The party have completed their first quest: successfully liberating the town of Nightstone from numerous incursions and rescuing a large group of civilians from The Dripping Caves. With their work done, our plucky band of adventurers prepare to venture off into the savage frontier under the pretence of delivering news of deaths in Nightstone (the Sword Coast postal service is a little underfunded at the moment apparently). However, just as their journey is about to begin, fate intervenes in the form of a giant floating tower and a strange new NPC, who descends from the clouds with guidance and a heaping helping of plot.
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and today, we’re going to be talking about the module Storm King’s Thunder, both my experiences with the module and the lessons I learned whilst running it. This week, we’re going to be looking into the final part of the ‘Great Upheaval’ segment, the Tower of Zephyros. My party of cave-exploring adventurers are as follows:
Aimee is Jenn Leafbright, the True Neutral Half-Elf Warlock.
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.
Tower of Zephyros: The Set-Up.
I am not going to lie to you, dear reader, I despise the Tower of Zephyros. On the whole, the entire segment screams to me of lazy writing and bad adventure design. It is literally the equivalent of throwing a set of railroad tracks at your players and nagging them until they take it. It’s clunky at best, boring at worst and also needlessly over-complicated. To perhaps understand why, we need the basic premise of this segment.
Zephyros is a cloud giant wizard looking to deal with the main premise of Storm King’s Thunder: The Sundering of the Ordoning. With the giant’s caste system in shambles and other members of giant-kind rising up in an attempt to claim their own legacy, Zephyros has been seeking a way to pacify his kin and has been searching for a way to save the Sword Coast from complete devastation. His solution has brought him to Nightstone in the search for a set of adventurers, who are the legendary group foretold to bring an end to the chaos.
That’s right: Storm King’s Thunder pulls the old ‘chosen one’ story-line out of its butt and slaps it straight over the player’s characters. I, personally, detest this as a story premise. It’s generic and relies too heavily on old clichés to get its results across. It’s Zephyros’ job to aid the party in visiting their next destinations but everything about his inclusion works against this. He’s written into the module as a plot device to get the players moving but is constantly distant and vague in a manner that will only create false conflict between him and the players. For as interesting as Zephyros has the potential to be, as well, he’s very underutilised and, on the whole, underwhelming. As such, the first thing we’ll be doing when discussing this segment is trying to refine Zephyros and find a way to make his railroading more plausible and less stressful for the players.
Tower of Zephyros: Onwards and Upwards.
The module never specialises when Zephyros should arrive to meet the players, but they imply its the day after they accept the quests from Morak. I’d go further and specify that Zephyros should meet the players before they have a chance to leave Nightstone. Either the dawn before their departure or the evening before if the players are impatient. The whole point of the tower encounter is to persuade the players to board it and allow Zephyros to take them to the next important town. It makes travel quicker but it also takes the players to the most plot essential location with no room for deviation. My thoughts on the matter are that if the module wants us to so desperately to railroad the players, then it’s at least good to be as clear with our intentions as possible. Or, at the very least, to make the tower as interesting to the players, so they’re more willing to engage with it.
In my own run-through of Storm King’s Thunder, I used the motivation for Zephyros that the module gives of the player’s destiny, but if I ran the module again, I’d most likely change this. The Nightstone, the item so sacred to the village that bears its name, was stolen by the cloud giants during their raid. A reason for which is never given in the module proper except that it might be part of a giant’s plot. It is easy enough to assume, however, that the Nightstone itself is an artefact from Ostoria, the fallen giant kingdom that covers the land where the Sword Coast now rests. It makes sense why the cloud giants were eager to steal it and why Zephyros would want to check in on it now. Seeing how nervous the townsfolk would be of his arrival, Zephyros would no doubt offer the cloud staircase to the players to ask them for an audience, but would entice them with his friendly nature. Making it as clear as possible from the outset that Zephyros is not one of the evil cloud giants is of paramount importance. Even a simple greeting of ‘hello down there’ shows the giant isn’t a threat and is willing to help the players out, whilst some much needed magic items could further help entice the players into his tower, considering the lack of items given out in the module so far.
The big flaw with Zephyros’ plan here in the module is his execution. He wants to take the party members and encourage them to go on an epic adventure, to restore the Ordoning and to find a way to defeat the giant threat. The big issue is that Zephyros never tells the group this. He never tells them his motives and tries to actively hide the secrets of the Ordoning from the group. Then, he offers them a lift to wherever they want, only to take them to one of the three towns where they have to go. The module actively sabotages the trust between Zephyros and the party, ruining the perfect chance for whatever this railroad is intended to be. In my experience, things like this go a lot more smoothly if the players want to follow the railroad and see where it leads. I saw this when running the module and, in all honesty, I feel that it was a miracle that the whole experience didn’t collapse in on itself. It’s sad, too, because this whole thing could have been changed for the better quite easily if the execution was changed ever so slightly.
Let Zephyros entice the players. No empty promises or false platitudes, have him explain enough as the situation as he cares to: that there’s a great danger coming to the Sword Coast and that they are needed elsewhere. After all, these adventurers have helped save Nightstone! Perhaps they can be of use. (We can explain away that Zephyros has been watching the town through a telescope on his approach, or scouting the area for the past few days). Entice them to a travel on-board a magical flying castle, promise them excitement beyond their wildest dreams and offer them rewards and riches.
Basically, play Zephyros like the Doctor from Doctor Who.
Zephyros is already described as being eccentric, so it’s best to play that up. He’s a travelling wizard in a sky castle. Make him interesting, likeable and mysterious but don’t make him hide things from the players for the sake of false drama. Have him explain the threat of the giants, maybe even the Ordoning too if they ask. Just make it clear that Zephyros isn’t all too focused and a little mad and it should go over well. If the players are still reluctant to follow, have Zephyros remind them that these giants will probably uproot all of the small folk settlements on the course to their goals. Even evil characters will want to save the world if you remind them that they’re one of the idiots who lives there. If these tricks are done right, I truly believe the group will be curious enough to take Zephyros up on his offer and willing to see wherever it leads.
Personally, I encourage the town of Goldenfields as Zephyros’ promised destination just because it’s nearer, but with Zephyros offer to the players, the group may wish to push to travel to Bryn Shander or Triboar as well. If you’re clever enough, this can give you enough time to throw in the side-missions available.
Tower of Zephyros: Death in the Clouds.
An extended universe and the continuity it includes has always been one of my favourite parts of a series. Sadly, the first encounter whilst travelling with Zephyros is the worst example of extended universe world-building. On the third day of travel (or the first if you’re intending them to go to Goldenfields, which I do recommend), a totally innocent little cult known as the Howling Hatred approach the Cloud Giant on behalf of Yan-C-Bin, the Prince of Evil Air. The event is meant to tie into another adventure module, The Princes of the Apocalypse. Whilst the tie-in is a really nice feature, it provides too much difficulty and far too many questions on the future of the two module. Personally, I find the link with Princes of the Apocalypse feels more forced. It’s less an easter egg and more a deliberate attempt to market more Wizards of the Coast goods, especially with a few later events in the module which show how to effectively work in the events of other modules without directly demanding DMs seek other content out. I can see the appeal of an expanded universe in this manner and creating a sandbox game using multiple elements from other modules is really interesting. However, in this context, it’s also highly ambitious and comes off a little too cluttered. The high stakes of both modules mean that the Princes of the Apocalypse inclusion detracts from the overall plot of Storm King’s Thunder, confusing and even hindering the conflict of both modules.
In my run-through of Storm King’s, I changed the cult that arrived to be emissaries of the Kraken society, servants to the Kraken Slarkrethel, who appear later in the module. Slarkrethel’s agents feed back into the plot of the actual module, making this encounter more self-contained. It also adds another level to the politics of the moudle with Slarkrethel showing doubts in his current alliance. Working with Imyrith to sabotage the giants, the attempt of an alliance with Zephyros shows he’s hedging his bets on his recent employment with Imyrith or maybe even playing to Imyrith’s scheme by having the Cloud Giant support their cause, making further giant war.
Either way, Zephyros is bound to refuse and the players will mostly engage with the obviously evil group of cultists. Though this encounter is rather small in the grand scheme of things, it gives us a chance as a DM to do so more of that brilliant foreshadowing and a chance for some more interesting combats. Firstly, we get to establish the Kraken Society and Slarkrethel before they actually becomes prominent in the module. In my run of Storm King’s, the players attempted to interrogate some of the defeated cultists, only for them to start coughing up water. The act of these cultists drowning on dry land really hit the players and gave them a feeling of dread at the threats that lie ahead. Secondly, it awards the players a bag of holding, a very useful item that the players are probably going to need at some point, and a bag of pixie dust, less cool but still useful. Lastly, the cultists bring with them an invisible stalker in the bag of holding which, even if the player’s defeat the cultists, should remain and sneak about the tower, hoping to attack the players when their guard is down. It was interesting to construct a battle with the stalker where the stalker could hunt the players and attack them in secret, creating a game of cat and mouse on the lower floor of the tower until the climax of their dramatic battle.
Tower of Zephyros: Calm before the Storm.
Another major flaw with the Zephyros segment of the module is that it lacks any solid conclusion for me. Sure, Zephyros can get the players to their designated location and fight off a whole group of enemies, but there’s nothing to punctuate the experience with a meaningful finale or something to help get the players excited or invested in the next stage of their journey. Operation Orb-Strike is our chance to change that.
Usually occurring on the 10th day of travel, I recommend saving this particular event until the very day the party are in range of their destination, whether you’ve chosen Goldenfields, Bryn Shander or Triboar. The Adult Silver Dragon Klarion and a host of Veteran Dwarves, serving the Mithril hall, set out to eliminate any giant threats they might encounter. Zephyros being the nicest giant one could ever meet, the Dwarves instantly suspect him of foul play the moment they encounter him and swarm with the intention of bringing down Zephyros’ castle.
This set-piece is brilliant: an interesting combat scenario with the unique objective of defending the orb that powers the castle’s flying ability. The issue is that it lacks a lot of substance in the execution. The Dwarves can be easily talked down, Klarion is encouraged to remain outside the battle and Zephyros, as a high level caster, can easily deal with the issue on his own, even if he’s using non-lethal spells. Like most of Zephyros’ tower, changing a few set details for the event help elevate it beyond a simple combat into a dramatic story-beat which we can use for a change to introduce and foreshadow the main villain of the Storm King’s Thunder campaign, Imyrith.
Before reaching their destination, the Tower of Zephyros encounters heavy turbulence. Looking out of the windows, the players realise they’ve been piloted into the middle of a storm. Whether or not Zephyros is upset at the group for murdering his cultist ‘guests’, he will most likely ensure they are alright and even provide a staircase for them to join him in the control room. This storm, as terrible as it is, is not natural. Just as the group find their way to Zephyros’ side, the squadron of dwarves attack. An Adult Bronze Dragon Felgolos crashes through the wall and the dwarves launch into an attack through the opening, rather than sky-diving out and risking encountering any lower defences. Understandably, Zephyros will want to repel this draconian fiend, and the group of dwarves that rush to its aid, though he is a pacifist. It’s up to the players to tip the scales. The players will most likely either start a counter-attack upon the Dwarves, or attempt to persuade them to stop the attack.
If the players interfere at all, then the time has come for Imyrith to make herself known.
Imyrith, despite her role as the main antagonist of the adventure module, appears fairly late into the module’s run. This event, however, is the perfect chance for her to make her first appearance for the players and a chance to establish her as a more powerful threat than most average dragons. The storm surrounding the party is actually a special aura ability I created for Imyrith: essentially the spell ‘control weather’. The heavy wind, cold air and torrential rain hide her presence in the tempest and allow her to continue pulling the strings behind the scene, but also add to her menace and mystique.
Though her connection to the cause of the Ordoning’s sundering are left fairly vague in the module, I like to imagine Imyrith as the cause for the new rift between giants. As much as an attempt to revive Tiamat would anger Annam the All-Father, the idea of a dragon manipulating his children into self-destruction would have similarly garnered Annam’s ire. This reasoning makes Imyrith are more interesting villain and gives us a chance to include her in scenes such as this because of her focus on undermining others and manipulating threats into conflict.
Imyrith is posed as a manipulator in the module, playing giants and small folk against each other. Sadly, she’s only given one or two times to do so during the actual module proper. This event is another chance to showcase her skill and ambition. Knowing Imyrith, she fears that Zephyros will somehow find a way to undo all her hard work. She might think little of the adventurers and even the wizard himself, but every moment they survive is a moment for them to act unimpeded. She needs them dead or, at least, slowed down. The raid from the dwarves is the perfect chance for one or many both of these options.
If the party fight the Dwarves, Imyrith could creep through the smog and attempt to disable the floating castle. One lighting breath weapon on the orb should produce the desired effect and even provide a brilliant moment for the party to spot Imyrith’s shadow in the sky, silhouetted by the storm. If the party try to make peace, Imyrith should constantly work towards furthering the strife, using suggestion spells or other such mind altering spells to plant doubt in the rival factions. She doesn’t need the two groups to kill each other, just to shatter the orb and let Zephyros’ fall.
Though it’s important to establish a player’s freedom in D&D, a moment of defeat or a dramatic set-back like this is just what players need sometimes to become invested in the set-up. Within my own experience with Storm King’s Thunder, the mysterious presence of Imyreth added a new layer to what would have otherwise been a simple, almost meaningless, battle. Without her, the Dwarves would have been persuaded to make peace and the chaos would have been over before it started. With Imyreth present, the dynamic of the fight changed greatly. Whilst the party fought below, Jeze managed to get her own dramatic moment when she persuaded Felgoros to befriend her and flew up to get a first glimpse at the threat that had been manipulating events through the clouds. It ended in a dramatic fall/chase with both dragons blasting their breath weapons at one another, whilst the rest of the party were forced to get to work stabilising Zephyros’ descent. A series of skill checks and cooperation ended in a memorable conclusion to a rather lack-luster segment to the campaign as a whole. The action and drama kept the players engaged and the added twist of Imyrith’s presence added to the events of the tower’s decline.
Plus, the tower’s crash-landing also placed the players into a brand new situation. Zephyros could no longer give them transport but they were close enough to a village for help and, in the wake of the chaos, Zephyros was able to give context for the adventure, at last. When I was first planning out how to approach the module, I re-purposed the ‘Drunken Sailor’ song to apply to the module, giving a greater cultural resonance for the players but also to provide a chance for the players to learn about the main set-up, considering Zephyros was so keen on keeping the matter secret.
Poor old Storm King’s lost his thunder,
Poor old Storm King’s lost his thunder,
Poor old Storm King’s lost his thunder,
Annam is in mournin’~
Hey, ho, the Ordoning broken!
Hey, ho, the Ordoning broken!
Hey, ho, the Ordoning broken!
Annam is a’callin!
Upon learning of the Ordoning breaking, Zephyros explained to the group that his research concluded that whatever war was coming between the giants and the humans is going to start at the town he has brought the party too. He has brought them here after their victory over the goblins in an effort to gather allies to prevent the threat from escalating. Now, however, it’s clear to Zephyros that the involvement of a dragon implies a greater threat to giants and small-folk alike. The surviving dwarves retreated and Felgoros even rewarded Jeze with a cloak of his singed scales, giving her fire resistance (not that she needed it) and the ability to call to him for aid, should she need it. From here, the various factions dispersed and Zephyros was left tending to his repairs, whilst the party made their way towards the local town of Goldenfields, where their giant-centric adventure is finally ready to begin in full force.
Conclusion: Head in the Clouds
The Tower of Zephyros and its owner need a lot of re-tuning to make work in this new section. Zephyros’ needless secretive nature makes him distrustful when he’s supposed to be the player’s ally and the encounters planned on board his tower need retooling themselves to make truly interesting and take use of the unique set-up and plot.
However, as much as I’m against the railroading of this segment of the adventure, the outcome meant that the experience was more than worth it for me personally. The players got some good combat, a bit of RP and finally got to hear the pitch of the entire module, whilst I got to introduce Imyreth and run an interesting NPC and a great crash set-piece as a result.
To sum up, here’s some good advice for running the Tower of Zephyros.
- Re-tool Zephyros. Make him interesting and engaging to your group, likeable even. They’ll be spending a lot of time with him.
- Have Zephyros be up front with your players from the beginning. Explain the Ordoning and explain the new adventure the players are being offered. It makes for a better hook than ‘honorary post-man’.
- Use the optional side-quests and events to help develop the world of the module you’re trying to run. Players love an interconnected world and it makes the experience feel more real.
- Don’t be afraid to bust out some larger villain in your games early on. They don’t have to kill the players, but they definitely need to make an impact or they won’t mean anything later.
- End the Zephyros segment with a moment of importance, something epic to inspire the players and lead them on to their first encounter with giants.
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 go through the small farming town of Goldenfields: what I arguably think is the best starting point for the main adventure. 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.