Inside Pulse 12

Tabletop Review: Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide (Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition)

Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide (Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast/Green Ronin Publishing
Cost: $39.95 ($23.98 at Amazon)
Page Count: 159
Release Date: 11/03/2015
Get it Here: Amazon.com

After the terrific job Wizards of the Coast and Green Ronin did with Out of the Abyss, I was really looking forward to the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. After all, it would be the first campaign setting release for D&D 5e and the game has been out for sixteen months now. Granted, releases for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition feel like they have been sparse. We’ve received the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master Guide and Monster Manual in addition to four full adventure campaigns and a starter set. That’s eight releases in sixteen months, or one large hardcover book every other month – and that doesn’t include this latest release. So when you think about it, Wizards and their collaborators have a done an impressive job of putting out high quality releases in a rather quick fashion. Unfortunately, the streak of top notch 5e releases comes to an end with the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide as, to be blunt, it’s not very good. Let’s take a look at why.

First up is the price. With a price tag of $39.95, the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is a pretty expensive book, especially when you factor in the book is only 159 pages long. Not only is this the smallest release for Fifth Edition yet, but it’s one of the shortest campaign guides ever released. The only one with less pages I can think o off the top of my head is the fourth edition version of Menzoberranzan, which was only 127 pages… and had a MSRP of only $29.95 – ten dollars less than this one. So what you’re getting here is extremely overpriced for the page count.

The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is also the shortest campaign setting released for D&D in terms of scope and coverage that I can think of. The Sword Coast is, of course, a fraction of the Forgotten Realms. Some gamers may be disappointed that the book only covers a fraction of the traditional campaign setting and that, unlike the previous four editions of Dungeons & Dragons, we’re getting a snippet of a world before a full overview boxed set or campaign tome. The main reason behind this was so that there could be a tie-in with the D&D video game Sword Coast Legends. Unfortunately, as reviews have shown, the Sword Coast video game is about as disappointing as the tabletop release.

Now I have no problem with Wizards and Green Ronin choosing just the Sword Coast for their first campaign setting. After all, the Sword Coast is where the vast, vast majority of Forgotten Realms (and one could argue non-homebrew D&D) campaigns take place. With Waterdeep, Cormyr, Neverwinter, Icewind Dale and other famous areas being covered in this book, the most important and popular parts of the Toril are covered. Unfortunately, there is very little depth or history provided in this guide, so new/younger players and DMs will only have a vague idea of the history of the realm and its inhabitants. The book basically assumes you are a long time D&D veteran and expects your memories and previous Forgotten Realms releases to fill in the gaps – which is not cool. The end result feels like a Cliff Notes version of a campaign guide and will leave most gamers unhappy and yearning for more. My big fear is that this is how 5e campaign settings will be – extremely light on details and fluff, but heavy on quarter and half pages of art to take up much of the already small page count.

Now it’s not unheard of for a mere slice of the Realms to get its own Campaign guide, but they are usually far more detailed and in-depth than this pitiful release. I already mentioned the 4e Menzoberranzan release and how it was roughly the same page count for ten bucks less. It was also vastly superior in terms of depth, content and characterization. 4e also had the Neverwinter campaign setting, which, for my money, was the best release of 4e. For the same price as this Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, you got 223 pages of excellent in-depth coverage that a DM could actually use. The fact I just mentioned two 4e releases that were better than this would should be alarming, because we all know how… unsatisfactory a lot of gamers found 4e to be. This doesn’t even begin to include the amazing 2e campaign settings that covered only a fraction of the realms. Kara-Tur, Maztica and other slices of Toril received their own campaign settings, and they were far more in-depth and useful than the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. I’m still a bit baffled by this release because it could have been so much more and been a useful weighty tome to flesh out cities or even whole sections of the Sword Coast in campaigns. Instead, most gamers are going to have to pick up older releases to fill in the blanks… or, you know, use their imagination and have a ruleslaywer pick things apart. This… is not a good release. At all.

So we’ve already skewered the book for brevity, cost, (lack of) page count and no real depth on the topic at hand, but let’s talk content now. In the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide you get a preface, five chapters and an appendix. The preface is two pages, one of which is a map that bleeds onto the other page and is so poorly laid out, Waterdeep is right in the crack between the two pages. You’ll have to bend (possibly break) the spine of your book just to see it. Other locations this happens to include Luskan, Skadar and Ravenrock. This alone should have been caught by whoever did layouts and/or editing and right there was a red flag that this book was going to have problems galore. It’s a shame too, because despite a lack of scale and layout issues, the maps you’ll find in this book look great. This is only on page five, by the way. The actual verbal content of the preface is a quick overview of the book that promises far more detail and information about the region than you actually get, which is… unfortunate. In fact, as you’ll see, only a merely sixty pages of the book are devoted to the actual Sword Coast region. Oof.

Chapter One is “Welcome to the Realms” and it gives a VERY rough overview of the Forgotten Realms. It’s odd that they’d do this and not just do a full FR book, but at the same time, newcomers might not know where the Sword Coast is, what world it is part of and so on. You get a fast overview of Faerun, the main continent Realms stories takes place in. A lot of cities are covered, but you only get one to two paragraphs on each, and there is no sense of history, the people, the culture of the location or anything really. Everything here is just too brief to be of use. At best the book works as a starting point for looking up locations in a search engine for a richer, more detailed look.

That’s not to say that all of Chapter One is useless or weaker than it should be. There is a brief (there’s that word again; get used to it) look at how seasons, time of day and dates are tracked. However, you get a full history of the Realms from 1e to 5e that takes up a little over a page and a half of space. Yes, they truncated the entire history into that small amount of space. WotC naysayers will have a field day with this brevity, and I have to admit, this is just one of the areas that should have been fleshed out more, as 1e-4e takes up just half a page. Oy. The strongest part about Chapter One is a long look at the various gods and goddesses for Toril. Each God gets several paragraphs about them, and there is also a nice sidebar telling alignments, domains and the diety’s symbol. The problem here is that the creative team has brought too many dead gods back to life with no real rhyme or reason. As such, the pantheon is overflowing with too many gods now that, essentially, the Time of Troubles AND the Spellplague have both been undone, which is a little too much. Do we really need a god of Death, a god of the Dead, a Scribe of the Dead and a god of Murder? Do we really need both Amaunator and Lathander as separate gods now, after the Sundering itself pointed out they were the same god? There’s a lot here that could have been tidied up. Instead we’re overflowing with Gods and Goddesses, and newcomers will be overwhelmed while veterans will be like “How is God XYZ alive? I clearly remember them dying.” There’s a lot here that should have been straightened out before release.

Chapter 2 is “The Sword Coast and the North.” This is the only chapter in the book that actually focuses on the titular topic and it’s only sixty pages long, meaning two-third of the book is about things that are superfluous. Now that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting or useful, but if you buy a forty dollar book about the Sword Coast, you would expect the book to mostly, if not completely, about that topic, right? Not in this case. Regardless, this is the chapter you probably bought the book for, and it’s also the most detailed of the chapters. Various locations along the Sword Coast are grouped into factions/locations and then are given their own section here. Each major location receives one to two pages to have their history summed up, which is far better than the previous chapter, but still pretty truncated. The Lords’ Alliance section has Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter and Waterdeep, amongst others. Dwarfholds of the North gives you Gauntlgrym and Mithrall Hall. Evermeet, the Moonshaes and Mintarn are under the Island Kingdoms section. Independent Realms is the longest section, with locations ranging from Luskan to Dragonspear Castle – a location that some may remember as being the setting for the first 5e adventure. Again, what’s here is mediocre. It’s about as good as you could do with the space allotted, but then why make this book half the page count of the one WotC did for Neverwinter, which is a city IN the Sword Coast? Really, this should have been a 2-300 page book (and priced accordingly), so it’s hard for long time gamers wanting a little more substance to be anything but disappointed with the contents you find in this chapter. This is essentially a Cliff Notes/Primer rather than a true campaign setting and that’s not what anyone I know of was clamoring for.

Chapter 3 is “Races of the Realms.” Eighteen pages are essentially devoted to rehashes of the races talked about in the PHB and DMG. If you’ve picked this book up, you already know what the differences are between Shield and Gold Dwarves. Almost all of this chapter could have been spent on something new and informative about the region. You do get Player character rules for playing Duergar and Deep Gnomes, which is something new at least, but I would have put these in Out of the Abyss instead of here since that was so Underdark oriented.

Again, this doesn’t mean Chapter 3 is all bad. There a neat look at the nine ethnicities of Humans in Faerun, which is rare to see someone talk about. There are some new Tiefling variants. Things like that. Most of the chapter is rehashing stuff you already know as a FR fan or from the core three D&D 5e rulebooks though. I’d have rather seen these pages used on, say, key figures of the region. There’s very little mention of any of these save in passing and, again, the book assumes you already know everything about them, much to a newcomer’s chagrin.

Chapter 4 is “Classes,” but unlike the previous chapter, a lot of this IS new and useful. There are two new paths for Barbarians (one is Dwarf only) which expands that class quite a bit. You get a look at three different Bardic colleges, a new Arcana domain for Clerics, and a brief bit of background information for Druids. Purple Dragon Knights are now a selectable archetype for Fighters, while Monks get Sun Souls and Long Death traditions. This made me happy, as my key sidekick in Neverwinter Nights was a Dwarven Long Death Monk. Paladins get three new orders and a new Sacred Oath option. Rangers get half a page of fluff because, for the third edition in a row, D&D kinds of craps on them. Rogues get two new archetypes and Sorcerers get a new option that is weather based. Penultimately, we come to Warlocks, who get the most attention in this chapter. You get a little over two pages on Patrons in the Realms, including the Great Old Ones. No, these aren’t the Cthulhu Mythos GOOs, but a thinly veiled D&D rip-off version. They’re familiar to longtime Realms fans though, and a lot of fun for what they are. Finally, we come to Wizards, who get a quick look at different magi groups like the Thayan Red Wizards (a whole two paragraphs) and a new Arcane Tradition. The chapter then ends with four new Cantrips.

The last chapter in Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is “Backgrounds.” Now, Backgrounds have been covered in the core rulebooks and adventure campaigns, but now you get a dozen more when you purchase this book. Some are definitely specific to the Sword Coast or the Forgotten Realms as a whole, like Faction Agent, Far Traveller, Uthgardt Tribe Member and Waterdhavian Noble. Others are more general and can be used in homebrew settings, like Mercenary Veteran, Inheritor, Courtier and so on. Again, while none of this truly pertains to the Sword Coast and I’d have liked to see these pages used as campaign dressing, the twelve backgrounds here are well done and a lot of fun. I’d just prefer to have seen them in a Forgotten Realms book, or at the page count of this doubled so this and more pertinent content could have been made available.

The last three pages of Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide are a strange little appendix. It is entitled “Class Options in Other Worlds.” I hope the irony of a book this light on content devoting a few pages to OTHER campaign settings that will not see a book of their own for a long time, or ever, is not lost on you. Anyway, this is quick look at converting some of the new character options into jargon more useful in other settings. These are Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Eberron and generic homebrew worlds. Sorry Ravenloft fans, you’re screwed over again. This is quick, general stuff, like turning the Oath of the Crown option for Paladins into a Knight of the Sword/Skull or how Boccob’s clerics can use the new Arcana domain. Nothing major or special, but it is nice to see some lip service paid to other campaign worlds.

So there you go. That’s your Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. While there were a few good things to be had, I found the book to be too far off from the titular topic to my liking. It was too sparse and had little to no depth on any subject. This was just a very shallow, sparse overview of one of the richest, most detailed locations in all of tabletop gaming. The Sword Coast deserved a lot better than this, especially for the price you pay. This book is my first real disappointment with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and unless you want some of the new PC options or are a completionist, this is a very easy pass. Hopefully future campaign setting books will be a lot better than this one. Of course, they’d have to be.

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