Unsure of who the target audience is, Wizards of the Coast makes its first critical fumble with the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, a slim book featuring some real diamonds in terms of character creation (Backgrounds, Races, and Classes), but ultimately covering the Realms (not just the Sword Coast) in weak, vague terms. With over 100 pages geared mainly towards providing information useful strictly for filling out a Player Character’s backstory, this is the type of release that can easily be skipped unless you need the crunchy bits, in which case you’re better off finding it on a steep discount for the (at best) 50 pages you will end up using.
Rating: Content 2/5 and Form 3/5.
- Buy the hardcover at Amazon
Read on for the full review!
The big question about this book is: Who is it for? And it’s going to be fun trying to get to that answer because Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide (A.K.A. SCAG) fails miserably at serving its many masters. We’re going to go chapter-by-chapter (and sometimes section-by-section) and at the end of each we’ll return to that question.
1. Welcome to the Realms
A great deal of adventure is to be had in the Realms, for those willing to seek it out.
So says page 7, but you’re going to have to seek it out in another book, because there’s little adventure to be found here.
Chapter 1: Welcome to the Realms casts a wide net by trying to cover the entire Forgotten Realms — not just the Sword Coast — in about 15 pages. It fails to frame the rest of the world, timekeeping, history, magic, and religion around the well-known Sword Coast that covers Waterdeep, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter and so many other oft-traveled-in locales known across the various media that D&D has touched. In places where visuals would have served, text is used, and when the text refers to visual cues (like geography), the accompanying maps rarely give you the visual reference you’d be looking for.
Um… we’ll cover the maps under the Form section of the review, but suffice it to say, we don’t know what the layout folks were thinking about the main Sword Coast map which bleeds into the fold between pages 5 and 6. Then, there’s The Sword Coast and the North (p. 7-9) section, which goes to great effort to mention historical references (which appear again on pages 15-18 in the A Brief History section) and geographical locations (Evermeet, Whalebones, Ruathym) that don’t show up on the Sword Coast map. Luckily, when one flips to the Index at the back, we find it’s pretty comprehensive, which is something lacking in all of the official adventures (like Out of the Abyss and Curse of Strahd), so at least that’s going in our favor. Much of this text and the following Toril and Its Lands (p. 9-14) mention places, concepts, and events like we are already familiar with the setting its long history and expansive world map. With 6 pages and 28 locations covered (some kingdoms, some the size of continents) that’s an awful lot of time NOT being spent on the Sword Coast, turning it into a really bad Wikipedia without links.
Time In the Realms (p. 14-15) takes two pages to cover the Calendar of Harptos, which could have easily just been a single page handout and visual reference, or a downloadable file useful for players and DMs to track events in their campaign. Hey look at that! I made my own because these 2 pages just angered me. (That’s not the real reason I made that, but still.) Meanwhile, A Brief History (p. 15-18) actually does a great job of summing up the Forgotten Realms’ seemingly weekly World Shattering Events (including the Sundering and the Spellplague), but misses a great opportunity to frame these events as a way to build some campaign fodder and adventure ideas. Even worse, given what we’ll eventually learn of the target audience for this product, it fails at casting these events as a useful tool for building better character backstories.
Magic in the Realms (p. 18-19) basically repeats the sidebar The Weave of Magic on p. 206 of the Player’s Handbook and then goes on to present mythals as force fields of layered magical effects, bereft of any physical description of the artifacts and permutations of mythals that have cropped up throughout the setting’s history, such as the devices used in Netheril to power their flying cities. A sidebar attempts to expand on how existing spells should be described with regard to FR’s Weave, but essentially amounts to a thesaurus for cross stitching. Although it gets a nod later in the Classes chapter, Mage Sigils and the larger runic alphabet that was presented in great detail in earlier edition books like Forgotten Realms Adventures (1990) goes largely ignored and entirely undeveloped, yet another chance for an awesome player handout (or even a tool for DMs to use when creating ciphers, puzzles, and other things for the players to interact with).
The strongest section here is Religion In the Realms (19-23), which presents the tables (in the same format as those found in the PHB) for pretty much all the deities that have graced the Forgotten Realms with their presence, even the specific race-based pantheons (though weirdly, those deities don’t get descriptions until the Races chapter, about 80 pages later). Mulhorandi and non-Sword Coast pantheons get some call outs, but don’t get any further description outside of a sidebar loosely touching on the Mulhorandi pantheon. Ultimately, you get 43 deities with 2-5 paragraphs apiece that are squarely framed around the perspective of the priesthoods, temples, clerics and other followers, which makes it A+ material for players.
So Who’s It For?
It’s for players. Kinda.
This section is so vague and self-referential without a much-needed glossary. It’s pained by missed information that only a Realms scholar would recognize is missing. It’s mainly for newcomers who want a brief overview and are willing to investigate the stuff that interests them and ignore the stuff that befuddles them. For some people, the terse coverage of many subjects can be a useful tool to start deeper research, or might help sum up something that crops up in an existing DM’s campaign, but on its own, it’s weaksauce.
2. The Sword Coast and the North
This chapter is primarily written with in-universe narration which has its own issues, both good and bad. The scary thing is how dry much of it is; you’ll rarely get much out of the personality of the characters supposedly describing the people and places of the Sword Coast, as they all just sort of drone on about what’s located where, which organizations rule it or vie for power there, and which two taverns are vaguely interesting for picking up adventures in. (Not that there are adventure ideas included in any of these tavern entries.)
One of the most telling pieces in this whole book is found in the Note to the DM: Making the Realms Yours sidebar (p. 44) that suggests DMs should be prepared to mix things up, alter them, and — let’s get honest here — build all your own stuff, as there will be no specific entries for threats, monsters, stats, or adventures of any kind. This clearly establishes the player-centric nature of this book, and is supported by 90% of the chapter covering settlements. Not wilderness, not adventure sites, just cities and towns, a few key economic or political points about them, and a few watering holes within them. Rarely are specific rulers or NPCs called out, and the maps tend to name the districts and maybe one or two important political locations.
Locations covered include:
- The Lords’ Alliance settlements: Amphail, Baldur’s Gate, Daggerford, Longsaddle, Mirabar, Neverwinter, Silverymoon, Waterdeep, and Yartar.
- Dwarven strongholds: Citadel Adbar, Citalel Felbarr, Gauntlgrym, Ironmaster, Mithral Hall, Sundabar, and Thornhold.
- Then comes the grab-bag: Mintarn, The Moonshaes, Northlander Isles, Orlumbar, Southern Isles, Evermeet, Boarseskyr Bridge, Candlekeep, Darkhold, Elturgard, Evereska, Fields of the Dead, Dragonspear Castle, Trollcalws, Hartsvale, Helm’s Hold, High Forest, High Moor, Najara, Trielta Hills, Uthgardt Lands, Warlock’s Crypt, Luskan, and Icewind Dale.
- The bonus Underdark sites of Gracklstugh, Mantol-Derith, Menzoberranzan, and Blingdenstone all come from adventure sites in Out of the Abyss. Considering this book was a partnership with Green Ronin, that’s not too surprising, but considering how good so many of those locations were as standalone adventure sites in that adventure, it’s sad that they show up here in such a dry, boring section.
Out of those regions, the following maps are included:
- Baldur’s gate environs and city map
- Mirabar environs
- Neverwinter environs and city map
- Silverymoon environs
- Waterdeep city map
- Yartar environs
- The Moonshaes
- The Nelanther Isles
- Darkhold environs
- Everska environs
- Citadel Adbar environs
- High Moor
- Trielta Hills and environs (including Serpent Hills, Hardbuckler, and Elturgard)
- Luskan city map
The Good. The whole chapter concentrates on recent history, so if you’ve run or played in Murder in Baldur’s Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard you’ll see the aftermath of those adventures. Silverymoon, the various dwarfholds, and Waterdeep definitely concentrate on recent turmoil, creating some adventure seeds.
The Najara and Serpent Hills region is narrated by an elf whose party gets put to sleep (nice touch using D&D mechanics there!) and he ends up wandering around the Underdark till he’s captured by yuan-ti and then escapes due to some faction in-fighting in the kingdom…it’s great! Compellingly written, it also works as a great backstory for a player character, or for a contact or patron that hires the party to explore the region. It could work as a journal-style handout foreshadowing events in the area.
The sidebars in this chapter have the best information. They deep-dive into background on the various barbarian tribes, cover legends and events in great detail, and otherwise make the boring “This city is here, and it is ruled by this guy, and they trade in furs” text come alive, which is sorely needed…but doesn’t quite save it.
The Bad. The dry writing fills in vague, boring backstory to often un-mapped locales, ruining any gravitas that the events of the Realms might have. Immediately useful adventure seeds, NPCs, encounter tables by region or urban center, and anything game-friendly is entirely absent. One of the greatest sins is that the maps never feature hexes or any kind of discernible distance measurement, which is further highlighted by how much text in the 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide was dedicated to mapping your campaigns, and the fallout of wilderness exploration, travel pace, and other mechanical features.
Perhaps worst of all — you’ll see why in a second — is that there is no direction for applying character Backgrounds to these locations, or vice versa. NPCs being absent mean that the player Factions are largely ignored outside of the most passing of mentions.
So Who’s It For?
Ultimately, all I can really say is that this setting material is great for those players that want to create an elaborate (or semi-elaborate) backstory for their characters that is tied directly to the places and organizations (and maybe an important NPC or two) of the campaign world. And that’s it.
Worse, they’ll have to do all the heavy lifting of choosing a location, reading up on it, tailoring it or their Background to fit it, and going from there. There’s no text helping with any of this.
If you want a detailed idea of the history of an area or the Sword Coast at large — say, you’re playing a Sage or a long-lived Elf — then you’re out of luck. If you’re a DM looking for tons of adventure opportunities, you’re out of luck. If you’re a DM just looking for enough info to give the players a fun starting base that comes to life, you’re out of luck. Looking for a single random encounter table appropriate to the regions covered in this book? You’re not just out of luck, you’re also getting kicked in the nuts and laughed at, because there’s not a random encounter table in the whole damn book. There’s maps of only about 15 of the 40 areas mentioned and described, and in some of those cases, two maps will cover a single location (like the environs around the city and then the city itself, for example).
3. Races of the Realms
Each entry in this chapter covers the races from the Player’s Handbook in greater Realms-specific detail, though usually keeping it couched in vague terms. Common geographic origins (many not specific to the Sword Coast region) are covered, ancient history in 1-3 sentences (at best), languages, race relations, and race-specific pantheons are all covered, but we’re talking about a handful of paragraphs at best for each race. Considering the reams of material available from past editions for the Realms — race-specific classes, magic items, Background-fodder, Factions — this is really just a few generalizations and a couple new doodads.
The new stuff is good though:
- Duergar, a dwarf subrace.
- A sidebar on rare elf subraces that gives you enough pointers to figure out how to make things like aquatic elves and flying elves.
- Ghostwise halflings (subrace).
- Ten new human ethnicities, about zero of which are Sword Coast-specific.
- A sidebar on making human languages more complex.
- Deep Gnomes (Svirfneblin), a gnome subrace, along with a feat granting them some magic abilities.
- Half-elf variants that cover half-elves born from specific elven subraces, which is a cool way to enhance their variety significantly.
- Variants for Tieflings that cover cosmetic and mechanical changes, though in way less words and options than AD&D 2nd Edition’s The Planewalker’s Handbook.
- A note about using the Aasimar found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Nothing presented showed any signs of being unbalanced, and everything followed the PHB‘s formatting to the letter.
So Who’s It For?
This is the first chapter that’s good for anybody, so long as you’re willing to scrounge through the Realms-specific generalizations about various races and subraces. The new races are fairly iconic in D&D, and the mechanics — specifically the variants for half-elves and tieflings — are all going to work in any D&D world.
To add to the list of missed opportunities, there’s a sidebar about Moonstar (p. 124) that presents a fantastic example of a divergent Faction: ex-Harpers who developed a much more confrontational modus operandi. Unfortunately, no goals, activities, or NPCs are detailed, leaving this as yet another blurb that might spur some ideas for people willing to do a bunch of homework hunting down information elsewhere.
Regardless, this chapter is a bit less Realms-specific than the Races one, presenting a lot more new material to go along with the paragraph or two per Class/Specialty showing it’s Realmsian-ness. Here’s the new stuff:
- Dwarven Barbarians get the Path of the Battlerager, who are pretty mobile (for dwarves) and complement their attacks with their spiked armor.
- The Barbarian’s Path of the Totem Warrior also gets supplemented with the Elk and Tiger abilities (increasing movement or athletic abilities, respectively), along with a breakdown of typical totems associated with the various Uthgardt tribes.
- Bards get a list of 13 new musical instruments.
- Clerics receive the Arcana Domain which crosses over some serious arcane magic abilities and spells for the cleric to access.
- Fighters gain a new archetype in the Purple Dragon Knight, a marshal with lots of team-work bolstering powers.
- Monks gain two traditions, the first of which is the Way of the Long Death, specialized in draining, thwarting, or projecting necrotic energy.
- The Way of the Sun Soul is the second Monk tradition, bringing solar-based lasers and heat attacks. Hadouken!
- Paladins get a more thorough run-down on their code of chivalry, which is great for any setting. Additionally, they get the Oath of the Crown, an inspiring battlefield leader with a loadout of spells primed to make them a John Constantine-style supernatural cop.
- Rogues get two options with the Mastermind (a spy, manipulator, and guy who sets up the other characters for the spike) and the Swashbuckler (a highly-evasive two-weapon fighter and taunter).
- Storm Sorcery provides Sorcerers with lots of air movement and thunder & lightning attacks.
- The Warlock section includes lots of great examples of Realms-specific entities useful for each pact type, which can easily be converted for other settings, too. They also get the Pact of the Undying which reminds me a lot of the Dustmen from Planescape: Undead don’t want to bother them, they get spells that thwart or commune through death and entropy, and they become undead themselves (in certain ways, kinda).
- Wizards get the Bladesinging tradition, adding (and later boosting) martial prowess with a single weapon, opening up increased movement, AC, multiple attacks, and damage fairly quickly for a non-fighty class.
The chapter ends on four spells that favor up-close fighting and/or getting pig-piled, so they really only benefit Bladesingers or multi-class spellcasters primed to wade into battle (Mountain Dwarf fighter/wizard, anyone?). The spells are all cantrips for the sorcerer, warlock, and wizard:
- Booming Blade: places an (avoidable, unfortunately) 1d8 thunder damage on the target of your melee strike.
- Green-Flame Blade: a fiery splash-damaging melee strike.
- Lightning Lure: 1d8 lightning damage out to 15 feet, plus pull your opponent 10 feet towards you. Great for dropping folks down a hole or (maybe) triggering opportunity attacks.
- Sword Burst: kind of like a force-damage blade barrier-style aura around you (Dex save to avoid it).
So Who’s It For?
Even more so than the Races chapter, this section is immediately playable in just about any campaign right outta the box, and that means it’s for everyone. DMs can use the spells for fighty-magic enemies, and the class options are all balanced and fun for players to use. It even directly calls out “Hey, Battleragers are restricted to Dwarves in the Realms, but you do what you want in your campaign, and here’s the repercussions.” Great!
Better yet, some of the options are fodder for new campaign styles and plenty of DM-derived fluff. The Mastermind Rogue might seem a little underpowered at first blush, but in the right campaign, they will dominate in all the right ways. Faction-heavy and politics-heavy campaigns — something the Realms supports really well, actually — can certainly benefit from a Mastermind Rogue, and the DM can easily port their abilities to NPCs in the right circumstances. The Warlock Patron examples should give DMs of any campaign setting or even their own homebrew plenty of advice and ideas on how to make Warlock Patrons more vivid and interesting.
There’s a bunch of new Backgrounds offered, and valuable word count is preserved by having some — but not all! — refer to the BIFT tables (bond, ideal, flaw, traits) for corresponding PHB Backgrounds. Here’s the list of new Backgrounds:
- City Watch (with a variant: Investigator)
- Clan Crafter
- Cloistered Scholar
- Faction Agent (with a 1-paragraph blurb for each of the five main Adventurer League Factions)
- Far Traveler (with ideas for hailing from Evermeet, Halruaa, Kara-Tur, Mulhorand, Sossal, Zakhara, and the Underdark)
- Knight of the Order (with three orders described: Knights of the Unicorn, Knights of Myth Drannor, and the Knights of the Silver Chalice)
- Mercenary Veteran (with companies like The Chill, Silent Rain, and the Bloodaxes covered…but not the Flaming Fist?!)
- Urban Bounty Hunter
- Uthgardt Tribe Member
- Waterdhavian Noble (different from the standard Noble in that their feature keeps them in style and maintaining affluence rather than having any political clout)
All of the Backgrounds follow the same general format from the PHB, with the note about referring to existing BIFT tables in some cases. They really show the breadth and depth you can get out of Backgrounds and out of the Forgotten Realms specifically, but once again it makes you wonder why this is a Sword Coast-specific book when so many (not just the Far Traveler) refer to other lands and places.
So Who’s It For?
I think this is the axis from which the book hangs, and is really what it’s all about: a tool to make player characters more interesting by providing them the tools to both mechanically and “fluffily” improve their characters, their characters’ backstories, and their ties to the world of the Forgotten Realms. It’s great for any setting, really, and gives DMs plenty of ideas for putting to use the small section in the DMG on creating new Backgrounds (and potentially Factions, though not directly).
Appendix: Class Options in Other Worlds
Basically a paragraph per class providing a blurb about how different specialties — new to this book and from the PHB — translate to all of the other major D&D settings from the past, including Greyhawk, Dark Sun, Mystara, Eberron, Birthright, and so on.
So Who’s It For?
Nobody, because it’s so brief, it shouldn’t even be in the book. Relegate it to web article and pad it out with some real information — you could easily turn this into 10-15 pages — and you’d have room to have added some adventure sites, NPC stats, encounter tables, or clearer notes on what to do with each geographical location in relation to various Backgrounds or classes or whatever.
The book looks good! It’s slim, but bound and laid out in the same way as the other 5th Edition releases, which continuously get high marks from me and many in the RPG community, and for good reason. It’s clear, easy to navigate, and not only is there an Index — a big miss in the adventure releases! — but the Table of Contents includes listings for all of the sidebars. Since about 2/3 of the sidebars are the best material in the book, that’s a very, very good thing.
…But then there’s the maps. The key map that the book hinges on (there’s a pun there!) bleeds into the seam between pages 5 and 6. If you wanted to know what’s in the vicinity of Neverwinter you can go right ahead and screw yourself! I mean, really?! Who does that?
There’s a much better version now hosted at Wizards of the Coast, but screw THEM, I’m posting it here:
There are other maps, but they tend not to have like 98% of the locations mentioned in the accompanying text listed on them.
Seriously, what is going on here? When you take the time to mention Kara-Tur, Zakhara (each in 2-3 sections), Mulhorand (like 97 times), Halruaa…and yet I have no idea based on these maps where any of that is. I’m reading about the Sword Coast, dammit! (I can’t tell if it’s worse that many of the locations on this map use the names of sourcebooks from the 3E era, as if they are trying to get people to head over to Dungeon Masters Guild to buy these sourcebooks for more information — dastardly!)
I wouldn’t be so mad if there was a good glossary…wait, yeah I would. A glossary is necessary for this book — or else it’s trying to be some sort of narrative glossary itself — and a world map that actually shows what’s out there needs to be included if you’re going to spend that much word count on it. I just can’t figure out what they were thinking with content vs. maps.
So…Who’s It For Again?
And now we return to answer the initial question, and it’s not an answer that sits well with me. See, the thing is that everybody can find something of value in this book, and the strength of its mechanical bits makes it practically a must-buy. Even if you don’t use the mechanics, they serve as excellent examples of what you can do by going beyond the core rulebooks and creating your own material.
But there’s so much of the book that just sets up player characters to have decent backstories tied to the setting of Faerun, and yet it does so rather poorly. That’s kinda neat in theory, but so very, very niche and not carried through in practice.
Packaging such a niche product with such great, universal mechanics is kinda sketchy, even if unintentional. Laying out your main map with that level of jackassery takes it from sketchy to stupid. Spending so much text on material not even apparent on any of the maps and certainly not tied to the Sword Coast brings this whole shebang up to negligently dumb.
Here’s the thing: I bought it. I’ll use stuff from it. I hope you find some use out of it, too…I mean, you likely will. But for the love of all that’s good in the world, don’t pay full price for this piece of garbage. Get it second hand, even, so you have the cool bits, and so that Wizards knows next time to package this stuff very, very differently, because they didn’t get your money.
Extra Credit: What It Should Have Been
This product could have taken a lot of different forms and contained similar material, but gotten it right. Here are my ideas:
Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, 5th Edition. The 3E-era FRCS hardcover was an amazing, encyclopedic tome that did what SCAG tries and failed to do, but FRCS nails it. It covers the entire world of Faerun up to that point, providing tons of new player options (races and classes), a much more detailed look at history, magic, religion, and “daily life” in the Realms, and even fit in an adventure (or two) along with a fold-out map. It wasn’t perfect — the text was small, the layout muddy, and squeezing in encyclopedia entries on every territory in the Realms means there’s often not quite enough to get going in any one, particular area — but it covered everything to the point that I was able to grasp the Realms, and even though I grew up in the 80’s, I had never run or played in the Realms up to that point. It’s a great book, sadly 100 years out of date now that the Spellplague came along.
An Adventurer’s Guide. Keep the mechanics (races/classes/backgrounds), keep the religion section, and expand Chapter 2 to fill out the rest of the page count, including notes on incorporating the Backgrounds, Classes, and Factions (with new Factions, too) into each area. For DMs, toss in a couple key NPC patrons and some urban encounter tables for each of the major cities, and you’re good to go. If you’re going to bungle presenting the wider Forgotten Realms, just do away with that text entirely; folks who are going to do the research are going to do the research, so don’t give them crappy pointers and confuse the other folks at the same time.
The Sword Coast Player’s Guide. While it’s questionable how well the Player’s Book vs. DM’s Book format worked out in 4th Edition’s Forgotten Realms outing, I think there’s still some legs there, and this book could have proven that. By being a “Player’s Guide to the Sword Coast,” it could’ve gotten away with discarding just a little bit — maybe the timekeeping section, and tightening up the Welcome to the Realms portion quite a bit — and added in a few more pointers on tying PC backstory to the world. This allows the follow-up DM’s Guide to include encounter tables by region, adventure sites, NPC patrons and new Factions, magic items specific to the Realms, and more. I could even envision a single DM’s book that covers the entire Realms similar to the 3E FRCS (but without any player-specific info) and a series of Player’s Guides targeted at specific locations like the Sword Coast, the Dales, the Unapproachable East…basically the sourcebook format that lived during 3E Forgotten Realms run, but better targeted, more player-centric for better sales, and with just the one DM’s guide plus a bunch of adventures offered through Dungeon Masters Guild as they do now with the Adventurer’s League (and homebrew) modules.
Anyway, I’ll be expecting that job offer any time, Wizards of the Coast!
New to the Realms and unsure of some of the references in SCAG?
Want a Calendar of Harptos to track events in your campaign?
Maps are always useful:
- Current (5E) map of Faerun (no hexes, because they are mean!)
- Mike Schley’s maps of the Neverwinter region from the Starter Set (with hexes)
- 10-mile hex map of the Sword Coast region
- A thread on hex maps for the Forgotten Realms
- The 3E-era poster map from Paizo’s run on DRAGON Magazine
- Maps from My Realms (which is a great site for homebrew ideas in the Realms)
If you enjoyed this article, please comment, like, and share! You can support future reviews and articles at our Patreon. We publish supplements, campaign accessories, and adventures for Dungeons & Dragons at Dungeon Masters Guild as well as other OSR games and Cortex Plus at DriveThruRPG.