Sword Coast Ramblers - Open World D&D!

Over the last few years, my group has run a handful of D&D adventures following the plot from their officially released books. We go through the locations in order, fight the final boss at the end, and say goodbye to our party with an epilogue. Sometimes a little bit of homebrew gets snuck in, and sometimes the party goes a little off the rails necessitating some improv. I imagine that's the experience for most tables. You make some stuff up on the fly, and it becomes canon for the greater world of your future adventures, but for the most part you're beholden to The Story as it's laid out by the author.

Every now and then with these adventures though, we get this peek at the fact that several of them take place in the same setting, The Forgotten Realms. Turns out over decades and editions and tons of sourcebooks, the place has been pretty fleshed out. I frequently find myself on the Forgotten Realms wiki, discovering snippets of that rich history and wondering what would happen if a table just... had... everything at their disposal.

Well, we've been building our collection of 5th edition adventures over at D&D Beyond for a while now. At this point it feels like the only thing stopping us is that tunnel vision of running one adventure at a time and calling that a whole campaign. Some of the books even propose methods to link them together with other adventures in fairly simple ways. Taking it a few steps further, a real, proper open world campaign using all canon content can bounce back and forth between major storylines, following the party's whims and showing off what a lived-in world this is. All it takes is a DM with an encyclopedic knowledge, or just enough organization to seem like it.

So, how do we do it?

For starters, you'll need at least a surface level understanding of the geography at play, and when and where the majority of the official adventures are set. Break down the chapters and side quests of each book to determine the appropriate level ranges, and turn those into pins on your map. Choose a starting location and introductory plot hook, and get adventuring just like always! As players hit appropriate levels for story beats from other books happening nearby, you can deliver news and new plot hooks that let them veer in a new direction.

Because the story begins to bounce between adventures, you need to be quick on the draw with prep. The D&D Beyond Importer tool for Foundry lets you get all the official maps ready to go, configured and populated in a few clicks. Stash them and your entire cast of monster stat blocks into a compendium for when they're needed. From there, it's just a matter of reading up on upcoming locations as they happen.

Another key tool in all this is a notes management app. I'm playing with Obsidian.md and its RPG manager plugin and find its got a great setup for managing relationships between factions, locations and characters. It takes some doing to get all the names and places in there to begin with, but once set up you have a lightning fast mini wiki at your fingertips. I did this in Foundry before, preparing the entire Curse of Strahd world prior to game time, and found it ended up killing in-game performance. An outside tool for information only the DM needs anyway is a smarter way to go.

Now then, what source books do we need to flesh out the world?

- Dungeon Masters Guide, Players Handbook, and Monster Manual, naturally

- The Sword Coast Adventurers Guide gives great background on several locations, written from the perspectives of in-world personalities. Letting the players get their hands on this information helps fill out the lore.

- "Volo's Waterdeep Enchiridion" from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is useful for players in the city

- The Baldur’s Gate Gazetteer performs a similar function

- Xanathar's Guide to Everything gives a great set of random encounter tables and downtime activities

And for adventures, here's my rundown for how and where they can be used, going through the books in release order

- Lost Mine of Phandelver

This adventure takes place entirely in and around the town of Phandalin and can take characters as far as level 5 before you branch out into further adventures. There's nothing saying the players couldn't have reason to travel to other nearby towns earlier however - Triboar just to the East is another starter down and the initial plot hook has the characters having come from Neverwinter to the north.

- Tyranny of Dragons

This starts a short ways south in Greenest, but after level 5 turns into a road trip to Waterdeep where a council sends the party to all corners of the region to build allies and defend against the Cult of the Dragon. Your party might get roped into one or more of these excursions. Or perhaps while in town they could stop by the Yawning Portal to visit a megadungeon or two.

- Princes of the Apocalypse

This is set in the Dessarin Valley, east of Phandalin and south of Triboar, with the town of Red Larch serving as the party headquarters. A handful of side quests for surrounding towns are described which could be stumbled upon by wandering parties. The main plot involves the dealings of four elemental cults and culminates in clearing out each of their dungeons, each of which is appropriate for a different level group.

- Out of the Abyss

This Underdark adventure begins with the party captured by Drow, stripped of their weapons, and forced to flee pursuers as they try to get back to the surface and escaping by way of of the Dwarven city of Gauntylgrim. By level 8 they're recruited to dive back down and take out the rising demon lords. While this seems disconnected from the rest of the Sword Coast adventures, keep in mind that there can be entrances to the Underdark anywhere, and each settlement described in the book has its own thing going on. Also, getting captured and losing your equipment hits a lot harder for an established party vs a group of newly rolled characters.

- Storm King's Thunder

This is where the open world idea takes off. The main story here involves rampaging giants and a need to restore order by visiting locations all across The North. It offers multiple possible starting towns, with the choice between Triboar near the Dessarin Valley, Goldenfields near Waterdeep, or Bryn Shadar way up in Icewind Dale. Chapter three handily lays out a massive atlas with every town, road and patch of trees described along with story hooks and suggested encounters. This doesn't need to be the main story in a campaign, but it absolutely does the best job criss-crossing with all the others.

- Tales from the Yawning Portal

This is a collection of dungeons re-imagined from previous editions. The book provides the framing device of the Yawning Portal, an inn in Waterdeep whose main feature is a well where adventurers are lowered down into the megadungeon Undermountain below. Characters in Waterdeep could be recruited for any combination of these excursions, and the portal could whisk them anywhere you need them to go! The dungeons don't have a canonical place on the map, but the book does provide loose suggestions for where to put them.

- Tomb of Annihilation

This jungle adventure takes place far south in the jungles of Chult, and provides its own little open world to explore with several interesting locations and side stories. The whole thing culminates in a huge multi level dungeon. A party generally takes a boat from Baldur's Gate to kick this off. As part of a larger campaign, you can pick and choose which locations and objectives to offer as part of a visit.

- Waterdeep: Dragon Heist

This is an introductory adventure for characters starting in the City of Waterdeep, and describes lairs and machinations of four different villains which can be encountered depending on the season you're setting the adventure in. Being low level, it's unlikely to challenge a party that came to Waterdeep from elsewhere, but with some tweaks and focus on story instead of combat it could engage a visiting group with an interesting side quest.

- Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage

The megadungeon of Undermountain is laid out in all its glory here, meant to be the logical next step for a party that played Dragon Heist. Any one level of this book is a self-contained dungeon on its own, opening it up to being visited at any time for any reason during your campaign.

- Ghosts of Saltmarsh

Okay you got me, this isn't officially set in the Forgotten Realms. As a transplant from Greyhawk, you can use a good lot of this book for its ship and naval combat rules, and sidequests in the Trackless Sea. DMs running this on the Sword Coast tend to place the town of Saltmarsh on the coast just west of Phandalin and north of Leilon.

- Dragon of Icespire Peak

This introductory adventure is set in and around Phandalin, already overlapping with the Lost Mines of Phandelver. Its structure is also easy to slot in, as a series of side quests and locations to explore in the area. Adding this to the campaign gives a new villain, the white dragon Cryovain, who can show up anytime, anywhere while the party's moving between locations.

- Storm Lord's Wrath \ Sleeping Dragon's Wake \ Divine Contention

This trilogy is a linear series of quests that follow up from Icespire Peak, taking the party west from Phandalin to the ruined town of Leilon, where they rebuild and fend off a number of threats from the surrounding region. A party wrapped up in this story might not stray far unless you give them specific reason to do so, such as putting the rebuilding of Leilon on a timeline and locking further progression of the story while they adventure elsewhere.

- Descent into Avernus

This adventure begins in Baldur's Gate, but soon after draws the party into another plane entirely after visiting Candlekeep and taking a portal to hell itself. Once that jump is made, you're likely committed to finishing the fight before letting the party return to the land of the living. Using bits and pieces of the adventure would require some creativity, but could offer variety to the setting.

- Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden

This takes place entirely in the far northern reaches around the settlements of Ten-Towns. Its also one of the starting locations for Storm King's Thunder, giving more to do and fleshing out the area. In later levels, there's a wandering dragon construct to contend with that makes the region all that more dangerous before delving into frozen caverns and dungeons to retrieve an artifact with world-altering power. Pull that little macguffin at your own risk,.

- Candlekeep Mysteries

This book lays out a series of short adventures all of which are accessed by magical books within the library of Candlekeep, located south of Baldur's Gate and a long way from most of the action happening in the region. However, there's nothing saying one or more of the books couldn't find their way to the party via other means.

- Wild Beyond the Witchlight

A wandering carnival offers a fun distraction for the party with interesting characters and minigames. Should they follow through with the story as presented, they find themselves trapped in the Feywild and need to treat with the Hourglass coven before returning. Like Descent into Avernus the locations and characters within can serve as an interesting side trek to liven things up, but getting the party on this path will keep them there for a good while.

- Dragons of Stormwreck Isle

A newer introductory adventure, this one puts the party on a small island near Neverwinter. This serves as a simple starting zone with a small, manageable amount of quests before letting a party hit the mainland.

- Keys from the Golden Vault

This book presents a series of heist based adventures, most of which are location agnostic and can be slotted in anywhere, anytime. It's possible to add The Golden Vault as a new faction in the campaign, and offer their missions as a lucrative side hustle while in a large city like Neverwinter, Waterdeep or Baldur's Gate.

- Phandelver and below: The Shattered Obelisk

This newest book is actually a retooling of the first introductory adventure, covering the same grounds and then extending the story to some far out places. The action remains centered on Phandalin though, so it might be more something for the party to come back to and find in progress at a later point in the campaign.

It certainly seems like a lot, doesn't it? Well, wish me luck because I'm going to be trying it this year!