Saturday, November 12, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Dungeons and Dragons--Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide

When I first picked up the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, I rushed to a few pages to see what the status of a few things were in the 5th edition Realms, read a few entries pertaining to regions I had always enjoyed, and never gave it the full cover to cover treatment. What I read made me happy, but I didn't get a chance to return to the book as I had intended.



As in the previous review, I'm going to fully disclose my propensities, developed over decades of gaming. I love the Forgotten Realms, although the closer you get to the Old Grey Boxed Set, the deeper my affection. Despite my affection, even in 2nd edition, I started to cringe at the "we're only changing the proper nouns, and otherwise we're adding huge sections of Earth into the Realms" expansions. While Zhakara and Kara-Tur had their own high fantasy elements that I enjoyed, and felt they were unique, Maztica, the Hordelands, and the Old Empires were all a bit "on the nose" for my enjoyment.



Initially I enjoyed 3rd edition, but it started to become evident that many elements of the setting were being altered to fit game design considerations, and I came to loathe important NPCs being given stats. "Elves are a PC race, so they can't be in Retreat, let's end that." "Dwarves are a PC race, they can't be dying out, let take away a strong roleplaying element for the race." "Elminster can't do that, because he doesn't have the right feat for it."

There was also a bit of a drift in the way the novels handled things. Early Realms novels depicted average adventurers doing typical things in the Realms and solving local problems. Plots went from saving a city or an important person to saving a nation, continent, or an entire plane of existence. Protagonists went from being adventurers and operatives to being Heroes, and having the same Heroes show up over and over again, even if they were just in the background of a story.

You can find on this blog my skepticism about the revamped Realms and about 5th edition D&D. If WOTC hadn't released the Basic rules for free, I might never have changed my mind.



Seeing things reversed in the Realms made me happy in a lot of ways, but I mention all of that to point out that I have my biases, and I've had a relationship with the setting for a long time. I don't think that makes my opinion invalid, but it does mean I can't completely separate my view of things from my experiences.

What Is It?

Aside from the free Elemental Evil Companion released as a PDF, the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide is the first book outside of the Core rules (until the recent release of Volo's Guide to Monsters) that wasn't an adventure. The formatting of the book is appealing, and the artwork is high quality and professional, but like Storm King's Thunder, there are a few somewhat jarring styles clashing in the book. Clear utilitarian maps appear aside more "in world" seeming cartography, and artwork that is new and closer to the style used in core books appears along with some previous edition recycled art that has the "glossier" appearance used at the time. The book is 159 pages.

Where Did It Come From?

Like Out of the Abyss, which came out just before the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, this book was developed by Green Ronin. This continued the trend of 5th edition books utilizing 3rd party developers staffed by freelancers familiar with D&D, the others being Kobold Press and Sasquatch Game Studio.

Now that we've talked about my baggage, and what and where the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide came from, let's dig into the contents of the book.



Chapter One

This chapter is pretty sprawling in what it covers. There is a quick overview of countries that the guide isn't primarily covering, but which are important enough to the overall setting to mention.The book updates the status of many of these nations after the Sundering, the cosmic reboot button that rolls back a lot of the changes that happened to the setting in the 4th edition era, without rolling the actual clock back on the date. There is also a section that covers the history of the Realms in broad strokes. It doesn't go into specific dates, but does create a few general epoch and gives the highlights of that portion of time.

There is a section on magic in the Realms, which generally just talks about how people view magic, the theory of how magic works, and then oddly zooms in to explain Mythals, the special form of Elven High Magic that creates persistent magical effects across an entire region. Again, all of this is in broad strokes, but doesn't go too deeply into number crunching or hard rules.

Religion in the Realms is the next section in this chapter. There is a general discussion on foreign (to a given reality) gods showing up in the Realms, and what death means to gods. Essentially this information seems to be here to tell you up front that no matter how firmly a product may have claimed a god's death, it probably isn't true.

The topics of religions institutions and priesthoods are also covered, with a much better, clearer takeaway that while many people have a patron deity, most people in the Realms worship multiple gods. Patron deities are usually just the "most commonly invoked" god on a list. This has been mentioned by Ed Greenwood many times when discussing the setting, but often seems to get missed by designers of the setting.

The final part of the chapter gives the list of various gods in the Realms, with charts showing their areas of interest, aligments, and domains, and paragraphs giving some information on the gods. Much of this section says about what you would expect of many of the deities, but here and there the book provides some details about the daily worship and beliefs of the faithful that can be useful to "worshipper level" roleplaying.



Overall, functionally, this chapter is kind of needed for people running (and designing) in the Realms, letting you know what country and gods exist for sure after the upheaval of 4th edition and the Spellplague. That said, the chapter is a little frustrating. While I don't expect solid, definitive answers, many returning gods don't even have myths or rumors covering their return to life or their miraculous survival. What the Sundering is isn't really clearly explained, other than that "it's a big cosmic thing that happened and now things are like this."

While it was hinted by designers and in the Sundering novels that Ao might have reset the Realms after allowing the upheavals to teach the gods a lesson, or that the worlds just naturally drifted apart again after a time of conjunction, strictly reading only the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, it is strongly hinted that the Sundering is the recurring consequence of the Elven High Magic Ritual that brought Evermeet to the material plane from Arvandor and the Feywild simultaneously.

It's almost like no one really wants to address the actual Sundering, it's just a code word for walking back some of the bigger changes made to the setting in 4th edition. The overall feeling is almost like the months right after DC published Crisis on Infinite Earths, where different writers and editors couldn't seem to agree on how much of the pre-Crisis world the protagonists of various comics actually remembered. Let's hope there isn't a Realmsian equivalent of Zero Hour coming to clarify things.

Chapter Two

Chapter two details what the book's title has already clued us in on--this is a more detailed guide to the Sword Coast, specifically. What makes this section different from the previous chapter, and from a lot of other campaign sourcebooks, is that all of the information is provided by characters in the setting, from their perspectives. This means that the information is provided by unreliable narrators, and some of them even mention their own biases as they present information in the book.

The voices in this section are a Lord's Alliance Agent who was once a Knight in Silver from Silverymoon, talking about the formal adherents of the Lord's Alliance, a retired dwarven warrior discussing the dwarfholds of the North, an old gnome sailor discussing the Island Kingdoms off the coastline, the Independent Realms being covered by an elf ranger from Evereska, and the Underdark, as presented by a half-orc former slave. Most of the information is pretty straight forward, but each section has a few digressions that play up the voice and perspective of the chronicler in question.



This chapter, taken by itself, is a pretty compelling read. If you were familiar with the Realms from previous editions, changes to various regions are discussed in a nice historical progression, instead of abrupt "everything you know is wrong" manner. There are, in equal measure, adventure hooks for Dungeon Masters and character hooks to work into player character origins for players.

If some of this information had been "gamified" a bit more, with some "meta" sidebars explaining the themes, types of adventures, and ongoing story arcs of some of these areas, this chapter could have been perfect. As it is, it's good, and does what the best Realms products have done--made the Realms feel like a place where people actually live.

Chapter Three

This section goes into the races of the Realms. There are a few new sub-races detailed for player character use, such as duergar and deep gnomes, and a few new options for half-elves and tieflings that allow them to customize themselves a bit more based on their heritage. Oddly, while half-elves can customize to reflect that they are half aquatic elf, aquatic elves are not, themselves presented. In fact, many of the previous edition elf sub-races are presented in a sidebar that essentially calls them out as being so rare as to be almost mythical in the current age.

The halfling sub-race information adds Ghostwise halflings into the mix as a PC option, and also seems to find a middle ground between the wanderlusting 4th edition halfling travelers and adventures, and the more hobbit-like halflings of previous editions. This is done by assigning those traits to different sub-races.



There isn't a lot of new ground covered for the non-human races, but the best section from a setting or roleplaying point of view is probably the new human ethnicities introduced. While many of them already existed in the setting previously, they serve to make humanity even more diverse than presented in the Player's Handbook, and also introduce a few more languages to flesh out the languages spoken across the continent and beyond.

Chapter Four

Chapter four details classes and information about classes specific to the Forgotten Realms. This takes form in two different ways. Many (but not all) classes have a new "archetype" presented that is nominally related to something in the Realms, and just about every class has a section detailing that particular class and how it functions and is viewed in the setting.

Barbarians, clerics, fighters, monks, paladins, rogues, sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards all get new options in this section. Some, like the monk options, are very much rooted in existing material, translated to 5th edition rules. Others, like the Purple Dragon Knight options for the fighter, really don't have much to do with Purple Dragon Knights at all. In fact, they give the archetype the alternate name of Banneret for use with non-Purple Dragon Knight characters. This is probably more appropriate anyway, since the main thrust of this sourcebook, the Sword Coast, doesn't actually include Cormyr.

Some of the roleplaying information provided about the classes, like the location of bardic colleges and their current status, and the druid information, which further reinforces the polytheistic nature of most of the Realms religious adherents, is pretty interesting. It just doesn't feel as if the same level of effort was put into the setting information on all of the classes. There is even a sidebar about arcane casters, saying that most people don't differentiate between Warlocks, Sorcerers, and Wizards and that they all view each other as colleagues, that is directly contradicted by the material in the individual class information.

The chapter wraps up with some cantrips that are aimed at combat, doing thunder, fire, lightning, and force damage. They are pretty potent for cantrips, and they don't really have a specific tie to the Realms. They aren't even named for a particular Realmsian spellcaster  to create a tenuous link.

Chapter Five

Chapter five details new backgrounds for players to choose for their characters. Most of the backgrounds, with the exception of the Far Traveler, utilize traits from other backgrounds, while providing proficiencies, languages, equipment, and features tailored to the new background.

A wider range of backgrounds is nice, but none of them is particularly Realmsian in nature. There are sections where Realms specific examples of the background are given, but many of those are very broad, and a lot of them range much further than the Sword Coast.

Appendix

While Out of the Abyss, Curse of Strahd, and Storm King's Thunder seem to have dropped this section, Princes of the Apocalypse and the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide both had sections on adapting the material to other settings.

In general, most of the class options and backgrounds were already sufficiently broad that they don't need a lot of conversion to make them work. That said, I'm not sure the conversion work is as valuable as it might have been.

As an example, discussions of Battleragers and Bladesingers for other settings seem to imply that those types of characters are native to the Realms, when both were introduced in 2nd edition as race, not setting, specific options. The section on converting the monk material to Dragonlance implies that there are two monastic orders in the setting, mentioning Sargonnas and Zivilyn, and completely skipping over Majere--the god of monks.

It's a short section, but it's not overly useful given the broad applications of most of the mechanical options presented.

The First Flowering

The book does a good job of presenting the present era of the Forgotten Realms for DMs and players. There are lots of useful plot threads and character hooks in the book, especially in chapter two. While a few of the mechanical options in chapter four aren't stellar, there are still some interesting options, and the broader range of backgrounds for PCs from chapter five are a nice touch, as backgrounds are one of my favorite aspects of 5th edition.

The Spellplague

The book has a lot of good material that should have been followed up on with more "meta" discussion about how to use the material at the table. Instead, space for that material was taken up by generic mechanical options and rehashed material. Given that sourcebooks seem to be few and far between in the marketing plan of 5th edition, using pages of what might be the only campaign setting books for years to present very generic D&D options seems like a lost opportunity.

The Tablets of Fate

This is not a bad book. Chapter two makes it worth the read, especially if you like the Forgotten Realms, and if you don't plan on just playing the published adventures, the extra information on the Realms is much more relevant to your game.

The book really suffered from serving two masters. Introducing more generic D&D material in the book ate up space that could have been dedicated to suggested adventures, discussions of themes, rumors, and sample encounters for various regions. Perhaps the book suffers in my eyes because I read Storm King's Thunder cover to cover before this book, and saw the way that it presents the character of many locations in the Savage Frontier with NPCs and suggested encounters.

The book is worth the money, but I can't fully get over the feeling that it could have gone from "okay" to "really good" if it had been more focused on being an actual sourcebook and campaign guide, instead of being required to hit the check boxes of "what is back in the Realms," "why you want this if you don't play in the Realms," and "oh, yeah, it's also a sourcebook for campaigns."

*** (out of five)

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