Around this time last year, I did reviews of the Player’s Handbook (PHB) and Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) for 5e Dungeons and Dragons. Examining these books through the lens of racism and fantasy is important, because Dungeons and Dragons is the biggest fantasy game out there, with reach and influence out of proportion for a simple collection of game books they are by any standard. At the time, there was a rumour floating about that implied that there would be no campaign setting book for Faerȗn, the new default game setting better recognized as Forgotten Realms. This turned out to be a half truth. As opposed to a single book, it appears that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) will instead be releasing a series of books instead, and the first was released in early November. So it’s time to take an in depth look at the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide!
The first thing I did was an art inspection. As I’ve discussed before, seeing POC in a game’s art is an import facet of inclusion and immersion. The criteria I used was that only art with identifiable player race was used. There were 41 images that met the criteria, of them, 26 images were of non-POC, seven were of or included human POC, three were of non-human POC, five were indeterminate, and one was of a player race that was not quantifiable within the context of being a minority (it was a Dragonborn). There were two instances of repeated art use for POC, which drops the representation from 24% of images to 19%. None of the portrayals are “stereotypical” by fantasy standards, and POC are shown as being part of the daily norm and life of the Sword Coast. A POC is also on the cover, and two are in the class description area. So, art wise, the book did very well.
After that, I took a look at what was going on with the book itself. This is a slim book by campaign setting standards, and does a lot of the grunt work of world description that probably should have been allocated to better describing the Sword Coast region. The region covered in depth, such as it is, goes from the Spine of the World to Amn, and includes some of the most familiar areas of the Realms, such as Cormyr, Neverwinter, Baldur’s Gate, Waterdeep, The Kingdom of Many Arrows, and Luskan. I had the distinct impression that this book was relying heavily on player knowledge based on the large collection of Forgotten Realms novels which have been released over the years.
I just mentioned the massive novelization effort for this campaign setting. This has been used as a method of expanding the world, adding details, and linking in expansion sets since the days of TSR. After the disaster of 4e D&D’s butchering of the setting in an effort to shoehorn in everything from the 4e PHB and the ill thought out sequence of disasters in novels; the people at WotC did a soft reset on the setting. Abier is gone. All the parts of the Realms that were swapped out are back in place, most of the people are more or less “okay”, and major characters are back on the scene. Most of these events were covered in a novel series called “The Sundering”, which covered the events leading to the Second Sundering. The feel of the game is familiar but different if you’ve played the setting before, but not overwhelmingly so.
Good points are immediate. Gold Dwarves are in place and in full glory. These equatorial Dwarves to the south end of the main campaign setting are great. They’re dark skinned, have a different outlook compared to their paler northern brethren, and are a thriving group. It’s awesome. Also fantastic is the revivification of Turmish, the “other” Black human nation (poor support and no real novelization until recently made it a forgotten part of the Forgotten Realms). It’s no longer the failing state of 4e, and has been restored to a base level of functionality, more or less. Details on both of these groups were slim though, as they’re not an actual part of the region covered by the book. It was good to see the effort though, and it certainly made the game more friendly to POC players.
One of my very first posts here was about the needless decimation of Chult and the Chultan peninsula. This part of the campaign setting description was both good and problematic. I’ll start with the good. Chult is described without the racist language used in the past, and explicitly says that the still ruined city of Mezro was waiting for its scattered inhabitants to return and reclaim it. That’s good. Not so great was the fact that Ubtao, the god over the area, is absent from the deity list. Samarach is devoid of details. Thindol is still infested with Yuan-ti (no human information at all), and Tashalar is still gone. 100% gone, no mention of it or its survivors. Adding insult to injury, Halruaa, the epicenter of the magical blast that annihilated the region, is back and just fine. Once again, the dark skinned denizens of that part of the realm continue to get the short end of the stick.
Mulhorand gets a special mention here. This nation is undermentioned and underused, for good reason. It’s got a pretty lame background. It was founded by Egyptians (stolen from Earth by magic) who were taken as slaves by Imaskar Empire back in the day. Its gods are literally the Egyptian pantheon, and its society is based around a very, very basic understanding of Egyptian culture in the pre-Greek Dynastic eras. Basically, it’s a little blob of antique, pulp style racism in the middle of the map. It’s also now being directly ruled by its avatars of its gods, making it one of two nations that have that situation, and unlike the other, Unther, there’s no good “fluff” to support it. So yeah, that’s not so great.
The player race section was a bit of mess after you pushed past Gold Dwarves. There was some problematic stuff there, including a serious doubling down on the racist narratives behind Half Elf and Half Orc player races. All the problems in the PHB that I mentioned are in full effect here, and it’s still hugely problematic because it reinforces real world stereotypes and narratives around people who have mixed ethnic backgrounds (in particular POC with that background). The two races still remain as the only ones without an actual not-quantity related name, and there appears to be no effort to address this.
There was also another issue, the Dark Elf (Drow) entry. Now, I’ve mentioned how much the setting has made use of novelization to build itself. One recent set of novels, the Lady Penitent series, saw the partial redemption of the Drow. In this series, you discover that the punishment of the Dark Elves was a blanket punishment from their gods for the actions of a few demon influenced and tainted groups following Lolth. In a divine act, those without that demon taint who followed Eilistraee were cleansed, their skin went from demonic black/grey to being dark brown again, and they moved on to form a non-evil society. None of this is acknowledged in the book. NONE OF IT. Everywhere else, you see the novelization influence, but where it could add some nuance, plot hooks and expand POC presence in the game and as players, the ball was dropped. This really deserves its own post though.
So, overall, the book is a net positive. It abandoned a lot of the racist language of the past, and made a good effort of showing that POC are a natural part of the Sword Coast and its various communities and societies, not just background set dressing for specific adventuring locations. The book isn’t perfect, but it does take at least two steps forward for the step back it takes in the areas mentioned. As a baseline to launch a series of campaign setting books from, it’s a descent start, but only time will tell if WotC keeps the effort up.