Presented as a campaign sourcebook and marketed as a player’s resource, Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide brings to life the first setting for official Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition adventures. First created by Ed Greenwood, it became the setting for D&D adventures for decades, as well as the backdrop to R.A. Salvatore’s novels. The Adventurer’s Guide can be used as the basis for an original adventure within the official setting, or as the adapted and expanded setting for a series of adventures from other publications from Wizards of the Coasts, such as Tales from the Yawning Portal or Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
Where Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide Fits into the Library of Fifth Edition
As a campaign sourcebook that boasts its new character options, the book finds itself in an awkward position within the full collection of 5th Edition books. The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons debuted in mid-2014, and Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide was published in a collaboration with Green Ronin Publishing as the first 5e companion sourcebook in late-2015. The player content that was released with the book was met with a lukewarm response, and fell further out of favor following subsequent publications. It was removed from the list of resources for player options for the Adventurer’s League in mid-2020, which is largely accepted as what is considered “canon” or official D&D material. In light of much of the content within the book being reworked, revised, and republished in later sourcebooks, the rest has been left by the wayside and considered “unofficial.” The problem with the book, beyond its lackluster showing for character options and subclasses, is that it attempts to capture in 160 pages a massive setting which has dozens of novels and publications from previous editions of D&D exploring and describing it. With dozens of major cities and far more smaller towns and settlements, trying to capture the 1,500 miles of coastline and massive regions within the Sword Coast and the North was an ambitious endeavor, and Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide ends up saying a little about a lot, while not a lot about anything.
The setting content of Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is both the heart of the book and the most valuable and enduring part of the publication. While the focus is on the Sword Coast and the North, the book touches on the entirety of Faerun, including references and details of the lands to the south, such as Chult, and to the east, such as Cormyr and Thay. With over 70 unique and individual locations, it begins with the main primary regions and then goes into more detail, exploring locations, kingdoms, cities, settlements, and much more. Each location is given details that include history, potential lore, city or region maps, and even some firsthand accounts from the researchers and loremasters from whose perspective the book is written. So much of fifth edition highlights the large cities like Baldur’s Gate, Waterdeep, and Neverwinter, but in Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide the setting is expanded to more than just the recognizable regions of the North and the Sword Coast. From the Moonshae Isles, the Dwarfholds of the North, Uthgardt Lands, and to so much more, the Forgotten Realms is opened as a much more broad and diverse setting, allowing it to be host to more than “traditional fantasy.” The setting information provided might be cursory in some instances, but is more than enough inspiration for journeying across the Sword Coast and farther inland. With the wide range of points of interest, more and more opportunities arrive for creative storytellers and adventurous parties the more they explore the world.
The section within the book that I constantly find myself referencing as both a Dungeon Master and a player is Religion in the Forgotten Realms. Filling more than an eighth of the book, this section breaks down the various pantheons beyond just the Gods of the Forgotten Realms, but goes further to include the gods of certain races, such as the Seldarine (elf pantheon) and Dark Seldarine (drow pantheon). It gives mention to the influences and prevalence of new and foreign gods, as well as the dead and resurrected gods. Offset by the section on the history of the Forgotten Realms, the section on the Faerunian Pantheons is extensive. Most of the gods are given a short excerpt and explanation regarding their domain(s), worshippers, methods of worship, and the like. Some are given backstory and history about their faith and possible death and/or ascension to godhood. Littered through the tales of the various deities, there are reminders that gods can and have died throughout the history of the realms, and mortals can distinguish themselves enough to become gods, or have even become powerful enough to kill and take divine power for themselves.
The section Magic in the Realms is short, and while not necessary for players, it offers some concrete clarification for Dungeon Masters on the nature of magic within the setting. As the Weave of magic is tied to the goddess Mystra, the opportunity presents itself to not merely have magic be an aspect of the world, but to make magic feel dynamic and intimately tied into the mythology of the Forgotten Realms. Again it serves as a reminder that the actions of the gods and of mortals have the ability to affect greater things, such as the very nature of magic.
Similarly short is A Brief History, which looks at the known history of the Sword Coast, spanning thousands of years. Looking from the First Thundering to the Present Age, it offers a great starting point for campaigns that span the Sword Coast and make use of the rich history of the setting. It is a resource for campaigns that might look to draw from or reference the history, whether for setting altering events, or in instances where the past and lore of a region might become pertinent to current affairs. Beyond the brief overview, Dungeon Masters will find themselves needing to search through other publications or other canon material for specifics regarding the history of the realms.
The most easily dismissed might be the Races of the Realms section, only because it was largely repurposed through Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. The section goes into detail about the specifics of the different races and subraces found across Faerun, where they come from, as well as their legacy and tendencies within the setting, which are presented as informed by culture and society, not necessarily by racial traits. Much of the content, such as the sections on elves and on dwarves, was rewritten and further expanded upon for Mordenkainen’s. The second part to the commentary on races are the mentions of how they have or can interact with different character classes. They are not rules, but offer some insight into how different cultures or races might interact with the world in different ways, and why taking a certain path (character class) might make certain sense. By exploring which races or subraces are more likely to tend towards certain lifestyles or choices, they create more opportunity for depth in play style and character development.
Revised, Republished, and Abandoned Content
Within the player options of Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, only a small amount of the content for character creation has endured within subsequent resource books, while much has been reworked, abandoned, or forgotten. The character backgrounds offered within the book are specific to the Sword Coast thematically, but they are far too varied in scope because of how large the setting is. With multiple large cities and very different kingdoms and realms, the breadth of the backgrounds is too ambitious. As a reference to a campaign, one or two might be viable, but as a whole, they do not offer much compared to the backgrounds offered within the Player’s Handbook. A more appropriate use of the backgrounds would have been to incorporate them regionally or by kingdom, or by attaching certain racially specific backgrounds to specific cultures or groups within a region. They are far too specific to be usable within a campaign setting as vast as Faerun.
The subclass options in Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide were intended to be a cornerstone, but were honestly forgettable and largely considered not viable within the scope of 5th Edition. Many subclasses have been revisited and revised as playtest material through Unearthed Arcana and then officially added through later publications. Those that saw a return in later books include the Way of the Sun Soul monk, the Mastermind and Swashbuckler rogue archetypes, and Storm Sorcery sorcerers in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, and the return of the Bladesinger tradition for wizards along with several cantrips in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Others, such as the Undying patron for the warlock class, have been revisited in Unearthed Arcana, but have not seen official return within official publications. The other options have either been fully abandoned or have been fodder for inspiration for other content.
Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide offers a few new subrace options beyond those of the Player’s Handbook, almost all of which have been introduced or changed in subsequent books. The options for deep gnomes (svirfneblin) and dark dwarves (duergar) as player characters are included, but were both revisited and added into Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, along with tiefling variants, effectively removing the sidebar option in Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. The one subrace option that was unfortunately never revisited was that of half-elf variants. It created an optional rule for swapping characteristics of half-elves which made them feel unique and actually influenced by their lineage.
Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide as a Resource
The description given by Wizards of the Coast is that the campaign sourcebook was written with players in mind, but with the revisions and updated content for 5th Edition that have come in the years since its publication, it’s no longer useful as a resource for players. That note aside, it is a great supplement for Dungeon Masters and worldbuilders, especially regarding Faerun. The breadth of setting information that it covers is more than any other book, other than perhaps the Creating a Multiverse section in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It lays out information regarding a massive region, providing both usable content and inspiration for expanding upon it for any good Dungeon Master looking to build within the Forgotten Realms.
Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide misses the mark as a resource for players partially due to the amount of content that has been revised and republished, but much of the content that was originally provided was underwhelming to begin with. It has information about a lot, but not a lot of information about anything. Primarily useful as a reference book, it still has a place within the fifth edition D&D libraries of Dungeon Masters and worldbuilders. When looking at a specific setting in depth, particularly centered around a particular city or region, a designated campaign or adventure book focused around that region or city would better serve to build out that location. (As an example, Baldur’s Gate: Descent to Avernus has 53 pages dedicated to the city of Baldur’s Gate, and in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, there are 24 pages to reference for the history, districts, locations, and points of interest in the city) For the Dungeon Master expanding on a campaign that spreads across the Sword Coast and the North, that covers more than a single city or region (such as the two adventures referenced earlier), the foundation offered by this book is second to none. Remember that it will not fully satisfy, and will need much more inspiration and research into the long history and mythology of Faerun to make the setting real and allow it to come to life.
Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is published by Wizards of the Coast.
Want to pick up a copy of Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide for yourself or someone you know? Purchase a copy through this link, and you will help support the Writer in White with your purchase.