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Meromorph Games is a game company, creators of the card games The Shipwreck Arcana and Norsaga.

Meromorph Games Blog

Art and gameplay design diary as well as current news and updates.

SKT Session 0: The story is the characters

Meromorph Games

Now that we’ve got a strategy to handle SKT’s challenges, it’s time to get rolling. A session 0 will get everyone on the same page and help find the fun.

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 tapestry

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.

Setting sail

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.

SKT Pregaming: What do we have here?

Meromorph Games

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:

Player Stakes

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.

Denser scenes

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.

Main Quests

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…

Other Tweaks

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.

The Ordning

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.

Player Factions

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.

D&D Lore

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.

Modding and running Storm King's Thunder

Meromorph Games

Image © Wizards of the Coast

Image © Wizards of the Coast

Kevin’s running the Storm King’s Thunder campaign for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition!

I like games, making games, and making things for games. These articles will go in-depth on how I’m modifying the SKT campaign materials for my table. I’m focused on decreasing railroading and deus ex machinas, and increasing player investment in the plot and world. If you’re a DM interested in running SKT, or just enjoy dissecting narrative design and player agency, I hope my notes help you find your own spin on this excellent — and vast — adventure.

My Background & Style

I’ve played a number of RPG campaigns. I learned the ropes running D&D 4E, found my muse in Dungeon World, and have lately tried D&D 5E and Pathfinder.

I prefer narrative and world-building over crunchy rules; that means Dungeon World is my idol, and I theoretically loathe Pathfinder (but a great DM plus fun pre-made means I’m having a blast!).

Resources

Many amazing DMs have run SKT and recorded their insights. Here are some that helped me immensely:

I’ve also scripted a few things to help myself:

Finally, for context: I bought everything digitally on D&D Beyond, mainly because I prefer ctrl+F to appendices.

Posts

Session recaps and campaign thoughts will be aggregated here.

  • Pregaming, or: What do we have here?

  • Session 0, or: The story is the characters

  • Session 1, or: Always goblins

  • …and more to come as we play!

Art from the archive: Part 13

Meromorph Games

These blog posts will feature art from various projects Matthew has done over the years.

archive art 13 landscapes.png

The story: The first was a submission to a board game art call (nothing came of it). The second was mostly a whimsical doodle, which became the first panel of a short comic.

Drawn: 2015