The Unapproachable East has always been one of my favorite regions of the Forgotten Realms, dating back to the excellent Spellbound boxed set of 2e and Unapproachable East of 3.x. This PDF, by Joe Raso and a team of contributing writers, offers a 5e update focused on the Great Dale. Rashemen, Thay, and Aglarond matter here, but this isn’t mainly about those. I received a free review copy.
There’s a lot of different content in this book. It’s the same broad spectrum of new material, in a roughly similar organization, to Unapproachable East. The content below is a mix of new and DM’s Guild-reprinted content, including some from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, included here for convenience.
- One new race
- Many new subclasses
- A discussion of how many Player’s Handbook classes and subclasses fit into the region (I particularly like the attention given to warlock patrons)
- Three new backgrounds
- Ways for existing backgrounds to fit into the region
- Six new feats
- A bunch of new spells, my favorite of which is absolutely Nybor’s stern reproof
- A healthy supply of new magic items
- A collection of new monsters
That’s just the mechanical stuff. It’s around half the book, and the rest is setting and character descriptions. On material alone, this is a substantial work.
If you don’t know anything about the Great Dale, it’s one of the great under-utilized regions of the Realms. The demon-binders of Narfell give you a long history of horrors worked upon the land and evils to fight. There’s also a substantial fey presence, which I call out here because 5e’s official setting and adventure releases have all but ignored the Feywild. Before I dig into the full content of the PDF, I expect it to be a strong entry point into the Realms for someone with no prior exposure.
When elves just aren’t tree-ish enough for you but you don’t want the adventure-stopping difficulties of playing an Ent, try a volodni. They’re also very close to being 4e’s wilden, but with quite a different backstory.
- +1 Wis, +1 Cha. That’s less of an ability score increase than you usually see from a race, but later features can balance those scales.
- Their lifespan can stretch to 150 or so.
- 60-ft darkvision.
- Plant Traits gives them resistance to piercing and poison damage, and advantage on saving throws against sleep and charm effects. In a very rare case of a racial drawback, they also have disadvantage on saves against magical fire (which is an odd distinction to draw all by itself), and count as Type: Plant for blight and the like.
- Resistance to piercing damage is a Big Deal. I’m going to say that it’s the big flashy feature of the whole race, even if it’s a bit of a buried lede. The fire weakness is a big deal – it’s only the most common non-B/P/S damage type in the game. Blight weakness is niche, but any NPC who can cast it on you will probably think to do so, because your outward appearance signals that they should.
- Cold Iron Anathema means you really don’t want to use metal weapons (disadvantage) or metal armor (can’t heal). It’s a hard road for some classes and subclasses, but fine for others. Notably, there’s no extra penalty when you’re hit with metal weapons.
- Deep Slumber means they take only 4 hours for a long rest, but they wake up slowly, with disadvantage on initiative rolls in the first minute after they wake.
- I’m not crazy about either part of this feature. 4-hour long rests are only really useful if the rest of the party also has ways to take a shorter rest. It’s probably intended as more of a ribbon – I just think that a player or DM trying to lean into it gets weird fast.
- Forest Hunter lets you move at full speed while sneaking through the forest, and lets you hide while only lightly obscured in a forest environment. Environment-based features are always going to be kinda tough – you’re either doing great or getting nothing at all.
- Nature’s Avenger teaches you one druid cantrip.
- You speak, read, and write Sylvan, in addition to Common as usual.
Overall this is okay on power – sometimes it’s unbelievable, sometimes almost none of its features matter, and sometimes its drawbacks bite you hard. As a sidebar on its previous publication notes, it’s consciously sticking closer to the 3.5e volodni, which is a significant creative constraint.
I like the section on the presence of other races in the region, though there’s an awkward continuity point around tieflings. Since 5e has made the regrettable decision that tieflings are only ever tied to devils rather than demons, the demonic history of Narfell can’t really lead to an increased tiefling presence. I much prefer to ignore 5e’s canon and go along with the 2e/3e canon for this.
Next we get into how different classes fit in. The Plague cleric, Blight druid, Leth druid, Shou Disciple monk, Oath of Sarshel paladin, Nentyar Hunter ranger, Black Flame Zealot rogue, Thug rogue, Forest Soul sorcerer, Raumathari Battlemage sorcerer, variant Archfey and Fiend Patron features for warlocks, new Eldritch Invocations, and the Nar Demonbinder wizard all appear here. I’m not doing my typical feature-by-feature breakdown, just because there are so many here, but I’ll try to give impressions on them.
I do want to say that I don’t see the appeal in playing a Plague cleric, Blight druid, or Black Flame Zealot rogue. There are edgy characters, then there are just evil-from-first-principles characters. In fairness, the text supports a Plague cleric as more of a plague doctor than an infection vector, but the default assumption for all three is that you’ve chosen to spread evil and death. In a region with as many problems as the Great Dale has – as any adventuring region should have – I just can’t imagine wanting to play a character or whole group dedicated to evil. This is the distinction between an evil character and evil as a cause. To put that another way, 3.x, 4e, and 5e have had a steady diet of support for edgy and evil character concepts, but essentially no support for edgy or evil adventure goals. At least in 3.x, those super evil prestige classes were useful in the “NPCs work the same as PCs” dynamic of character design.
The Plague Domain offers straightforward gameplay: immunity to disease, conjuring deadly mists (a smaller, shorter-term stinking cloud, more or less), and helping others resist poison and necrotic damage. Giving them Divine Strike rather than Potent Spellcasting at 8th seems questionable to me, especially since giving them infestation for free at 1st level and no improved weapon or armor proficiency signals that you expect more hanging back and casting than frontline melee play.
The Circle of Blight doesn’t really get going until 6th level, because the Blight Touch feature at 2nd level is a way to spend several days recruiting minions rather than combat-useful in itself. Starting at 6th level, this Circle pivots to a polearm-melee druid, so make sure you build up your Strength ahead of time. The things you can do with your glaive just get more and more brutal, enough to possibly make up for the fact that you don’t get Extra Attack. Winterheart at 14th level gives you a whole boat of condition immunities, so I disapprove on principle.
I guess the theory-level point I want to make is that if your subclass’s expected gameplay loop hasn’t started within the span of a normal run of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist (1st-5th level), you probably want to rethink things. Also, ranged cantrips and melee features are a kind of mixed signal to send if you don’t also build in a War Magic-like feature.
The Circle of Leth is to plants what the Circle of the Moon is to beasts. Nature’s Protection riffs on Nature’s Ward from the Circle of the Land, protecting you from fiends and plants rather than elementals and fey – very on-message for the Great Dale and this Circle’s story. Silent Passage at 14th lets you cast pass without trace at will, which is completely crazypants good because pass without trace is one of the best 2nd-level spells in the game. Considering how many slots you could spend on it already as a 14th-level druid, though, it’s basically fine. In short, I like what I see here. I’d like to see it in ongoing use in a game, to see if the plant forms can handle some of the things that beast forms fall short on for Moon druids.
The Shou Disciple Tradition for monks is an alternate approach to the Kensei monk – blending more fighter-like play back into the monk. This broadens the weapons and armor you can use, though the way the AC calculations work, you’re losing AC unless you’re honestly playing a monk with a Wisdom of 14 or lower, and you do lose out on some other monk features. Your Second Wind-like feature is great. Expanding your monk weapon list in many separate features, finally allowing you to use a greatsword as a monk weapon at 17th level, is probably holding back too much. By the time you can do that, it’s barely an upgrade over your base Martial Arts damage (2d6 vs 1d10). I’m pretty sure this one is underpowered.
The Oath of Sarshel is a Devotion/Vengeance blend hyperspecialized in fighting fiends and undead. Its Channel Divinity features still work when not fighting fiends or undead, but that’s almost it. It also leans a bit too heavily on reactions. The spin-up cost of an action for Blessed Weapon and Champion of Sarshel are both ways of doing things that represent 5e in 2014 rather than 2019 design. That sounds harsh, so let me clarify that this is stuff I’ve only really grasped in the last couple of weeks, working through the new rounds of UA content. Overall, this subclass needs to be a little stronger and applicable to more situations.
The Nentyar Hunter pulls in more agility and speed themes. That’s unrelated to the theme that the text lays out, which talks about druidic and totemic concepts. Nature’s Fury gives you a damage kicker while you’re maintaining concentration on a spell, so hunter’s mark goes from the thing you always want to be running to… even more so? The subclass feels a little off to me – too much going on with reactions, not enough story beyond the agility- and leadership-related tricks.
The Black Flame Zealot is a rogue that casts cleric spells, in the same broad format of the Arcane Trickster for wizard spells. I’ve written my own cleric-rogue mashup, so I have some familiarity with the design challenges here. Within an explicitly Thayan context, this could be a great character concept for me – playing a murderous enforcer within the grimdarkness of Thayan society. I like the way the features sell the themes, though I’m never going to be a fan of immunity to frightened. I would like to see the flame blade casting become more common and usable with Sneak Attack, which seems like the design intention. Overall I like the flashiness of this subclass, and I would play the concept if I could work out a way to get along well with the rest of my probably-not-Thayan party.
The Thug is a concept that has shown up quite a few times in D&D – a Strength rogue that uses escrima sticks, clubs, maces, that kind of thing, for their Sneak Attacks, and uses fear much more actively as a weapon. The incredibly hard thing about this concept is that you need to play the first two levels of the game with good Strength that isn’t yet really paying off, but you also need good Dex because it’s still the core of so many skills and your AC calculation. So multiple attribute dependency, basically. I like most of the features, though I kind of want to treat this subclass more like Nightwing than a stick-wielding bully. The only thing I have an issue with is Stunning Strike at 17th level, where every Sneak Attack you deliver with a club or mace forces a save against stun. That’s just way too much, even for 17th level. Also, it probably shouldn’t be a Cha-based DC.
The Forest Soul brings the druidic spell list to sorcery the same way the Divine Soul does for cleric spells. This is doing one of the short list of things from Pathfinder 2 that I really love, so I’m a fan. It grants social-interaction benefits with non-evil fey (okay, that might be a little narrow even for a ribbon), the ability to speak with plants, superior spell-slot creation with sorcery points for casting druid spells a limited number of times per day, combat-range teleportation from tree to tree an unlimited number of times per day, and the ability to take on treant form. This subclass looks like it would be fun and versatile – would play.
The Raumathari Battlemage is a sorcerous origin for swordmages. I’m always interested in how people approach this concept, and I have only two issues with this one. One, the sorcerer’s d6 Hit Die isn’t enough for a melee combatant, and two, without a cast-when-you-Attack or attack-when-you-Cast a Spell feature, your melee combat is competing too much with your spellcasting for your round-by-round actions. This is very close to being a great subclass, and from what I’ve seen, there’s a lot of hunger for melee-friendly sorcerer options.
There’s not a full new warlock patron, but there are a few paragraphs on Titania (that I don’t really love, because the first thing we say about fey is that Seelie aren’t Good and Unseelie aren’t Evil), the Queen of Air and Darkness (who gets a variant Beguiling Defenses that swaps out charm for fear), and the demon lord Eltab (who swaps out Dark One’s Blessing for the Armor of Shadows Eldritch Invocation, more or less). These are all okay.
There are nine new Eldritch Invocations listed here. Well, okay, I should say that the warlock patron content and the Invocations are all reprinted from Alex Clippinger’s “Tome of the Pact.” A number of these have the form of “cast this spell once per long rest, using a Pact Magic slot.” That’s an invocation model that I just can’t recommend. At absolute least, let it start out as casting once with a Pact Magic slot and improve into casting once without a Pact Magic slot; but really, you will not break the warlock by jumping straight to casting whatever the spell is once per long rest, without a Pact Magic slot. Of all these invocations, Plague of Baalzebul and Zariel’s Wrathful Strike are my favorites. The rest need to be a little bit more powerful.
As the name would lead you to expect, a Nar Demonbinder is a Goetic wizard. For what it’s doing, this is a flawless subclass. Just know that you’re getting into a high-risk form of gameplay that can also slow down play a bit (because you have to track all those demons). I think this is what I hoped the School of Conjuration would sell a bit more directly (though I like Conjuration just fine in its own right).
The three new backgrounds are Demon Tainted, Nentyarch Follower, and Shadowmaster’s Agent.
Demon Tainted gets huge points for having the boldest background feature I’ve seen in a long time. Fiends interact with you as if you are a fiend yourself. That’s incredibly cool. I also like that it adds some spells to your class’s spell list. Every class benefits some, though a Fiend Patron warlock gets some of the least benefit. That outcome is both logical and paradoxical.
The Nentyarch Follower is a groupie for the Circle of Leth and the Nentyarch, the Circle’s archdruid. Their feature is a region-specific Folk Hero. This is a good variant to offer, and I’d pay money to see every region get its own Folk Hero variant with skills, equipment, and personality features customized to that region and its history.
The Shadowmaster’s Agent indicates that you are or were a servant of the Shadowmasters of Telflamm, and probably a Shar cultist. I like that you get a bunch of spells added to your spell list for all classes – this is an approach I haven’t seen in backgrounds before reading the Demon Tainted, and I find it intriguing. The background’s feature indicates that you haven’t been burned by the organization, so you might be stuck doing super evil stuff that will cause a lot of intra-party conflict. Move carefully in picking this one.
All three of these backgrounds are solid. I also like that there are additional tables for many other backgrounds – region-appropriate secrets for Hermits, a Sage’s source of learning, and so on.
There are six feats in this section.
Circle Magic takes a whole page to explain, which is a tradition going back to 2e if not earlier. This does what Circle Magic has always pretty much done, only lightly tweaked to 5e. This wouldn’t necessarily be easy to use well as PCs, but it’s always been great for NPCs – we just don’t build NPCs like that anymore.
Fiend Hunter is a favored-enemy feat, with all of the fundamental problems of same. It also carries a floating +1 to an ability score.
Long Reach lets you further specialize in spear-related weapons: javelin, pike, spear, and trident. That carries +1 Str, increased crit range and +5 ft reach. This is fine on its own, but it’s pointedly hard to stack with Polearm Master – only the spear works for all features of both feats, and the spear is one of 5e’s less-appealing weapons. Pro tip: fix it with a house rule to let anyone with proficiency in all martial weapons boost it to d8 (versatile d10).
Smooth Talker makes you good at first impressions (I guess when someone meets you the next time, they’re starting to see through your bullshirt), and lets you try to wheedle your way out of getting attacked in combat. I think the wheedling promises to be a bit too much of an at-will crowd control, but with some reasonable understanding between player and DM, it would be fine.
Transdimensional Spell lets you up-cast spells to ignore the spell-avoiding effects of the target being in the Ethereal Plane and other barely-another-plane spaces. This is a costly solution to a reasonably rare problem, but if transdimensional enemies are a major part of a game, then sure, pick this up.
Woodwise gives you +1 Dex or Wis, advantage on Perception checks in forested areas, and a syntactically less-than-clear speed boost. This is not a great buy, because terrain-limited benefits are something you’d rather avoid in choosing feats.
Feat design is just obscenely hard. 5e feat design really highlights for me how lazy we could get away with being in 3.x and 4e.
There are a whole bunch of new and reprinted spells – for example, two of the subclasses offer infestation as a cantrip, so they reprint it from XGTE here. There are enough spells that I’m just picking my favorite few. Overall, this section is fine.
Decastave has a long history as a Forgotten Realms spell. It’s a wizard’s answer to flame blade, dealing a little less damage but with an on-crit effect and the ability to strike ethereal/incorporeal creatures. There’s a little bit of a problem that incorporeal isn’t a formal rules term in 5e, as I learned to my chagrin some time ago.
Nybor’s Gentle Reminder was one of my favorites all the way back in 2e’s Spellbound box, particularly because it’s part of a chain of spells. This spell chiefly exists to disrupt a caster’s concentration cheaply, against a higher DC than straight-up spell damage.
Nybor’s Stern Reproof is another part of that spell chain. I’m not looking it up right now, but I’m sure there was at least one more in Spellbound. This is a high-level save-or-die spell, and if the target succeeds the first save, there’s a second save and a further no-saving-throw effect. Thematically and in some ways mechanically, power word pain is the most comparable spell, and this has several benefits and a few drawbacks relative to that.
Items of Interest
This is a list of magic items that always show up in Unapproachable East supplements. I don’t have a lot of commentary here – I mean, none of my breakdown articles dig into magic items. A whole lot of these are not so much magic items as big story hooks. Be awesome and bold! Give your players magic items that carry enormous social clout as well as phenomenal cosmic stabbing power.
Having said that: Stormsplitter sits right at the bleeding edge of big honkin’ anime swords that I find cool rather than silly, buuut I have to admit that I would be over the moon to receive it in a game.
The next section is the setting material itself. The Great Dale, Narfell, the Dunwood, the Forest of Lethyr, and Thesk are about the most explicitly Middle-Earth-like that a setting could be without straight-up cribbing the Professor’s map. Narfell is Angmar, is what I’m saying. Thay, which is a bit east of the included map, is Mordor. I think there’s some real virtue to lifting a bunch of rules and procedures out of Adventures in Middle-Earth, playing this as a hexcrawl and walking sim. (Uh, that sounds dismissive. Here I’m using “walking sim” for “really leans into the exploration pillar.”)
I’m into the format here. It goes from location to location, with just a few quick paragraphs for each, including adventure hooks. There’s a lot of focus on interesting conflict, including magical anomalies to solve beyond just monsters to stab. Widespread fiendish corruption justifies all kinds of stuff! I feel like the material here would be easy to use for brainstorming or during play, even with the limitations of a PDF format.
I’ve been a fan of the Realms for most of the last 25 years. A lot of the writing on the setting over that time is bone-dry or so meandering that it’s hard to see how you’d communicate it to players and use it. The setting material in this book sheds a lot of the cruft and gets to the good stuff.
As with the Lands, this is good, high-conflict material presented well. I’m not always great at using someone else’s material, but I feel like I could use this easily and get good results. Two empires smashing each other to flinders in the distant past is a rich foundation, in my experience.
There are a lot more villain factions than heroic factions here. On one hand, I like having villain fronts to fight as much as anyone. On the other, I still want to see someone make PC faction play a central part of the game, as 5e initially planned but never delivered. This content is fine and good on its own merits.
Friends, Foes, and Creatures of Interest
This chapter drills down to presenting individual stories of NPCs that might show up in your game. They aren’t all famous, important figures, either – some of them are just adventurers who could be allies or rivals. Some of the strongest use might be having the more heroic ones become new PCs, if you have a character die and need a quick fill-in. There are lots of NPC stat blocks. Following that, there are new monsters and stat blocks for them. All good stuff.
Two pages of adventure ideas round out the practical content of the book. It’s yet another kind of content that would have vastly improved Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. I like the hooks and campaign backbones presented here.
I feel much the same way about this as I’ve felt about comparable DM’s Guild setting-and-mechanics products: the setting material is strong, evocative, and feels immediately usable, while the mechanics could use another pass. As I said above, the Great Dale does have connections to other parts of the Realms, but they’re minor enough that this is a great entry point to the Forgotten Realms, especially if you love the Mirkwood. If you don’t care one way or the other about the Realms, this is still a good contained setting with a lot of conflict and room for heroics.