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

Jonathan Bolding | 5 Nov 2015 12:00
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Alongside the world lore, the book has a few chapters of what are ostensibly character customization options, but are mostly more fluff. There's some game content here, but I doubt it's as much as most people wanted out of this book - about as much as a campaign's worth of unique characters will manage to use on the table. It is certainly not, as the back of the book describes, "a plethora of new character options." I would not describe a baker's dozen as a plethora.

As player material, the sections on each race's or class' place in the world is a pretty short description that boils down to lists of places and names that supplement the world information in prior chapters. Race mechanics show up in sidebars, and are rarely-found alternates for five races, such as a cool sidebar on alternate Tieflings, or stats for Svirfneblin[1] that some will find nice, but are minimal.

scag 4 greenflame blade

The same goes for the classes, with 13 new class specializations presented among Barbarians, Clerics, Fighters, Monks, Paladins, Rogues, Sorcerers, Warlocks, and Wizards. Bards, Druids, and - perhaps most disappointingly - the continually lackluster Rangers get nothing new. Among the new are highlights and disappointments: Interesting specializations that make the Monk and Rogue much more desirable to play, offering a cool swashbuckling duelist with neat core mechanics, or an inner-light channeling Monk devoted to positive energy who can hurl Dragonball-esque blasts.

Those contrast with options like The Purple Dragon Knight for Fighter, which could have been a 5th Edition version of 4th Edition's unique and interesting Warlord, but is instead an alternate set of middling to mediocre abilities for the most boring class in the game. Look at that, then look at the book's four new arcane spells, all of which add good options to the game by giving a useful at-will ability to melee focused spellcasters. Those spells are all also implementations of good powers from 4th Edition's Swordmage class... so why didn't the Fighter get cool Warlord powers?

The best part is the 10 pages of backgrounds, by far the most interesting part of 5th Edition's character building. They are superb and I have no complaints about them whatsoever - though they're only very tenuously tied to the Realms. Which will be an annoyance to a very few people and a boon to everyone else.

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Where this book could have used these 60 pages to include a dense block of interesting mechanics unique to the Forgotten Realms (and stealable for other settings), it instead has lightweight descriptions of where in the Realms the races and classes show up - which are basically rehashes of everything you knew already from years of fantasy lore. (There's a reason, remember, that this is the new default setting - we all already know what a swashbuckling high fantasy world is like.) To top it all off, there's a full page table of bard instruments, which I'd praise in another book but here just feels like more empty content. A place where this book was unsure just precisely what its purpose was.

Let's compare for a moment - it's the first thing I did when I realized how I felt about the book. My point of reference here is going to be an excellent past D&D setting book, 2010's Dark Sun Campaign Setting. Dark Sun was also $40, also a single-book campaign guide, and also had to serve both players and dungeon masters. Its got a bunch of character options and a bunch of world lore over a comparably sized fictional region - maybe smaller, in fact, but since SCAG doesn't have a map scale I can't tell you. Dark Sun was a lot longer for the same price - 220 pages - and it uses that extra space to add both lore and playable material. While it includes some of the kind of world fluff that SCAG has, its game rules are much more dense, varied, and unique to the game world. It had mechanics that were so neat you immediately saw players of other settings stealing them. Its world lore includes high-level overview, but is more immediately gameable, even if SCAG's is more entertaining to read. It's still on my shelf, even though I've sold off most of my 4th Edition books.

Once you're done reading it, Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide doesn't have that charm. It's the second-worst kind of RPG supplement.[2] Neither ultra-specific mechanics guide nor worldbook. A scattershot of interesting world lore. Repetitive descriptions of fantasy tropes. A halfhearted muddle of character options. It's possible that were this book in softcover at a $20-25 dollar price point, I wouldn't be so hard on it, but for 75% the price of a core rulebook and less than half the content, this one shouldn't get your money - when the next game comes along, you'll sell it for shelf space. This just ain't the kind of book you save to use with other game systems or peruse on a rainy afternoon.

Bottom Line: Sword Coast Adventurers Guide is too short for the price and just doesn't excel at anything.

Recommendation: Those detail-oriented DMs looking to run D&D's currently published campaign or adventures with a handy world reference will find this a useful, if not required, book.


[1] Underdark gnomes, if you're wondering.
[2] Right behind the kind of book that's just hundreds of pages of nearly identical equipment descriptions.

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