Review by Art Schmidt
Wizards of the Coast has been judicious in releasing a measured, steady flow of materials for the 5th Edition of the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Role-Playing Game,” Dungeons & Dragons (commonly referred to as “5E” by the roleplaying public-at-large). WotC releases two adventure campaign books per year, one every six months (give or take), in addition to one rules supplement per year. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is the latest offering of new character subclasses, spells, magical items and a meaty section for the Dungeon Master (i.e. the person running the game for all of her players).
Aimed primarily at players who are looking for new classes to play, new spells for their characters to cast, and new ways to define their avatars inside the collaborative storytelling game, Xanathar’s Guide (or XGE, as I’m sure it will be come to be called) hits all of the expected marks. Drawing on a wealth of material released by the D&D creative team via their popular Unearthed Arcana section of the D&D website and reprinting materials, primarily spells, from the Elemental Evil Player’s Guide, Xanathar’s Guide provides thirty-two (32!) new sub-classes for all of the current class types, including some new sub-classes not previously seen in the Unearthed Arcana material.
Unearthed Arcana was a hardcover book waaaay back in the early first edition of the game. Similar to Xanathar’s Guide, the original Unearthed Arcana was an expansion of material from the Player’s Handbook, the standard players guide to the character classes and mechanics of the game itself. This book title has been re-used throughout D&D’s over forty-year history, and its latest incarnation is the online “alternate rules” or playtest material which the D&D Team puts out for players and dungeon masters to use, experiment and, well, play with. The Team asks for feedback from users on the material, trying to gauge game balance, player likability, and general “fun factor” of this material. When material is popular, well-balanced, and fits a niche in the player character milieu that the D&D Team feels makes it worthwhile, it’s include in a hardcover book. Such was the case with the previously released Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide for 5E, and it is the case again with Xanathar’s Guide, though on a much bigger scale.
In fact, Xanathar’s Guide re-prints a handful of classes from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide as well, such as the Swashbuckler and the Storm Sorceror. Ordinarily, one might fault a company for expecting their customers to pay money for a new sourcebook which includes a wealth of material already found in other sources. And one might be correct. Except that in the case of D&D, these re-prints make a fair amount of sense. As far as the Unearthed Arcana material, the subclasses in Xanathar’s represent an updated, tweaked and in many cases streamlined class which is now officially playtested and provided with rules, which will make the material enjoyable and avoid headaches for players and dungeon masters alike. Also, Unearthed Arcana material is not “legal” for the Adventurer’s League, since it isn’t play-tested, so those players who enjoy organized play have no access to any of those options until they are printed in an official capacity, usually through a hardcover book.
The spells reprinted from the Elemental Evil are for player convenience as well, primarily due to the “Player’s Handbook +1 rule,” which is suggested as a guideline for character creation. The D&D Team recommends that to maintain game balance, players utilize the Player’s Handbook and then only one other official source of material from which to create their characters. This is also the standard rule in the Adventurer’s League, the organized play model which provides a consistent environment structure for players as well as unique printed adventures for conventions and game stores. This “PHB+1″ rule stems from the fact that not all new additions to the game can be adequately playtested against all other material (say, a character race from one source, matched to a class from another source, utilizing feats from a third source and able to cast spells from yet a different source), as well as the need for dungeon masters to be able to adequately adjudicate their players’ actions within the game, which requires some depth of rules knowledge. In fact, unlike previous releases, Xanathar’s Guide contains several references to the Adventurer’s League and points out several of those structured rules guidelines which are being recommended for more general use by gamers outside of that organization.
Another reason for the replication of some options from other sources is from player request. That’s right, players have asked repeatedly for some of their favorite races, subclasses, and spells to be printed into one source so that they can be used together for character creation. Despite the lack of any new races in Xanathar’s Guide, there are plenty of other character options to enhance any current or new campaign. There is also a fair-sized collection of new racial feats available to choose from, with all races covered and offering many expansions on existing racial abilities, like additional magic abilities for all elven sub-races, dragon features for dragonborn, and enhanced luck abilities for halflings.
Despite all of the new rules and mechanics offered in Xanathar’s Guide, there is a clear emphasis from the D&D Team throughout the book on roleplaying and storytelling. One example is the comprehensive “This is Your Life” section, which provides multiple options and random tables for assisting the player with creating a rich character backstory with details to enhance the gameplay experience. There is also an exhaustive section entitled “Downtime Revisited,” which provides some interesting structure around character activities that can be undertaken in between adventuring. These include researching lore, gambling, pit fighting, and creating magical items, among many others. The section comes complete with charts for many outcomes, as well as for “Complications,” which may or may not up-end whatever activity the character was trying to accomplish.
In addition to new character options, which make up more than half of the material in Xanathar’s Guide, there is a hefty section of guidelines, rules clarifications, and additional campaign enhancement material for the dungeon master to enjoy. There are satisfying snippets clarifying existing information on a wide variety of subjects such as: determining what level spell a spellcaster is currently weaving to throw at your party; exploring the ramifications of going too long without a decent eight hours of sleep; exactly how far a character will fall in one round of combat; and what good is adamantine, anyway? There are also thick sections on traps, new wandering monster tables, and “Tools vs Skills,” as well as a nice list of “Common” magical items to enhance any campaign.
Over the last several weeks, Dungeons & Dragons lead designers Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford have been releasing a series of teaser videos through social media, previewing the classes and other options available in Xanathar’s Guide. These have served to whet the appetite of the gaming public for this new release, and were generally very well thought-out and informative without giving too much of the farm away. Given the leak of the Table of Contents online a couple of months early, this wasn’t much of a spoiler and likely served to grow anticipation for the product.
Xanathar’s Guide has a little something for everyone, while not obsoleting any of the previously released hardcovers by any real degree. The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, for example, still contains many races only available within its pages, and boasts the Bladesinger wizard, Undying warlock and Way of the Long Death monk, three of those classes most popular subclasses and none of which are reprinted in Xanathar’s Guide (and none of the Sword Coast cantrip spells are, either). Likewise, nothing from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the sourcebook release from 2016, has been reprinted. All of the spells in the Elemental Evil supplement are reprinted, but again none of the races.
The book is also being released in a Limited Edition cover variant by Hydro74 (AKA Joshua M. Smith), which depicts the book’s author Xanathar the Beholder, in a “stylized dreamscape” of the beholder’s main eye and nine eyestalks, with his pet goldfish Sylgar circling his face in a faint.
Overall, Xanathar’s Guide is sure to become as indispensable as the current Player’s Handbook, with its wealth of character options and spells. The book is well put together (the Tools charts are a bit confusing, however), it has a well-organized table of contents, chapter layouts, a humorous disclaimer (as always), and the artwork is top-notch. The book is a decent size coming in at 192 pages, but smaller than most of the campaign books and significantly thinner than the three main sourcebooks (the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide), which may leave some players wanting just a bit more (then again, what else is new?). Reading through Xanathar’s Guide, one might feel as though WotC could have easily expanded it to 256 pages, but then again, that might just have watered down the excellent material that is found within.
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything has a list price is $49.95 for both the standard and Limited Edition covers, and will be available starting Friday, November 10, 2017, in select game stores nationwide. Both versions will be available through your favorite book store or outlet, such as here at Amazon.com, on November 21.