Short version of this review: Storm King’s Thunder is the best 5th edition D&D adventure yet, and its Roll20 adaptation shows clearly that Roll20 is the best virtual tabletop on the market. Storm King is the latest adventure for D&D 5th edition—you’ll find it in specialty gaming stores starting today (!), and in other bookstores on September 6th. More to the point, Roll20 will premiere its adaptation of the adventure early next week!
This review focuses on the Roll20 version of this adventure, a virtual tabletop (“VTT”) that lets you play RPGs online using an in-browser platform. Roll20 handles all the dice rolling, maps, adventure text, and tokens, while you and your friends communicate using Skype or a similar voice platform.
But before we can see why Roll20 does Storm King’s Thunder so well, let’s talk about the adventure itself. Storm King’s Thunder is technically a sequel to 5e’s first story arc, Tyranny of Dragons, in the way that Captain America: Civil War is a sequel to Age of Ultron. You don’t need to have played or even read Tyranny to “get” this adventure, but you’ll enjoy some easter eggs. This adventure is also shorter than the others—instead of starting characters at 1st level and having them rise to 15th, the adventure’s main plot spans from level 5 to 11 with a surprisingly engaging prologue that brings you from level 1 to 4. And yet, it does so without sacrificing any content; the way this adventure using branching paths to create replayability is admirably done, and something I hope Wizards of the Coast does more of in the future.
In this adventure, giant lords are all vying for power after their god, Annam the All-Father, shattered the giant hierarchy called the Ordning. The adventure’s excellent branching path system lets PCs choose how they want to stop the giant threat. You don’t have to thwart all of the giant lords’ offensives to succeed, allowing the PCs to choose which cities they want to save or which giant’s lair they want to assault. The beginning of the book has an “adventure flowchart,” and I love it. It’s pretty, not at all confusing, and perfectly shows what the DM is getting into when they start. I hope this appears in every D&D adventure book from here on out.
This adventure sprawls over the northern Forgotten Realms—from Waterdeep to Icewind Dale—even including a massive sandbox exploration chapter halfway through the story. It’s so expansive, I feel that if I were running this adventure out of a book instead of a computer, I would be at a disadvantage. Every “article” within the Roll20’s conversion of Storm King’s Thunder has wiki-style hyperlinks to characters, places, monsters, magic items… everything a DM could need to reference quickly. They just click on the link and they’re instantly there. The organization alone is reason enough to use Roll20 to play this adventure. Even if you’re playing in person and using physical character sheets and miniatures, using a tablet or a laptop to read the adventure is an excellent choice.
I still prefer the tactile sensation of flipping pages (I don’t think I’ll ever be fully converted from paper) but Roll20’s GM tools are startlingly useful. I love showing my players images from the adventure, for instance. All of the illustrations that you’d find in the book are loaded into Roll20’s image database, and it’s much easier to just click a “share with everyone” button than to awkwardly turn the hardcover around, try (and fail) to cover the spoilery text, and probably break the book’s binding in the process.
The interactive Table of Contents makes flipping through Roll20’s format infinitely easier than leafing through a print book. It’s even easier than using a PDF with a hyperlinked Table of Contents, since you can always pop it open from the right-hand sidebar without closing your other open windows. A small negative; the adventure frequently mentions Player’s Handbook or Dungeon Master’s Guide, not by page number, but by chapter number. And since they can’t hyperlink to those books, it’s a small grievance, but one with cascading effects.
On that note, what does Storm King’s Thunder struggle with? Like most 5e adventures so far, it’s hard to run without having read it cover to cover (or however that saying goes for an online interface), but at least STK acknowledges this. The introduction explicitly states that you should read the adventure once through before trying to run it.
As mentioned above, this adventure feels like an entry in a Marvel-style cinematic universe, with villainous organizations like the Kraken Society and their monstrous leader popping up briefly for a moment, then disappearing never to be heard from again. The case can be made that it makes the Realms feel alive—that multiple plots are all running concurrently—and a good Dungeon Master can make that happen, but it doesn’t do the less experienced DM any favors. If mishandled, this attempt at verisimilitude will likely make the adventure feel disjointed, with plot arcs beginning and ending seemingly at random.
What’s there to really love about Storm King’s Thunder? It’s incredibly open-ended on a macro-level, giving the players opportunity to make choices on how the adventure proceeds. It’s not a railroad, but there’s a clear plot for even inexperienced DMs to follow. But it’s also open-ended on a micro-level! An early dungeon called the Dripping Caves gives the players at least three clear ways to save a group of kidnapped villagers from goblins, from a simple kick-down-the-door approach to causing civil war within the goblin tribe. The dungeons are plentiful and easily repurposed. By my count, there are 4 “city-defense” areas and 10 (TEN!) complete dungeons, all of which can be taken out of context and plopped into your home game.
There are also a lot of nice callbacks to previous 5e adventures. If your group played a little of Hoard of the Dragon Queen or Princes of the Apocalypse, you’ll see a few familiar faces. Chapter 3’s massive Forgotten Realms sandbox exploration chapter also allows players who were part of those campaigns to return to old locations from Princes or Hoard to see how things have changed since they fought the Dragon Queen or the forces of Elemental Evil.
All in all, Storm King’s Thunder is a remarkably clever story, jam-packed with great ideas you can use as-written or steal for yourself. If you play D&D, this adventure is a must-own. And give it a chance on Roll20—even hardcover purists will be impressed by how easily Roll20 makes playing D&D.
Do you have your copy of Storm King’s Thunder yet? What’s your favorite moment? Let us know in the comments or tweet to @GeekandSundry!
Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast and Roll20
Featured Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast