From the DM’s Chair, Storm King’s Thunder Part 2: The Dripping Caves.

Your adventurers have finally claimed Nightstone and expelled the multitude (and I do mean multitude) of threats attempting to claim the small town as their own. However, most of the local inhabitants are still missing. One of the guards should readily be able to inform the player that they would have raced to the Dripping Caves for safety but, in true gaming fashion, are too busy holding down the wrecked fort to effectively investigate, leaving it to the party to investigate the Dripping Caves and discover what became of the people of Nightstone.

Welcome to From the DM’s Chair and today, 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 be taking a look at the Dripping Caves segment from ‘A Great Upheaval’. My party of Nightstone liberators are as follows:

Luke is Imaraente ‘Immy’ Rylcar Baenmtor, the Chaotic Neutral Drow Rogue. (Absent this session)

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.

And introducing: Aimee Dann as Jenn Brightleaf, the True Neutral Half-Elf Warlock.

Dripping Caves: The Set-up

dripping-caves.jpg
Map for the Dripping Caves. Image owned by Wizards of the Coast.

The scenario for Dripping Caves is an essential one to D&D: the abandoned cave exploration. The only issue is the exact setting that surrounds it. In the fallout of the chaos surrounding Nightstone, the local populace have taken off to hide in the nearby caves, only to stumble into captivity at the hands of a group of goblins and their new ogre friends.

Though my party didn’t try this, it’s strange that the module didn’t consider that one of the guards would volunteer to go and investigate the caves with the players and save the citizens. After all, their current only charge is a crumbling fortress and dead body of their former lady. Never the less, somehow, the guards think that this is more reasonable than actually going to see what happened to the innocents charged in their care. The first thing I’d recommend is have one of the guards volunteer to escort the players to the Dripping Caves, whilst the others hold down the broken remains of Nightstone. This guard doesn’t have to fight or participate in the rest of the adventure, but it at least affirms that the adventurers aren’t solely left to do the action with no support from a cowardly group of guards.

The party wake early after a rest and head off to the Dripping Caves. The guards remain to guard what remains of Nightstone, the adventurers follow the villager’s footsteps and find the entrance to their hiding place. The party pause and decide to consider their options before plunging in.

In my campaign, Silk the captured goblin took the place of the guide and that changed a whole lot the Dripping Caves segment of the campaign. For one, being a native member of the caves, Silk was exactly aware of the various entrances in and out of the caves and was able to provide the party with the information they needed for entering the cave. Though most parties will venture on through the main entrance to the cave, my party were clever enough to use Silk to their advantage and learned of the side entrance to the cave around the other side. This side entrance, whilst more stealthy, also brings the party into combat with one of hardest encounters of the cave: The black pudding.

Dripping Caves: Just Desserts

The black pudding fight is one of the more interesting encounters, considering the effect black puddings can have and the exact setup for the battle. The black pudding has been hiding in a cage of stalagmites, keeping it safely out of the reach of the goblins and allowing it to feast upon the few who venture forth into its hold. Whilst inside, it has total cover but makes attacks at anyone who puts their limbs into the faction, before sneaking out and engaging with those who come close.

The idea of the fight is for the black pudding to emerge and attack the players, pushing them against their limit as it swoops in. Whilst the design of the area helps, the black pudding is still at a relative disadvantage. It’s a hard encounter for players who are third level but my group were a unique combination that made this fight far too easy for what it was. Black puddings, dear readers, have the unique effect of corroding it with acid damage each time they attempt to hit it with wooden and metal objects receiving permanent de-buffs. It’s sad then that most of my party were completely effected by the Black Pudding’s effects. Between the mystic with his psionic attacks, a Rogue specialising in bows and arrows and a new warlock and its magic blade, Peren was one of the few to take any damage and the de-buffs he received were minimal, considering his lack of armour. Only his axe faced the corrosive touch of a black pudding and after such, Nathan was clever enough to keep his barbarian/librarian out of harms way as Aimee’s warlock hammered away mercilessly, as Aimee’s characters are want to do.

My main advice for new DMs here is to find a way to use the environment to your advantage and make good use of the brilliant monster provided here. Black puddings are supposed to be violent dangerous creatures and, sadly, I failed to run the monster to full effect, partly due to the eclectic nature of the player’s characters but more so my own failure to maximise the black pudding’s corrosive touch. One feature I did enjoy, however, was the framing device of the stalagmites. In the module, it explains that the black pudding attacks anyone who tries to engage with it whilst in its hiding place. However, I framed the battle as a desperate stand-off, with the players only able to attack the pudding when its tendrils emerge to fight them off. The players would hold their actions and wait on the black pudding’s attack. I’m not sure if the event succeeded in being entertaining, but I think the black pudding encounter is an example of experimenting with combat as a DM, using the scenery and interesting monster combination in new and fascinating ways, forcing the players to think outside the box in terms of combat. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend running this battle the way I did, I would recommend using this point to experiment with combat here, if you’re a DM who enjoys experimenting with new things.

black_pudding-5e
Black Pudding and Ogres: rarely go well together for reasons shown above but both elements can be used to great effect separately. Image owned by Wizards of the Coast.

The party decided to enter into the Dripping Caves from the side entrance, only to come face to face with the tendrils of a monstrous black pudding. Desperately flailing away from the creature’s acidic touch, the party found themselves in a desperate showdown until a new member of the Neverwinter Knights, Jenn, entered to help slay the beast with her eldritch abilities. Pact weapon in hand, Jenn eagerly joined the group and together, they pressed on deeper into the abyss.

Dripping Caves: Marital Conflict

The central room of the Dripping Caves holds a variety of enemies. Five goblins scattered about the area and two ogres. The male ogre, Nob, bathes in a mud pit, whilst a female ogre, Thog, snoozes behind the veil of stalagmites in the centre of the room. The main cavern here is a great change to engage the players in some truly epic combat: multiple scattered enemies, two large powerful forces and an interesting mix of open and closed areas that made for a great setting for this conflict.

The main fight here in the Dripping Caves is my favourites of the session. All players used their movement and spacing well and it all soon evolved into a chaotic brawl. Fi’re used his flexible collection of abilities to face off against Nob, whilst Jeze successfully pestered Thog with a flurry of arrows. Peren and Jenn, by extension, made easy work of the goblins. All in all, a standard but fun combat.

Personally, I like to think that the two things that made the fight interesting were the way in which space was used in the combat and the way I started role-playing the monsters. The vast space of the central cavern meant that a lot of the monsters could be scattered about, splitting up combat into a collection of isolated battles that finally pooled together into toppling the pair of ogres, something that proved very effective for the experience. In addition, making the monsters entertaining helped them to stick out in the player’s minds with the goblins being tiny, cowardly and ineffective and the pair of ogres clearly forming a working marriage relationship: I portrayed Nob as the put-upon doting husband with too much of a temper for his own good and Thog as the dominating personality of the relationship, willingly trampling her way out of their home to crush Jeze when threatened.

Fi’re and Jezze decided to sneak on ahead and began distracting the attention of ogres with small skirmishes of attacks, whilst Peren and Jenn stormed across the cavern laying waste to the goblins who fought there. In the end, all of the forces were felled, leaving the area clear to explore. From here, the party began to divide their attentions to explore the cave. Peren and Jenn searched for the missing villagers, Jezze broke from the group with Silk to explore the Goblin Warrens and Fi’re charged off on his own in order to locate the Goblin Boss, Hark, and put an end to the onslaught of attacks once and for all.

Dripping Caves: Prison Break

If there is one flaw with kidnapping a whole town of NPCs, it’s that there is a whole town of NPCs that the players now have to deal with. When Peren pushed through the cloud of bats and first located the civilians, I remember reading out to Nathan every member of the town who had been rescued. Between the civilians, there are a lot of small stories that really flesh out the world and really heighten the sense of loss and tragedy from the destroyed town: families torn asunder, lost siblings and parents. All of it can be quite emotional.

The problem is that there are so many NPCs in this segment, it’s impossible to give them all good focus. What started as an attempt to recount all the NPCs and their issues turned into a simple listing. Whilst a part of me wished I could have fleshed out these smaller stories, they are, sadly, just that, smaller stories. Roleplaying through each NPC would have not only been tiresome but counter intuitive to the fact these the micro stories never crop up in the grand scheme of the campaign and, sadly, these small emotional experiences only distract the players from the rest of the caves.

My main advice in this segment would be to elect a small number of NPCs to be ‘spokespeople’ for their stories/factions. Morak Ur’Gray is the closest thing that the village has to a leader. He, the priest Hiral and maybe the Tiefling pair of Destiny and Grin should be the critical NPCs for the players to talk to. Morak can give an overview of the situation to the players, either whilst being rescued or after the fact. Hiral, who I failed to use properly in my own campaign, is a nice glimpse into the religious outlooks of the villagers and can provide consolation and kindness to those who have lost loved ones in the chaos. Destiny and Grin, meanwhile, are just two of the more interesting NPCs in the room. Destiny worships Asmodeous but doesn’t want to support her will. Grin is the only young Tiefling in a predominantly human town. The story avenues to explore her have infinite possibility.

Nightstone: Goblin Warrens.

Similarly to the cluttered confusion of the NPC hole in section 4 of the Dripping Caves, the Goblin Warrens is just a strange inclusion in the dripping caves. Whilst goblins do indeed have some semblance of society, including a room in the dungeon where non-combatant goblins exist can raise all sorts of issues for the campaign to come. Goblins are, after all, chaotic evil by nature. Yet, as implied by the module, all the goblins in the warrens are the innocent: the elderly, the weak and, most importantly, the young.

I’m of the opinion that moments like this should be avoided in most D&D games to start with. It’s one thing to kill monstrous goblins, it’s another to put the choice of exterminating an entire race of people Anakin Skywalker style before your players and expecting them to act. The Goblin Warrens, though logical, forms a black hole for story resolution. The moral members of the party will want to let the goblins live, but know what such an action might mean for future townsfolk (Boss Hark has EATEN some of his captives) and those who aren’t so picky will just murder everyone in the hole: women, children and all. That’s kind of messed up.

Granted, the module doesn’t say that the goblins are children or the like, but it has a group of enemy non-combatants begging for their lives and forces a moral quandary on the players that might cause arguments at best and completely cripple the campaign at worse. My main piece of advice is to avoid including the Goblin Warrens in its entirety. Instead, it might be a good idea to give the players some magical items. They’re on level 3 now, after all, so a couple of healing potions wouldn’t go amiss.

Luckily, thanks to the party recruiting Silk, I was able to come up with a meaningful manner of moving the story on without having the goblins be slaughtered, but I still don’t think the warrens section is worth including just because of the questions it raises. If the party had taken a moment to take in the fact that the goblins had been eating the villagers, there would have only been pain.

Upon entering the hovel, Jeze persuades Silk to calm down his kin. Growing a reluctant soft spot for the goblin and his kind, Jeze makes a plan. The goblins, despite their faults, are simply looking for a way to survive. She realises that the Neverwinter Knights can put them to use as a specialised squad, benefiting all of goblin kind as well as the Knights. Silk agrees, smearing mud upon Jeze’s face and proclaiming her the new leader of the tribe. The bluff works and with promise of the shinies, the goblins rally behind Jeze and allow themselves to be escorted away from Hark’s grip, unknowing of their actual leader’s final fate.

Dripping Caves: Boss Fight

goblin
A staple of D&D and fantasy: Goblins are vicious, horrible creatures. Effective villains, so long as there’s no goblin babies for complications. Image owned by Wizards of the Coast.

Boss Hark is the final challenge of the Dripping Caves and, to the module’s defence, there is a lot of player freedom encouraged with how to deal with him. The players can charge in and fight off his small army of giant rats and his female bodyguards, Racha and Zukluk, they can play things stealthy and try to recruit Snigbat to betray his leader or reason with Hark to release his prize. Only Snigbat is strangely put out of the way of the player’s path and by the time the players reach Hark, the poor boss has probably lost all of his bargaining chips, so there really doesn’t seem much option that to slaughter Hark.

At the very least, Hark is threatening with an overabundance of numbers. Easy to kill as they are, the giant rats and goblin guards can easily swarm over a single individual, especially someone like Fi’re who walks in on his own, psychically singing ‘I want to know if you’ll be my girl’ as he storms into the main room.

Hark, at least, is difficult to fight and the horde style nature of the combat provides a decent instalment of final combat. Simple but effective. My only piece of advice for running the combat is to further develop Hark and make him memorable as an antagonist and to further play up the presence of his hostage, Daphne Featherstone, the lady in waiting to the former lady of Nightstone. In my run-through of the module, Daphne was as distraught as to be expected but Hark failed to ransom her out to the group, or use her in combat in any convincing way. True, goblins are stupid, but they’re also crafty. The battle with Hark should reflect this and be more interesting than a simple punch out.

Fi’re’s dramatic entrance was undercut as the giant rats swarmed. He was knocked to the floor, only for Peren to race in and wrestle off the rats. Jezze healed Fire and finally, with the party roused, they eliminated the goblin warlord and claimed his horde of treasure.

Dripping Caves: Fallout at Nightstone

Regrouping back at Nightstone reveals one of the weaker points of Storm King’s Thunder as a module on the whole, that being the tenuous link between its various segments. The return to Nightstone after rescuing the villagers allowed for the players to interact with the NPCs they rescued. In particular, I developed a relationship between the PCs and the Tiefling family (Jeze, in particular, managed to get a romantic evening with Grin underneath the stars) and the players enjoyed that chance for conversation. Sadly, this was due to my inclusion and that of developing the module. The module’s connective missions are weak, to say the least.

Morak, the new leader of the town, is to take stock of the damages and give their players their next set of missions: to travel about the Sword Coast and deliver word of several deaths within the village. That’s right, the first mission of this wonderful adventure makes the PCs into nothing more than a glorified postman. Peren foiled this plot in seconds by throwing out the fact that he would write letters and send them off with some pigeons to contact everyone.

So, to put things simply: the message delivery mission is not only poorly handled, it’s boring. It’s used as an excuse to get the players to go places they wouldn’t wish to travel to on their own and it demeans the players with a really boring quest-line. If I were running Storm King’s again, I encourage you as a DM to think of some other quests to encourage everyone to keep moving. My personal suggestion would be that the players receive news of Kella causing trouble elsewhere, pulled towards more Orc battles or even chasing a fleeing goblin band. I’ll try and brainstorm some more ideas for next week, though these suggestions are all moot when we study the next section of adventure.

Conclusion: Dripping caves dampens the experience.

The Dripping Caves has several great features. The combat segments are brilliantly structured and the enemies are a nice variety, but the segment has a lot of disappointing segments. The Goblin Warrens ask more questions than they answer and there are just too many NPCs for the players to care about at any one time, so it all needs to be streamlined. Save for a few bumps in the road though and a lack of strong continuation, the Dripping Caves provided a great standard romp through a dungeon and some nice chances for combat.

To sum up, here is some key advice for running the Dripping Caves.

  • Appoint a guide for the players, or at least show that the guards care.
  • Use the Black Pudding encounter to its fullest potential, don’t be afraid to experiment with space.
  • Developing monsters and giving them personality makes fights more enjoyable
  • Streamline the NPCs, focus on a small few and let the others disappear into the backdrop. It’s asking too much for the players to care about ALL these sob stories.
  • Ignore the Goblin Warrens if possible. Replace with treasure.
  • The Hark fight is a good set-up but you really get what you put in. Try to promote all paths equally and use Hark’s crafty personality if needed.
  • Give the players a chance to recover and interact with NPCs. If you’re looking to push romances, Grin is a great character for it. I portrayed him as a nice guy overshadowed by a domineering mother.
  • Improve the quests or just disregard them. It might be for the best.

That’s going to be it from this segment of From the DM’s Chair. Join us next time as we discuss the next stage of the adventure in Storm King’s Thunder and the main quest appears to the players in the form of the Cloud Giant Wizard Zephyros. 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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