D&D Review: Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide
After the cancellation of its predecessor and a delay for an uncertain length of time, the first sourcebook for the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons has been released: the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, written by the same company as Out of the Abyss and likely meant to work well with the Rage of Demons storyline.
While the SCAG is a little late to really be a part of the current storyline and season of Organized Play, all of the recent D&D adventures have been set on the Sword Coast (even those prior to 5e’s full launch), making this a continually relevant sourcebook.
What It Is
The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is a 160-page book written and edited by Green Ronin Publishishing under licence to Wizards of the Coast, who supervised the creation and playtesting. It retails for around $40 in the Lower 48, or $50 CAD for me. It’s a full colour hardcover book with slightly matte pages (it doesn’t look as dull as the Tyranny of Dragons paper, but this might be due to the full colour backgrounds to the pages).
The book is effectively an updated version of the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide (published for 4e in 2008). It’s includes 95-pages describing the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, including 20-pages devoted just to the Gods. Also included are new races, class options, cantrips, and backgrounds. These semi-crunchy sections cover 52-pages, but there’s a lot of talk in that section devoted to the place of race and class options in the world.
As a player’s guide to the Realms and the Sword Coast region, the book is excellent. There’s a lot of flavour and small tidbits of lore, but not so much as to be overwhelming. Chapter One gives a full overview of the Faerûn, with each nation or small region receiving a couple paragraphs. Chapter Two details the Sword Coast region, going into much more detail, with a couple pages of solid text devoted to major cities and areas. This second chapter is also written in-character from the perspective of people from the Sword Coast, which adds some flavour and the potential of unreliable narration, giving DMs freedom to contradict the book. The initial 2/3rds of the book is great for anyone looking to build a Realmsian character to play in one of the storyline adventures (which all take place around the Sword Coast) or, to a lesser extent, a player in Adventurer’s League games.
Especially noteworthy in this regard is the deities section, which dominates the first chapter. This includes full write-ups for 43 deities, each given roughly 1/3 a page. There’s also an expanded chart of alignment, domains, and symbols for the gods as well as new charts for the non-human deities. Given whom you worship is important in the setting and most characters have a patron god, this is a nice summary for players.
The gazetteer includes some information summarizing the changes to the landscape from the Sundering. For the most part these can be summed up as “back to the way it was”. Paired with both the 4e realms sourcebook and an earlier campaign guide (your favourite from the various books & boxes) it’s enough to passably run an extended Forgotten Realms campaign.
The new mechanical options seem solid and balanced. There’s nothing that appears game breaking at first glance. The new subclasses all have a distinct flavour, and can mostly be described in narrative terms rather than simply mechanical, which is important. The new options also seem to fill a gap in the game, either narratively or mechanically. There are a couple options softer in the story department, but that serve a larger game niche (for example, the battlerager is the mobile barbarian and the order of the crown paladin is the dedicated tank). The book adds a new subclass for the barbarian, cleric, fighter, paladin, sorcerer, warlock, wizard, and two new subclasses for the monk and rogue.
The barbarian and wizard subclasses are race specific, with the battlerager barbarian restricted to dwarves and the bladesinger wizard being elven. I like this. Some freedom is given to Dungeon Masters to lift this restriction, but I enjoy restrictions as the default. And it encourages DMs to do the same with their own options, or even existing subclasses/classes.
Most of the new backgrounds are generic, and work easily in any campaign, which is a nice option; I appreciate a Realms flavour in many but more options for other games are desired. There are a few that are very specific to the Realms, but even these could be reflavoured easily. I’m uncertain if I wanted fewer or more Realms-specific backgrounds. But I appreciate the restraint in most cases, as we didn’t end up with multiple “new” backgrounds like, oh, “Candlekeep Sage” that are identical to the existing sage but with a *slightly* different flavour. A couple backgrounds even include variants, which I enjoy. I like that the system encourages tweaking existing backgrounds when possible.
The book includes updated versions of a couple subclasses featured in an Unearthed Arcana article from the Wizards of the Coast website: the storm sorcerer and swashbuckler rogue. For fans of those subclasses, it’s nice to have revisions. Especially for players who wanted to use these options in Organized Play, or in homegames with a DM that is wary of UA content.
There are variants for a couple races without subrace options, such as half-elves and tieflings. I was a little irked that these races didn’t have subraces built-in, as I wanted to avoid the 3e/Pathfinder design of swapping racial traits, as it can lead to mix-and-matching abilities to get an optimal version of the race. Thankfully, the variant half-elf skirts the issue by making only a single feature modular.
There’s very little information on the lands beyond the Sword Coast. This is problematic for many of the nations, which have changed dramatically over the years. Little details like leadership are often missing or buried in the text. Most noteworthy is the Moonsea region, which is the focus of the Expeditions wing of the Adventurer’s League. The region only receives a quarter of a page, making the book somewhat of a poor world resource for AL players. However, this does give the Expeditions adventures and AL coordinators a little more latitude to get creative, and add their own details to that region. (If their additions will actually become canon or be forgotten remains to be seen.)
The in-character gazetteer is a little weak. There are long stretches where it’s easy to forget it’s being written in-world. The narrator very rarely intrudes into the text. Which rather defeats the purpose of it being written in-character.
There’s so few new mechanical options for 5e, the game feels a little option starved. I appreciate the slow release schedule rather than waves and waves splatbooks, but I think we could have a *little* more. Similarly, this product is awkward as a splatbook as the crunch is world specific. This makes sense, given what the book is, but it’s still disappointing for people not playing in the Realms, which is very likely the majority of D&D players. The lack of splatbooks hurts some classes more than others, and there are still no additional builds for the bard or druid, while the ranger has only received support from Unearthed Arcana.
The battlerager barbarian is all about spiked armour. I’m not thrilled with class features that assume specific gear: what if the character finds really nice magic armour? Or is stripped of their equipment? Woe to the battlerager playing Out of the Abyss and relying on scavenged armaments.
Despite the FR focus of the book, a few of the subclasses are generic and don’t feel particularly connected to the Realms. Both monk paths are so-so in this regard, not really jumping out as part of the world. The Sun Soul monk is at least fun as the DragonBall ki blasting monk, but the Long Death monk is just odd with weak flavour: the how and why this monk gains its powers are funky. The Way of the Long Death is meant to be the “evil monk” build to contrast with the Sun Soul, but the Way of Shadow in the PHB seems better. Similarly, the warlork’s Undying patron is weak, with the best examples of patrons coming from Greyhawk rather than the Realms. A shadow weave pact tied to Shar or one that emulated the void from 4e’s Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide would have been preferable.
As mentioned among “the Good”, the book includes updated versions of the Unearthed Arcana playtest content. The negative flip side of this inclusion is less total content. I’d prefer the options included in UA be supplemental to material in books, and instead have the UA content be updated on the site at a later date. If WotC wants playtest feedback for a book’s content, I’m sure they could release that content separately. Doing so should also generate a stronger response, as well as feedback derived from actual testing, as people set-out to actually test the material at their tables.
Not all of the new backgrounds contain personality traits. I imagine this was a space issue, but it’s still disappointing. While the core classes and races received some attention and description of their role in the world, I would have loved similar attention for the backgrounds. Where might sages be in the Sword Coast. What merchant guilds could one belong to? Or thieves’ guilds? If backgrounds truly are equal in importance to race and class, they should have been treated as such.
The book has no new DM mechanics or rules modules, such as crunch for wild magic zones, spellplague, or dead magic. (There’s also nothing on Spellscars.) This isn’t really a surprise given the focus on the book, but is a bit of a disappointment with no other campaign material on the horizon.
There’s no Shaundakul! Outrage! Okay, for those who don’t know, Shaundakul is the god of Wind, Exploration, Portals, Travelers, and Rangers. He’s effectively an adventurer god who was introduced in mid-2e and warranted an entry in the 3e Realms campaign book. And he’s obscure, so it makes sense he’d be omitted. But he was the patron god of my 2e ranger and a personal favourite, so I’ll darn well protest his exclusion.
The book ignores the existence of Elemental Evil Player’s Companion, most notably the races. The genasi have long had a role in the Realms but receive no mention, and the SCAG repeats the deep gnome racial traits from the EEPC. I’d have rather have more new content than a gnome subclass I already own. Alternatively, they could have reprinted the aasimar racial traits from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, putting them in a book players are more likely permitted to reference.
The Waterdhavian noble background. This is incredibly redundant, with the noble background already in existence. They didn’t even bother just making it a variant of the noble. Boooo.
My biggest complaint shouldn’t be a surprise: the price of the book. All of the 5e books have a steep price point but this is asking a lot for a 160-page book. It costs 4/5th what one of the core rulebooks cost but with less than 1/2 the content. Paizo charges $30 for similarly sized books and WotC was charging $35 for books this size under five years ago. For anyone desperate for new crunch, this price point is exceptionally high.
At the back of the book a few pages are dedicated to adjusting the new class options for other settings (Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and Eberron), and it also includes some thoughts on accommodating the content into homebrew worlds. This is nice, albeit odd in a book that is otherwise completely dedicated to the Realms, and a lot of space devoted to content that fills maybe 5-6 pages. (I like that they did it as a concept, but it’s an odd choice to devote 2% of the book to making 5% of the book work in other settings.)
While each of the classes get some description of how classes and class options fit into the world, warlock patrons are given names and descriptions. So your feypact warlock in the Realms doesn’t just have a deal with “faerie X” but Oberon the Green Lord. (However, the book then omits this for the new pact. Oops.)
There’s a sidebar with racial traits for the rare ghostwise halflings. It’s cool. Perhaps a little underpowered (maybe) but cool. And optional.
There are some nice maps in the book. Two actually: the traditional highly detailed map with cities, roads, & terrain and also a more stylized in-universe map. Both are cool in very different ways. The first map is one of the best maps of Faerûn I’ve seen a long time.
The main map is also used for small inserts in Chapter Two, when the book describes a region. Like Out of the Abyss, this is done in a stylized fashion that is very pretty, making the map look more like filler art, but useful filler.
The inheritor background is slick. A cool idea. It stretches the idea of a background as “what you did before you were an adventurer” but it’s pretty neat.
There is a small sidebar for DMs on “making the Realms your own”, encouraging them to tweak the setting. While many DMs have been doing this for years, sometimes it’s nice to have the reminder (let alone encouragement) that you are not restricted by the words on the page.
I liked this book. But I’m still conflicted on whether it was the book I wanted.
It’s unquestionably a good book. As mentioned, this book is really a updated version of the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide. Arguably, it’s much better than that book, with stronger descriptions and more detail on the places, gods, and races. It is more focused than its predecessor on being a player-friendly book of lore. It’s probably a useful book to hand to any player new to the Realms, regardless of the era being played.
I’m uncertain if it’s the best choice for the first non-adventure book for 5th Edition. It’s great to give players involved in the Forgotten Realms a product that introduces them to the setting, but that’s weakened if there’s nothing comparable for the Dungeon Master to help them set a story in the Realms. It’s nice to have some new mechanical options for Realms characters, but that’s hindered by the need for more generic content. Conversely, new options are desirable, but paying $40 for a dozen pages of content is steep.
To some extent it makes sense as a business decision. There is a wealth of Forgotten Realms campaign books for past editions available from used game stores or as PDFs, so a new campaign guide is less needed. But making the first splatbook a sourcebook encourages people to buy that book even if they wouldn’t normally buy a setting book, introducing new people to the Realms and possibly making them fans of the setting.
But this is all beside the point and is pretty much completely and totally irrelevant to an actual review of this book. At the end of the day, this book is excellent at what it does and for what it is. It may be a poor splatbook, but that’s like calling an apple a poor orange. If you want a player’s guide to the Sword Coast region of the Forgotten Realms or an introduction to that setting, this is an excellent product.
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