Review: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

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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.

Character options

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.

 

Backgrounds

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.

 

DM’s Tools

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
  • carousing
  • crafting an item (mundane or magical)
  • crime
  • gambling
  • pit fighting
  • relaxation
  • religious service
  • research
  • scribing a spell scroll
  • selling a magical item
  • training
  • work

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.

 

Spells

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.

 

Appendixes

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.

 

Overall

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?

Review: Critical Role Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting

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Disclaimer: I’m a big fan of the show. I’ve joined the bandwagon around episode 30 (or rather: they got to episode 30, when I started watching the first one), and spent many work hours with a small Youtube window pinned in the corner of my screen. Now, after 114 episodes and emotional, heroic finale to the campaign, I’m left awed, amazed, and a bit sad. Would be probably sadder, if not for the sheer amount of Perc’Ahlia fanfictions found and read in the last week.

Anyway.

The internet sensation of Geek & Sundry’s Critical Role has swept the nations and brought thousands of new players to the gaming tables. The incredible talents of Matt Mercer, DM of the group, and his voice-actor players, inspired masses of people to give RPGs a try – even if they don’t feel like doing all the funny voices.

As the game is (was! And will be, when they start a new campaign in the new year) set in the homebrewed world of Exandria, it was only logical that with the success of the show came the call for the proper description of the setting. And so, Green Ronin got to publish a book (cowritten by Matthew Mercer and James Haeck) that became an instant bestseller (technically, I suppose, it will be a fastseller, but let’s not be picky), forcing the publisher to close the pre-order phase ahead of time and prepare for the reprint even before the first run left the printing press.

Thanks to the great pre-order deal, it was possible to place an order for a physical copy and receive the PDF version for a small fee right on the spot. Which is exactly why, even though the physical copy has only been delivered to us last week, we’ve already managed to find a willing DM, play six sessions, and get quite accustomed to Westruun.

 

Technicalities

It’s pretty. Hardback cover features beautiful artpiece by Aaron Riley:

It’s only fitting that the Vox Machina should fight Raishan there. With no offence to Vecna and Briarwoods, she was by far the most interesting opponent (if not straight up villain) on their path, partially due to the screen time. The only thing that could make this art better is selfie-style Scanlan’s face in one of the corners.

The cover is protected by two types of varnish, with the art being matt and the black and burgundy vignettes made glossy. Unnecessary, possibly, but appreciated. The pages (all 144 of them) seem well bound and properly glued, with no obvious risk of becoming loose.

Internal artwork is exactly what could be expected – slightly uneven, as it’s done by several different artists, but great overall. Sharper, more digital illustrations coexist there with more traditional (or rather, traditional-looking) pieces, and though I personally favour the latter, the former are nothing to scowl at.

Kudos for including a proper fould-out map of the continent – it’s pretty, well drawn, includes scale reference (I’m looking at you, Legend of the Five Rings), and looks great on the wall. As it’s author, Andrew Law, was so kind as to write a great post on the creation process, just go there and read up. It would be slightly better if the poster map was folded with art inside, as the rubber glue used to keep it attached to the book leaves a bit of a dark spot on the artwork. It’s not very visible, but visible nonetheless.

The map (at least the most important part of it) is also featured on the inner cover, which is definitely a nice touch for quick reference.

Using the book is easy; between full-page content list, three-page index and just 144 pages of the book, it’s impossible to get lost.

It’s divided into four main sections: overview of the setting (history, religion, races, and factions), gazeteer (descriptions of geographical areas with corresponding plot hooks), character options (feats, class options, backgrounds, and magical items), and the bestiary.

 

Setting overview

 

History of Exandria is not complicated, and it’s fairly short. Though described only by a couple of the most cataclysmic events, it gives enough ideas for relics, legends and rumours, that extrapolating on it should not be a problem. It does, however, play an important role in the world. With the artefacts being literally Vestiges of Divergence, leftovers from the times when the gods were present on the Material Plane, it’s hard not to be interested in the times past. History of Tal’Dorei, one of the kingdoms of Exandria, not only shows off the hero of the land, Zan Tal’Dorei, and her influence on the world, but also delves into description of the events as seen on the show – the exploits of Vox Machina.

Quite clever thing is the section on The Secrets of Tal’Dorei – concise description of the pieces that make this setting unique. It is – I think nobody tried to tell people otherwise – a fairly generic fantasy setting, that will give casual D&D players no troubles to get accustomed to. Putting into one place all the things that define the setting – like the imprisoned gods or the start of the republican system – makes it easy to catch up on the most important deviations from the generic, and run the game without too much preparation.

The pantheon is based mostly on D&D/Pathfinder deities, with different names (licenced) and some tweaks here and there. It’s clearly written and concise, with useful commandments of each god. From my gaming experience, there’s never no god more fun than the Moonweaver (trickery/deception/illusions). She sure made my bard/warlock quite a delight – believing that her Archfey patron is actually a goddess is an easy way to get mixed in some stupid mess.

The chapter on races brings mostly some adjustments in the lore, not mechanics; the only exception being the Ravenites – tailless subrace of the Dragonborn.

The factions and societies bring a whole bunch of ideas, short NPC descriptions, and plot hooks hidden in the descriptions of the goals and relationships. From magical quasi-guild to the cultists of Vecna, there’s enough to keep the players busy.

 

Gazeteer

The longest and most important part of the book, the Gazeteer is a travel guide to Tal’Dorei. Each geographical region is described in more or less detail, and contains plot hooks for the adventures. It’s easy to use that as sandbox – truth is, wherever the players will go, there’s something interesting to see. Plot hooks range from melted cows to cataclysms to rescue parties to ancient cities overrun with ghosts. Again, perfect for the sandbox. However, if the party is travelling by foot and the DM is not a fan of telling them “two weeks of rather uneventful travel later you arrive at your destination”, there are some gaps that need filling. There’s a lot of empty plains and long roads. Obviously, Vox Machina haven’t visited all of Tal’Dorei, and it’s quite easy to see which parts of the kingdom were therefore detailed in author’s notes, and which were just outlined.

Even so, for such short book (and production process), Gazeteer is worth reading. The plot hooks are easily transferable to other settings, if preferred, and they work well enough to create an interesting world. It’s up to DM to pick, choose and adapt them into a proper story – on their own, they’re just sandbox-y ideas for the adventure, not full adventures.

 

Character options

My favourite part of all the D&D supplements is quite decent – definitely better than official D&D 5E Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide which is a huge disappointment and I would thoroughly roast it if I had two weeks to spare.

We’re getting a Blood Domain for clerics, mostly based on enchantments – sadly, there’re no actual blood-themed spells in D&D 5E, but this domain makes sense nonetheless. It reminds me of the bloodbending in Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it’s not an unpleasant thought. Think more of “puppeteer” than “blood sacrifices”.

There’s also Path of the Juggernaut for barbarians, Runechild sorcerous origin, and Way of the Cobalt Soul – a monastic tradition for monks. I have a bit of a trouble with the last one: it allows players to learn aspects of their opponent in the fight: AC, vulnerabilities, saving throws etc. While I understand the “fluff” as it’s nothing we haven’t seen in martial arts films, it still have an aftertaste of metagaming, and it’s something I don’t like. It’s one thing to let players know that the lightning bolt doesn’t seem to affect their enemy, and another to tell them straight up: “immune to lightning, fear, poison and prone condition”. But, it’s just my opinion, and I’m sure there will be players and DMs who will embrace this ability.

Tal’Dorei also brings us new backgrounds: Clasp Member (criminal spin-off), Lyceum Student (privileged arcane student), Ashari (really, think Avatar: The Last Airbender), Recovered Cultist (acolyte with a twist), and Fate-Touched (DM’s way of putting a character in the spotlight).

New feats allow for long-awaited potion-drinking in bonus action (because come on, it’s just a small vial of liquid; it shouldn’t take a whole action), improved spellcasting (two spells in one round, yay!), and ability to attune to four items instead of four. I need them all for my brand-new cleric. Apart from those, there’s Cruel, Dual-Focused (two concentration spells at the same time!), Flash Recall, Gambler, Mending Affinity, and Thrown Arms Master. Fun!

What I definitely like the most, are the Vestiges of Divergence. Artifacts that can be handed out early in the campaign, scaling up with the character development, and becoming a true part of the character, not just a random piece of gear in the treasure hoard found when killing seventeenth dragon? Count me in, and give me the Spire of Conflux.

Couple extra pages covers the rules for accelerated downtime and ressurrection rituals (as the show proved, it’s so much better when there’s a chance of permanent death).

 

Allies and Adversaries

Oh, boy. Two things: descriptions of the different monster (or rather non-player) races place them well in the setting, giving each the context and some twists to better fit the world; stat blocks are pretty cool. I’m happy to see the stats for Ashari tribesfolk, and the Clasp members are definitely useful in this setting and outside of it. But there’s also a rideable celestial goat, and my World of Warcraft-loving heart cannot stress this enough. Next time I’m playing in this setting, I’m going to be a Kraghammer Goat-Knight. Add to that Vecna’s cultists and pumped-up orcs/goblins, and you’ve got a party.

 

In general

It’s a very nice book. There’s a lot of interesting places to visit in Tal’Dorei, and all the plot hooks can be used as a base for a sandbox play, but – of course – it’s not a campaign. There’s no storyline, and it’s up for DM to create one. It’s also up to them to fill in gaps in this a bit sparsely populated world. I’m not entirely sure if this setting would work without the Critical Role show to support it – while definitely a work of love, it’s not entirely unique. It’s engaging, well written, descriptive and inspiring – but I think there’s more magic in Matt Mercer’s DM-ing than there is in the book itself. It’s a great read for the fans of the show, and could definitely be a stand-alone setting – but with at least twice the amount of pages.

First Look: Zweihänder RPG

Reviews

The Zweihänder RPG is finally here. After a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign (fully funded within 6 hours! Guess people really did miss Warhammer Fantasy RPG) and slightly delayed dispatch (a year or so – but for a good reason), the parcel was delivered and unceremoniously opened by a committee.

PDF, which was provided to the Kickstarter backers some time ago, looked promising – astonishingly detailed, with a clean, easily understood mechanic, and good artwork. Not Degenesis level, but pleasantly befitting the stylistic choices of the grim and perilous RPG. In print, I must admit, it looks even better.

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Interior artwork was all made by one person, Dejan Mandic, and if I’m not mistaken, he has made a staggering 500 illustrations for this book, ranging from tiny symbols of the gods to double-paged artworks. And here’s that good reason for a year of delay.

Let’s get started then, shall we?

The cover has a very distinct feel, with matt finishing, muted colours, scarred folks (including, at a first glance, a Landsknecht, Sam Vimes, murderous chick, and Emhyr var Emreis), eyepatch with a skull, and a burning village in the background. Classy, with a touch of “We’ve all been there”. “Grim and Perilous RPG” tagline tells us “Yep, we’ve been there”. And well, I actually did miss that. Good job, Jussi Alarauhio.

The book was also available with an alternative cover, featuring another artwork of Mandic, but I think it’s low on the “grim factor” – I’d say it’s to pulpy and Warhammer-inspired.

Image result for zweihander kickstarter covers

The book is heavy. At 688 pages and just a tad bit smaller than A4, it can be safely used as a weight for flower-pressing. Thankfully, it seems reasonably well bound: sewn together in 32-page sections, and then glued. And they even added a ribbon as a bookmark. Paper is of a good quality and with a satin finish – no annoying glares af a gloss varnish, and readable even at an angle.

Thirteen chapters cover everything from the rules, through character creation, professions, skills, talents, equipment, combat, magic rules and spells, game master’s basement, bestiary and a intruductory scenario, “A Bitter Harvest”. It’s a standalone book: there’s no need to buy any expansions. There will be a Game Master screen released later this year, but the book itself should be more than enough to play many campaigns (I’m looking at you, Star Wars Roleplaying Game).

The book is well laid out, with legilible fonts, good font size (important when reading by the candlelight!), and an abundance of appendixes. It features a thorough content list at the begining, well-constructed index at the end, and several useful tables: damage condition tracker, chase scene tracker and a list of complications (where was this thing when I had to describe chase scenes in Wolsung campaign?), wilderness travel tracker and encounters, social intrigue tracker, cheat sheet of actions in combat, and the description of taints of chaos. There’s also the character sheer, 4 pages total, also available for download on the publisher’s website.

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Introduction covers the standard disclaimer about using the book to make your own world however you want it to be, and changing the rules if they happen to take away the fun. There’s also a gender neutrality note, which is a nice gesture.

Rules section is plainly written and enriched by lots of examples. Everything seems to be based on D100, with classic Warhammer idea of “the lower roll, the better”. Doubles (11, 22, 33 etc.) generate critical successes or failures. What appears to be changed, is the Fortune Pool – a pool of tokens that can be used by the players to give themselves a bit of a smile from Lady Luck. Any tokens spent that way go to the Game Master who can then use them for his NPCs and monsters. Well, it worked in Deadlands, why shouldn’t it work here?

Character creation seems very enjoyable. It’s highly randomized, including a 50/50 roll for gender. And another disclaimer: Zweihänder makes no basic intellectual, physical or spiritual distinctions between females and males of any race. The same goes for transgender Characters, regardless of their gender identification. Any social inequalities in the campaign world should be adressed directly with your GM. It’s cute that after such a paragraph in chapter 3, they proceed to include a scenario about women abused, sold, enslaved, treated like tools to be used and discarded (p. 632), to provide a memorable playing experience by presenting players with a complex moral situation which cannot be divided into a ‘good versus evil’ or ‘chaos versus order’ (…) (ibid.). But, as I haven’t read the scenario in it’s entirety, I reserve my judgement – just pointing out the discrepancy.

We’ll look closer at the character creation, skills, talents and equipment later, when I actually get to finish the process instead of reading up on the professions.

Combat is quite straightforward – and deadly. I don’t think there’s a point in starting a campaign without a spare character in a tow, just in case. Introduction of Action Points allows for more flexibility in player’s turn, instead of bounding them with “action, bonus action and move”. There are called shots, chokeholds, counterspells and intimidation tactics – plenty to bring out the tactitian to the table.

Diseases, intoxication, sleep deprivation, injuries and infections (whole chapter 9) will make sure your character lives a grim and perilous life. And a short one.

Magic looks familiar, up to the chaos dice. At a first glance, it has the potential to be deadly for both the target and the caster. So, fun. I’ll be happy to share a more informed opinion as soon as I have it.

Game Master’s section offers the wide repertoire of tips and tricks, including the tables with ready descriptions of killing blows made with different types of weapons. Like that, for example: Your missile strikes the area between the shoulder and the chest, burying itself down to the fletching and protruding between the ribs of your foe’s back. Their knees buckle and they fall to the ground. A soft, sucking noise emanates from the wound in conjunction with a few brief, ragged, respirations. Then, all is still. Also, rules for chases, wilderness travel, social interactions, traps, madness and corruption.

The Bestiary is quite impressive: 163 pages of monsters, each of them with a corresponding portrait. I’ve seen whole books smaller than that. Covering everything from bandits, through chaos spawns, to vampires, it makes a good read.

The campaign, “A Bitter Harvest” looks suspiciously full of gender inequalities. However, I’m giving it the benefit of doubt, and will be reading it later, maybe even GMing. After all, rest of the book is so worth of praise, that I’m convinced the campaign will be a good read as well.

Overall:

A quality piece of RPG rulebook. Not only aesthetically pleasing, but brimming full of grimdark fantasy with a couple of interesting tweaks and twists here and there. I can’t wait to read it properly (well, maybe not cover to cover, because of the page count). I wonder how it will look against 4th edition of Warhammer – but it definitely looks pretty good compared to the previous three.