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D&D’s first major rules supplement is a must-buy for crafty Dungeon Masters

A treasure trove of inspiration, although its humor falls flat

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The Beholder Xanthar, surrounded by his belongings, speaks with his pet fish. Wizards of the Coast
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

By all indications, Dungeons & Dragons is doing gangbusters business. The role-playing game’s fifth edition currently has two books on the Amazon best sellers list. One of them is the Player’s Handbook, now in its fourth year of printing. The other? It’s a brand new product called Xanathar’s Guide To Everything, and it’s the first major addition to the game’s ruleset since 2014.

Xanathar’s is the latest in a new class of books from Wizards of the Coast, one that blends traditional sourcebook material like monsters and magic spells with narrative content. Like Volo’s Guide to Monsters, which was released late last year, Xanathar’s has a narrator named Xanathar. He’s a beholder — a multi-eyed, floating monster from D&D lore — who just happens to be a powerful crime lord in the city of Waterdeep. Think Jabba the Hutt, but with disintegration rays shooting out of its eyestalks.

Nearly every page of the book is annotated with little quips and observations. Unfortunately, the humor of those narrative snippets fell flat for me. Xanathar’s voice, as applied in this book, feels a bit too modern. He sounds more like a cranky Redditor than a fantastical crime boss.

Luckily, the bulk of the content in the book is outstanding. In my estimation, it’s the first must-have new book from Wizards of the Coast since the latest edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Xanathar’s is divided into three parts. Up front, there are more than 30 new subclasses for players to choose from. They include some vital and popular builds from previous editions of the game, like the Cavalier and the Samurai. But they also include some brand new versions of classic character classes that will liven any newly-formed party.

An alternate cover is only available at local game stores.
Hydro74/Wizards of the Coast

For instance, the monk class gets a few fun options, including the Way of the Drunken Master, that boosts movement speed and dodge abilities. The fighter’s new Arcane Archer build will make missiles more potent than ever. Rogues get a bunch of attention with four new subclasses, including the leadership focused Mastermind and the flashy Swashbuckler. My favorite by far is the new College of Glamour subclass that turns your run-of-the-mill harpsichord playing bard into a magic-fueled David Bowie.

Best of all, WotC has instilled all of these new subclasses with strong role-playing hooks. These aren’t just stat-blocks with new art, but rather inspirations for storytelling in and of themselves.

That being said, most players will have no need for the remainder of the book. Chapters two and three are mostly for Dungeon Masters, and include a host of new tools and tables.

My favorite section was a laundry list of so-called “common magic items.” These aren’t +1 weapons and exotic armor, but simply everyday items that have been imbued with magic.

You could just as easily call them toys.

There’s Heward’s Handy Spice Pouch, a bag that always has a pinch of the perfect seasoning for any dish. The Hat of Vermin will summon an ordinary bat, frog or rat on command. The Unbreakable Arrow puts another problem-solving tool in a player’s toolkit, while the Cloak of Billowing ... well, it billows dramatically on command.

These aren’t game-changing uber items, but rather rewards for close-knit parties and springboards for dynamic storytelling. Xanathar’s continues the tradition of D&D’s fifth edition by giving Dungeon Masters permission — permission to be creative, permission to improvise, permission to bring surprise and joy and discovery into their games. At $29.99 on Amazon right now, it’s an absolute steal.

Xanathar’s is already on sale right now at your friendly local game store, including a version with an alternative cover illustrated by artist Hydro74. The game will enter wider distribution on Nov. 21.

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