Character options! Improved backgrounds! Magic item creation rules! New spells! Myriad of traps!
If 5E D&D was lacking something, it was definitely more options. Devised as a system with a new player-friendly learning curve, it didn’t overwhelm with choices. For someone like me, who spent their games mostly in Pathfinder or Shadowrun, it was rather underwhelming in this regards. The current edition’s publishing strategy, focusing on campaigns and adventures, has made life of many (mostly first-time) GMs easier, and this is definitely a good thing.
However, not being a first-time GM and loving making choices, I was struggling for a long time with fifth edition. I felt it’s too constricting and too vague at the same time.
And then cue Xanathar.
The greedy, conceited, rich, and powerful beholder (and his goldfish) has collected some of the best lore and items and for whatever reason is happy to share it.
The most important part of the book is the first section with new character subclasses. Most of them we’ve seen already in Unearthed Arcana, but they’ve all seen some rework (major, like the War Mage, or minor, like the Forge Cleric). Included in the book are:
- Barbarian: Path of the Ancestral Guardian, Path of the Storm Herald, Path of the Zealot
- Bard: College of Glamour, College of Swords, College of Whispers
- Cleric: Forge Domain, Grave Domain
- Druid: Circle of Dreams, Circle of the Shepherd
- Fighter: Arcane Archer, Cavalier, Samurai
- Monk: Way of the Drunken Master, Way of the Kensei, Way of the Sun Soul
- Paladin: Oath of Conquest, Oath of Redemption
- Ranger: Gloom Stalker, Horizon Walker, Monster Slayer
- Rogue: Inquisitive, Mastermind, Scout, Swashbuckler
- Sorcerer: Divine Soul, Shadow Magic, Storm Sorcery
- Warlock: The Celestial, The Hexblade
- Wizard: War Magic
My personal favourite is definitely the Forge domain for cleric (which is incidentally the character I’m playing in the current campaign) – combines fun flavour abilities (magically creating mundane equipment from coins or scrap metal) and pretty good boons (nice AC boosts and fire resistance). Ranger’s gloom stalker is maybe not outright broken, but definitely powerful (especially in our campaign, where GM has brought upon us the eternal night – our ranger is virtually invisible at all times).
What’s more, new subclasses are not the only way the standard classes become enriched by this book. The authors added some background detail tables as well: each class can now roll on three class-specific tables, i.e. a druid can now roll for a treasured item, a guiding aspect, and a mentor. Obviously, these will not be of a great help to well-established characters, but they definitely help in creation of new ones. If the first-level fighter knows he’s wearing a heraldic sign of a phoenix, he was taught combat by a street fighter, and his combat style is rather on a cunning side, that’s already a good start for a three-dimensional character.
On a side note, druid’s section includes one of the most useful things I’ve seen in this type of books: a list of beast shapes separated by climate and in ascending order of CR. If you’ve ever wondered which beast shapes your desert-themed druid should know, look no further.
A second section is made of plethora of tables which allow you to randomly (or semi-randomly) generate the origins of your character (or an NPC, for that matter). Again, useful not only for new characters; even an existing one can add some extra details to their story.
The first set of tables covers the parentage (especially for half-elves, half-orcs and tieflings), birthplace, siblings, family status etc., including childhood memories (dependent on character’s Charisma – my Cha 7 cleric definitely did not roll well for childhood friendships!).
Further down you’ll find reasons why your character followed a chosen background (as in: your PC became a charlatan because after a charlatan fleeced their family, they decided to learn the trade so they would never be fooled by such deception again) or a chosen class (i.e. when your warlock was faced with a terrible crisis, they prayed to any being who would listen, and the creature that answered became their patron). There’s six options for each background and class – enough to cover a multitude of campaigns.
Next section covers life events, like useful contacts, rivals, tragedies or magical (or just plainly weird) events your character had experienced before starting the campaign. They may have committed a crime, fought in a battle, spent some time on a fey court, or gotten married – it’s all up to you (or the dice roll). Anyhow, the tables are chock-full of plot hooks and ideas that can be expanded into interesting origin stories.
Supplemental tables allow to roll for races, alignment, classes or causes of death – helpful in creating allies, rivals or family members.
Racial feats make a really nice addition – we’ve seen them in Unearthed Arcana, but they’ve been considerably reworked. Definitely something worth considering!
All in all – dead useful tool. Even experienced players may be inspired by questions asked and answers given; and if something doesn’t fit the established character, just change it or drop it. It’s all optional.
Third part consist extra tools for the Dungeon Master, i.e. rules for falling, sleeping (in armour or without etc.), adamantine weapons, tying knots. There’s also a great section on tool proficiencies: no more wondering why the hell you’d take cook utensils proficiency – it actually can give you an edge now, like spotting poison or helping recover hit points on a short rest. And the DC to cook a decent meal is only 10; not what I’ve found in a real life.
Spellcasters among us will find useful the next couple of pages, devoted to identifying spells and using templates on a grid for AoE spells. There’s a lot of useful diagrams there – no longer need to discuss if 1/3 of a base of the mini covered is enough to get hit by a fireball. The answer is yes, by the way.
Highly detailed (and insightful) rules for encounter building cover a fair amount of pages and include encounter tables for different environments and tiers of play. As usual, not all of the encounters have to end in combat; there’s a fair amount of these which can introduce a quest giver or just some role-play opportunities.
For the dungeon delvers and dungeon builders, there’s a section on traps, and it’s on the longer side. Includes rules and examples for both simple traps (like bear traps) and the complex ones (like a Sphere of Crushing Doom). Delightful to read. And, always useful advice: Traps are most effective when their presence comes as a surprise, not when they appear so often that the characters spend all their effort watching out for the next one. Classic quality > quantity.
Downtime revisited is a section I was particularly interested in, and it finally introduces some proper rules for magic item creation (I’ve mentioned playing a forge cleric, right? She’s a guild artisan on a quest to create her masterwork and finish the apprenticeship; magic item creation rules are vital for any progression of her personal story). Introduction of rivals is an interesting development as well – it gives the DM a framework for creating NPCs that oppose the PCs while not being the villains; every good story needs some antagonists. In short, there are rules for the following downtime activities:
- buying a magical item
- crafting an item (mundane or magical)
- pit fighting
- religious service
- scribing a spell scroll
- selling a magical item
Next section covers awarding magical items – includes guidelines for the DM as to how often should the magic item become available to keep the balance of the game intact. Of course, like everything in RPGs, if it doesn’t suit your world and your campaign, change it. Anyway, now I know our third-level party should have around 8 magical items total while we’ve got none. I expect to be showered with magic in the next couple of sessions; so maybe that’s why players shouldn’t be allowed to read the DM’s chapters.
After that comes a great part of this book: common magical items. While the main books weren’t too generous with those, Xanathar’s Guide helps a lot. There’s 48 mostly hilarious common magical items; none of them is able to break the balance of the game, but they all will be highly appreciated by industrious players. From the Armour of Gleaming (never gets dirty) through Heward’s Handy Spice Pouch (yes, generates spices) to Wand of Smiles (forces target to smile if they fail a saving throw), these items are just wonderful and I need them all. A handy table of all magical items from this book and DMG will help with keeping track of the magical item allocation and attunement.
As usual, new supplement brings some more spells; in this case they’re mostly low-level spells as shown before in Unearted Arcana. I’m delighted to see them, especially as they allow for more versatility and flavour. A cleric, for example, gets an access to a 1st level spell Ceremony, that allows to perform marriage or funeral rites within the mechanics. And my personal favourite, divine version of Mordekeinen’s Magnificent Mansion: 7th level conjuration spell, Temple of the gods, which creates a real temple with a Protection from Good/Evil built into it (no expensive material components, casting time of 1hr, 24hr duration; can be made permanent with repeated castings). I’m enamoured.
The award for the biggest haul goes to the arcane casters, though. A sorcerer gets 55 new spells (or newly acquired access to existing spells, due to new subclasses), while clerics get 7 and paladins get 3. A bit uneven, but I can see the reasoning behind it.
Appendix A is something that might be definitely useful for a large group of the DMs: rules for Shared Campaigns. For all of those interested in campaigns like the ones in the Adventurers League, this section will be invaluable, as it covers rules for creating adventures, awarding treasures and co-DMing.
Appendix B is a life saviour for all of us who just cannot come up with a character’s name on the spot. Table after table with names for different races and cultures will be probably the most often photocopied part of the book. Super handy and super useful. Just roll a d% in an appropriate table and make a note of how you’ve named that NPC; your players probably will.
Is Xanathar’s Guide to Everything the best of the supplements published so far for 5E D&D? For me, definitely yes. Character options, lots of inspiration in the background section, finally useful tools proficiencies, and the revised downtime rules are enough fro me to call this a great book. Everything else is just icing and cherries – I’m delighted to see it, but I would be happy with just the cake.
This book definitely fills a massive gap in 5E; for me the game has just been given a second life. So many new options to try out!
So, when can I expect even more?