Watcher and Manipulator—Xanathar and Modenkainen’s D&D Updates

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Images: Wizards of the Coast

Whether you fancy the watchful eye of the Beholder Xanathar, or the manipulative mage Mordenkainen, these two D&D’s supplements can radically change your perception of the multiverse.

With Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, players and DMs both find themselves presented with hundreds of new character options and updated mechanic options. With Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, a history of the multiverse is combined with piles of new racial features and monster stat blogs. Together, they merge into an epic melting pot which creates a whole new sense of the multiverse.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

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Join the Beholder Xanathar in his extensive research of the multiverse. With Xanathar’s guidance, the limits of character creation are opened immensely. Xan’s research also includes new DM options and tools to keep your games fresh.

For Players

Character options make up the first section of the book. There are new tables for character creation details as well as new subclasses. New racial feats are also introduced.

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With help from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, you can unlock new Paths for Barbarians, Oaths for Paladins, and similar options for every other class. These 35 new subclasses fill in critical roles lacking in the Player’s Handbook. I can’t possibly cover all of them, so I’m going to hone in on Rangers.

Ranger Character Options

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I’m focusing on rangers here because I don’t know anyone who plays a ranger for more than a few sessions in a dedicated gaming group. The character options have been so lacking in basics that players widely avoid the class entirely. The ranger is given the following tables for character inspiration:

  • Views of the World
  • Homelands
  • Sworn Enemy

Subclass options (Archetypes)

Gloom Stalker
The Gloom Stalker is at home in the dark. This is the most Drizzt-inspired class setup I’ve seen to date. It’s also deadly in dark environments. If I were in a 2-3 player dungeon delve, I’d be the Gloom Stalker in a heartbeat. On your turn, you can deal extra damage, move further than ever, and deal more damage than ranger options from the Player’s Handbook.

Do you sneak around in the dark? You know most everything but humans can see in the dark, right? We all see you. Tiptoeing doesn’t turn you invisible. -Xanathar

You also have invisibility to creatures which rely on darkvision. Seriously. This alone makes the Gloom Stalker a powerful ranger Archetype because ambushes are guaranteed to succeed for invisibile characters. And it doesn’t take a spell, an action, or concentration. You’re just invisible.

Horizon Walker
The Horizon Walker is an inter-planar guardian. The earliest feature is the ability to detect interplanar portals within a mile of your location. For characters who are interested in traversing the multiverse, this is an excellent tool. The other level 3 feature allos you to turn your damage into force damage and deal an extra 1d6 damage. This works for melee and ranged weapons at a range of 30 feet.

black quote
You can’t walk to the horizon, because it keeps on getting farther away. Boom! Did I just blow your mind? I did, didn’t I? -Xanathar

More impressively, at higher levels, you gain the ability to harness planar magics to teleport around the battlefield. You can teleport 10 feet before an attack, or as a reaction you can grant yourself resistance to all damage from an attack. This is each turn. That’s right. Total resistance is a powerful and slightly terrifying ability for any character. I would not want to go up against a Horizon Walker in combat.

Monster Slayer
The Monster Slayer is the third and final Archetype, focused on hunting down dragons, vampires, fiends, and other evil monsters. Hunter’s Sense allows you to magically determine the best way to hurt a monster. Whether it’s silver bullets or invulnerability to slashing damage, the Monster Slayer can identify all resistances and weaknesses of that monster.

More powerful in combat, though, is the ability to counter magic users. You can magically foil spells and teleportation. This takes no actions. You can also attack a creature in order to foil any attack or ability which causes you to make a saving throw. If your attack succeeds, you automatically succeed on the saving throw.

For DMs

The majority of Xanathar’s is oriented around providing new options for DMs. There are entirely too many specifics to discuss, so I’ll sum up of the most interesting features. Don’t mistake me, though. There are many, many great tools in this book which I just cannot cover in this post.

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Encounter Building


This section is hands-down the most valuable part of this manual. There is a 5-step process for creating your best encounters, and the manual can teach you everything you need to create better parties than ever.

  1. Evaluate the party,
  2. Choose an encounter size
  3. Choose the challenge ratings
  4. Select monsters
  5. Add flavor.

If that much planning is too much, there are tables and tables to roll on to determine encounter composition for different environments and levels. Anyone should be able to complete this DM task, regardless of experience.

Environments include:

  • Arctic
  • Coastal
  • Desert
  • Forest
  • Grassland
  • Hill
  • Mountain
  • Swamp
  • Underdark
  • Underwater
  • Urban

Other DM tools include:

  • Guidelines for falling, sleeping, tying knots, and spellcasting.
  • Tool proficiency updates and descriptions of what tools are/include.
  • Adamantine weapons
  • Traps revisited – Every DM could use these tips
  • Downtime revisited – new options for downtime which make downtime more rewarding than ever.
  • Magic items: design, distribution, tables, and recharging rules. Also, an extended section on common magical items.
  • Dozens of tables for names for non-humans and humans from real-world cultures around the world including Mesoamerica, Greece, China, and Niger-Congo.

For the record, not every single player in your group needs a copy of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Most groups can get by with only the DM having this book, but most players will also benefit from having a copy, especially if the DM doesn’t have one.

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes

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Mordenkainen is a Wizard of astounding skill. He is responsible for the spells Mordekainen’s Faithful Hound, -Magnificent Mansion, -Private Sanctum, and -Sword. What most adventurers don’t know is that he is a manipulator of great battles and struggles in the cosmos. He seeks to control these great struggles, keeping them in constant stalemate, lest any power grow too strong for his purposes. In Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, we get a history of these epic battles, new races, and new monster blocks.

The Blood War—Devils or Demons?

The Abyss and its demons face off with the devils of the Nine Hells in an endless war which overruns the River Styx flowing between them. The first section of this book details this war, its generals, and how devils and demons fight for domination. It also covers individual demons and devils, helping you visualize the epic battles and how your characters might fit into the narrative.
This is a battle in which Mordenkainen’s “Balance” comes into play a lot. He keeps one hand on each scale, so to speak, to keep things from getting out of hand.

For Players

Players might be tempted to join cults, sign pacts, or even mate with a devil or demon. These acts might grant you powerful allies, newfound powers, or even a tiefling child of your own making. But mortals beware: selling your soul is a damning act which sets you forever apart from civilization.

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Devils and Their Servants

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Players might make deals with devils, gaining favor, wealth, or power through the diabolical influence. Others, like tieflings, inherit the curse of such a deal. Mostly, these details are a matter of roleplaying with your DM. For Tieflings, though, there are new subraces based on the infernal being connected with your family. Players who are linked to Asmodeus use the stats in the Player’s Handbook. For Baalzebul and the others, new character options are added for ability scores and the infernal legacy.

Demons and their Thralls

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Demons are power and evil beyond measure. These great monsters can grant boons to any mortal they take a shine to, and for any reason. These boons greatly increase one or more stat, imbue the blessed with new powers, and sometimes grant them new forms. Be careful what you ask for, though. Orcus is likely to transform you into a ghoul unless he needs you in mortal form for some reason. Jubilex will give you great control over your physical form, at the cost of your mind.

New Race options

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Amongst the lore, players can find new racial options and the histories of those races. With the many details, players can find new inspiration for character backgrounds, motives, agendas, and families.

  • The races and subraces included are:
  • Elf: History and culture
  • Elf: Eladrin
  • Elf: Sea Elf
  • Elf: Shadar-Kai
  • Dwarf: History and culture
  • Dwarf: Duergar
  • Gith: History and culture
  • Gith: Githyanki
  • Gith: Githzerai
  • Halfling: History and culture
  • Gnome: History and culture
  • Gnome: Deep Gnome (Svirfneblin)
  • Tiefling: History and culture
  • Tiefling: Descendent traits for each of the 9 devils.

For DMs

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes has two major components for DMs. The first is the enormous (hi)story section detailed above, which includes over 100 pages of world inspiration for your campaigns. The second component is the bestiary.

Players, skip this section. You’d rather be surprised with this stuff, trust me.

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There, that’s better. DMs and stubborn players, meet the horde of monsters Mordenkainen has up his sleeves.

Clockworks

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Clockworks are a good example for those worried that the Bestiary will be consumed by Devils and Demons. These funny creations are the epitome of gnomish creativity. No two quite alike, the Clockworks are sometimes formidable and sometimes a bit defective. DMs have a lot to work with, including tables to help you customize each Clockwork your players might encounter.

Devils

The Devils are but one side of the Blood War. With an established hierarchy, a penchant for dealings with mortals, and a vast population, all of the Nine Hells presents a never-ending force to face off with the Abyss.

My favorite part of the sections on Devils is the exhaustive material provided for playing with your Tiefling characters.

Pages and pages of lore, stat blocks, intrigue, and other tools await the DM interested in using devils to move the story. Remember, though: Mordenkainen is not a fan of anyone upsetting the balance. If your players decide to tackle the Nine Hells, with or without the help of the Abyss, Mordenkainen may step in to keep them out from under his own toes.

Take Zariel, for example. She has a Challenge Rating of 26, with an AZ of 21, and a flying speed of 150. Even level 20 characters should take a deep breath before taking a swing at her. If the players do not have an immortal/celestial/deity ally on their side, they will likely lose, even if Zariel does not engage an army. If the party has some unimaginable power which could actually threaten Zariel, Mordenkainen would go to great lengths to keep that from happening. He has no love for Zariel, only the Balance.

Demons

Demons are the top of my “don’t screw with these guys” list. When they grant boons to their armies, the power of those armies alone is terrifying. When players pit themselves against a demon (much less a Prince), they are squaring off with powers far beyond their imaganing.

Graz’zt is the epitome of the unpredictable power of the Demon Princes. Graz’zt’s go-to tool is manipulation. He can transform shape at will, becoming whatever being you might be attracted to. Male, female, monster—he cares not what form he takes, so long as it charms his prey.

While direct manipulation is simplest, Graz’zt has other tricks. He can Command creatures to do his bidding with east, and if a creature is so foolish as to attempt to enter his lair, they have 60 minutes before madness besets them. A DC 23 Wisdom saving throw is not an easy one to pull off, and can incapacitate an entire party.

Bizarre Monsters

There are a number of bizarre, humorous, and surprising monsters included, as well. The Giff, for example, are space-faring hippo-headed humanoids in military dress, obsessed with gunpowder. The Sword Wraith, though, is less humorous: Honor-obsessed warriors who died without that glory, doomed to relive the horror of being slain ingloriously in battle or otherwise.

The cadaver collector may be the most interesting new monster, though. Originally from Monster Manual III of the 3e days, these large constructs cover themselves in the weapons and armor of the slain as they slaughter their way through the battlefield. More horrifying than the bodies skewered to their bodies are the specters they summon to fight alongside them. This monster is a great shock for players who are bored with “regular” constructs.

I’ll note that for any given player, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes will change your options such that it’s nearly a necessity. If one generous player is willing to share, that might be good enough for your group. It isn’t for ours, though. We rely heavily on having multiple points of access for this content because the demand is too high otherwise.

For everyone

For all DMs, players, or purveyors of fantasy lore, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes are essential additions to the collection. If you only own two books beyond the essentials (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master’s Guide), these are the two you need. They can completely transform your play experience and breath new life to stagnant or boring campaigns. If you only want one of them, I suggest players pick up a copy of Xanathar’s, and DMs buy Mordenkainen’s. But feel free to read more reviews to decide, as each book opens possibilities for everyone at the table.

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