Ties that bind
Whether you come up with your own, use pre-gen ones, or ask the players to make them up, a good background is a starting point for weaving a character into the narrative.
If you make these ahead of time, you can go nuts creating subtle connections to future plot points and later chapters. This is one way to gain value from reading ahead. Pick NPCs or lost magic items and mention them casually in prep: “You knew the one-eared ranger Quinn Nardrosz — what’s his favorite drink?” “What did the townsfolk whisper about the magic wand hidden beneath Noanar’s Hold?”
The sheer number of towns described in Chapter 3 makes it easy to throw darts at the map for character hometowns. Give everyone a home and load them up on background details about the area. Are they from Stone Bridge? Ask if the town’s youth sneak across the span as a rite of passage, or how the peace treaty with the Iceshield orcs is holding up.
Not only do your players gain little footholds in the world that they feel ownership of, but you can use these as breadcrumbs to steer the narrative. When journeying between plot points, find detours that visit an old homestead or the site of a childhood robbery.
A band of four
Here’s how our characters’ backstories fleshed out, courtesy of a lengthy email thread prior to the first in-person session.
The druid/heir, and her mother, hail from Goldenfields (chapter 2). Since I plan to use Bryn Shander, Goldenfields becomes free material here. A little plague — which ended just after the druid’s mother vanished — adds texture. By the time we finished prep, Goldenfields had wormed into every other character’s past.
The warlock/historian, who worships Titania and has spent years exploring. A past visit to Goldenfields established her friendship with the party and reason for returning, while her patron opens up links to plenty of fey subplots.
The ranger/slayer, who grew up in Goldenfields and was scarred by plague. His exodus up the coast and forays with Harshnag mean he gets bonus map info. For bonus points, he’s already slain one of the two white dragons in Chapter 7, so the surviving mate can hold a grudge.
The bard/convict, hailing from Waterdeep, gives us plenty of links to criminal dealings. He met the ranger on one heist, and stole a fey artifact during another. The truth behind this heist becomes a major dangling mystery for the players to chase.
The relative amount of information and lack of direction in SKT means that when it comes to overarching plot threads, you have leeway to create a tapestry that’s as dense — or scarce — as you want. If the loose adventuring framework and vague threat of giants is enough, you’re all set. I prefer to have multiple interwoven threads, so after finishing my readthrough, I began looking for ways to deduplicate and connect interesting ideas.
Here are some quick ways I chose to increase cohesion within the story and expose juicy plots for the players to pursue:
Add cults. Cultists are the punching bag of villains, but their blind obsession makes them a useful way to highlight the real topic: giants. You can adjust Chapter 3’s Order of the Gilded Eye to worship giants (by Helm’s decree), and turn various Zhentarim operatives into Order members to increase their reach. If the Seven Snakes who arrive at Nightstone are investigating the cloud castle, the players’ curiosity towards it will naturally be piqued.
Replace Slarkrethel. In its place, a would-be archfey worshipped by Khasper Drylund becomes a secondary shadow villain for the story. King Hekaton is imprisoned within the Feywild, which upsets Titania; while the key to reach him becomes the artifact that the PC bard stole (and lost). I plan to drop fey into more encounters and ease players in to the knowledge that something is upsetting weather in the Feywild.
Give Harshnag some help. One good giant is still only one giant, so I’ve seeded Cinderhild as a vagabond adventurer that the players can meet periodically. By giving her knowledge of the stolen heist artifact — plus a brief encounter with a PC during their backstory vignette — she can gradually emerge as someone for the PCs to track down, befriend, and follow towards their goals.
Pit giants against each other. The inter-factional strife of the Ordning is ripe for drama, so emphasize it. I’ve chosen to give the frost giants more motivation; they now need the Ring of Winter to thaw a giant lich. They’re also kidnapping giants from other factions as sacrifices from which the lich will create a “seventh” race of death giants. This lets me throw frost giants into pretty much any encounter on the map and have a valid — ominous — reason for their actions.
The key thing here is to decide which things you care about, and weave them together. The book is replete with ideas, but not all of them will resonate with every table — and that’s okay. Find the parts that incite joy, and rub them against each other to increase the likelihood that PCs who stumble into one aspect will be drawn towards others.
With your players engaged and your plot laid out, it’s time to start playing. Chapter 1 has suggestions for leading the players to Nightstone, but they’re generic. Instead, draw on a player’s background or one of your important world threads.
For our game, we chose the heir’s missing mother from their background story, coupled with the Goldenfields connection to explain why other PCs would join their quest. To ensure that “missing mother” quickly translated to “chasing giants,” I positioned the cloud giants and Zhentarim (now Gilded Eye) agents to continue the thread northward… but I’ll talk more about running Nightstone in the next article.