Welp, today I received my shiny new Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. While we did get some new races in the Princes of the Apocalypse pdf released for free online this is the first 5E splatbook. That is one year and a bit more than two months after the release of the 5E Player’s handbook. Compare this to 4th Edition D&D, released in early May 2008 which was followed in November 2008 by the release of Martial Power, a book of new options for the Fighter, Rogue, Warlord, and Ranger classes. Six months later. I have to say, whatever I might think of what’s in this book I respect the discipline of not drowning us in new content.
I get that this is money driven. 4th Edition eventually released Martial Power 2 and they could’ve released Arcane Power 2, Divine Power 2, and the Player’s Handbook 4. But as Mike Mearls said someone realized that despite the “mainstreaming” of geek culture D&D was not bringing the money they thought it could’ve brought in. It’s noble that WotC waited a year and a few months to release a new crunchy splatbook but this is also a product of outsourcing to Green Ronin, the publishers of such fine products as the Song of Ice and Fire RPG, the Dragon Age RPG, and the Thieves’ World Campaign Setting. WotC has a fine team making their content but its also a vastly slimmed down team from the days of 4E and soliciting submissions for Dungeon Magazine. If they’re making more money from 5E than 4E it has as much to do with their reduced costs on staffing and printing as it does with the substantially better product they’re putting out compared to 4E.
I also have to look askance at the release date of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Last year’s Player’s Handbook was preceded by 5 Adventures: Ghost of Dragonspear Castle, Murder in Baldur’s Gate, Legacy of the Crystal Shard, Scourge of the Sword Coast, and Dead in Thay. All of those adventures are set in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting and three of the five are set on the Sword Coast. Four if you count Legacy of the Crystal Shard (and I do) which is set just north of the “official” Sword Coast and draws on many of the same characters with references to the same geography. After the release of the PHB, every six months or so, we’ve been sold a new level 1-15 adventure/campaign: The two part Hoard of the Dragon Queen/Rise of Tiamat, Princes of the Apocalypse, and Out of the Abyss. The first two are set in the Sword Coast. Out of the Abyss technically takes place largely below the Sword Coast but again draws on many of the same NPCs and geography.
That’s a lot of Sword Coast content to put out before the book defining what the hell the Sword Coast is.
Maybe there were parts of this that were in development at WotC, maybe they didn’t start until they contracted Green Ronin. I would be really interested in a podcast or something about how this book came to be and why now? I get that they didn’t want to release new crunch six months after the PHB. But the refrain I kept hearing in reviews of Out of the Abyss was “wow this is great, I can’t wait for them to do something different next time.” In this instance, “different” is code for Non Forgotten Realms. Remembered Realms mayhaps? After three hardcover books and four other adventures set here I get the sense that maybe people are hungry for products outside this specific portion of a specific campaign setting. Can anyone tell me without peeking what are three places east of the Sword Coast? Other than Thay and Netheril which don’t count because they were prominently featured in the 4E Neverwinter book. I love Eberron but I think if I got 7 adventures set in Sharn I’d say, wow its great the setting is getting this exposure but could they set the next adventure in Xen’drik or Karrnath?
Maybe this is part of their cunning strategy? Recall that the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the book telling you how to make up your own adventures, was released in December 2014. Four AGONIZING months after the Player’s Handbook. Maybe they only give us the book that tells you how to make your own stuff after they’ve given you a load of prepared materials.
Okay that’s enough griping. I paid for this book on the pedigree of the content so far, something I was not willing to commit to in 4E. Take my gripes as good natured joshing. Only D&D players are allowed to give D&D writers shit. Something like that.
Okay lets crack this book open. As I would expect, the introduction is quickly followed by a map and….wait what the hell? There’s text on this map cut off by the right side of the page. And Neverwinter and Gauntlgrym that whole area on the left side of the page impossible to read. It’s stuck between the middle of the page. Who the hell thought this map was good enough to send to print? The Marsh of Chelimber is easy to find but the Waterdeep/Neverwinter area is in the middle of the goddamn page divide. Why didn’t they just re-use the map from Hoard of the Dragon Queen? Who approved this map?
From there we go into rough descriptions of the large groups that dominate the area. From there we get into a bunch of place names that I don’t know, not all of them are on the map provided. These are lands outside the Sword Coast and the descriptions are burlap rough. From here we get into the nitty gritty of coinage and how people tell time in the Realms. Good information if you want it, myself, I don’t need to know that its 2 Unicorns to the Dragon in Silverymoon. Then we get into the official canon history of teh Realms. References are made to the events of Murder in Baldur’s Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard. No mention to Tyranny of Dragons despite that being why Dagult Neverember (Open Lord in the 4E Neverwinter Book) is cast down from that position. There is an exhaustive list of all the FR Gods, as many as you could possibly want. The section on the Gods is pretty damn interesting as it includes descriptions of why normal people might includes rites to an evil God like Asmodeus in their normal life. For some reason Tymora, the goddess people would be familiar with from the Acquisitions Inc podcasts, doesn’t get a holy symbol in the art.
One thing of note is that the Lords’ Alliance is presented in a different fashion in this book than in previous books. Up until now, the Alliance has been one faction amidst five for players to join for minor roleplaying events most notably in the Adventurer’s League. Now the Lords’ Alliance is presented as a broad coalition, the closest thing to a government the Sword Coast has. See, the Sword Coast has been a really anarchic region as presented up to this point governed largely by city-states. Why don’t they go to war like the city states in Dark Sun or George RR Martin’s Free Cities? The Lords’ Alliance is as good an excuse as any.
From here we get into descriptions of the centers of population in the Sword Coast. Right away the eye is drawn to Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter which have both had books in the last few years. The Neverwinter section falls into the uncanny valley as several passages detail how the canon has been changed since the 4E book came out. The 4E Book was balls deep in the Spellplague, with blue fired mutants around every corner. I ran a short 5 session 5E game in Neverwinter earlier this year and found it impossible to divorce the description of the 4E Neverwinter Setting from the concept of the Spellplague. Now in this description the Spellplague is over, the Chasm (a yawning monster spewing fissure taking up near a quarter of the city) is filled in. The rebellion characterized in the D&D encounters program set in Neverwinter is gone, with the Sons of Alagondar and Lord Neverember’s forces making peace. Also the Blacklake district has been renamed Bluelake. Neverember gentrification?
These sections on the various places of the Sword Coast are really just blocs of text to me. I don’t know or like the Realms as much as Eberron or Dark Sun. Is a page and a half on Waterdeep enough for me to run an adventure there? Not really. I’d much rather get a short adventure like Murder in Baldur’s Gate for each of these places like Waterdeep, Neverwinter, and Luskan that came with a campaign guide. What about a PDF adventure like Scourge of the Sword Coast?
Then we get into Races. The only new Crunch is a description of Duergar as a PC race. Everything else is welcome flavor, well written. I heard complaints when 4E came out that there is no reason for Tieflings and Dragonborn to be here, that apparently they’ve never been in the setting before. I don’t have a dog in that fight. Something more familiar to me were the way they explained Eladrin being in Eberron where they wrote in these 5 big towers that mysteriously appeared after the Mourning. I didn’t like them, it didn’t really fit the tone of the setting. So I guess that’s what longtime FR players might be feeling about Dragonborn and Tieflings. If so, you have my sympathy and leave to ban those races from your FR games.
Then we come to Classes and here’s the real attraction for buying this book. This is the main course. Barbarians get three new options, the Battlerager and two new Totem Spirits, the Elk and the Tiger. The Battlerager gets a lower damage extra attack while raging, compared to the Berserker’s extra attack if they take a level of exhaustion.
Clerics get the Arcana Domain which is pretty damn cool. It also would make a dandy Domain for a Dark Sun cleric if we reskinned this to be a Templar.
Monks get two new Traditions, the Way of the Long Death and the Way of the Sun Soul. Long Death is giving you fear attacks and HP when you kill someone much like the Necromancy specialty school for Wizards. The Sun Soul is basically a wizard or a Laser Cleric.
Some classes just get flavor. Bards, Druids, and Rangers get factions and NPC groups they might belong to on the Sword Coast.
Fighters and Paladins both get one new option, the Purple Dragon Knight for fighters and Oath of the Crown for Paladins. I put them both together because they hit on a very similar theme, knighthood. The flavor is virtually identical and both are giving out buffs to their allies on the battlefield. If you recall, Knight was an option for fighters during the playtest. There was the Champion, meant to be as simple as possible, and the Battlemaster, who spent dice as a currency hearkening back to the fighter they came up with way way way back at the start of the playtest. The Knight kind of stuck out as being not as good as either one. They got some skill bonuses but seemed vestigial. Now they’re back and they’re very much like the 4E Warlord. At 3rd Level the Knight can use the fighter’s Second Wind feature for his allies, not just himself. I can see this getting buffed because it only restores your fighter’s level in HP as opposed to 1d10+your fighter’s level for just you. They couldn’t give us a d4? The idea is that the Knight is using the fighters rechargeable abilities to buff allies which IS the Warlord. Behold, after three years the Warlord has returned to us. Long Live the Lord of War.
The Oath of the Crown Paladin is very similar in flavor and not that different from the Oath of Devotion Paladin in the PHB. If you put two of these Paladins next to each other, how would you tell the difference? Their Crunch is a bit different. The Devotion Paladin’s big feature is the ability to buff their weapon to do more damage and cast light. They also get the ability to make fiends and undead flee. The Crown Paladin instead forces enemies to stay where they are and fight you sort of like the 4E Paladin. Then they can also heal damage in addition to whatever they do with Lay on Hands.
Now we come to my favorite part of the book. The Rogue. During the D&D Next Playtest I played a rogue almost exclusively. And the main reason I did this was I love rogues. The bullshit reason I did this was because I wanted to give good feedback by being very familiar with one class. I loved how the Rogue had a menu of skill tricks and little abilities that made him feel like MY Rogue. This is My Rogue. There are many like it but this one is mine. With 10+ skill tricks there were many combinations that made this class feel broad, special, and unlike any other class. Incidentally that’s very much like the Pathfinder Rogue who gets a few Rogue Things like Sneak Attack and Evasion but everything else is selected from a menu of powers. Do you want to be more agile, tougher in combat, or better with traps? The playtest’s version of this was The Scheme. I love that word, I wish they’d kept it instead of Archetype but I get why they changed it. They had a broad list of the different types of Rogues: The Assassin, The Thief, The Acrobat, The Trickster, the Treasure Hunter, The Rake. All these are different types of people but they’re all rogues in D&D.
4E did not have this. For the most part, everyone pimped out their Dexterity and Charisma. Intelligence was the rogue dump stat. No matter who your Rogue was, the thing he did best was deal damage in combat. So while you might’ve wanted your rogue to be a different person really they played very much the same at the table. I craved a different type of rogue. The way I saw it, every rogue in 4E was Ezio Auditore because Assassin’s Creed 2 was just coming out when I was deep into 4E. The Rogue I wanted to play was Littlefinger from the Song of Ice and Fire which I was just starting to read when I was deep into 4E. He’s sly, he’s got a plan, but he sucks in a fight. Or rather, he doesn’t seek out fights. The only time he pulls a dagger is when the fight is already won. When he kills someone he turns and points the finger at someone else and says “He killed her” and he makes sure everyone has a reason to believe him. And I was dreaming if I thought I was going to get that kind of combat sub-optimized character in 4th Edition D&D.
Then the playtest came out. I had the ability to choose powers that made this Rogue the silver tongued trickster I wanted to play. And things were good. Then the last playtest packet came out. Gone was the menu of choices and the vast array of archetypes was trimmed down to two. The Thief and The Assassin. Huh. These carried over to the PHB. The Assassin gets a big damage boost and charisma abilities to take disguises. That sounds like someone’s very specific idea of an assassin. Going back to Assassin’s Creed, Ezio Auditore is a type of assassin. He jumps from rooftop to rooftop and he’s unstoppable. But consider Agent 47. Also an assassin. Disguises himself, infiltrates, sets traps that makes his target kill himself. He is an assassin too, but a different type of assassin. Then the thief gets acrobatics and mobility. Again, that’s one type of thief, what about the grifter? Moist von Lipwig is a thief too but he uses a forged document and a smile rather than a finger knife to cut a purse. The point is I was disappointed with the rogue as written in the Player’s Handbook. The playtest spoiled me with too many options. The PHB dialed it back and it wasn’t enough. I wanted to play this idea of a trickster rogue but I didn’t want to be an Assassin. I wanted to be better at talking than killing.
The Mastermind Rogue Archetype in the Sword Coast Guide is the restoration of that vision.
The Thief gets to do his Thief stuff (Disabling Traps and Stealing) as a bonus action. That’s their big thing. The Assassin gets that big damage boost on a surprise. That’s their thing. The Mastermind gets 5 new proficiencies in tools and languages (Disguise Kit, Forgery Kit, Gaming Kit, and two languages), can pass themselves off as a native to the land they’re in, and the big ability is Master of Tactics. Master of Tactics makes the help action a bonus action. Basically the Mastermind is dishing out advantage to someone every round. I like it. He’s doing his own thing but it’s almost like a 4E Leader in terms of helping out the party. He’s not the combat beast but he will give that fighter an edge in combat unmatched by any other class. Honestly it might be too powerful. I don’t know how irritating this would be at the table. I will say it might make combat a bit boring. With your bonus action going to give other players advantage each round the only logical thing to do is stick with another player to get your sneak attack each round. But then again, I’m playing this class because I don’t give two figs about combat. I’d rather have something simple and predictable I can do well then get back to the storytelling.
The Swashbuckler was released in an Unearthed Arcana article earlier and it hasn’t changed much. They altered the wording of a power to make it clearer how it interacts with Sneak Attack and they ditched the French. I like this one too. It’s good for when you don’t want to be the acrobatic thief but you don’t want the label of Assassin.
To close out we have the Arcane Casters, the Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard. The Sorcerer has the Storm Origin. You’ve seen it in previews. I’m not sure why they don’t just steal the origins from Pathfinder. They’re right there. Warlocks get the Undying Patron which is undead themed. Again this seems very fitting for Eberron or Dark Sun with Vol, Aerenal, and the Sorcerer Kings. Why Forgotten Realms? Wizards get the Bladesinger option which was previously in the 4E Neverwinter book. So I guess its FR?
After this we get into the Backgrounds. I think Backgrounds are the great misunderstood feature of 5th Edition. You don’t have to pick the kits listed. Its two skills, two tools/languages, and a roleplaying bonus. You are not obligated to pick one of these motherfuckers as written. With that in mind, these backgrounds are kind of shallow retreads of the ones in the PHB. The City Watch is a Soldier. The Courtier is a Charlatan. But I’d rather have them than not have them.
So all in all what are my final thoughts, what is the verdict on this book? Eh. I don’t feel a compulsion to reread this over and over like I did the Murder in Baldur’s Gate campaign guide/adventure which is slightly cheaper. There is a lot of good fluff but is not really enough to inspire adventures. What would I have preferred to this product? I would’ve shelled out $20 for adventures similar to Murder in Baldur’s Gate set on the Sword Coast with a campaign guide. They could’ve done one each for Waterdeep, Neverwinter, Silverymoon, and Gauntlgyrm or any other region that gets a page in this book. We’d get more useful information about the Sword Coast and they might get more money out of me. I dig the class crunch but combined this is 24 pages out of 160. Do I regret buying it? Not really. I don’t think its that good in terms of “can I make an adventure out of this” but it’s not bad. It’s a well made product and now I’ve finished with it. On Amazon I paid $23.81 for this. I feel I got $23.81 worth of entertainment. I’ll get that and then some if I can play a Mastermind Rogue at some point. While you should definitely support your local FLGS I don’t think this book is work that suggested retail price of $40.