Last year I kicked off the schedule by reviewing Volo’s Guide to Monsters, a fantastic alternative to wave after wave of Monster Manuals that we’ve enjoyed in previous editions, told from the perspective of Volothamp Geddarm, a peddler of of guidebooks in the Forgotten Realms. I finally got my hands on the guidebook written from the perspective of another famous denizen of the Realms, the beholder crimeboss Xanathar, who has knowledge in all fields that might profit or threaten him or his goldfish.
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything covers a wide variety of categories for players and dungeon masters alike, combining properties of both a Players Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide expansion. This book was awash with hype, partially because it’s been visibly in the making for months, maybe years. So without further spiel, let’s get into it:
Class options abound! Want more divine flavour to your warlocks and barbarians? Need a rogue with more smarts than a bard? How about a sorcerer who just channels raw fire? The good news is that this book has you covered, but if you want any of that material for free you only need to look up Unearthed Arcana on the D&D website. There are a handful of wholly new options here, and the material that’s been seen before is modified and balanced, but I’m afraid we’re already gouging into the value of the book, and this may be an instance of Wizards’ plans to release a lot of free information to keep players involved in the development of 5e coming back to bite them.
Nevertheless, the options do open up what few class limitations remained so that your unique snowflake hero is only a slight skin-change away from one of the builds of one of the classes. The new options look intriguing and exciting without rendering previous versions redundant (with the possible exception of the ranger builds), instead blurring the lines between classes so that the need for multi-classing becomes questionable.
Among the other player options are racial feats. Now I have a particular issue with these as I find the idea that you can unlock new powers in your DNA more preposterous than magic, it’s not something one can train to accomplish. For example, a Dragonborn feat that adds retractable claws? How does one discover that little trait halfway through an adventure? Is it like some bizarre form of mid-adventure puberty?
However, it does give you shovelfuls of backstory ideas to help you take your cardboard cutout and make it a real person, even taking family into account which I rarely see from players. And if you’re ever short of a name there’s a wealth of tables for those at the back of the book too.
High on the priority list here, traps and magic items. The new rules for traps are strongly reminiscent of those in 4th edition – choke on that naysayers! – and make life much easier when composing something original, at least if traps are your thing, I’m more of a permanent injury/psychological trauma kind of DM.
The magic items section includes a long list of cosmetic magic items, like a helmet that does nothing but make the wearers eyes glow red, boots that send off false tracks, and wands that make people smile uncontrollably, and new and improved means of distributing magic items in a campaign, although if you’re looking for a more interesting means of distributing magic items I’d read Tales From The Yawning Portal, which offers a wide variety of suggestions for items and hoards of loot that tie in to the story and themes of the dungeons, not to mention some more creative ideas for items as a whole.
See also a huge selection of encounter tables for varying environments, a selection of rules for NPCs, using down time in a campaign, and a smattering of other little rules and bits of padding to make writing and running a campaign easier. Maybe it’s because I’m past needing a lot of that content these days, or maybe it’s because I have found the style of play that works best for me and most groups I’ve gamed with, but a lot of the content I find to be the parts that can really slow down a campaign, not necessarily for the nature of the content, but chasing rules for them makes the long and lazy parts of the game a little too rigid.
If it helps someone then it’s worthwhile, personally I don’t envision myself leafing through it for much more than the odd bit of inspiration when the brain’s running slow. I can’t profess to be a fan of the encounter tables that pad out page after page of what is a relatively thin volume, especially when held against the encounter tables found in The Curse of Strahd.
Spells et al
Final section in the book is spells, and I have to say it’s the best part by far, at least for me. I’ll happily keep Xanathar’s Guide on hand for my players should they want to change up their class options, but I doubt I’ll do more than occasionally leaf through the pages from time to time, apart from the spell options.
The range goes from the bottom to the top of the levels giving almost complete new options for every class, and padding a few magic schools that were lacking in areas. I am a particular fan of the necromancy cantrip Toll the Dead, which is a gleefully morose and ominous spell for a low level character. At higher levels, the architecture spells that create temples, fortresses, and unassailable druidic groves are elegant touches that can help form the basis of short games; the enormous structure of stone that appeared overnight in a country already riven by warfare, the oasis of green in the middle of a dark and desolate wasteland, the apocryphal church that now dominates a once sacred plaza.
The content is padded with little observations from the beholder Xanathar, and I have to say that I don’t find them as humorous as those of Volo and Elminster in Volo’s guide but there’s already rumbles of more famous D&D characters getting guides of their own in future. They could be fun reads, depending entirely on the author of course.
Does it all make the money worthwhile? Maybe. This may be one of those titles that grows on me as I find more and more uses for it, it’s a toolkit more than anything else, but one I’d perhaps suggest for the players, and for those who haven’t been running games for long. Sincerely at this stage I don’t know what other books I could want to help me run a game in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, which is why I’ve been refocused my attentions on other RPG systems in different genres, after all it’s about time I diversified my portfolio if I’m ever going to appeal to a broader market. Certainly the more D&D books I dig into at this stage, the more I realise how little they have left to teach me, time to move on.