Review: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (D&D5e)

I’ve been saying for a while that playing, and running, more 5th edition D&D is definitely something I want to do this year; and in this post, I dissected the beauty of random tables and promised a review of the product that inspired them, Wizards’ latest D&D5e supplement Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Well, here it is. Disclaimer first: I’m hardly the most knowledgeable person to talk about D&D5; if some of the new rules are imbalanced and hazy, I probably won’t have noticed them – other reviews are available, that will no doubt have a different focus to mine. I’m not going to be analysing the mechanical balance and options of each subclass presented, for instance – as usual in my reviews, I’ll be looking in broad brush strokes at what’s useful for one-shot games in the publication.

The Fluff – Roll 1d6 for your next three adventure hooks

While at first glance Xanathar’s contains little in the way of setting information, background or explicit ‘story,’ it is filled with is implicit, flexible background. Each character option and random table populates your game’s world with NPCs, factions, and hooks – and these are yours, not some silent D&D canon. This is a map-free book, but in using the optional rules just for your PCs you’ll find setting leaping out at you fully-formed.

What and how? Well, each background has additional tables, and there are a set randomly-rolled life events for each character. Each class has them; and they’re short and simple, easily picked though and just the relevant ones used. Wizards, for instance, now have three 1d6 tables that they can optionally use to determine what their spellbook looks like, what their mystical ambitions are, and what eccentricities they have developed through their studies of the art.

There’s also a set of random encounter tables by terrain and tier that give a good inclination of what different areas are like. It’s a long time since I’ve used any sort of random encounter table (and my procedure tended to be to roll up 2-3 in advance, make them tied to the world and interesting mechanically, and throw them at players if they came up, rather than rolling directly on them while in play) but they give a good sense for the setting and just what kinds of D&D creatures inhabit each kind of terrain.

Another nice bit of fluff is rules for Common Magic Items, which are cantrip-like magic items that provide small, but useful, functions – like the candle of the deep which never goes out, even underwater. Each one suggests multiple different uses – I can imagine a city beseiged by seasonal storms to have a roaring trade in candles for when the storms come, both from the wealthy seeking to keep their houses well-lit and those wanting to do business under cover of them.

The Crunch – there is a lot of this

Let’s start with the big stuff, the stuff that most readers will go to immediately – there are tons of character options, at between 2-4 new subclasses for each class. Some are familiar (I was pleased to see the Cavalier back, as well as the Kensai , Swashbuckler, and Hexblade) – and some are funkier suggestions (there’s a drunken master monk style, and a samurai). I’d really appreciate these when rolling up pregens for one-shots, as they provide a really clear distinct concept for players to latch onto. Because they’re subclasses, they don’t really add extra complexity to play, either, as they’re a one-off option that replaces other rules options in the class.

There’s lots of new spells, too – and extended trap design rules and systems for downtime. There’s tables and rules for buying, crafting, and selling magic items – not likely to see play in a one-shot, but fills in a handwavey part of play that’s been really poorly supported in previous editions. Back in youth of playing D&D, we’d always be heading back to town trying to fence yet another longsword +1 or potion of feather fall, and it always felt we were at the DM’s mercy as to how generous he was feeling.

There’s a new reading of the encounter design system, which appears much simpler and easier-to-use than the previous one in the DMG. My own experience from building encounters for one-shots right back from 3rd Edition would be to make every encounter harder than the rules say – you’re aiming for exciting, dangerous combat rather than the gradual resource-drain of regular dungeon exploration – and on the face of it this system makes it easier to twiddle those knobs to make that work.

Also there are extended rules for using tools – which I can see being really useful in a one-shot to make non-combat skill use a bit better supported in the game. Each set of tools is also linked to which skills are used with it – and if you’ve got any kind of mystery or investigation, these are good sources of inspiration for where clues might come from.

The One-Shot

Truth be told, most of the use this will see in a one-shot is embedded in the options above, but there are 3 excellent pages in an appendix at the back that are really useful. They detail how to setup and run a shared campaign, and although they clearly are geared towards running Adventurer League games, there’s some useful estimates such as how long combat encounters should take and how you can pace experience so everyone stays on the same page. I’m a big fan of linking one-shots into episodic campaigns, and this gives you most of the tools to do so, as well as sharing GM duties.

In an ideal world, for me this would have been 30 pages, not 3, and maybe explored using D&D for one-shots, different campaign formats (the 3-session minicampaign, sandbox play with a player pool like in West Marches, etc) – ook at structuring games and giving players ownership and genuine choice while also managing your prep (stuff like The Alexadrian’s Node-Based Design) – but hey, if it had all that stuff in, there’d be less for people to blog about, I guess.

To sum up, Xanathar’s brings an awful lot of extra ‘stuff’ to the game, but in a format that makes it pretty easy to drop in bits of it at a time to add to, rather than complicate, your game. I’ve still got a lot more thinking and exploring to do about running D&D5e as a one-shot (and I’ll be posting my thoughts here), but Xanathar’s increases the range of tools available to do so. What approaches or prep have you found useful in setting up a D&D5 one-shot, and am I right in thinking that using supplements like Xanathar’s and Volo’s can add richness without complexity?

Xanathar’s Guide to Random Tables – adding story to D&D5e

D&D 5th edition is a bit of a gap in my gaming experience. While it’s hardly explicitly designed for one-shots (for me D&D hews pretty closer to the zero-to-demigod progression than any other levelled game), I’ve had great experiences playing it. It captures the sweet spot of nostalgia and actually working. I’ve never actually run it, but certainly intend to set that right in the new year. And, like Starfinder, it certainly can support one-shot play – a lot of its complexity is hidden in easily-parsed references to older editions!

Storifying D&D: it can / can’t / should / shouldn’t be done!

A common thread about ten years ago on various Indie game communities used to be how to add storygaming elements to ‘trad’ games like D&D. It was met with a range of responses, from the zealous “you shouldn’t bother, just play a game that will actually support what you want to do” to more helpful suggestions, like John Aegard’s excellent piece on making D&D 4th edition a player-led sandbox.

The foundation for story-based games lies in character (or pregen) generation – if you have characters with links to the world and NPCs in it, beliefs and motivations to act beyond money and orcslaying, everything else will come, and feel natural. So after a preorder of the new Xanathar’s Guide to Everything arrived and sparked a guilt about how little attention I’d given 5th edition, I decided to give it a run through.

Xanathar’s deserves a proper review on here when I’ve fully dissected it for one-shot play, because apart from a bunch of sub-classes, encounter design guidelines, additional uses for equipment, it also contains a few pages of shared campaign guidelines (which are absolutely golden if you want to design a one-shot, brief though they are). But what initially caught my eye were the piles of random tables.

A lot has been made of the random tables that have returned for D&D5e, and I can’t get enough of them. Right there, using the ones in the PHB alongside those in Xanathar’s, you can randomly generate characters with rich, punchy backstories. I tested them out by rolling up a 1st level human fighter, Robert (oh yeah, his name was random as well – there’s 18 pages of random name tables at the back of the book as well). The tables for family backstory, combined with the backgrounds from the PHB, have made my ‘standard issue peasant fighter’ into something much more exciting, an army deserter using adventuring to find his estranged father. Don’t believe me – here’s his rough character sheet, with the table results combined with a pre-written backstory (NB: I’ve kept any links to the background and location deliberately vague, with only a dubious-evil Baron for Robert to rage against)

Robert

Race: Human (5′ 7″, 154 lbs)

Class: Fighter

Background: Folk hero

Alignment: Neutral Good

S 16, D 15, C 15, I 11, W 14, Ch 11

Languages: Common, Orc

HP 12; AC 19

Proficiencies: All armour, shields; simple weapons, martial weapons; carpenter’s tools, vehicles (land)

Saving Throws: S +5, D +2, C +4, I +0, W +2, Ch +0

Skill Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Athletics, Perception, Persuasion

Fighting Style: Defense (+1 to AC when wearing armour)

Second Wind: Use a bonus action to regain 1d10+1 hp each short/long rest

Combat: Longsword +5; 1d8+3 slashing. Light crossbow +4; 1d8+2 piercing. Dagger +5; 1d4+3 piercing.

Equipment: Chain mail, longsword, shield, light crossbow (20 bolts), explorer’s pack, carpenter’s tools, shovel, iron pot, common clothes, belt pouch with 18gp, dagger.

 

Origin: Know who your parents are; born at home; no siblings. Raised by single mother (father was imprisoned); modest lifestyle with no permanent residence – you moved around a lot; others saw you as different and strange, so you had few companions

Background decision: A mad old hermit spoke a prophecy when I was born, saying I would accomplish great things

Fighter training: I joined the army and learned how to fight as a group

Defining Event: You broke into a tyrant’s castle and stole weapons to arm the people

Personality: If someone is in trouble, I’m always ready to lend help

Ideal: Sincerity – there’s no good in pretending to be something I’m not

Bond: I have a family, but I have no idea where they are. One day, I hope to see them again

Life Events: A relative bequeathed you a simple weapon, spent time working in a job’

Flaw: I have trouble trusting my allies

 

Born to simple carpenters, the prophecy that the mad gnome Oppleby spoke when Robert was born would prove to be his downfall. His father stayed at home from the work-gang to care for Robert following the prophecy, and though they tried to evade the Baron, Robert’s father was captured and imprisoned soon after by the Baron’s men. As Robert and his mother Emma moved from town to town, earning what little they could from odd jobs and the kindness of strangers, Robert’s heartbreak at seeing his father dragged away led to steely resolve to find his captors and bring them to justice.

Knowing he would need a strong sword arm to bring the Baron to justice, he joined the army, where he quickly became successful as a carpenter in the engineering division while his martial expertise grew. But seeing the lash of his sergeant’s whip on his comrades, Robert fled the army, defecting with his squad after stealing from the company supplies. In the escape his squad-mate Manfred was fatally injured, and he gave Robert the engraved dagger his own father had given him, begging Robert to continue his quest.

Robert found himself again moving from town to town, and making use of what carpentry skills he had, until the opportunity for adventure and making good on his prophecy came to him. He knows he will only bring danger to his mother if he returns to her, but still seeks to find his father, and free him from the Baron’s oppression.

See what I mean? It’s corny, and I guess a little obvious, but the table results just determined that juicy backstory naturally. Later I’ll be blogging here about adapting published adventures, but for a party including Robert you can bet that either (i) the Baron’s men are all over town getting in his way, and/or (ii) the adventure’s big bad has links to the Baron. Have you got any examples of how random tables can develop grabby character backgrounds?

Review: Starfinder – or, how I learned to stop worrying and love d20 again

I’ve been sniffy about Pathfinder for years, and I have to admit it’s jealousy. I played, and ran, a ton of D&D3.5 back in the day, but Pathfinder’s release coincided with me finding other gamers to play with whose tastes were broader and more in tune with my own expectations of gaming – I was discovering Fiasco, playing Spirit of the Century for the first time. Why, I asked myself, would I ever go back to counting squares and moving minis? And it simmered inside me as I watched game store shelves groan under their beautiful books with their great artwork and, and… And so many Pathfinder players seemed to play only Pathfinder, I couldn’t help but feel a bit above them – what did they know of shared imagined spaces, or GM-full improv techniques, or the freewheeling narration of 13th Age between-combat montages?

But last week, I bought Starfinder. And it’s great. So many of my feelings towards its fantasy forerunner, I realise, are unjustified. So, if you’re like me and haven’t touched d20 with a bargepole since you started buying FATE dice and freewheeling narration, here are 5 reasons you should give Starfinder a whirl:

1: The gonzo gauge is carefully calibrated

Okay, science fantasy is inherently gonzo. Do you come down on the He Man side (for which you’ll be looking at Master of Umdaar as the ideal game), or do you try for mystery and technology and magic as interchangeable (it’s post-apocalypse, but Numenera is probably the gold standard for getting this right). Starfinder walks a careful path between these – yes, it’s got magic and technomancy and priesthoods and, er, space goblins, but it’s also got a consistent background that makes these fit together in a somewhat-logical way.

Paizo did excellently with Pathfinder in reinventing a kitchen-sink D&D world in Golarion, and by setting Starfinder in Golarion’s far future they leave the door open for Pathfinder monsters to be used/adapted as well. They have space-elves, space-dwarves, and such, but wisely put them at the back of the book, leaving their more sci-fi themed races at the start. There are half-human Androids, insectoid Shirrens, and anthropomorphic rats called Ysoki, among others. The Ysoki can store small items in their cheek pouches; they do bring to mind the legendary Giant Space Hamsters of 2nd Ed. AD&D’s Spelljammer setting (talking of gonzo…), and for me that’s a good thing.

2: Everything else in the game is carefully calibrated

When Paizo set out to make Pathfinder, they took D&D3.5 and fixed it, trying to make it smoother and cleaner. Smoother I’m not sure, but it is perfectly balanced. They’ve changed a few things in Starfinder (like having Hit Points and Stamina Points, and giving equipment levels) – but it all fits together lovingly. Yes, there are those that will obsess over builds, trying to find the most powerful game-breaking character, but the fact that this generates so much discussion just goes to show how tightly balanced it generally is. While it’s not quite mastery-proof, with a little common-sense it looks to be very difficult to accidentally generate a significantly sub-optimal character.

And the classes look fun. There are Solarians, who generate spectral weaponry and armour, and Mechanics who all get funky drones to follow them around and do their bidding. It’s fantasy, so the Mystic and Technomancer are classes too. PCs get to choose Themes as well, which add another layer to the character so that several different options exist for similar characters.

3: You don’t have to use minis and count squares

This is one of the best-kept secrets of Pathfinder. It is entirely possible to play Pathfinder, and by extension Starfinder, without using miniatures or a grid. Just replace it with, well, common sense. A rough idea of encounter ranges helps, as does players who are happy with this approach, but it’s easy to negotiate, for instance, how many opponents are in an area of effect attack or whether you are flanking an opponent.

Obviously, you lose a bit of tactical grit if you do this, but you have to make the judgement that you do gain a bit more narrative flexibility with this system – I guess it goes down to how you picture a combat in your mind, and having minis and squares can help that in some ways, or hinder it in others. But genuinely, if the grid is the problem, trust me and try it without.

4: You can totally use minis and count squares

If you haven’t seen the Pathfinder Pawn collections, they are a great idea. You get a box of thick card standees with bases, and Paizo has started producing Pawn sets for its Adventure Paths as well… so if you want to run through one of its campaigns you can get the standees for everything the PCs are likely to face in the adventure. It’s cheap, easy, and all you need is one of those roll-up latex mats and some OHP pens and you can get your mapping on. The first Pawn collection for Starfinder is out now, and I’m sure Paizo will continue to support them. Worth noting that you can get the Pathfinder ones pretty cheap on Amazon and Ebay if you keep an eye out for them.

5: It can be played one-shot

The default play style for D&D 3.5, and by extension Pathfinder, was the long campaign. The progression from 1st to 20th level was carefully mapped out, and for me this meant that one-shot play was off the table. Another factor was the general encounter approach – which focused on lots of small encounters to wear down player resources without many big, dangerous fights.

Just a few tweaks can make it much more one-shot friendly though. Getting rid of the minis and maps helps if you’re cool with that, for a start. Reducing the number of fights, and making them each more challenging, is a good idea, as is having plenty of skill-based encounters – which of course is a little easier in a science fantasy setting than a dungeon-crawling fantasy one. I’d also ditch 1st level too; the sweet spots for one-shot play are about 3rd-8th level in D&D, and I’m sure Starfinder will be the same. You can, of course, use the collapsible dungeon advice from this blog to make sure you keep to time, and I’d recommend following the advice for crunchy games here.

So, you can probably expect to see some content for Starfinder appearing on here. I’ll begin hawking it at conventions, and Go Play Leeds – and especially at North Star, a newly-birthed Science Fiction RPG con in Sheffield next year. What do you think? Have I been charmed by the high production values and anthropomorphic hamsters? Or is there something in this? If it helps, the .pdf is only $9.99 at the moment from Paizo… although you’ll want the big, shiny print version once you see it.