Thursday, 16 November 2017

Dungeons & Dragons: Xanathar's Guide to Everything Review

Review copies (standard and limited edition) courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros:
  • New player options in the form of class paths.
  • New rules for Dungeon Masters. Some of them, such as how to determine area of effect shapes, would have been very welcome in the original books since they are so vital. At this point though, I think we've got a hang of it but multiple methods are provided. The new encounter guidelines are also nice and allow us to see how levels map to challenge rating.
  • Random encounter tables for just about every location.
  • A bunch of low powered magic items.
  • New downtime activities. And they are good! And they provide role-play and campaign growth opportunity through the new idea of rivals!
  • Lots more full colour art. It's no different than other books in this edition but lots of art should always be commended.
  • The page design is nice. The page outline and numbering are visually pleasing and fit into the style we've come to expect of this edition.
  • Binding on both of my books were perfect.
Could Go Either Way:
  • I'm not sure if I got unlucky but there were some odd artifacts on a couple of pages in my standard edition of the book. My limited edition was perfect though. If you are picking one out at the store, and are a perfectionist, you may want to keep an eye out.
  • 17 pages of tables for possible NPC names. I'm never against tables in my books but some people will definitely consider this padding, especially when the book is already on the shorter side.
Cons:
  • It's a bit on the short side. It's 192 pages long but it's a full price book. It's even shorter if you remove the tables of character names. This makes it hard to recommend over say the Monster Manual if you don't have it, which is a 300+ page tome.
  • Few options that weren't well received by me or my players. The 3 that stood out most at my table were the Samurai archetype, and the spells Invulnerability and Mental Prison.
  • No PDF, though electronic versions are going to be provided. This is almost there, but I think that if such a version was included as a bundle with the physical book it would be far better value. I also not needing to depend on the internet. One day.*


* Denotes nitpicking.

Xanathar's Guide to Everything Covers
The Covers for the books. I'm quite a fan of these.

Introduction

It's already been a bit more than 3 years since the release of D&D 5th edition (if counting from the release of the starter set), and in that time we've had a few new options for players here and there. We had some in the earlier adventures like Princes of the Apocalypse, as well as The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide but so far it's been pretty restrained this edition. Instead we got adventures that also functioned as introductions to settings. Curse of Strahd and Out of the Abyss, I mean you. In Xanathar's Guide to Everything, we get a whole slew of new class options and spells for players to choose from, but also a bunch of new options for Dungeon Masters to sprinkle through their world. We also get some new downtime activities and rules which appeal to both. Okay, Dungeon Masters can also use the new spells and re-engineer the new class options, but if you lock a clever Dungeon Master in a room with nothing but elastics and toothpicks they'd still come up with a rule system by the time you let them out. With that overview out of the way, let's jump into the meat of Xanathar's Guide to Everything, which is kind of like The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide with less fluff about the Sword Coast.

One of the spells I've already employed in one of my games. It's the kind of thing that makes for a good entrance for a necromancer. Dance, puppets, dance. It's also a good example of the kind of art to expect in the book.

New Player Options

Just about every class gets some love in some shape or form. New class options and new spells are probably the biggest highlight for players. The section on spells takes up 25 pages while the new class options take up over 50. As well, we get a small number of new racial feats. The suggestions for coming up with character stories are also nice to see. Characters are more than a bunch of class levels after all. These take up around 10 pages.

If you'd hope to love every option, I have to say that I did not. There were quite a few that I'm really looking forward to see at the table. I've got a player really wanting to try out the War Magic option. I also based an encounter around an Oath of Conquest paladin in last week's game. Spells are always a fun resource for Dungeon Masters and I'd be lying if I didn't sprinkle a few of them through my NPCs as well.

There were also a few features and spells that my players didn't want to see. My player who loves his fighters and other physical damage dealing characters had a beef with the Samurai option for fighters. He didn't feel the math quite worked out due to the ability to regain a use of their main ability every start of combat, leaving the Battle Master outmatched one on one when fully prepared. I tend to flip flop on this point because the Battle Master has some incredible tricks up their sleeve. Invulnerability and Mental Prison were more universally disliked. In the case of invulnerability it was due to the massive advantage while still being able to cast out damaging spells while for mental prison it was the lack of save attempt after the spell succeeded. At this point in my RPG playing career I've come to realize that there will probably never be a book of rules/player options where I'm happy with everything. A few such issues can still make an otherwise flawless book or rule system frustrating. We'll see how they go over during play. I did steal some parts of the Samurai class option for an NPC, so there is always that.


New Magic Items

The magic items included here cover a couple of changes and are a welcome addition. They aren't the earth shattering objects of power that will slay liches in a single turn. Instead, they are mostly common items that provide roleplay opportunities. I'm happy to see more of these kinds of items but if you were expecting a healthy range, from small and insignificant outside of role-play opportunities to earth shattering, you'll be disappointed. I have already thrown a couple of items from this book into one of my campaigns and they went over well. I'm confident there will be more to come. Just know what you are getting into.

New Rules

Similarly, we Dungeon Masters get some attention too. Of the total 192 pages (~174 if we don't include the character names), just under 70 of them are dedicated to Dungeon Master stuff such as new rules and guidelines. Some parts are more useful than others, such as the new downtime activities being far more useful than the rules for determining area of effect (seems like something that should've been in the 3 core books), but they were still nice to see. For me, the downtime activities and the emphasis on rivals as well as complications within them was one of my favourite parts. It takes it from a simple thing to do between sessions to something that contributes to the collaborative stories being told.

The new trap rules were nice to see. As well as outlining the same "simple" traps like in the Dungeon Master's Guide, they also brought up the idea of complex traps. These act kind of like a restricted legendary creature as they have an initiative score, and even give experience. Personally though, I was really happy to see the alternate guidelines for encounter design present. We've seen them in Unearthed Arcana before, but I personally feel that having an easy mapping between level and challenge rating was long overdue. The table is found on page 91 and roughly mirrors mine from the Unearthed Arcana. It's still not terribly consistent so I'd recommend using it as a reference and not bothering to memorize it. Generally taking the player level, dividing by 2, rounding down, and subtracting one will get you to within 1 challenge rating. It's not perfect, and will tend to either get the number right or underestimate, but it can be useful as a quick estimation tool. It's also nice knowing how many low level creatures you can throw at a certain leveled player at a glance.

One of my favourites from this book. It may be my bias showing though, since some of my favourite painting are by Aivazovsky. What? I like seascapes and boats.


The Art and Book Build Quality

The book is what we've come to expect from this edition of D&D. It's got good quality pages and a good hard cover backing. My bindings were perfect and my only real complaint in this section is the artifacts present in my standard edition version of the book. One thing I feel should be noted is that along with the smaller page count, the book's spine was made thinner. I quite like how the pages fit in the closed book since it helps combat the wavy page issue that can happen.

The art is also in the style we've come to expect and also plentiful throughout. From diagrams helping to explain the rules for determining area of effects to the illustrations of class options, it's well done. I would have liked to see more in the style I prefer (more realistic) but it's without a doubt well done. With how consistent these books have been this edition, I feel like I can almost copy paste this section. I do have to say though that some sections don't lend themselves as easily to art as others.

Price

The suggested price is the same 50 USD that most books cost in this edition. It's not quite as short as the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide but it's about 30 pages away. I'm sure you'll be able to find it for cheaper but I can see this as being one of the bigger issues with this book. If you are missing the Monster Manual, and Curse of Strahd, it may be hard to justify getting this book over those two unless your players are starved for new options. My person bias aside, the value calculation is influenced by the length factor.

What I felt was Missing

I would have liked to see more ranger spells here, especially since it's the class that probably needed the most help in this area. The melee focused ranger in particular doesn't have too much to choose from if they want to try to use their magic to enhance their melee attacks, while the ranged version has a lot more to choose from. This was a perfect chance to address this issue.

It would have also been nice to have a few more commonly useful map templates at the end of the book. Call me spoiled but I would have liked a map or two out of a guide to everything. It's a bit nitpicky since we already have quite a few maps provided in other books, but it would have been a nice to have.

Generally, I think 30+ pages more would have made the book a far easier value proposition for a lot of people. It is a bit short page wise and while I'll definitely be using things from it, it cuts a bit too close for me to be overjoyed with the price. At this point in this edition's life new books will face competition from already released books that people haven't had the chance to buy yet, which further complicates the value calculation. Opportunity cost, our good old friend, makes his appearance once again. Obviously a good sale or deal will take this complaint away though.

Free Stuff

Nothing to see here. Move along.

Summary

I began this review comparing Xanathar's Guide To Everything to The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide because I think it gives the best idea about what this book is. It's similar in that it attempts to provide new options for players but also things that would be interesting to Dungeon Masters. Where it differs is that instead of providing fluff on the Sword Coast, something that would be of interest to a Dungeon Master wanting to set their game in the Sword Coast, it provides new mechanical options such as downtime activities. If you really wanted new player options, this is probably the closest the edition has so far to a Player's Handbook II. However, due to its shorter length, lack of brand new classes, and a desire to appeal to Dungeon Masters as well, it isn't quite there. It's more like part of a Player's Handbook II mixed with part of a Dungeon Master's Guide II, though probably leaning more towards a Player's Handbook. What you need to do is ask yourself if you want something that will give you a setting with an adventure, help flesh one out, provide new mechanics to throw into your game, or new options for your players to create their character's with. If it's player options, this is the first book outside the core books that you'd want to get. There are also some mechanics and options for Dungeon Masters, but the choice isn't as clear cut since we have other books to choose from as well. This of course will be tempered by the price, which could make other books in this edition that you haven't had a chance to enjoy all the more tempting. 

Update
This is a picture of the artifact I mentioned. 
Xanathar's Guide to Everything Book Artifact

2 comments:

  1. Hi Bill. I was just curious as to what you meant by odd artifacts on the regular edition of the book. Thanks and thanks for the great review.

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    Replies
    1. Hi NRod,

      Sorry for my late reply. I've added a picture at the end so you can see exactly what I meant. I just took a quick skim and found 5 pages affected. One was extremely faint so I nearly missed it, two were wider and more smudged than the image and there were two just like the image. The pages of the limited edition doesn't seem to be different so it was probably my bad luck, but I don't know how wide spread that issue would be.

      Thanks for commenting. I really appreciate it and I'm glad you found my review useful.
      -Biased Bill

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