When I sat down with Dungeons & Dragons lead designer Mike Mearls to talk about Storm King’s Thunder, the most recent published adventure for the game, we ended up talking about authorial Dungeon Masters and performative Dungeon Masters.
If you’re not familiar with tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, a Dungeon Master (or DM) is basically a creator, a referee, and a constant improv partner for the entire party. They make the world, tell players how they can perform actions there, and fill in any gaps that appear between those two things. It’s a hard job.
An authorial DM might be the kind of person who creates their entire world. Mearls told me about his own home-brew campaign that puts the players in a city constantly on the brink of ruling parties that celebrate chaos and order in turn. The non-player characters, their lives, and the city are all his complete creations.
A performative DM is the person who can take an adventure, a book, or some plot ideas and spin them into their own magical world purely on their ability to add flesh on top of bones. This is the kind of person who might take Princes of the Apocalypse, Curse of Strahd, or Storm King’s Thunder, memorize it, and then immerse their players within this tight framework of actions and narratives that the team at Wizards of the Coast have provided them with.
Both style of play require an immense amount of skill and talent, and while I tend toward the former, reading through Storm King’s Thunder for the first time gave me the strongest itch that I have ever had to actually put a party through a pre-created adventure. The adventure is created in such a way that any given location contains a dozen plot hooks, interesting characters, and beautiful descriptions that would be suitable for an entire campaign. As an authorial DM, I (still) have a strong urge to pull a giant lord or two from the Forgotten Realms (the world where the adventure takes place) in order to plop them into my own campaign, but my performative side also wants to put my players into the exact shoes that the designers have created in order to see what they would do when they stumble upon the ancient Grandfather Tree and its centaur worshippers.
How a Dungeon Master acts is always in the micro. The DM really matters most when it comes to actions, reactions, and how the world responds to the various actions of players. Storm King’s Thunder also contains a large macro layer of giants and their political machinery. Dungeons & Dragons has always had an interesting take on giants: they exist according to a strict caste system called the “ordning.” Storm Giants are at the apex of this system; Hill Giants are at the bottom. Each has their place, and each is bullied and treated poorly by those above them.
The events of Storm King’s Thunder begin with the shattering of the ordning by Annam the All-Father, the unified god of the giants. Their political world in disarray and their King Hekaton thrown into grief by the death of his wife, the giants begin wrecking house all around the northwest of the Forgotten Realms in order to see who will come out as top dog in the new social order.
Following the adventure closely means taking players across hundreds of miles of terrain on horseback, by way of teleporting conche shell, in a flying wizard’s tower, in an airship, or one of a dozen other methods. The contents of this adventure can take players from 1st level to 11th level, and the scale amps up appropriately from that, taking players from being the heroes of a single town or province to saviors of the northwest part of the Realms.
It’s hard to be specific here without stealing some of the wonder, but let me tell you about some of the things I found to be the most wonderful in Storm King’s Thunder. There’s a 40,000+ year old kraken wizard who hangs out in the ocean using its telekinetic powers to lure people into its service from hundreds of miles away. There’s a fire giant who wants to reassemble a magical Voltron to punch dragons in the mouth with. There’s a place called Beorunna’s Well, a sunken grove with extended caverns that just looks like a beautiful, Guillermo del Toro creation.
Of course, there are parts I don’t enjoy as much. Storm King’s Thunder is very equitable when it comes to gender, with many giant lords being women and the gender assignment of many NPCs being up to DM discretion. However, that macro plot I mentioned before starts off with a old-fashioned fridging of King Hekton’s wife Queen Neri, and it’s such a conspicuous, trope-y stumble that I initially assumed that it was meant to be commentary of some kind (as far as I can tell, though, it’s just a plot point). It also seems like trying to truly be a performative Dungeon Master might get one in trouble with this adventure as there is so much content, and so many macro plot steps, that I can easily see it taking a year or more for my play group to make their way through this content. That can be a plus or a minus, of course, depending on how immersed you want to be.
Overall, I’m incredibly impressed with the world that Storm King’s Thunder hands players and Dungeon Masters alike, and I look forward to the next opportunity I have to shove some of this content into my own play sessions.