves within.
To dungeons deep and caverns old.
The party headed for Everlund, which holds the Harper stronghold, Moongleam Tower. The Harper wizards there explained that they have a secret network of Teleportation Circles that are used for quick travel around the land. They wasted no time, and stepped into the circle.
Their first stop was Waterdeep, the City of Splendors, and Crown of the North. There were two quests they could follow up on in Waterdeep — tracking down the Dancing Wave ship, and meeting Zelraun Roaringhorn to find out about where Artus Cimber was.
The party made their way to the docks district and asked around about the ship. Apparently, some privateers from Neverwinter on a ship called the Moon Maiden had seen some ship wreckage off the coast recently. The characters talked it over, and thought if at some point they needed a ship, they could pull on this story thread some more.
Because so much of my D&D worldview is based on playing video game RPGs, I was very content to leave that thread dangling. I basically picture that quest the way it would be in Baldur’s Gate — a journal entry about an uncompleted quest that they can pick up at their leisure.
For now, they would head to the High House of Roaringhorn, where some nobles were celebrating a party hosted by Zelraun. Auberon used his druid powers to change into a mouse and scurried inside Cygnus’ pocket, while Zedrick and Xavian split off into their own pairing.
I always try to encourage players to use spells or abilities in clever and interesting ways while outside of combat. It doesn’t always result in the best tactical move, but it keeps things fresh. Auberon’s player Adam has embraced this aspect a lot, so I was happy to see him use his Wild Shape ability for what would be a noncombat encounter (not that they knew that). When Auberon is hidden away as a mouse in his teammate’s pocket, it brings a tension to the encounter that wouldn’t be there otherwise. It would be the same if one of them was invisible and spying on the whole party.
Cygnus was greeted by Zelraun, and inquired about Artus Cimber. Zelraun informed him that Artus had “gone rogue” and was completely hidden. Scrying magic, which could reveal the location of far away people and things, was no use, as Artus was using powerful magic of his own to remain as undetectable as possible. It looked like his Ring of Winter would remain with him for now. (The book makes clear that this story thread will be re-visited in a later adventure, the recently announced Tomb of Annihilation).
Xavian and Zedrick socialized with the upper crust, and soon found themselves talking with the Open Lord of Waterdeep, Lady Laeral Silverhand. As the de facto leader of the city, she was one of the most powerful people in Faerûn.
For these men who are small can never stand tall,
whilst giants still walk in the light.
During the festivities, a low rumble was heard outside the manor. As folks ran outside to see the commotion, they discovered that a castle in the clouds had flown over Waterdeep, and was parked right above them.
A cadre of cloud giants was setting up shop above the city. They weren’t attacking, or actually doing anything, but their presence was putting everyone on edge. Xavian saw Lady Silverhand calming down her citizens. Trying to impress her, he offered to have the characters confront the giants.
Xavian tried his best to flirt with Lady Silverhand. Flirting is a time-honoured approach in D&D, and Matt was of course, quite the charmer. D&D is a balance between the seriousness and the dorkiness. It’s wild to see how friends embrace the story so much that they are willing to go to weird places like pretending to hit on each other just to move the story forward.
I had to give him points for speaking to her with language befitting the leader of the largest city on the Sword Coast. I took the stance that she was kind of like Daenerys Targaryen — independent, and strong-willed. She was one of the most powerful people in Faerûn, so she was hardly impressed by any of these characters.
But Matt was keen on the flirtation. You can’t flirt your way into the Khaleesi’s good graces. But if you took some actions to back up your talk, you could make her notice you.
They climbed a gigantic beanstalk to the top, and were greeted by a family of cloud giant cartographers. It turned out they were quite friendly, though they warned of another cloud giant, Countess Sansuri. They said she was obsessed with finding an ancient treasure trove, and was going about her search in bloodthirsty ways. The party returned to the ground below, and Matt graciously volunteered to relay the information to Lady Silverhand.
She acknowledged that finding “good” giants was going to be a big help to the cause. She recommended they track down an old, prolific frost giant adventurer named Harshnag (the book gives no real connection between the party and Harshnag, but fortunately I had made Auberon briefly encounter him in his backstory). He used to be part of the Gray Hands, a famous adventuring company that saved Waterdeep on more than one occasion. She had spoken with him recently, and knew he was last headed to Yartar.
Xavian agreed that would be their next destination. The party used the teleportation network to get to Yartar, and ever-so-closer to one of the coolest characters of the adventure.