The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is the first non-adventure book published by Wizards of the Coast for D&D 5th Edition since the core rulebooks. It’s an unusual book, as – unlike most of the campaign books released in the past – it is aimed primarily at players, not Dungeon Masters. This isn’t to say that Dungeon Masters won’t find it a useful book, but that it’s important to understand the primary scope of the book.
I’m coming to the book as someone who picked up the original Forgotten Realms Campaign Set in the late 1980s, investigated the Realms heavily for a couple of years, then stepped away from it for a couple of decades. I returned to the Realms mainly through the adventures released as part of the D&D Encounters seasons of 2010 onwards. Although I’ve read a few of the recent novels, my view of the current Realms is shaped primarily through the adventures.
The newest adventures are set in the region of the Forgotten Realms known as the Sword Coast – a great stretch of land covering the western shore of the main continent of Faerûn. This land includes the great city of Waterdeep, as well as the important centres of Baldur’s Gate, Candlekeep and Neverwinter, all of which have featured in well-received computer games. This is the land that the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide describes. One of the things it is very good at doing is giving context to the cities you see references to in the adventures. When your travels in Hoard of the Dragon Queen take you to Baldur’s Gate, all of the players and DM can use this book to understand where you’ve ended up. Although the Guide isn’t primarily a source of adventure ideas, there is enough in it to help the DM bring the place to life and potentially inspire a side-quest or two.
There’s actually quite a lot of information on the various towns and settlements of the Sword Coast in the book. Baldur’s Gate gets about 2 pages (including a half-page map). It had only a third of a page in the original Campaign Set book! There’s been a lot of development of the setting since it was originally released, and I think this book does an excellent job of conveying the essentials (and a bit more) of the areas it covers. For areas outside of the Sword Coast, it’s not really the book you want. Cormyr hardly gets a mention, nor does the Moonsea. It explains what the terms are, but little more. The book is a lot better at describing Luskan, Waterdeep and Mithril Hall, major places in the Sword Coast. The Underdark isn’t developed all that much, but that’s what Out of the Abyss is for. Nor does it really cover the threats to the region, which a DM seeking to invent adventures might want, although there’s a lot of politics and intrigue you could draw from the book!
I’m very pleased by the style in which the information is presented: from the point of view of a native of those areas (the book uses the viewpoints of several different people). The conversational style of the book makes it a delight to read. It also opens up the possibility that not all of the information is correct… something that DMs may have a lot of fun with.
I’m rather less pleased with how the map of the Sword Coast was printed; it splits over two pages and the page fold means rather important places like Neverwinter and Waterdeep are hard (or impossible) to find! Thankfully, Wizards have released a high-res version of the map to download for free. It’s big, though – over 25 MB!
One of the tremendously important things the Guide does is update the timeline and provide answers to some of the events that happened during the Sundering. If you were curious as to what officially occurred in Murder in Baldur’s Gate, you can find out here. The changes in rulership of Waterdeep during The Rise of Tiamat are also acknowledged, and I found the descriptions of what was happening in Neverwinter to be very interesting – with the place having changed since the days of the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, as you’d hope they would, it having been a decade or more since then!
The recent history of the Realms also clarifies a few matters of the timeline. In particular, Murder in Baldur’s Gate occurred in 1482 DR and Legacy of the Crystal Shard in 1485 DR. The year of this book appears to be 1489 or 1490 DR, around or just after the year of the Tyranny of Dragons, although I think Princes of the Apocalypse is set in 1491 DR. (Chris Perkins recently revealed that Out of the Abyss actually overlaps the other adventures, which explains why the demon lords are summoned about 1486 CY into the Underdark in Archmage – the upper world just didn’t know about it!)
As a DM, I’m not directly interested in the new player options, but although they’re not extensive, there’s quite a range of options and my players have become very eager to try them out in play.
I’m very much enjoying reading the book. There’s a lot of information I was unfamiliar with, and more that explores how the world has changed. The section on the gods of the Realms is superb. At US$40 for 160 pages, it’s a relatively expensive book, but – for me at least – it’s worth it.