Until now, rules support for the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons has been limited to the small handful of classes in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide and the races of Volo’s Guide to Monsters, with the majority of classes being expanded through homebrew options (such as on the DMs Guild) http://www.dmsguild.com/ and the Unearthed Arcana series of articles on the Wizards of the Coast website.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is the “first major rules expansion” for 5e, with new material for players and the Dungeon Master.  

What It Is

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is a 192 page hardcover book. It’s full-colour with a fair amount of art and features the standard binding of WotC’s books. (Like all WotC books of the last decade, not being saddle stitched, the book may need to be gently broken in.)

The book is divided between content for Players and content for Dungeon Masters.

The player-focused first chunk of the book includes 31 subclasses (27 of which are new) as well as twelve pages of random backgrounds for characters – which are mostly random tables of personal details and familiar backgrounds – 15 new racial feats, as well as advice on tool proficiencies (including suggested uses and DCs) and twenty pages of spells. The book ends with eighteen pages of random names for characters of the PHB races.

For the person behind the screen, there’s  some suggested rulings for common situations – such as sleeping in armour and tying knots – variant rules for encounter building, awarding magic items, and creating traps; twenty-one pages of random encounters; revised downtime rules that do things like expand carousing and shopping; and 48 common magic items that are mostly flavourful.

Like Volo’s Guide to Monsters there is an alternative cover, done by the same artist, Hydro74

The book is also available digitally on the virtual tabletop Fantasy Grounds, as well as the new character builder and compendium, D&D Beyond.

The Good

All of the subclasses in the book were first seen in Unearthed Arcana, where they were concept tested by the community and playtested by private playtesters. Some of the subclasses are designed to fill a mechanical role in the party akin the formal roles in 4th Edition: the ancestral guardian barbarian and cavaliers fighter are tanks/defenders, the celestial warlock and divine soul sorcerers are healers/leaders, etc. However, each of these are flavour heavy options and seem to exist as much for story reasons as to fill a niche in the party. And others subclasses don’t have such a formal role, such as the zealon barbarian or the arcane archer fighter. Similarly, there was no attempt to “fill the grid” by providing an options for each role for every class just to ensure there were no gaps.

Each class section begins with a number of tables. These are generic and untied to the new subclasses, offering some potential class-specific background flavour for each class, such as a fighter’s method of fighting, a bard’s greatest embarrassment, the type of temple the cleric was trained in, and the monastic icon of the monk’s monastery. 

There is art for each new subclass, often all on one page. While having generic pieces for archetypes is nothing new, being common in Pathfinder books, having each subclass receive it’s own art is nice, and grouping them together creates a lovely visual comparison of the differences in the characters despite all three being the same class and “type” of character. Thankfully, there’s also other art and small flourishes when possible, so the first quarter of the book is not just generic figure shots.

Many of the art pieces also include a lttle bit of the background. I like this as it adds a little extra flavour to the art, and makes it seem a little less like the character is striking a pose: there is a scene unfolding and events are occurring. For example, I love the shot on page 116; just the figure and trap would have be fine (and is the kind of piece I would have expected in 3rd/4th Edition or from Pathfinder), but the addition of the background adds so much to the narrative and so much depth of emotion.

Another art comment refers to the full-page piece of art that begins each of the chapters. All three feature the same band of adventurers in different situations. This is neat, and makes me wish there were more chapters, so there could be more of a meta-narrative. It almost makes me miss the iconic adventures from Pathfinder and their mini-stories in that game’s hardcover books. (Which could also have benefited from a meta-narrative.)

While the book is called “Xanathar’s Guide” it’s not deeply tied to a thieves’ guild, Waterdeep, or the Realms. The lore and flavour of the classes and options in the books is largely generic and setting neutral. It is very literally a Forgotten Realms book in name only. A few FR deities and places get name dropped in the text, but these are usually in conjunction with Greyhawk gods or other locations. As the majority of D&D games are not set in the Realms, this is appreciated.

There’s a surprising amount going on in random backstories. Some tables have additional modifiers, such as how you rolled on another table or based on an ability score. For example, your childhood home is modified by your social status. And it ends with a bunch of generic supplemental tables that are used by the other tables, but a clever DM could also use these to generate an NPC or random detail in an adventure. Heck, this whole section could be used to generate NPCs, such as a hireling or a rival.  

The book features so very many tables. Tables for backgrounds, magic items, random encounters, and names. The most tables you’ll see in a non-OSR book. This is certainly a feature-bug as there are a LOT of tables, but when you need a random encounter or quick NPC name, this book is super helpful.

I quite like the new common magic items in the book. These are small little items that don’t increase a character’s power in combat, but still confer a small bonus. Little things like a mug that prevents you from becoming drunk, dice that roll how you wish, a cloak that billows dramatically, and clothes that repair themselves.

The end of the book features a sizable number of spells. While several are new, including some nice flavour and utility spells, many classic spells also see their return. Just a few names I recognize include: horrid wilting, enervation, transmute rock, flame arrows, Melf’s minute meteors, magic stone, pyrotechnics, and Tenser’s transformation.

The Bad

With over 50 pages of random tables, the book feels small. A full quarter of the book is devoted to tables for backgrounds, random encounters, magic items, and names. Some of those (like the magic items tables) could have been handled via a downloadable PDF Web Enhancement. And while I appreciate the idea of including a few extra random names for the humanoid species, there’s no shortage of websites for generating random names from human ethnicities.

As all the subclasses were playtested, I feel like I’ve seen most before, so nothing feels *really* new. There’s few real surprises in the book. Heck, in the trap section we don’t even get new complex traps, just getting a couple we reviewed before.

During the Unearthed Arcana public playtest, I always assumed WotC wasn’t bothering to test the “easy” options, the ones where they didn’t need to concept test the appeal of the option. As it turns out, thiswasn’t the case. There are some pretty traditional options that are still missing subclasses. To name just a few there’s the pet druid – especially as every single picture of a druid in the PHB and this book feature an animal – as well as the evil blighter druid; an Archomental/ Primordial or genie warlock; draconic warlock; fey, fiendish, and genie sorcerer; two-weapon dervish barbarian; urban ranger; charismatic swindler rogue; shield-focused fighter; dragon disciple monk; a generalist wizard, and so very many more.

Similarly, with so many other subclasses previewed in Unearthed Arcana that didn’t make the cut, everyone will have a favourite that doesn’t appear. The Protection Domain for the cleric feels absent, and I lament the absence of the jester-esque College of Satire.

Despite the above gaps and non-appearances, four subclasses in the book are reprinted from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, and many (if not all) the spells from the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion reappear here. SCAG was already a tough sell for players to buy without diminishing its content, and that space *could* have used for brand new content. I imagine the sublcasses were included to rounding out pages, filling in a half-page gap. I’m sure some other new content could have been added just as easily, especially for the sorcerer who sees the pretty unremarkable Storm Sorcerer repeated. The sorcerer is one of the classes that really needed more new and somewhat generic subclasses.

Some content that could have been included was also not added. There’s no updated ranger class features; requested as that class has been less than popular. The revisions were updated and tested a couple of times, but – at the time of this writing – it has been a over a year since the ranger was last updated. While WotC has said they don’t want people to pay for those revisions and want them to be free, it’s useful to have them in a book and thus easily referenced at the table. Including them in a physical product doesn’t also preclude releasing that content on the DMsGuild, while also having the advantage of makes it more visible and less forgettable several months after the buzz of the re-release fades.

Similarly, the the artificer & mystic are also a no-show, being held back for more testing and revisions. Again, these were released as free PDFs and work continues, but is seemingly being done very slowly behind the scenes as there hasn’t been an artificer update in ten months and the mystic in eight. Likewise, there’s also no mass combat subsystem (or subsystems) in the book, likely because that was not well received. This was something teased for the DMG so it’s continued absence is unfortunate. Heck, there’s a pretty hefty list of potential DMG topics or rules modules that could have easily been worked into this book.

The racial feats included in this book don’t include races outside the Player’s Handbook. This means there are no goliath, kobold, or catfolk feats here. Similarly, the random encounter tables don’t include monsters from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, even as an option (i.e. they could have said something like “2 mummies or 1 bodok“). And the druid’s beasts-by-CR table is also limited to the Monster Manual, making it significantly incomplete and pretty much rendering it useless in favour of a fan one that also includes beasts from the adventures and VGtM. There’s a catch-22 situation here. It’s problematic to assume everyone owns every book released for a game system, but it’s also frustrating if every book exists in a vacuum and cannot later be expanded upon.  

The expanded downtime rules features new rules for magic item crafting and selling. This is nice, but I don’t think these rules are robust enough to really appeal to people who crave a functioning magic item economy and crafting rules akin to 3rd Edition. For everyone else, the rules in the DMG are probably sufficient. Nor is there advice for making crafting easier or harder, or making magic items more or less common.

Likewise, the pages devoted to the myriad sets of tools seem curious. It’s nice that we get a full description of the contents and some suggested uses, but I’m uncertain people who wanted tools to do more won’t be satisfied with the couple suggested uses and the unrelated DCs for suggested tasks.

The title is somewhat misleading. The Xanathar, the beholder head of a Waterdeep thieves’ guild, doesn’t do much guiding and isn’t even particularly relevant. They’re in a paragraph in the introduction (with art) and they’re the “author” of the three-dozen or so sidebars in the book. There’s probably all of a page or two of “Xanathar” in the book. The three unnamed adventurers in the chapter illustrations likely have more page space devoted to them. You could paste over the Xanathar sidebars with other notes and this book would instantly become Elminster’s Guide to Everything or Van Richten’s Guide to Everything. Made worse by the fact “Xanathar” is hard to spell, harder to remember, and likely awkward to ask for at a bookstore or type into Amazon. (I expect a lot of people typing “Xanthar” or “Zanathar”.) The unnecessary title is made worse by the fact it doesn’t really do a good explaining what’s in this book. It sounds more like a travelogue or Waterdhavian guide book, or perhaps even a sequel to Dungeonology (which is literally what I thought when the title was first teased). It doesn’t sound like a rules accessory with subclasses, spells, and variant rules.

The Ugly

The alternate cover. Art is subjective… but so are reviews. And this is my review and I really don’t like the double goldfishes on the cover. It’s just silly. The stylized beholder through gem-like eyes is neat, but the goldfishes just ruin it for me. Hard pass.

(Why is there a goldfish there? Because the Xanathar has a pet goldfish that is the only thing he cares about. Which is something I can’t find an earlier reference to prior to this book, having checked Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the FR wiki, and several 3e and 2e sources. The goldfish seems like an addition for this book. Which suggests someone thought of the goldfish joke, and was so amused by themselves, they put the goldfish prominently on both covers of the book.)

Also, one alternative incentive cover is a neat treat. A talking piece for collectors. Two is okay, but back-to-back makes it feels less special. If they do a third these will really feel like a cash grab targeting collectors, encouraging them to buy two copies (gamers, in general, tend to be obsessive that way). I hope this is the last alternative cover we see for a while. Every two or three years is frequent enough. (Honestly, I’d rather see them go back and release special collector’s edition alternate covers for the Core rulebooks instead.)

Xanthar’s sidebars are just goofy. They’re not particularly insightful or necessary, adding nothing to the book but bad jokes and ananacronistically modern dialogue that will just seem embarrassingly dated in five years. I found most of the sidebars more distracting than amusing. They could have provided some in-world thoughts on the subjects, but mostly felt wasted on cheap jokes, while also reducing the Xanathar to a goofy, foolish character. And not even a goofy but menacing character like the Joker, but a goofy ineffectual evil villain for a kids TV show. Likely one voiced by Will Ferrell. Honestly, it will be a long while before I can take beholders seriously as a villain again…

When it was launched in January 2016, one of the selling features of the Dungeon Master’s Guild was that it would allow WotC to “identify the best creators for additional publication opportunities”. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is probably the first book where WotC could have tapped into the authors of best selling products from the Dungeon Master’s Guild for content. They could have gone to them for a subclass or feat or entries for a table. Maybe some spells or traps. Heck, they had Chris Perkins writing common magic items at the last moment when they could have instead looked to PDFs or tapped the community. But they didn’t; the credits list the regular pool of contributors.

The Awesome

The very first page of the book (following the introduction) is an FAQ on the core rules, clarifying common problems and commonly missed rules. There’s nothing new here, but it’s nice to have some clarifications. While I knew *most* of these rulings, there was at least one that surprised me.

Each class’ section in chapter one begins with the logo of that class in the corner presented nice and prominently. I like these icons and enjoy that they weren’t just forgotten after the PHB.

In the background section, there’s a series of four connected illustrations giving the origin of a wizard. I quite like this little micro-narrative in four pictures, and it’s a fun example of how someone could take three disparate elements (stole something of value, became a sailor, sole survivor of an accident) and weave them into an interesting tale.

There’s a few callbacks in the subclasses to 4th Edition subclasses. The druid’s Circle of Beasts is effectively the circle of spirits, pulling ideas from 3e’s spirit shaman and 4e’s shaman class. And the Storm Herald barbarian invokes thoughts of the Thunderborn barbarian. While 4e was my least favourite edition, I’m always glad when they bring back elements and have nods to it; while I didn’t like it, every edition was someone’s favourite. Similarly, several of the new racial feats are nice pull inspiration from 4th Edition racial abilities, meanwhile the drow racial feat has some nice nods to old 1e drow powers.

Speaking of forgotten classical elements, adamantine weapons return here. I was disappointed they were omitted in the core rules, especially after being mentioned in the Monster Manual. Their effects are nice and simple, and I can seem them working nicely with a few class features.

There are variant rules for wild shaping, making it easier to adjudicate what forms and shapes a druid might have learned rather than opening up the entire Monster Manual. Having done a short mini-campaign with a high level druid, deciding what animals they had and had not seen was always tricky.

The new trap guidelines add spell levels to the table of trap severity, providing some guidelines for effects similar to non-damaging traps. This encourages more creative and imaginative spell-based traps, or provides a magical inspiration for mundane traps.

One small bit in the expanded magic item creation section that caught my eye was the table of Magic Item Ingredients, that associates the CR of creatures with item rarity, so you need to potentially harvest a creature of that challenge to gather necessary reagents. (Or simply overcome, but gathering components is much more cool).

Shouting out a few spells that caught my eye, ceremony brings back atonement, albeit at a much lower level, along with bless water. Where holy water comes from it so often forgotten. I like the various home base creation spells, like druid grove. Getting the players attached to a location can be fun. And there’s the pet spells, like find greater steed and the adorable yet fairly useful tiny servant spell. Want your players to do ridiculous things? Give them a wand that casts tiny servant once or twice a day.

Final Thoughts

The two biggest problems with Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is the limited amount of content and unexplanatory name.

For a book that costs as much as the Player’s Handbook but has 128 fewer pages, limiting its usable content is a big drawback. The book features slightly tweaked subclasses we’ve already seen, misses some pretty iconic options, and devotes a quarter of the book to random tables offering services that existing websites already provide (like random names) or that could have been free PDFs (like WotC has already done, as apparently with the list of spells, the monster by rarity chart, or the magic item rarity index). Or even left for DMsGuild products.

But it’s the first non-adventure product WotC has released in a year, and will likely be the only accessory for players released for many months, if not another year or two. There’s been plenty of time to save money, and with so little official content released this small smattering of appetisers feels like a feast.

All this makes the book difficult to judge.

The actual content in the book is both well-balanced and well-received, being the best-of-the-best previewed in Unearthed Arcana. And I do very much like that they’re only adding a restrained number of new player options to the game. Those 50-odd pages will be great for my group eventually, as new campaigns start and/or replacement characters are brought into the game. The spells are also good, plus some of the DM variant rules will be useful: I can see using a few of the downtime options. But there’s so many more rules modules they could have added, so many more types of content. Looking back to my review of the DMG, rules modules missing from that book included encounter-based PC resources, alternate methods of gaining experience, fantastic firearms (i.e. non-historical), managing strongholds, kingdom building, mass combat, variant critical hit rules, critical fumbles, hit locations, armour as DR, and vehicular (especially naval) combat. All of those topics could have easily been at home here.

Many players will be happy to roll randomly for a background, either to save themselves some time or brainpower, or simply to challenge themselves to work with the random results and reconcile any irregularities. But just as many might happily ignore those sections, preferring to devise their own backstory. And while some Dungeon Masters will be happy with random encounter tables, I suspect just as many prefer not to leave their encounters to chance. And for groups who primarily run one of the storyline adventures, these tables are also less useful, first because most of the encounters are scripted, but also because those books also feature random encounter tables (as such, I technically already own many, many pages of random encounters). While theoretically useful if an encounter goes off the rails, I have yet to pull of Storm King’s Thunder for a random encounter, and don’t think it likely I will do so with this book.

After a few days with the book I’m reminded very much of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, in that it’s a book with a smattering of crunchy content and a lot of other. Only in this case, instead of being a campaign setting-ette and a guide to the Sword Coast, it’s just page after page of tables. Which, clearly, did not wow me. But, if you are a table junkie who makes regular use of random encounters while also favouring some random chance in your character’s backstories, this third of the book might make you incredibly happy.

 

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