Two friends from my current Pathfinder group have agreed to a D&D 5E game I’m starting. I usually build from scratch, but our Pathfinder DM is running the Runelords pre-made, and I find the ready-at-hand minutiae alluring — I’m usually too lazy to plumb every nook with details and loot. So: I’m going to try running my first pre-made.
We settled on Storm King’s Thunder and I completed my first read-through. It has plenty of strengths; considering picking it up for:
The map. No joke, there are 100+ points of interest. If your players ever wanted to throw darts at a map to choose their destination, here you go.
The options. At multiple points throughout the book, the path branches big-time. The DM and/or players get agency in what to pursue.
The giants. An entire book delving into the intricacies of one enemy type is fun. You get a chapter/lair on each subtype, so embrace your favorite.
That being said, there are rough spots where I see room for improvement.
Shallow Scenes, Broad World
I expected a pre-made to support its story with detailed environments and motivated characters every step of the way. Call it “zoomed in” information. And while that exists — Nightstone, the various giant’s lairs — the book stays more “zoomed out” than I expected, leaving the DM to fill in an awful lot of mundane gaps. Chapter 4 offers a whole map to explore… but only a few sentences per location. Looks like I’ll be crafting minutiae, after all.
Deus Ex Machina
Bluntly: I disliked the number of hand-wavy scene transitions where an NPC swoops in with a plot coupon.
Chapter 1 ends with a friendly cloud giant taxi that’ll drive to only the next plot point. This comes after (completely different) cloud giants attacked the exact same town. Why’d they attack? McGuffin, never mentioned again.
Chapter 4 starts whenever you introduce the guy who knows where it’s hidden…
…and ends when he drops the roof to ensure (a) the players leave and (b) they can’t bring him along.
Let’s not forget the (hostile, offscreen) dragon who sends the PCs a free plane because the map is too big.
Full-time Side Quests
SKT loves doling out quests unrelated to the main action. That’s good! But they’re often the only available hook for players to latch onto. They don’t matter in the long run, they don’t crop back up, and the room for emotional investment seems low. Shining examples of this pattern are the arrival in Nightstone, visiting chapter 2’s towns, and the vast number of lures to explore the map in chapter 3. Even the story’s main draw — delving one of the six giant’s lairs — is a means to an end, not a goal with buildup.
We Can Fix This
Now that I know the sore spots, it’s time for solutions. These will be expanded in future posts, but here’s my early approach:
I’m going to copy my Dungeon World days and intertwine the players’ backstories with the world. The Power Score prologue inspired these heavily. I emailed them to the players beforehand and let them choose who got what.
Heir: Your mother — a famed adventurer — left years ago, leaving you an heirloom ring and a burning question.
Historian: You met royal giants as a youth, learning of their language and lost relics.
Convict: You just escaped prison after years served for a heist gone wrong. The loot, your sponsor, and your partners are still in the wind.
Slayer: You roamed the frozen north with the giant Harshnag, training to hunt dragons and other beasts.
Session 0 will explore this further. Suffice to say I mined these hard to create both the short-term goals for the party, and the long-term payoffs to their arcs within the larger narrative.
No shortcuts here: we’re just going to do more prep. The book’s starting points help; we can move named NPCs between locales in a pinch. I won’t over-prep for now, as player action may stray from my plans. Here’s enough to start:
Some fun weak magic items in Nightstone and the Dripping Caves. Orc and elf encounters are out to make more room for cloud giant and Zhentarim backstories.
A completely revamped cloud castle journey, with no random distractions and one focused acid-trip “dungeon” through a psychic cloud kraken.
Bryn Shander (my preferred chapter 2), featuring a 5-room dungeon meat-packing plant, a wandering artisan’s caravan, and a new frost giant attack via blizzard-cloaked incursion.
No Ex Machinas
Fixing this is mostly subtlety and planning. Never use a plot twist out of nowhere when you can resurface an old one. Here’s how I tackled my worst offenders:
I combined the cloud giant attackers and taxi in chapter 1. Now the giants’ corpses are in Nightstone and their castle hovers ominously over the entire first chapter. Reaching it and learning their motives becomes an easy hook.
No more airship or barbarian mounds for chapter 4. Let the players find a caravan, use the portals, or otherwise enjoy the map without a checklist of mindless journeys.
Replace out-of-nowhere NPCs with figures from the player backstories. Harshnag was someone’s mentor. Lord Drylund (chapter 11) secretly funded the failed heist. Cinderhild and Serissa both met PCs years ago. Even the warlock’s fey patron Titania can get involved, since I’m moving King Hekaton’s prison into the Feywild.
I want meaningful plot threads for the players to chase. These will evolve as I learn what they care about, but for now: I asked them. They ultimately chose the heir’s missing mother. Great! Suddenly the game begins with a summons from Nightstone, where old friend Morak Ur’gray claims to know the mother’s whereabouts.
I also want the PCs to care about giants as early as possible, and not just because “they’re causing trouble.” Details sprinkled in the (revised) cloud and frost giant encounters early on should help; by the time the PCs leave Nightstone, they’ll have evidence that giants may be involved in the mother’s disappearance.
Finally, I’ve made macro adjustments, like imprisoning King Hekaton in the Feywild and changing the Kraken Society to serve an archfey desperate for Titania’s throne. The PC warlock suddenly has a stake in the king’s fate. So will the convict, who doesn’t know he heisted a portkey to Hekaton’s prison. It all knits together…
I changed a few other things, too. These aren’t flaws in the material, just a matter of taste, but since they’ll factor into future sessions, I’ll capture them here.
I tried and failed to wrap my head around this magically-imposed hierarchy of all giants. For some reason, it doesn’t click. I’ve replaced it with a more tangible version: captive wards. Each giant ruler’s firstborn is held hostage by the ruler one step up the Ordning. Iymrith now “breaks” the Ordning when (in disguise) she kills each giant’s ward, removing their leverage over each other.
I decided that Cinderhild survives this rampage, having learned Countess Sansuri’s version of the Simulacrum spell and been practicing at the time. Her simulacrum was killed instead; Cinderhild’s been in hiding ever since. I have plans to use her as a foil or friend for Harshnag.
The Emerald Enclave, Zhentarim, etc. seem to be D&D 5E constructs to help unify the party’s goals and connect them to certain NPCs. I’m handling that in other ways, so I’ve largely ignored these factions. I may try out the Enclave periodically, since my whole party is fey- or nature-themed.
I enjoy consistency in lore, but I have no stake in D&D’s existing setting and feel no need to treat it as inviolate. Take the Ring of Winter subplot: as written, the frost giants can never actually obtain it. In my edit, the (dormant) ring belongs to a PC, and frost giants will spend the campaign hunting her instead of throwaway NPCs like Sirac of Suzail.