Top Of The Table – Dungeons & Dragons: Storm King’s Thunder
Just like ongoing video games such as World of Warcraft or Destiny, tabletop role-playing games are in a constant state of evolution and change. For no project is that truer than Dungeons & Dragons, the game that single-handedly led to the role-playing revolution that occurred in both video and tabletop games over the last 40 years. While numerous revised versions have released over those four decades, the designers at Wizards of the Coast have been rolling out content for the new 5th edition of the game for a couple of years now. I chatted with two of the leaders of that development team about the game’s next big release – Storm King’s Thunder.
Between the two of them, Mike Mearls and Christopher Perkins determine a great deal about how D&D’s ongoing world and story are developing, as well as how the D&D brand reaches out beyond the core role-playing game and into video games, miniatures, board games, and more. Perkins is the principal story designer, focusing on the narrative and story bibles that guide ongoing development. Meanwhile, Mearls is the senior manager for design development, a role in which he works on the big picture of D&D, and how its stories and individual projects continue to develop the game and broader brand.
Storm King's Thunder is a huge 256-page adventure heading toward release this September. In our extensive conversation, we discuss the inspirations for the new mega-adventure, D&D’s ongoing attempts to address branching narrative, and even whether we might one day see new official campaign settings for the game. Along the way, Wizards of the Coast also has offered up a sneak peek at some of the gorgeous art that will be included with the book. Enjoy the interview!
And as always, reach out to me via Twitter or email to let me know what other tabletop games you’d like to see featured next.
What is the Storm King’s Thunder adventure all about?
Perkins: Storm King’s Thunder is really an attempt to talk about giants and how giants affect the world of the Forgotten Realms. There are key iconic monsters in D&D that have been around since the earliest editions. And you can't really imagine a D&D world without them. Dragons, of course; we’ve dealt with an eternity of dragon stories. The time has come around now to figure out what the giants of Faerûn are up to.
Mearls: A lot of what I shepherd are the limits of potential stories and making sure that we focus on something that is very iconic, and then Chris will often pitch ideas and then we’ll talk about how that might work in an MMO, how would this work as a tabletop adventure, how is it going to be different from everything else we’ve done. What are the key things you need? And then how does it tie into what we did last year, and how does it set up what we’re doing for next year? With this storyline there’s this idea that the reason the giants are being driven out into the world and wreaking such havoc is because their gods, including Annam the All Father, are especially disappointed in them. Their ancient enemies, the dragons, reentered the world [in the Tyranny of Dragons storyline], and the giants essentially sat on the sidelines and watched tiny little humans deal with the threat. And to the giant gods, that was an affront to their honor.
In the last couple of years, you’ve rolled out content for the new edition that seems like it’s part of an ongoing timeline, even if it’s a pretty loose one. Is that fair?
Mearls: Yeah that is definitely how we see it. Especially in the context of the Forgotten Realms, it’s a living world, and so we don’t want anything to feel disjointed. Whether we’re talking about the visuals we use to represent monsters, the locations, or the narrative events of each of each story. Anything can happen. You’re not trying to make everything canon that could possibly happen in the game. But what we want to do is pick up that thread that forms the backbone of the story and say “here is what we considered that happened in the past.”
Tell me more about the story you’re exploring in Storm King’s Thunder.
Perkins: When we did the Monster Manual, in the giants entry we reintroduced the concept of the Ordning, first seen in the second edition Forgotten Realms book called Giantcraft. The Ordning is the structure that is imposed upon giant society that sets forth certain rules. Those rules dictate that storm giants are the most powerful, hill giants are the least powerful and there is a caste system or a social structure that defines how giants interact with one another
As a consequence of the giant inaction, the gods have shattered that Ordning, which means that giants can now go out into the world and chart their own destinies and try to win the favor of the gods. So cloud and frost giants want to be at the top of the Ordning, and they are all going out and trying to impress the gods in weird and wonderful ways. And often to the detriment of the civilizations that currently occupy what used to be a vast sprawling giant empire called Ostoria , which now includes places like Waterdeep, Neverwinter, Silverymoon, and Everlund.
The characters start off at very low level, and so the presence of the giants is an overwhelming threat to them. The theme of the story is these small folk who basically stand no chance of surviving this threat, stepping up, going out, confronting the threat and becoming figuratively giants in their own right. Eventually the characters do become powerful enough that they can stand toe to toe with these giants, look them square in the eye and say ‘knock it off!’ That’s really is what the story is building towards: There is a giant within you; you’ve just got to unleash it.
And what are some of the individual confrontations we can expect?
Perkins: The story introduces a number of new giant adversaries. Each of them has a plot that they’re pursuing, a goal that they’re chasing. The scale of the story is quite enormous. You have a frost giant jarl named Storvald who is trying to find an artifact that can freeze the world. You have a fire giant duke who is trying to rebuild this ancient dragon-slaying colossus. They’ve all got these huge plots that you have to deal with and you can confront them in their lairs and deal with them on an individual basis.
But the story also picks up threads from earlier stories. Obviously, there are dragons in the world, they have concerns about what the giants are doing, and the characters can interact with a number of dragons in this story, all of whom have agendas of their own.
Next Page: The inspirations behind D&D's newest adventure, and the mystery of rune magic
Most fantasy storytelling draws from real-world or mythological inspirations. What ideas were you looking to when fleshing out this concept of giants and giant culture in the Forgotten Realms universe?
Perkins: One of the inspirations was just giant mythology, from Asgardian or Norse mythological stories. And the storm giants in the story feel very Olympian; they’re like Greek gods that descended upon the world. The frost giants are very much like Vikings, Thor-like or Loki-like. So we draw on a lot of the old giant myths of earth.
In addition I think there is also a sort of Walking Dead influence to the story. The idea that ordinary people are having to deal with this overwhelming threat and the sheer weight of it, just trying to survive is really your first goal. And so that was a bit of an inspiration in the story.
Finally, one of the other inspirations in the story was Shakespeare, in so far as there’s a storm giant king and his court, he’s got three daughters; it’s very King Lear-like, with a few twists.
Where do you start when developing a big adventure like this? Do you proceed from the plan of dealing with giants, or is it particular characters, settings, or themes that drive initial design?
Perkins: We just talked a lot about how we can show off giants in a way we have never done in a D&D product before. That was our starting point. We didn't really start to talk about themes until the story began to develop. This idea of small people feeling like giants was one idea that emerged. Other themes that we discovered in the story were themes of family, betrayal, and then just themes of what role gods play in our actions.
Storm King’s Thunder has a big focus on runes and rune magic. What makes runes different from other magic items or spells?
Perkins: When we were talking about the giants’ story, one of the first questions we asked was about what sort of elements that can be added to the story that are visual, that we can use in a variety of different ways, both as graphic elements within the adventure itself as well as storytelling elements that we can share with our partners. And the idea emerged of this alphabet of runes, each rune sort of embodying an idea or a thought or an aspect of giant culture.
We came up with this family of runes and started to think creatively about ways to embed them in the story and make them central or important to the characters in some way. As the characters go through the story they can discover these runes, figure out their importance and harness their powers in interesting ways.
The runes themselves are really ancient and hard to find and you really have to dig around for them. You sort of encounter them in different ways in the story. One of the ways you encounter them is on magic items. Ancient giants, dragons, dwarves, or elves may have discovered these runes and put them on magic items and imbued the magic items with these odd powers. I liked the idea of the characters going through the story and stumbling on these ancient runes, not really understanding their true power but maybe finding ways to use them in the story against the giants in some way.
Mearls: You’re taking information and giving it physical form. And so what we wanted to do, game mechanic-wise, was capture this idea that rune magic is enduring, it’s long lasting and the information it contains, the concept of magic within it, can be transferred from the rune itself into another object. So typically when you find a rune, what you’ll actually find is an object that is thematically tied to the rune. But the idea is that you can just use that item with the rune inscribed upon it and gain the rune’s magic.
But then you can decide if you want to take that rune and transfer its magic into a mundane item to produce a new magical item. The idea behind it is that the runes are durable, long lasting, and like information, transferrable.
With every story line like this what we try to do is, when you’re building your character, the treasure you find can help make that character a little bit distinct, tie that mechanic to a storyline. So, when runes come up later, if you played Storm King’s Thunder, you think: “Oh, runes, that’s giant magic. Giants are attached to runes.”
If you play on different platforms, like if you’re playing in Neverwinter, or you’re playing a board game it’s one more way to link those experiences together. Because we know at the end of the day Dungeons & Dragons is about games. You really think first of a concept and put a lot of work into that, so that while the tabletop game really might work one way, and in something like Neverwinter they might work very differently mechanically, thematically they’re still very similar. We try to do that with every storyline – have that one gameplay hook that keeps things distinct and keeps things fresh year after year.
Next Page: Tapping nostalgia for older D&D editions, and designing a published adventure with branching narratives
Fans who have been following the new edition are going to be pretty familiar with this kind of large adventure. But for someone who is new to the game, or a lapsed player who may not have played any of the new edition, what makes Storm King’s Thunder stand out?
Perkins: Storm King’s Thunder taps into a certain amount of nostalgia by focusing on locations that are basically big dungeons. So that’s sort of a throwback to earlier editions. Those who are familiar with the Against The Giants adventures for first edition will see some similarities between the giant lairs for those adventures and the giant lairs in Storm King’s Thunder, but what Storm King’s Thunder brings that a lot of the different adventures didn’t focus on is just a depth of story. It adds things to the story that are deliberately intended to create role-playing situations so that characters are getting immersed in the stories of other characters, so that discussions are happening at the table that go beyond just deciding which way to go, or what door to open, or how to disarm a trap.
It’s meant to really give you a sense that this is a living, breathing world that you’re existing in and that these characters can make a difference in it. And to create non-player characters who can survive beyond the story in the consciousness of the players, characters that they’ll remember for years to come. How they dealt with the Fire Giant Duke is not prescribed in the adventure. You can kill him, you can negotiate with him, you can blackmail him – you can do all kind of things to succeed in the story. We don’t prescribe that one way is necessarily better than another. And what that means is everybody has the shared experience of playing through Storm King’s Thunder, but no two groups experiences are the same.
In my early glimpse at the book, that’s one of the things that is the most striking. There’s seems to be an attempt to keep the adventure very open-ended, and present the material in a way that acknowledges that different groups are going to take different paths through the story, and maybe even skip entire sections. Does that reflect an evolving design philosophy for D&D?
Perkins: The story really informs the structure. The nature of the story in Storm King’s Thunder sort of prompted us to take a very sandbox style to the adventure, allowing characters to wander off in a different direction or go off and explore, and also make regular choices. You don’t have to fight every giant threat; you pick the threat you want to fight and you go for it, and you have a choice, and there’s not a single prescribed, linear route.
There’s an appendix that talks about how you can start off with one of our other stories, like Princes of the Apocalypse or the Rage of Demons story or the Tyranny of Dragons story, and actually go from that story into this one and out again. There’s also a chapter which you don’t need to use at all if you want to start with the characters at higher level than 1st, so there’s lots of ways into the story and out of the story. You’re picking which enemies you want to fight, not necessarily fighting them all. The nature of the story drove us in that direction. It’s possible that we might tell a future story that is more linear, where there are fewer tangents or ways to break off the intended course or path of the adventure. But that’s really defined by the story itself.
Since the new 5th edition launched, what have you learned about the game? What has shifted about your adventure design as you’ve come to understand the system better?
Mearls: For my own campaign, what I’ve been really happy with is how much the system supports improvisation. I don’t do a lot of planning for my encounters, or worry about balancing the fights. In earlier editions, I might have put a lot of thought into the tactical setup, putting special terrain features, and figure out how creatures are going to work together. What I’ve been really happy with in running [5th edition] is that the system seems light enough that players seem more comfortable doing more improvisation, trying to be creative with things around them. I don’t need to add a special magical element to an area to make the fight interesting. The players are more willing to try things.
And I think part of it is that we really tried to keep the modifiers, the numbers you’re adding to your dice, fairly low. The target numbers you’re aiming for are also fairly low. If you’re looking at tens or fifteens that you have to roll, that’s pretty do-able if you want to try maybe like a dexterity check, run up the side of a wall then dive down on top of a giant’s back, that might be an difficulty ten or fifteen check. That’s still possible for an entry level character. I think opening up those possibilities is probably the thing I’m happiest with and building things and how I think of the adventures I write, and the dungeons I build.
Perkins: Encounter design in fifth edition is a lot more DM-friendly, because we’ve set an expectation that not everything is a threat that has to be overcome. It’s often very rewarding for players to come upon a threat that they know that can’t really handle, and be forced to improvise how they’re going to deal with that situation either by running away or by hiding or whatever.
As a very creative person who likes adventure design, it’s very liberating for me to be able to say “in this encounter, the characters are going to encounter this gigantic frost giant warship and there’s going to be twenty frost giants on that ship.” I mean, that encounter would pretty much just decimate or destroy even a high level group of adventurers, and I’m going to say I don’t care what level the characters are when they encounter this thing, they just encounter it. And what the adventure’s going to do is it’s going to provide a little guidance for the DM for how to deal with situations that might come up, but I feel perfectly justified putting that encounter in and saying “you know, if the characters decide to go toe-to-toe with these twenty frost giants, they’re just going to get stomped.” It’s very liberating creatively, it also creates a verisimilitude within the world; you don’t expect in a fantasy world that some divine force has made it so that every encounter is perfectly balanced for the characters who happen to run into it. That just defies any kind of logic. And fifth edition brushes aside the expectation that everything you meet is going to be a fight-able, defeat-able threat, and that just creates so many opportunities for so many surprises and interesting stories to come out of it.
Storm King’s Thunder comes on the heels of some really big, epic adventures, from confronting the queen of dragons to the threat of elemental annihilation. Is there a danger of feeling like you always need to up the ante?
Perkins: There are many scenarios we have to think about here. One is that Storm King’s Thunder might be a self-contained campaign by itself. That is to say, players may not have gone through Tyranny of Dragons or Princes of the Apocalypse, so those things never happened in your home campaign world. So, the Storm King’s Thunder Story becomes the only story, or the main story for the campaign. What that means is that the characters and their players didn’t have the experience of having two other very devastating, world shaking events. This is their one world shaking event. That’s one possibility.
The other possibility is that the DM is actually trying to weave these multiple, huge threats in this world, and suddenly the characters have dragons to deal with and elemental cults to deal with and giants to deal with and how do you balance all of that and not make it seem like the whole world is just completely falling apart. Those are sort of two very different scenarios that could happen. The way I try to think of it is, the DM is going to have to make some decisions on his or her campaign’s behalf about how many of these s Earth-shaking enemies and super villains to throw into the campaign based on their own comfort level. My goal is really to take iconic things to D&D and show them off in the most iconic way. And if you’re going to deal with dragons, and you’re going to deal with giants, size and scope sort of go hand in hand, that these are big threats. Now, a future story that we deal with might not need to be Earth-shaking, in fact it could be quite small. It just depends on what we’ve chosen to focus on.
Mearls: Yeah, we don’t want to fall in the trap of always having to just get bigger and bigger. It loses any of the real human element – the ability for people to relate to it. I think what’s important for us is that within the scope of the adventure, the stakes are high, and those stakes can range from very epic, to where when you look at something like Curse of Strahd. That’s a very personal adventure. For the players, they want to escape. And even for Straud, it’s very personal, but the results of that adventure don’t really have any Earth-shaking changes for the Realms, for instance. I think that’s the tempo that we want to try to hit. We can have the big budget Hollywood huge special effects style story, and then we can also have the more personal story where it might be more like Ocean’s 11, where it’s very important to those characters, but it's not going to change the complexion of the world.
Next Page: Storm King's Thunder and the Neverwinter video game, and whether Wizards of the Coast is looking to create new or revised campaign settings
I want to ask you about the miniatures line you guys have announced for this new adventure. What can you tell me about that?
Mearls: We work with Wizkids about a year before the adventure we’re set to release. They go through the adventure outline, and the text that’s been written so far to pick out key characters and key monsters.
Perkins: In a typical setlist, we combine what we consider to be evergreen, iconic D&D elements and mix with with story-focused figures, and Wizkids might have as many as 15 percent or 20 percent of the minis in a given release be tied to the story in question. They have needs and limitations in terms of the amount of plastic they put in a set and the amount of color they put in a set and other things like that that we don’t have to concern ourselves with. Our job is really just to meet with them, give them what we think are our best ideas for story tie-ins, and let them make the decisions about how many story-specific figures to put in a given set. And in some cases, we give them a heads-up pretty early on that we were going to eventually do a giant-focused story so that they don’t release too many giants too soon, and they could save up for this moment. So, this kind of a big deal for them. They’ve been wanting to do giants, and release giant figures for a long time, and so you’ll see a fair number of them.
You also work together with Cryptic and the Neverwinter video game. I know that Storm King’s Thunder also extends into that project. How does that cooperation work, and how has it unfolded for Storm King’s Thunder?
Mearls: The important thing for us is, when we have an event, we want consistency. We know a lot of people who play D&D, but there are people who just play the tabletop, or just play Neverwinter, or just play the board games. We have a lot of fans who like to play D&D across all sorts of types of games. When the collaboration between us and our partners is working, we can create a really big event that transcends game genres, that can be consistent from game to game, and really lets someone get immersed in the storyline and experience it from a few different angles.
We’re not just telling the same exact plot again and again. We say, “ok, here’s this event,” and it’s almost like World War II, or some other big event. There are different areas and different locations it has an effect on, and there are different subplots that can play out. So each game can delve into it, but you’re not getting the same events or the same characters, you know? It’s not repetitive, it’s all tied to one bigger event, and you can see that big picture coming together.
Perkins: Working with Cryptic on their Neverwinter expansion that’s tied to Storm King’s Thunder, as soon as we had our story Bible, we shared it with them. Our story Bible is basically a text-lite, image-heavy document that sets the tone for the story and touches on key characters and key events. Once they had that in their clutches, they went off on their own and found their own tangent story to tell – a story that could happen at the same time as the story of Storm King’s Thunder and not be dissonant. They play very well together.
Because they have more constraints than we do, they can’t do a story or tell a story with all six kinds of giants, so they really focused on one kind, and they are telling a story about those giants in particular. But, they also worked very closely with us in recent months on how to incorporate runes into the story, how to bring some of the actual characters from Storm King’s Thunder into their story that they wanted to tell.
The reason why we show them to our partners so early is to get them as excited about the story as we are, and also to give them a chance early on to influence the story and become invested in it. I think it’s much better for them to work on something that excites them than something they have to do in order to just tie it into our stories.
I think if Cryptic had come to us after we pitched them the Storm King’s Thunder story, and said: “meh, we’re not really keen on this,” we would have made some changes to accommodate them or try to tell a story that excited them. They’re big D&D fans, and it’s like an early test case for us. If they can’t get excited by the story, we’re doing something wrong and we have to kind of go back to the drawing board. I think that’s one of the most valuable aspects of these partnerships. They give us a sense early on about whether or not we’re on the right track and we’re doing something that’s going to resonate not only with our core D&D RPG Fans, but also with our larger D&D community.
Are their any other partnerships related to Storm King’s Thunder that you guys are excited about?
Perkins: There is also the board game coming up from Wizkids – Assault of the Giants. We don’t have too many details on that, and I don’t want to spoil things, but that one sounds really interesting. They’ve kind of taken an approach where each player is taking on the role of one of the factions of giants. It’s kind of a fun twist. Rather than playing the heroes, you can play the monsters, and you’re competing against the other giant factions. So I’m really looking forward to that game.
In the first couple of years of this new edition of D&D, it seems like you’ve been pursuing a different approach to unfolding content, with a big focus on adventures, rather than lots of new campaign settings. And when you have done setting books, it’s mostly been focused on the Forgotten Realms. Can you talk about that decision, and what you say to people who really want those new or even refreshed versions of other bit campaign settings?
Mearls: We started with the Realms because it’s always been one of the most popular D&D settings, if not the most popular. That makes the decision fairly easy. But it’s also a setting that has a lot of storytelling history and potential in it. So, we talk about things like dragons and giants and the elemental cults. There’s a place for all of those in the Realms. Especially for our first few years with the launch of fifth edition, it’s a really good setting because we know if it’s something that’s really core and popular for D&D, it has a home in the Realms.
As far as the other settings go, those are definitely on our minds. We just did Curse of Straud, so that’s kind of us dipping our toe back in Ravenloft, playing back that original classic story and retelling it for fifth edition. And the way we look at our other settings, like an Eberron, or Dragonlance, or Planescape, is that we think that if we have the Realms, it’s kind of filling our classic, high fantasy world. How could other settings potentially contrast with that? How can they, like Ravenloft, bring a real different flavor and a different style of storytelling to the table, and what can we do in our design work to help bring out those unique elements and make them even more distinct?
We don’t want to overwhelm people with too many settings all at once. And we want it to be a real narrative, like when a classic setting is brought back, like with Ravenloft, there’s an understandable narrative behind why it’s coming back and how it fits in. If you can imagine someone going to a game, or bookstore, or browsing through Amazon, and getting to D&D, you don’t want them to be overwhelmed by too many options that look too similar. We want them to really understand very quickly: Here’s the D&D line-up of books, and here’s where each one fits in.
Perkins: We’ve got a whole history of editions behind us, and one of the great things about fifth edition is its very friendly when it comes to adapting old edition stuff to it. It’s very easy to take a first edition module and just update it to fifth addition. It’s very easy to take a second edition D&D campaign setting and update it. And all of those campaign settings are now out there, easily accessible as PDFs on D&D Classics or dmsguild.com. And we know that we released the Forgotten Realms campaign settings books three or four times now, we’ve done Dark Sun at least twice, we’ve done two versions of the Eberron campaign setting, all that material is out there. It’s accessible. So, going forward, as a creative, I feel like if we’re going to revisit something, we have to be able to offer something new. So that you’re not just buying the same thing again, and making sure that what we’re offering is stuff that DMs are actually going to use.
So that does beg the question: Is there any interest in exploring a new campaign setting?
Mearls: Yeah. I think with a new setting, it’s always a risk because you’re doing something new. I think we’re open to anything, but I think the bar for a new setting is set very high. When you have so many interesting settings in your backlog, a new setting has to really bring something very compelling, interesting, and truly new into the game for us to really consider it. But it is definitely something that we have talked about.