From the DM’s Chair, Storm King’s Thunder Part 1: Getting Started and Nightstone.

All of the Sword Coast is about to be thrown into chaos. The Ordning is broken and the giants across Faerun are arising with great ambition to fell the feats of smaller folk and anoint themselves as the truly superior among their kin. All hope lies on the shoulders of the noblest of the small folk, adventurers who can truly stand up to be counted as the best that Faerun can offer to fell the foul machinations of giants and the manipulative actions of dragons, who plot demise for all. Of course, before all of that, it’d be nice to have some heroes who aren’t first level. For that, we need to get through Nightstone.

Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and today and for the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about the adventure module Storm King’s Thunder, both my experiences and the lessons learned whilst running it. This week, we’re going to start by looking at the initial start of the campaign: how to introduce players to the setting and the first area listed in the module, Nightstone. My new group of players for this adventure are as follows:

Luke is Imaraente ‘Immy’ Rylcar Baenmtor, the Chaotic Neutral Drow Rogue.

Merrion is Jezebeth ‘Jeze’ Blackhart, the Chaotic Good Tiefling Rogue.

Nathan is Peren Moonbrook, the True Neutral High-Elf Barbarian.

Roy is Fi’re, the Chaotic Good Fire Genasi Mystic.

The sword coast: the basic setting for Storm King’s Thunder and the one I chose to run it in.  Image owned by WotC.

The Introduction: What about the setting?

Before we even start thinking of Storm King’s Thunder, we need to stop and take a think about how we’re going to handle some pre-game prep from the players. Namely, how to link them into the story and get them accustomed to the setting. One of the bonuses of Storm King’s is that it’s locations, whilst varied, are not tied to any one particular setting, with some segments even suggesting how the module’s locations would translate in other settings, meaning that as a DM, we can set the stage for the rest of the campaign however we want and what is best suited to our players. For those players who fancy a different tone, it’s easy to implement Storm King’s features elsewhere, such as to Eberron or even an original setting entirely, though Faerun still stands as a solid example for those with no preference and just simply eager to explore the basic setting of a fantasy world. Personally, I used the aforementioned Sword Coast setting from Faerun, primarily because it meant less work in creating a new setting from scratch but also because it helps factor in greater to not only because I knew more about Faerun, but also because the wild setting of the area helps really cement a sense of threat and urgency in Storm King’s Thunder, with only a thin strip of civilisation available to defy the giant’s rise.

Introduction: When rolling up with players.

When starting an adventure module, it’s best to provide a basic pitch for your players so they can with ways to get involved with the plot, either with their own backstory or just in the details. One of the things I regretted when starting Storm King’s was that I didn’t work with players enough to find a way to link their backstories into the world. Merrion’s and Luke’s characters had great backstories but they weren’t particularly tied to any story and I regret not finding a way to use them effectively in the plot, especially since there are a lot of links in hindsight. Peren was the only character who got a particular benefit right out of the gate for the campaign, with Nathan choosing giant as the high-elf’s optional language. Good thing too, because if he hadn’t, a lot of the campaign might have become very difficult. It’s worth tailoring your party to have a better experience with the module you’re going in for, so long as your players themselves are fine with it. Though, if this recap shows anything, it’s that you can still have fun with the characters themselves.

In addition, I think another important piece of advice about this is about player freedom and letting people try new things. Just prior to starting the campaign, the Mystic class was released in an Unearthed Arcana and Roy, lover of the complex and strategic that he is, flocked to it instantly. Whilst I didn’t play-test the Mystic to realise how powerful and effective the class can be, so much that I’ve heard many simply dub the class ‘OP’, I was still willing to let Roy play the class once I discovered this. D&D is about everyone having fun and if there’s one thing I remember about Roy in those early sessions as Fi’re, he was definitely having fun.

And see Fi’re’s name is literally fire pronounced wrong. Because another lesson is your players will be a little silly sometimes and that’s okay, because why not have fun?

Introduction: Getting on the table.

So, we’ve supervised a party that can get the most out of Storm Kings and it’s now time to face the greatest threat to any Dungeon Master running a module: how in Annam’s name do we get this thing started?

Playing adventure modules usually means your players have to agree to some of the basic conceits that such an experience requires. For example, starting Storm King’s at level one doesn’t have the benefit of a solid introductory state, but neither does starting at level five, as recommended. Players are just going to have to accept the opening narration and agree that for one reason or another, they’re travelling to Nightstone, a small village just out from the massive metropolitan space of Waterdeep.

Whilst cold opens such as this are fine, I know a lot of DMs, myself included, can have a problem with this almost non-committal form of an opening. Therefore, in order to spice things up, I decided to prepare an introduction of my own for the players based on my own version of Faerun. You’re welcome to follow my example or come up with your own but the main result is what matters: giving the players a form of prologue.

Immy and Jeze finally arrive at Waterdeep after months of travelling. Strapped for cash and desperate to find work, they agree to sign up with the Neverwinter Knight branch (located outside the city, less the Masked lords actually accept any form of Dagult Neverember back into the city). They sign on with the local commander who groups them together with other stray adventurers and presents them their first mission and an advanced form of payment to get the job rolling. With a new team acquired and a solid new objective established, the group leave on their next adventure…

Setting up an introduction for the players is a great way to ease them into the world but also just helps invest interest on the player’s behalf. The first hour of Storm King’s first session revolved around me establishing the Neverwinter Knights guild to the players, getting them signed up and attached to the people running the organisation and the travel to Nightstone, which resulted in the group meeting a travelling group of merchants and befriending them, further attaching them to the world. Sometimes, prologues can be helpful in stories to set the scene and such was definitely the case here, much better than just dropping the players on the road and pointing the way to Nightstone.

Nightstone: Before reaching the village.

Nightstone’s main sin is that it really isn’t related into the main plot of Storm King’s in any capacity. The titular Nightstone is never addressed again and the village too far out from the main northern framework of the adventure to accurately feature again in prolific detail. However, it does serve two important roles, other than giving the party an excuse to level up: it foreshadows the giant threat and it shows how their ambitions effect the world around them, a main theme of the entire module.

The destruction of Nightstone is enough of an enticement for the players to investigate and want to find out what happens. The result of the Cloud Giants theft of the Nightstone for which the village is named is a minor detail in the grand scheme of the module, but accurately shows how the giants actions devastate everything around them. It’s nice from a story perspective because despite the module’s best intentions, there’s very little foreshadowing overall for some of the bigger players in the module and the little bit here is wonderful. Even still, it doesn’t mean we can’t add a few more layers of foreshadowing on top.

In the early hours of the morning on their trek to Nightstone, the party quickly realise something is wrong. A heavy fog begins setting in, howling wind and a terrible storm all around. In the darkness above, a shadow soars, large outstretched wings and crackling lightning. The group decide to explore the woods, spotting a fire in the distance. Their efforts are rewarded with a strange sight: a castle, tumbled and broken strewn across the forest. As if it fell from the sky. They approach and investigate, only to find a large medallion in the hands of a large lanky body, at least three times the size of anyone there. For a moment, the medallion flickers into life and the face of a large woman comes into frame. She calls a name, asking if they’ve found the item yet. When she receives no reply, she leans forwards and gets a good look at the party before the communication fizzles out. Perplexed by the whole experience, the players return to the road and decide to hurry on to Nightstone. The woods aren’t safe at the moment.

Travel is boring, we can all agree on that. It’s either a fast-forwarded part of D&D, otherwise it’s a trek of filler and random combat. So it’s also a good idea to do interesting things with it. The discovery of the Cloud Giant’s castle was something I included for a bit of extra foreshadowing. It was ultimately pointless, but set a tense mood for the players that was really nice. The Cloud Giant’s body, the brief contact with Countess Sansuri and the lingering figure in the storms, that of Imyreth the Blue Dragon, helped get the group excited about the adventure to come. Simply put, foreshadowing is good. Do it frequently or at least do it well.

The Village of Nightstone: in the hangover period of a terrible giant attack. Image owned by Wizards of the Coast.

Nightstone: Down in Goblin Town.

Nightstone is definitely in need of a fixer upper when the players arrive. The drawbridge is lowered, the buildings crushed and there’s an odd sense of unease over the area. As an introductory area, Nightstone is perfect for level one players. There’s a chance that they can get in over their head, but only by not thinking and being patient. Details to note are the constant ringing of the temple bell over in (5), the destruction of the bridge connecting the keep and the town (11) and just how abandoned the town feels.

Goblins are currently making the town their playground but they’re also not expecting a fight. This means that players who play smart will find themselves easily dealing with the threat. The important thing to do when running Nightstone is to always be aware of space. The players are investigating, the goblins exploring and survivors hiding, so it’s good to always be aware where each group is and how they interact. The ringing of the tower is most likely to bring the characters into their first encounter with goblins, an easy mode fight considering how easy the goblins are to surprise, but from there, the fights can get a lot deadlier if the goblins are allowed to link up.

Despite the goblins being mentioned frequently in the book, I made a personal list of the goblins to keep track of how many there were and where they were at any one time. There are, in total, 13 goblins, 2 wargs and a spectre scattered about the grounds, so it’s a good idea to keep track of all of them, even if the spectre is an optional encounter. It’s very easy for the goblins to group up and murder the players, despite how scattered they are, so be aware of placement, sound and overall, the layout of the town. A battle in the main square with the Wargs might be enough to easily attract more enemies.

Also, don’t be afraid to play things by ear where the goblins are concerned. Goblins are many things but brave is not one. If their comrades are dead, they’ll do anything to save their skin, even if it’s something the players won’t expect. During my run-through of the town, the players managed to best every goblin but kept one alive: Jilk (who I had renamed to Silk). Silk, not wanting to die, struck a deal with the party and became Immy’s servant in exchange for the ‘shinies’. The moment Immy threw Silk a coin, the goblin was completely at his mercy.

The party arrived at Nightstone and crept in through the main gate. They found goblins isolated in packs and began to pick them off. The goblins rallied but not quick enough and after a long and bloody battle, the town was free of its oppressors and the party had recruited a goblin into their midst.

Nightstone: Surveying the scene

Nightstone is a decent area to explore, though there’s little chance of the player uncovering much of the hidden amount below the chaos. My players completely missed a lot of the farms when it was clear no-one was there and sadly didn’t discover Destiny Agganor’s Infernal scripted front door or her holy symbol to Asmodeous. If you have more eager to read players, Nightstone is a decent place to stock up on supplies, but other than a healing potion here, there isn’t much of an interest. The rest of the town’s investigation is mainly there to sell the terror of the giants and can mostly be relegated to a hefty bit of narration of crushed homes, desolated houses and the eerie emptiness of the entire place. That is until one investigates the tavern near the town’s entrance.

Kella Darkhope: Professional Mary Sue name holder and brilliant asset to our Nightstone ‘playset’. Image owned by WotC.

Enter Kella Darkhope. Besides having a name straight out of a terribly written fan-fiction, Kella is one of the best parts of the village of Nightstone segment and her story potential is ripe for exploitation. A spy for the Zhentarim, Kella is in Nightstone for her own agenda and the giants and goblins are just ruining everything. Same for these pesky adventurers but they do represent a great opportunity. Kella has a snake on her person and a note from her allies but none of that matters. All the party are going to see is a woman in trouble because that’s all she wants them to see.

Playing Kella in this segment is all about giving into the role of a damsel. When she is discovered, and she will be if the players look, play up the trauma, fear and innocence of her character. Trying to hide will only invoke suspicion and playing her as the smug bully that she really is will only set her up for a fall. Keep her snake hidden or else make it a comforting pet and watch as most of the players fall victim to her charm. Those who don’t won’t have any information to act on until the Seven Snakes arrive. To that end, keep Kella at a slight distance from the party, ready to dart off if needed. Her betrayal of the party gives her ample potential as a recurring villain.

Nightstone: The Castle

Most of the player’s vested interest with Nightstone will, most likely, centre on the castle at the far end of the town. The castle itself is harder to reach then everywhere else, higher up and the only place with survivors making it one of the more interesting narrative locations in the village. There are four soldiers here: Sydiri, Torem, Alara and Kaelen, who exist as exposition dispensers for the players to tell them what happened. Though the module insists that none of the group seem the leadership type, don’t let that discourage you from giving the group personality. These are the first NPCs the group are going to meet that won’t stab them in the back, make them likeable or, if not that, at least have enough of a personality to make them recognisable. With my run-through, I made Torem a grumpy racist soldier who refused to follow orders, Sydiri was the more intellegent and senior member of the team, Alara was shy and scared as the youngest of the guards and Kaelen was quiet and despondent after the loss of his lady. These personalities aren’t the stuff of core NPCs, but all that is fine. We don’t need Shakespearean levels of character conflict, just enough to get the players invested and interested. Especially since these NPCs are going to be their only hope before the Seven Snakes arrive.

Nightstone: The Seven Snakes

Kella’s own personal bandit squad are scheduled to arrive shortly after the players arrive at Nightstone. Personally, I always wait until the players reach the castle before the Snakes actually arrive. When they do, make as much fuss as you can about the dust on the horizon, the squad of horses dashing in. The omens are ominous enough that most smart characters will realise they had best fortify themselves in the castle. Kella can easily break away from the group as her allies rush to arrive. In most situations, I see it unlikely that the players will have enough knowledge to raise the drawbridge in the first place. If they do, Kella should bide her time to chance opening it when they’re asleep. I think that was the key segment to Kella’s character for me: patience, a willingness to be the last player running the game.

Xolkin Alassandar: Professional ‘nice guy’, leader of the Seven Snake Bandits and Kella’s meat-shield. Image taken from WotC.

Xolkin Alassandar, bless him, is completely in love with Kella, making her their defacto leader despite his bragging. It’s encouraged in the module to play Xolkin as charismatic and ruthless and should seem the leader until Kella willingly takes her place by his side, securing command. It is in all cases possible to resolve this situation with diplomacy, though the situation is organised that no matter what the players do, there will be some bloodshed that day.

Peren spots the horsemen approaching from afar and signals to his comrades. The group race for the keep, bar Kella, who remains in the square. Jeze curses not keeping a closer eye on her as the party take up residence inside the keep with the soldiers. The Zhents gather and try to convince the players to give up their perch, only for Fi’re to counter with his abilities. The Zhents take cover around the areas of the town, watching the gate for the keep. Fi’re is able to keep at a range and the guards and the party reinforce their defences. A standoff. Looks to be a long night.

A standoff such as this is the most likely situation to occur. Players are level 2 when the Zhents arrive and might be able to repel them, but most likely won’t risk it on account of the greater number and the fact the group rode in on horseback. If they do, Kella and Xolkin on their own make for a deadly encounter and the rest of the bandits just cement that terror. Combat is suicide, but the Zhents are criminals: a superstitious and cowardly lot, so as a DM, it is possible for Kella to order a retreat. Most likely though, considering how the teams even out, this is clearly the main result the designers were hoping for: four players and four guards vs. eight members of the Zhents. Again, this design plays into Kella’s patience and her obsession with longevity. The module assumes that you can conclude the Seven Snakes plot-line before the arrival of the next catastrophe. Such is wishful thinking however. If the plot-line is going to be resolved in combat, I urge new DMs to remember Xolkin and Kella’s urge to survive. The other bandits are disposable but each of them are up and coming members of the Zhents and would rather flee than sacrifice that. If a band of orcs were to come crashing through the forest, they’d definitely take the chance to flee.

Nightstone: The Grass is always greener.

The Zhents make a few attempts to approach during the night but the combined efforts of an organised watch shift means that they fail to break through. By morning, the Zhents have been half wiped out. The party start plotting their strike-back, but fate has other plans. Kella and Xolkin make haste towards their horses and leap on, fleeing out of the gates as their comrades struggle to follow. The party try to pick off the bandits as they flee, slowing their escape. Then a thunderous war horn calls through the air. Jeze turns to Immy, exasperated.

“This town is bloody cursed!” she concludes.

The Earseekers event follows shortly after the Seven Snakes and follows an Orc troop overtaking the town of Nightstone. Twenty two orcs come rushing through the gates, including their chief, Gurrash, and their cleric, Norgra One-Eye. Shortly after, they are pursued by eight Elf scouts, who help pick them off when the players undoubtedly struggle with the horde. If the drawbridge is raised, the players will struggle much less but the arrival of a squad of Elf saviours really serves to undermine any agency the players have. If they’re here, they’ve most likely seen off the Zhents, or at least pushed them to a point where Kella decides Nightstone just isn’t worth the effort anymore. The players need a solid victory under their belt, something to convince them not only of their strength but give them an overwhelming feeling of challenge. This end can be achieved with one simple change.

The Elves aren’t chasing the Orcs, they’re running from them.

Through the lowered drawbridge, eight elves sprint into the town. They vault destroyed walls and scattered rubble, seeking solitude in the space of the castle. They succeed their entry and immediately join the party in reinforcing the fortress, just in time for a horde of Orcs to come storming through the gates after them. The town is shattered to pieces, the slow bandits cut to ribbons and soon, the Neverwinter Knights find that their only exit is cut off. They’ve traded one standoff for another.

Whilst I like to think we’re not all racist, especially in fantasy settings such as this, elves are noticeably more trustworthy than orcs and most players will be more than willing to accept the elf help when they face oblivion. In the grand scheme of things, the odds of battle haven’t changed too much. The players still have eight elf allies and maybe their four guard friends against twenty two orcs, but the difference here is in the structure. In the original event, these elves are saviours, stealing the player’s thunder. Here, they’re a desperate faction in need of help. Help that the players can most definitely provide. Whilst I accept the odds of this same situation happening are thin, a similar standoff to this really helps drive home a sense of tension for the players. Low level characters rarely get a chance to fight in their own big battles and this battle is staged in such a way to allow for just that. It also has the benefits of giving the players a chance to experiment with their combat style and get some interesting chances at RPing. Even if the Elves are racist, something Immy and Jeze had to wrestle with, they were a necessary ally in the coming conflict and both factions were willing to get along if it meant dismantling the orc threat.

The orcs bayed outside the walls, like wolves, screaming for elf blood. Peren mounted his axe and nodded.

“If it is elf blood you want,” he shouted, “then it is elf blood you will receive. I challenge your chief to single combat!”

The orcs howl in anger, but are calmed by their master stepping forward. No orc can resist the challenge of an elf and Gurrash is ready to face death to shield his kin from cowardice. He prepares his blade and raises it towards Peren. The two combatants walk to meet one another on the central bridge.

Who doesn’t love a one on one duel?

Orcs: Simple (very simple) but definitely effective. Image owned by WotC.

Granted, again, this situation is very rare and I can’t imagine it happening again, but the set-up is still unique and really interesting. Champion duels happened in warfare all the time in the Dark and Medieval ages and such here fits so well. Even if the party make allies of the Zhents, you can still arrange a similar event such as this, minus the Elf scouts, forcing the players to plot against a siege. Smart combat is always good and throwing your players in at the deep end can be rewarding.

Especially when a level 2 character solos what is essentially a CR 3-4 encounter. Those are the moments players live for.

Peren’s duel with Gurrash is the stuff of legends. Blows shake the bridge they stand upon and the clash of their weapons echoes for miles around. Finally, numerous critical hits stagger the orc chieftain long enough for a battered, bruised and almost dead Peren to deal the final blow, sundering the orc chieftain in twain. As one might expect, the orcs immediately forget their warrior’s pride and surge for the gap. The survivors work quickly. Immy and an elf work to retrieve the wounded Peren, whilst Jeze and the archers rain death down upon the attacking orcs. Fi’re, perched atop the far tower, begins a long ranged caster battle with the cleric. The battle, though it is much more like a slaughter, ends quickly with only Jeze injured from the fray. She is quickly healed up and is revived to look over the fallen remains of the orc horde. Instilled with fresh confidence, the elves thank their new allies, including the drow they misjudged, before tracking off into the woods once more to return to their kingdom. With the battle done and Nightstone re-secured, the party decide it’s a good enough time as any to get some rest and celebrate their first official victory.

The showdown at Nightstone castle is an event I’m going to remember for the rest of my gaming days, as, I’m sure, a lot of my players will. I admit, the scenario is one that’s less likely to happen in other people’s games and perhaps no-one else will have the same situation happen as me, so this advice should be much more generic, but it was so much fun, I feel like the best advice I can give for Nightstone is to own it and make it yours. In the book, it says the orcs should ignore the keep, but it also never gives a good reason for doing so.

Conclusion: Nightstone stands.

Nightstone is a great opening chapter to Storm King’s. From its goblin encounter to set up to the small but detailed areas available to explore, it’s a good start to the module. I’d recommend starting from level one just to give players this chaotic and atmospheric little sandbox to mess around in. However, if Nightstone does have an issue, it’s in the chaos it creates. Goblins taking over a town are one thing, but the Seven Snakes intervention coupled with the arrival of the orcs can leave a party a little overwhelmed. I remember Merrion commenting at the sheer overwhelming sense that something was wrong with Nightstone because of the sheer tide of chaos that kept lapping up around the place and I’d have to agree with her. In hindsight, I’d probably place more significant on the following event you find more interesting and run from there. If the deceptive event of the Seven Snakes is more your speed, give greater weight to that event, but if the players deal with the Snakes too easily or make a deal to work with the group, put a heavier emphasis on the orcs to bump up the narrative. Doing both events can be done well, but it does tend to feel a little drawn out for players as a result.

To sum up, here is some key advice for running the town of Nightstone and getting started in Storm King’s Thunder.

  • Work with your player to get them into the setting, establishing their backstory and character.
  • Give them something to latch onto, be it an NPC or a quest-giver before dumping them in Nightstone.
  • Don’t be afraid to foreshadow future events when needed.
  • Keep a note of all the goblins and where they are, space is important.
  • Kella Darkhope. Use her well.
  • The Seven Snakes are cowardly, keep in mind their bandit nature.
  • Don’t be afraid to switch around some events to make more epic set-pieces.
  • Players love feeling victorious, so try to reduce the number of Deus Ex Machinas when needed.
  • Focus on one central event over others, it helps develop the feel of your own campaign more and deliver a more complete experience.

That’s going to be all from this segment of From the DM’s Chair. Join us next time as we discuss the next step in Storm King’s Thunder: The Dripping Caves, and learn the fate of the villagers who fled from Nightstone. Until next time, thank you everyone for reading and I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s session of From the DM’s Chair. Please leave a comment. Positive criticism is welcome.

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