From the DM’s Chair, Storm King’s Thunder Part 4: Goldenfields

I apologise for the delay on this one guys. Things have gotten a lot more hectic recently, but in a really good way. Since I last posted, I’ve moved house, started a new job and ultimately, have just been busy living life, which has been really awesome the past few months.

I’ve also been playing a lot of D&D too, so without further ado, let’s dive into the action once more:

After a bewildering heavily plot-driven segment featuring our party of noble adventurers taking to the clouds on-board a cloud giant castle, the party have finally arrived at their next destination: a place where a giant raid is about to take place that will change the fate of Faerun forever. For the sake of ease, as it’s the nearest of the three towns to Nightstone, it is at the small farming community of Goldenfields where the next stage of this epic adventure will begin and the players will learn the true lesson of this hateful conflict: no-one wins when giants fight.

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’ve learned whilst running it. This time, we’re going to be taking a look at the ‘Rumblings’ segment of the module or, more critically, the Goldenfields section. My party of crash-landed pioneers 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.

Goldenfields: The Set-up

Rumblings is comprised of a choice of three settlements to start off the main plot for Storm King’s Thunder. The segment is generalised in such a way that the encounters can be run in any order with any preference, yet, individually, these events are set to serve as an inciting incident for the rest of the module to come. Whichever town the players arrive at, the situation and result is the same: the ambition of the giants attempt to overrun the normal folk of the Northern settlements and the players must unite with the townsfolk to repel the threat. It’s the reason why Zephyros has brought them to their chosen destination and it’s the hopes of the module that this event will set up the players for the epic saga that is to unfold of a campaign between the small folk and giants.

It’s a shame then that these events separately seem generic and are constructed in a manner that is diametrically opposed to the notion of using Rumblings as an inciting incident. The only thing the event itself reveals is that giants are attacking a settlement and possibly, the plot of a giant faction. Each giant attack (Frost for Bryn Shander, Hill for Goldenfields and Fire for Triboar) has a scheme behind it, but the players learn very little of the creature’s ambitions in greater detail or a reason for their actions (if Zephyros has hidden the Sundering of the Ordoning as the module suggests for no good reason). The Hill Giants can be interrogated but are too dumb to reveal much and the Frost Giants and Fire Giants are placed in positions where they would more likely retreat than give away their detailed plans. Another issue is that the whole event seems to fail in a matter of scale. The running of this inciting event has a double pronged problem: it’s meant to be dangerous and epic but the players have to be capable of pushing back the threat. This is despite the fact that most of the giant factions are too strong to effectively do for a group of level five/six players. The module does present a solution for this but it doesn’t work quite how the creators intended and just creates another issue to overcome.

Goldenfields: Special NPCs.

In each of these unique events, as well as controlling their own characters, the players are allowed to lend the strength of several unique NPCs. These special NPCs are donated for the players to control alongside their own characters to help repel the giants that are too strong for the players to defeat alone. If they survive the encounter, the players are rewarded with special quests. That all sounds pretty good, right? Extra help, more game mechanics and special rewards? What’s not to love?

Well, to put it frankly, a whole lot.

I do not mean to assume that I know more than the creators of the Storm King’s Thunder module or the developers at Wizards of the Coast as a whole, but I would posit that people don’t play D&D to control other people’s characters. We play D&D so that we can play our own characters, for better or ill, and donating another set of characters to players completely undermines the point of having the player characters being ‘the heroes’. It also places a lot of sudden weight on players. Not only do you have your character to run, players now have this new character with pre-determined abilities and character traits, who the players don’t care about, to run and protect for a singular epic-scale combat. The whole scenario just doesn’t fit the play-style of the game.

In addition, the very mechanic sabotages its own intent. The special NPCs are present to aid the players in the defence of their town, but if the players actively put them in combat, it is more likely that the NPCs might be killed and so will lose out on the special quests they have been promised. What is the point of offering the player a unique solution to a problem if the game then punishes or hinders them for using the new solution to engage with said problem? It just seems like madness.

On top of that, the ‘special quests’ promised are really not worth the hassle of learning another character’s play-style. They’re all fetch-quest/escort missions, which I imagine would bring the pace of some games to a grinding halt, especially in the wake of the giant threat looming over Faerûn. If you are going to use these quest givers, I advise coming up with something more interesting but I would strongly insist against using the intended NPC mechanics included in this segment.

My solution to this lack of focus was two fold. To start with, I allowed my players to grow stronger: I levelled the players up an extra level and gave them magic items. The levelling process for my playthrough of the campaign was sped up after the first encounter in Zephyros’ Tower, when I allowed the players to reach level 5, before levelling them up again when the Tower crashed in order to set them up at level 6. I did this in order to balance out the encounters in Goldenfields, whilst also providing the group with magical items, something the module does sparingly in general, if at all. This meant that the players didn’t need the full help of these strange NPCs to take on the threats.

In addition to that, I also changed one fundamental matter of the event. You see, the whole pitch of Storm King’s Thunder is that the Ordoning has been broken and that the giants are going to war. However, it’s quite strange for me that there is no point during Storm King’s Thunder where the players ever encounter giants fighting giants. Interesting pitch for an encounter, wouldn’t you say? Especially since it is the premise of the module’s central conflict.

Goldenfields: Clean-up

After crash-landing in Zephyros’ Tower, the party travelled to the gates of Goldenfields. Despite some initial resistance from the guard captain, Strog Thunderblade, the party were eventually allowed to enter after revealing their roles as Neverwinter Knights, to applause and lavish praise. The curious townsfolk, led by Abbot Ellardin Darovik, escorted the group to the local tavern: The Northfurrow’s End. Here, the party met with Naxene Drathkala and her would be suitor, the landlord Miros Xelbrin. As his comrades rested and celebrated, Peren saw fit to take Miros to one side to inform him of the death of his parents at Nightstone, whilst Jeze spoke with Naxene and advised her to take up Miros’ flirting. After all, life can change quickly in the Savage Frontier…

Before we get to the giant raid on Goldenfields itself, it’s a good idea for us to set up the stakes for the players. The town itself is well documented for the players to explore at their leisure, but the most important sites for the group should be the Gate-house, the Harvesthome Abbey and the Northfurrow’s End tavern. On the way to this inn for a rest, the players should have a chance to sample the life of the people of Goldenfield and said people should, in turn, be likeable. Strog Thunderblade, as I played him, was a witless bulk of a man who tried to lull the adventurers into a false sense of security, though I recommend making his more selfish personality seem more out of confidence than slimy contempt. The players, after all, should want to save Goldenfields.

It’s a good thing that the tavern that will be the main basis for the player’s stay has such a likeable cast attributed to it. Miros Xelbrin is a former circus performer, ‘The Yeti’, named for his white fur covered body, and serves as the shining light of the community. Even after the news of his parent’s passing, his resolute nature can give strength to others and genuinely just make him an appealing NPC to be around. Naxene was a fun NPC to play too. Whilst I kept her serious, she had a cute ‘old married couple’ dynamic with Miros, despite her best efforts to rebuke his advances. Some players, especially mine, can be softies for a good bit of romance. I also recommend introducing the Halfling Oren a little earlier too, before he becomes a part of the attack, considering his important role in altering the party when chaos finally arrives. Simply try to make Goldenfields as peaceful and likeable as possible, only to pull the rug out from under the party just when the disaster begins.

Goldenfields: Considering out main goals.

To effectively run this inciting incident for the campaign, I personally recommend reworking the event to complete several key objectives needed.

  1. All of the Giants should all get a chance to be established in some form or another.
  2. The events at Goldenfields should directly lead into story progression.
  3. The players should feel empowered and heroic during all of it.

Working with these three main goals in mind, I reorganised the fight for Goldenfields into something far more chaotic, but also far more entertaining for the players to engage with, something that ended up really making a mark within my player’s minds.

Goldenfields: The floodgates open

Just as the party have finished with their long day of rest, the screams of a halfling stir them into action. Racing outside, the party find a group of goblins led by a group of commander bug-bears and flanked by two ogres. Briefly assisted by the townsfolk, the party jump bravely into the fray.

Goldenfields is meant to be one big combat broken into bite-sized chunks. Even the basics of the module encourage lots of small fights and it’s something we should use as well. Using the information from the module and balancing it with my own plans, I ran the first encounter relatively normally: ten goblins, four bugbears and two ogres of a single raiding group against the party. The special NPCs that usually engage with the battle in the player’s control were used sparingly here to keep balance. I simply had to make simple damage rolls every few turns. The combat flowed quickly and allowed for the players to feel heroic but also feel aided by the collection of special NPCs in quick bursts. Miros did grapples so players could make attacks at his restrained opponents, Oren inspired others and Naxene played the role of healer to free up the players to be the heroes. First round done, players should have fun. So far, so good.

Now, however, here’s where we can get complicated.

Goldenfields: The Crossroads

The goblins were soon beaten but the strife of their attack was not yet finished. In the distance, across the abbey, a fire was beginning to flare out among the crops. Miros was injured and so Naxene escorted him, Oren and the rest of the village to safety. Just when the party was beginning to lose hope, however, a strange cluster of bark, leaves and frantic roots began scurrying it’s way towards them. This was how the party met Lifferlas, animated tree and guardian of Goldenfields. Hopping aboard Lifferlas, the group rode the tree into battle, only to find a fight already underway when they arrived. Bug-bears and goblins were wrestling blade to blade with orcs and magmins. Seeing how quickly the destruction was spreading, the group decided to split their efforts. Jeze and Silk leapt into the fray against the goblins, Fi’re engaged the approaching magmins and Peren charged the orc-line, coming face to face with a new challenger just as the rain begins to fall.

For the second ‘phase’ of our combat, we begin to throw in elements from our pitch and throw out factors from the module. There are no NPCs here bar Lifferlas, or maybe Zi Liang (she’s cool and I just remembered she helped with this fight), so the players have a chance to cut loose and fight.

Though they might be usually against overwhelming odds, they’ve entered the combat mid-battle and have turned the encounter into a three-way match. When I ran this segment, I balanced attacks between the two monstrous factions, having them fight each other as much as they fought the players. It allowed the players to still be active in a huge combat with multiple warriors but also allowed them to stand their ground instead of being easily swept away.

In addition, this was also a great chance to throw some magical items in the player’s direction. Considering the fire giants often use orcs as their servants, I realised a war between these rival factions would be the perfect chance to continue to develop a unique story-line for one of my players. An orc stepped forth to challenge Peren to single combat, the son of the orc that Peren slayed in single combat in Nightstone. Peren agreed and the two had an epic battle, which concluded with Peren gaining hold of a new weapon: The Bad-Blood Axe. A homebrewed weapon, the axe was an interesting magic item used to give Nathan’s character great power but also an interesting use of his rage feature, playing upon his character and the way he had been using his barbarian rage. It gave his character a good chance to try something new and I definitely recommend introducing more personalised stories and items like this into your own modular games.

The Bad Blood Axe. Great-axe, very rare (Requires attunement).

You gain a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls with this magic weapon. In addition, if you are hit with a melee attack, you can use your reaction to make a weapon attack with the axe.

Curse: When you wield this axe, you find yourself easily angered or irritated. Whenever you are hit with an attack, you must make a wisdom saving throw (DC 15). On a failed save, the target becomes compelled to kill the target that attacked them. You can no longer use the disengage action and must attack the target whenever possible. This effect lasts until the target is dead or you fall unconscious. You can end this curse by casting the remove curse spell or casting banishment on the Demon trapped within the weapon.

Goldenfields: The Breaking Point

After finishing their battle with the stray forces, the party were downtrodden and exhausted. Just as they were preparing to finish up and regroup, they heard the echoing of more battling to the north. With one last desperate sigh, the group boarded Lifferlas and raced towards their next battle. Sensing their unease and overall exhaustion, the animated tree implored them to rescue his home and gave them a magical blessing, restoring them all with the benefits of a long rest before falling dormant. Pausing only to give thanks to the tree, the party raced on towards their next objective.

By now, the rainfall had devolved into a howling tempest and fierce gales and lightning strikes punctuated the air. Immy rejoined with his party just in time to meet with a pair of fire-giants attempting to dig something out of the ground. Shortly after, a group of hill giants bumbled onto the scene, demanding the delicious discarded crops the giants were throwing away. The players leapt eagerly into the fray, only to be countered by the arrival of a set of stone giants, eagerly chanting of how they would ‘shatter the dream and remake the world’. The party soon realised that they were out-matched, especially when a fierce blow from the fire-giant pair brought down their barbarian. Another such deadly attack almost made contact with Immy, only to be blocked at the last second by another giant entering the fray. The frost giant, clad in frosted plate armour and bearing a giant great-axe announced himself proudly as Harshnag: a member of the Neverwinter Knights.

If there is one excellent factor of Storm King’s Thunder that is otherwise underrated, in my opinion, it is Harshnag. Harshnag is a friendly frost giant NPC, meant to be a guide for the players into the world of giants. He’s a unique perspective for the module but also pretty badass in his own right. Sadly, the character is never given the proper chance for an introduction. In the module, it simply states that he meets the party during his wanderings. Completely ignoring the fact that Harshnag would more likely be attacked the party outright (the old good giant they’ve met is Zephyros and he very much appears the exception), this suggested meeting for Harshnag and the players just isn’t very interesting. Having Harshnag appear as a saviour to the party in their darkest hour immediately makes him more memorable and epic in the player’s minds.

Because, as sad as it seems, this combat should be the player’s darkest hour. The big problem with every ‘inciting incident’ event provided for the module is that is never truly sells the threats giants can cause. The fire and ice giants are repelled by the players and the town guard in Triboar and Bryn Shander respectively, and the hill giants are Goldenfields are easily beaten whilst their forces are curbed into retreat. These events don’t create intrigue for the players, lack complexity and also fail to fully establish the threat of the giants as antagonists.

My conclusion to the Goldenfields event was, admittedly, far more rail-roaded than the actual event in the module: ending with Zephyros arriving to aid the party and casting the suggestion spell to encourage the giants present into a stalemate. The weak willed giants succumbed and those that remained were unwilling to battle with a united front of two powerful giant allies against them and retreated.

However, this conclusion didn’t diminish the giant’s attack and proved a great jumping off point for the players for the rest of the campaign. The giant factions were established as a threat and the players dedicated to dealing with the issue after realising that the warring attacks had all but eliminated Goldenfields. It was the perfect chance for me to show the players the price of failure, the broken town around them and the smouldering ruins of giant’s devastation.

It also gave me the perfect chance to establish Zephyros and Harshnag. For a vast interconnected world, a lot of Storm King’s plot-threads feel too stand alone. Zephyros and Harshnag are definitely examples of this. Both are good giants, allies to the players and yet the two never officially meet within the confines of the module. It made too much sense to put them together as long lost allies united together to face the threats of the Ordoning. It also gives a chance to show the two character’s flaws, with both being dismissive of the players as soon as they have another giant to talk to, evidently factoring into the epic fate the players have in store that will thrust them into the limelight for all giant-kind.

With his ally present, Zephyros has an opportunity to send the players off with Harshnag on the next stage of their adventure, able to give the players a concrete destination. One flaw in the module is that the eventual next story moment of the adventure happens in a secluded temple far from the players that only Harshnag knows about. The relationship between Harshnag and Zephyros meant I had the perfect chance to set up the central quest for the players: Zephyros has summoned Harshnag to escort the players to the Eye of the All-Father temple in order to work out a way to stop the Ordoning. It’s logical enough and more importantly, it gives the players a goal to work for, rather than just dropping them to flail in the middle of Faerun.

Conclusion: Storm Cloud’s Gathering

As set-pieces in the module, the events at the various towns is a decent piece of work. However, as a prime introduction to the Storm King’s mythos and to really inspire the players and their characters to get involved, it is important to sell them on the threat and get them hooked on the main concept of Storm King’s Thunder: fighting the giant lords to save the little guys. To create that effect, I had to change a lot of factors and drastically reorganise the session. In the end, however, my players were engaged and ready to see what else the module had in store.

To sum up, here is my advice for running Goldenfields.

  • Make the players like Goldenfields. They’re not going to want to defend it if they don’t like the people there.
  • Be careful using NPC allies, especially ones the players can control. Use them sparingly, even if it means catering the encounters differently or giving magical items to balance things.
  • Don’t be afraid to throw players at things stronger than them. There are always ways to sure up deficiencies with some clever thinking, like having monsters fight each other, weakening their stats, etc.
  • Players like loot. Give them some magic items every now and then.
  • If you can find a way to retool something in a module to suit a player’s backstory, do it. It can only increase that player’s enjoyment.
  • Your bad guys need presence. An adventure or game without threat can be pretty boring.
  • Players will be much more willing to entertain the idea of an NPC ally if you actually take the time to make them seem cool and engaging.

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 as our players are let off the leash and finally have a chance to explore the vast land of Faerun…for better or worse. 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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