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D&D Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide Review - Best Left Forgotten

Jonathan Bolding | 5 Nov 2015 16:00
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Designed by Green Ronin & Wizards of the Coast. Published by Wizards of the Coast. Released November 3, 2015. Review copy provided by publisher.

Whatever criticism you have of Wizards of the Coast's decision to form the Forgotten Realms into Dungeons & Dragons' primary default universe, you cannot particularly fault their breadth of implementation so far: Three big adventures requiring months to complete, an integrated organized play system, and a free online supplement of player's options for each adventure so-far released. So it's with some expectation of greatness, some capstone of fulfillment, that we should approach the 5th Edition's first supplement: Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. Ostensibly the must-have book for the modern player who'd like to keep up with the Joneses when it comes to what's going on with the hip new FR-centric D&D. Perhaps that last sentence came off as sarcastic to you. That's because it was. Nothing about this book is must-have, neither its world nor its game content.

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Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, taken as a whole, is not a very good roleplaying game book. It's a 20-page whirlwind tour of thirty-some years of Forgotten Realms history and geography, a kinda-useful 40-page whirlwind tour of the Sword Coast region. The rest of the book is 60 pages of mostly-superfluous descriptions of what standard D&D characters are like in the realms, with scattered nuggets of game mechanics customizing specific classes, a few alternate racial mechanics, and a trove of backgrounds. None of these sections particularly excels. It's a 160 page, $40, full color hardback book - and much of what sets the high standard it fails to achieve is that $40 price point.

That's not to say that are not moments of shining goodness, interesting lore, and clever mechanical twists - but those are the exception here, not the rule. The book's not quite sure whether it's a campaign world sourcebook, a framework for adventures, a companion to published adventures, or a supplement for specializing player characters in the Forgotten Realms.

SCAG 5 sword coast map

As with every single non-adventure book for 5th Edition so far, the highlight of SCAG[1] is the art direction, graphic design, and layout. A big, high quality map of the sword coast region is its centerpiece. Zoomed-in chunks of the map are shown alongside descriptions of regions and cities throughout the book. The excerpts are small enough that they don't take up too much space, but big enough to be useful when figuring out the relative location of the place described. As always, Wizards of the Coast produces the most useful, usable indexes in tabletop gaming - though the table of contents fails to include good detail for the gazetteer and there's no index of the smaller map segments.

Sadly, the book uses some bleed effects that spread and fall into the gutter between pages, most notably on that big centerpiece map. The island kingdoms and nautical elements are completely indecipherable. Incredibly, this also means that Neverwinter - certainly a place of some import to the D&D brand - falls into the gutter. Further, no map in the book has a handy distance key, making them frustrating for some kinds of game master to use at the table. (Pro tip: You can just buy the whole, uncut map - including distance key - direct from its artist. It's completely gorgeous and I'm not sure why it isn't simply a two-page spread.)

Otherwise, there's not quite as much character art as in the core books, but there's a decent amount of reference art and pictures of things like coins and holy symbols that I didn't mind too much. Disappointingly, because the book is so thin, you'll likely have to break the spine to get it to lie flat if you're in the first or last quarter of the book. There's just not enough pages to hold down the thick hardcover. I'll say this again later, but given how short this book is, it should have been a softback.

Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide collects a couple types of - and I am going to use this word just the once, I promise - "Realmslore" into one place. The first twenty pages or so are a decent overview of the Forgotten Realms as a whole, focused on the perspective of the default setting of the sword coast and spreading outward in concentric rings of less and less detailed information. The further something is from Waterdeep, the less description it gets, all the way out to a single paragraph on far off Kara-Tur (which, I will note, the writers did well not to describe as "oriental.") It's a well written high-level overview of the rather complicated Realms' history for someone only sort-of familiar with the setting, sparing detail only where it serves to enhance understanding, but not going too deep into any single place or period of the world's history. New dungeon masters to the setting could comfortably ad-lib off this stuff without feeling like they're breaking the game's canon. If you don't know anything about the Realms at all, it'll give you a decent background and a bunch of names to look up on a wiki.

The following eighty or so pages are a tour of the Sword Coast region, which is where one might expect to be adventuring given the book's title. Select cities and kingdoms get high-level overviews, describing their society and goings-on in a first person voice according to a knowledgeable inhabitant of the Realms. It works pretty well as middle-detail overview, and is downright entertaining at parts as these adventurers recount their experiences and travels.

This still leaves large swathes of the map edges undescribed or unmentioned. The Anauroch desert certainly looks important, but I don't really know what's there. That makes it hard to get this content to your table without designing your own adventures from the seeds you dig out - even if every spadeful of story-rich earth you overturn is practically green with sprouts. It's clear this is meant more as a reference for running published adventures than for your own creations, and that's where it'll be most useful to those who buy it - the published adventures will fill in the gaps for you. SCAG will get you all the net details and bits of local color that the adventures can't spend time on.

[1] Not to be confused with a Scrag, which is an aquatic subspecies of Troll.

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