When I reviewed Princes of the Apocalypse, I commented that the first half of the book “can almost be used as just a setting book for the Dessarin Valley”. But that didn’t prepare me for what I’d find when opening up Storm King’s Thunder: over a fifth of this 256-page book is devoted to quick looks at an area that makes up the Dessarin Valley, and areas north of Mirabar, south past Daggerford, and as far east as Anauroch. Those “quick looks” are anywhere from a paragraph of few lines to a full page, several with suggested encounters (most centered around the giant activities that drive this book’s campaign). In the section before that, two major locations in the Dessarin Valley are detailed (and one location far to the north). Combine this with Princes of the Apocalypse, and you’ve got a fantastic gazetteer for your campaign. A section of Mike Schley’s Forgotten Realms map is used in that 50+ page setting section.
Your players will be at one of the three locations very early in the campaign, defending the location from attack. However, you’re not just playing your heroes, each player at the table is given an NPC they’re in control of. While the battle rages on, your heroes and these others aren’t necessarily in the same location. The NPC survives? They’ve got some storylines your players can follow up on, things that require your heroes to travel quite some distance to complete – one has your heroes escorting the character to the next town over to meet their boss who then tasks them to safeguard a wagon to a town way the heck far away after which they get an anonymous bundle that directs them to a town even further away in the opposite direction where they’ll get their final reward which is pretty cool indeed.
Storm King’s Thunder seems to have a lot of travelling involved.
It feels natural to compare Storm King’s Thunder to Princes of the Apocalypse. Both take place in the same general area (although this giant adventure can take heroes far afield from the valley). Both have a preferred story progression while including some free-form events. Both have a large section dedicated to the overall setting, tempting the Dungeon Master to make it her own. However, while Princes is set up assuming the heroes would tackle the elemental cults and temples in a level-appropriate manner, there’s nothing stopping a group of 4th level heroes from stumbling into an area designed for 7th level adventurers, complete with a staircase leading down to a place for 10th level heroes, Storm King’s Thunder has an adventure flowchart designed to avoid just that issue. This isn’t to say there’s a lack of choices for the players.
The adventure proper begins with a choice of the three locations mentioned earlier. If your heroes head to the major location far to the north, they don’t have the adventuring goodness that’s at the two different major locations in the Dessarin Valley. Likewise, the middle part of the campaign offers to take the heroes to multiple locations, but they only need to go to one to progress to the conclusion. This final act has some branching options as well. In other words, my group playing Storm King’s Thunder will most likely have a wildly different story to tell than your group playing the same campaign.
Storm King’s Thunder forgoes standard XP and leveling, opting to reward the players by completing goals. Each section of the book has a character advancement sidebar, giving direction for when the heroes gain levels. Thus, that middle part of the campaign where the players have multiple paths but only need one to advance the storyline, they all hit 9th level when completing that mission. Less bookkeeping, more adventure, if you ask me.
The cartography is all over the place within this product. However, unlike earlier storyline campaign books, none of the maps are signed, so it’s difficult to tell who did what. You’ve got some things that look more like general fantasy maps instead of something worthy of the word “cartography”. You’ve got small maps that incorporate hand-drawn imagery to stuff that looks like it’s built using basic shapes in Illustrator or thrown together using different terrain packages in Roll20. Then you’ve got the map of Triboar, which looks completely hand-drawn. There are six different cartographers listed in the credits, all with differing styles. This probably won’t bother you, but in my day job as a graphic artist working with book layouts similar to this, it bugs the heck out of me.
The artwork, also with some varying styles, is much more in sync. Those NPCs your heroes could control? There’s eighteen of them with a large range of body sizes, skin color, and ethnicity (if you translate all the fantasy races over to “human”). The collage of images on the cover is impressive – you can see the standalone King Hekaton on the first page of the book and the combined illustration collage before graphic elements were added to it on the second page.
Several tie-ins to this storyline are available and planned, including an Assault of the Giants boardgame from WizKids, Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds ready-made adventures, and more.
A copy of Storm King’s Thunder was provided free for review by Wizards of the Coast.