Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything
Dungeons & Dragons
Tabletop role-playing games have fallen into something of a renaissance over the past few years. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it began, but there are four major factors that I think significantly contributed to this: 5th edition, virtual tabletop software, Twitch, and nostalgia-fueled shows like Stranger Things. I’m filled with joy when I sit new players down at the table eager to try Dungeons & Dragons out for the first time and get to see that lightbulb flicker with understanding as they realize the limitless potential of this game.
Since its official release in August 2014, the fifth edition Player’s Handbook for Dungeons & Dragons breathed new life into a hobby struggling with atrophy. I never had the opportunity to play fourth edition, as most of my friend groups that play RPGs spoke of the ruleset with plugged noses and 10-foot poles as they lamented the “WoW effect” and its destruction of true role-play at the table. While I can’t exactly contribute worthwhile perspective either for or against this, what I can comment on is an issue that has pervaded the brand from edition to edition: book bloat. D&D is notorious for breaking the backs and draining the wallets of its enthusiasts with excessively published tomes ranging from second edition’s 15 “complete” expanded class & race handbooks, five Monster Manuals in third (and 3.5) edition, and approximately 27 classes for fourth edition—46 if you break it up by subclass. Those poor, poor backpacks!
Fifth edition indicates a more conservative approach. Wizards of the Coast publishes three books per year, but two of those are adventure modules with the third being a supplemental rulebook with customization options. Enter Xantathar’s Guide to Everything, 2017’s officially published supplement rulebook and first major expansion to the Player’s Handbook. Xanathar’s Guide adds 31 new subclasses (three of which are simply pulled directly from Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide) split fairly evenly across the nine primary classes. Those searching for a thorough analysis of each subclass and the potential balance to the system may want to stop reading now—this isn’t that. What I will say is that I really appreciate how much flavor and versatility each addition offers. Every class still feels distinct in how they might interact with the system’s mechanics; Xanathar’s Guide simply helps to blur the lines a bit and gives a great selection of something I value most at the table: player choice.
The second chapter in this three-chapter tome provides an array of concepts, tools and items specifically for the dungeon master in your life. There are options for ways to use tool proficiencies more effectively and also how players might spend their downtime enjoyably. Anyone particularly keen on spreadsheets will find an embarrassment of riches with tables built for random encounters, creating monsters, rounding out characters and even an entire 17-page appendix dedicated to generating names. Magic users also have access to a collection of 95 new spells. However, the majority of these spells are simply taken from the Princes of the Apocalypse campaign or its accompanying “Elemental Evil Player’s Companion” PDF, which is available for free on the D&D website. I don’t mind consolidating these spells with a peppering of newly crafted ones; what I do find strange is the inexplicable absence of spells from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, especially when a few subclasses from that very book are present here. I can’t seem to find an explanation of this throughout their various social media accounts or press releases either. It’s by no means a deal-breaker, but it’s an odd omission.
I’d also briefly like to mention D&D Beyond, a licensed digital resource for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. You can build characters with great ease, create and log your own spells, and construct homebrew content to share with your players. It’s an incredibly useful tool in the digital age of gaming that’s held back primarily by licensing. What I mean by that is that it’s a wholly digital platform that requires you to purchase the content for use book by book. If you’re a customer like me, you already own basically every book in a physical format, so purchasing yet another version prevents someone invested in physical media to supplement with tools like D&D Beyond. However, there still are some cost-effective options available where sections of each book can be purchased to suit your needs—races, classes, magic items, etc., are available for purchase à la carte. It’s great at guiding new players through the character-creation process and the general rules ascribed to each component. I’m a bit old-school when it comes to running a campaign, but after having spent some time tinkering with the various levers available, I may start spending a little more time building the campaign guide for my new homebrew with D&D Beyond.
Ultimately, when thinking about this book, a question looms: Who is Xanathar’s Guide for? The short answer is … mostly DMs. The book details 31 subclasses, yes, but typically, good DMs will have the relevant books available for reference. Also, the majority of this book is written with DMs in mind, and that’s not a bad thing! So if much of the information available in this book is consolidation either completely based on various “Unearthed Arcana” playtest material or previously published subclasses from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, why else should you buy this book? Well, the honest answer is mainly for Adventurers League customization options. Adventurers League is the official ongoing campaign for fifth edition, primarily in the form of organized play at “Friendly Local Game Stores.” When building an “AL-legal” character, players are allowed to choose from the Player’s Handbook plus one other, official supplement. That said, the book is a fine package with a cornucopia of tools and inspiration for building characters. It’s a well-crafted and lovingly designed addition to the shelf, but when considering the price tag of $50 for a sizable chunk of recycled content, this drops from a must-buy to a recommendation with a few caveats. The holiday season is here—maybe put it on your wish list?