The History of the Classes is going on a break so that I can go through Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and examine each piece in detail. Think of this as my long-form, multi-part review, I guess? (If you’re looking for something shorter-form and already posted, well, Shawn has you covered.) I haven’t read much in the way of other folks’ commentary yet, so I’ll miss some things that “the whole internet” already knows. It happens. Colin has also been gracious enough to switch days with me this week, as I’ll be out of town and away from the internet for Thanksgiving.
I’m going to avoid reprinting rules as much as possible in this series, because I don’t care to test the bounds of fair use on a book that is, at the moment, eminently available in exchange for currency.
I’ll skate past the introduction and its recap of important rules and jump right into Chapter One. Thirty-one new subclasses means that I’m absolutely not getting to all of them in this article. Each class also has roleplaying notes and tables of additional ideas for character histories and roleplaying quirks. A lot of these need a delicate touch to avoid being an asshole at the table because you’re “just playing your character.” For example, the barbarian has a table of superstitions, and 3 of the 6 are about distrust or fear toward another class or common PC race. Mentioned once or twice, these are fine, but if it comes up every. single. time you take a short rest, you’re just trolling your friends. There are groups where that’s normal and fine, but please for the love of good gaming take a hard look at whether that’s true for your group before you make these a centerpiece of your portrayal.
Path of the Ancestral Guardian
The Ancestral Guardian barbarian thematically has the most in common with the Path of the Totem Warrior, in that they draw more on spiritual forces than on superior martial training. I’ve liked the theme here from the first moment we saw them in UA. The mechanics have been… more of a journey, let’s say. In principle, every barbarian can be a perfectly good tank (resistance to B/P/S damage covers a multitude of sins), though they’re more often played for raw damage output. Ancestral Guardians are for when you want to go deep on retributive tanking and improved mitigation for the party.
- Ancestral Protectors is a very 4e-like single-target marking mechanic, plus halving damage to an ally. Solid start for a dedicated tanking subclass.
- Actions that force saving throws rather than roll attacks are a way for enemies to work around this, unlike in 4e (where everything was an attack roll of one kind or another).
- Spirit Shield lets you spend your reaction to reduce damage that your nearby allies take. In case you haven’t seen the errata, the chart is correct with d8s, rather than the text with d6s. If I have a concern about this, it’s that if the bad guys have an unlucky round, it might be stopping all of their damage output for the round, but… working as intended, probably. It is
- This feature can prevent damage from effects that use a saving throw. The requirement that you can see the target means the rogue is frequently on their own. Also, blinding the barbarian effectively shuts this feature off.
- Consult the Spirits gives the barbarian an exploration-based feature, and something that doesn’t directly involve raging, kinda like the Totem Warrior’s Spirit Seeker and Spirit Walker features. This is basically fine, and I like getting to participate in more parts of the action.
- Vengeful Ancestors turns Spirit Shield into retribution as well as mitigation. On-theme and great for dissuading enemies from attacking someone other than the barbarian.
In short, I am a huge fan of this subclass. In addition to its surface-level usage, you can also make a phenomenal Rokugan-style samurai by combining an Ancestral Guardian barbarian with the Noble subclass. You might tweak one or two class skill options and trade shield proficiency for calligraphy tools proficiency, if you cared about that level of detail.
Path of the Storm Herald
This subclass, on the other hand, is one I was more dubious about from its first appearance. Thematically, I guess it’s fine, though it’s a lot more like three different subclasses. Unlike the Totem Warrior, you can’t mix and match features here. That said, if 5e had formal rules for things you had to do to train new levels in a class or subclass, I would be all about having Storm Heralds go to the ends of the earth to endure their flavor of storm.
- Storm Aura gives you a 10-ft aura, the effect of which comes from your terrain type. This is the point at which you choose your terrain, which shapes every subclass feature you get from here on out. Each aura effect costs your bonus action.
- Desert is an all creatures damaging effect, so that’s a very solo-against-weak-hordes style. I mean, the amount of damage it kicks out means it’s barely worth your time against tougher opponents, and you probably want your teammates to help you take those down anyway. Or your allies can decide they’re okay taking damage from you every round, I guess.
- Sea lets you zap individual creatures with lightning. It’s not a ton of damage, but it does stay ahead of Desert’s blanket effect and it scales with level. Better for fighting bosses, certainly, or for splashing damage on a second creature while you focus your attacks on the main opponent. No danger to allies here.
- Tundra is basically heroism (without the frightened immunity or the Concentration requirement) to all allies in your aura. That is just goddamn crazy and steps all over an already-really-good buff. It does help that it’s a (bonus) action someone has to declare on their turn, so it’s easier to remember that you are receiving those temporary hit points. All told, I’m not super happy with this feature. This feature wants your team to bunch up as much as possible to maximize benefit. I’m sure your enemies will appreciate your fireball formation!
- Storm Soul gives you resistance, environmental adaptation, and a useful trick appropriate to your terrain type, and don’t require you to be raging. These are all within the bounds of what you’d expect – desert = fire, for example. The “useful trick” parts are there to make sure that Sea Heralds don’t get more stuff than Desert and Tundra, because a Sea Herald without water breathing and a swim speed is probably not meeting the minimum bar of participation within their terrain.
- Shielding Storm shares the damage resistance portion of Storm Soul with your allies while they’re in your aura, so the Desert Storm Aura (not, in this case, led by Gen. Schwarzkopf) is still annoying damage to nearby allies, but only half as annoying.
- Raging Storm further boosts your Storm Aura effect.
- Desert’s fire aura also tacks on a reactive fire damage shield. I mean, damage is always useful.
- Sea offers a knockdown with a save to resist. Compare this to the Wolf Totem’s knockdown with no save to resist, but this is a reaction instead of a bonus action (as a bonus action would be nonsense for a Storm Herald), and the Wolf Totem has a size limit while the Storm Herald has none. Feature to feature, I’d mostly rather have the Wolf Totem one, unless Huge and Gargantuan creatures are the order of the day.
- Tundra offers a snare effect to one target if the target fails a Strength save. It’s good stickiness, but I’m guessing that four times in five, it’s a not-particularly-useful extra step in most or all of the barbarian’s rounds spent raging.
I’m less enthused about this subclass, because I have a lot of skepticism about gameplay loops that are deeply aura-dependent. I expect them to slow down play and significantly push map-and-minis combat over theater-of-the-mind combat. In general, paladin auras don’t come up constantly, so keeping track of them isn’t as crucial as Storm Aura. Maybe it plays well and I’m worrying unnecessarily. Thematically, I’m not in love with this subclass, but it has strong potential if the player and DM dive into it. I’ll be curious to see if the Raven (Eagle) Totem barbarian in my campaign decides that Tundra Herald is what he really wanted to be playing all along.
Path of the Zealot
For some reason, it still kinda surprises me that they thought to pair barbarian with divine themes to create another version of 4e’s ultra-stylish avenger class. In principle, I really like this idea. They even justify not wearing armor! Just don’t look to them to be the party’s Stealth strike force, unless you construct that with your background or a feat. Depending on what you think is most iconic about avengers, you could also build them as monks (Kensai, Sun Soul, Shadow… kinda whatever), Vengeance paladins, probably some flavor of cleric, or Assassin rogues that just have some sort of oath or creed.
- Divine Fury is a damage kicker, plain and simple. To my mind, this feature is the final nail in the coffin of the Berserker’s Frenzy being any good. It’s less damage output, but you can use it in every fight as long as you’re raging, so it’s probably worlds better over the course of an adventuring day that involves 3+ fights.
- Warrior of the Gods is close to a ribbon feature, and it actually modifies someone else’s class feature. I like that this feature basically says, “Sorry, y’all gonna die a lot. Here’s a cookie so that spellcasters and/or your party hate you less.”
- Fanatical Focus helps you be a little less of a mental puppet or total victim of spellcasters everywhere, without going back to the well of immunity. It’s fine.
- Zealous Presence is a once-per-long-rest party buff. Honestly, the surprise here is that there aren’t a ton of other battle cry-themed effects in basically all barbarian subclasses. This is definitely good for turning a fight that is going against you. I expect that it goes unused for a lot of players because (like any once-per-day effect) they worry about needing it even more later.
- Rage Beyond Death is, in a sense, an upgrade to the core barbarian’s Relentless Rage feature. It is unbelievably hard to kill a Zealot while they’re raging – just make sure your healer is ready with healing the second before that rage ends. This is pretty stylish.
I like what the Zealot brings to the table. I’d use a flail in place of a scourge and play one of these as a flagellant in a Warhammer Fantasy-flavored 5e game. Between this and the Ancestral Guardian, I’m genuinely impressed that XGTE has gotten me invested in the idea of playing a barbarian. It’s a first within D&D, because psychopath with an axe is a villain concept rather than a fun PC concept to me.
As we shift into the bard, let me start with what the text offers on flavor. The suggestions of Defining Works, Instruments, and Embarrassments revolve around the bard as a traditional musician. Yet 5e has worked incredibly hard to expand the class’s concept toward scholar (Lore), pseudo-warlord (Valor), fey emissary (Glamour), knife… dude… (sorry, Blades), and psychic vampire (Whispers). It honestly feels like the left hand forgot what the hell the right hand has been up to all this time. I dunno, I see a lot of people play Valor in particular without touching the idea of performance as such. Maybe that’s just how my local player group does things.
College of Glamour
I have the same problem with the flavor text here that I had when it debuted in UA. It strongly implies that all other bardic colleges are less impressive and cool than this one. I really need people writing flavor text for player options to use superlatives sparingly, because Coolness needs balancing just as much as mechanical throughput. If you had two bards of different Colleges in a party, you don’t want the book to come out and say that one is cooler and more feared or respected than the other, just because it was written later.
- Mantle of Inspiration is a new way to use Bardic Inspiration. The flavor text here is weird. For some reason, your Bardic Inspiration makes you look more “wondrous,” and you looking more wondrous lets you give your allies temporary hit points and a burst of speed. What the first idea has to do with the second and the third, I couldn’t begin to tell you.
- This looks like a lot more damage prevention and situation change – we’re talking about rearranging the whole battlefield – per use of Bardic Inspiration than Lore or Valor are likely to see in any but the most ideal corner cases.
- Enthralling Performance is a way to turn a small group of people into fervent supporters for an hour, though it doesn’t bring them onto your side for combat. Good use of this feature takes some forethought and positioning, but using it to waltz past a group of guards looks like it would be on the table. This looks powerful, but on-message.
- Mantle of Majesty lets you cast command a whole heck of a lot. This definitely has good use cases, starting with turning a pack of guards you’ve already hooked with Enthralling Performance into a disarmed or groveling group of combatants.
- If you want to use this in combat, well, command is all right, but you’re not casting anything bigger than a cantrip with your main action, and you’re not handing out Bardic Inspiration or using Mantle of Inspiration. What I’m saying is, the bard’s action economy for bonus actions is stretched thin even without this feature.
- Unbreakable Majesty is, in rough terms, a self-refreshing (that’s the “unbreakable”) sanctuary for a minute. This feature is incredibly strong, with a success state and two different “fail” states that are almost better than the success state. It strongly encourages the bard to go striding through the battlefield, daring enemies to attack. Also, it refreshes on short rest.
Other than not being sold on Mantle of Inspiration’s flavor or mechanics, I like what goes on here. Fey bards are fine and good. I can imagine wanting to play one, though I’m not sure it would be my first choice. What this doesn’t do is significantly change the core gameplay loop – this plays like a Lore bard with a shifted spellcasting and Bardic Inspiration emphasis. The College of Swords is the other kind – it’s more fighter-y than even Valor. Then there’s Whispers – roughly Lore-like gameplay in combat, but totally different social interaction handling.
College of Swords
It’s interesting to see a bard that is more explicitly a circus performer, even a sideshow act, than a musician. The original UA version didn’t distinguish itself enough from the College of Valor’s mechanics, but that’s improved considerably here.
- Bonus Proficiencies grant one more bladed weapon that bards don’t otherwise get (all good there) and medium armor proficiency. I would be surprised to find many bards that boost Strength and tough it out with light armor proficiency until 3rd level, and/or have Dex such that medium armor is a better bet than light armor. This feature also lets bards use their weapons as spellcasting foci, which is a huge help when it comes to having just two hands. It’s also nicely thematic.
- Fighting Style lets Blades choose between just two fighting styles; I kinda feel like they could have gotten away with granting both. You can’t use them simultaneously, and the bard’s action economy makes two-weapon fighting an especially dubious bet. Given the subclass theme, I’m honestly disappointed that there’s not a new dagger-throwing fighting style introduced here.
- Blade Flourish (good heavens, three features at 3rd level?) improves your Attack action in one default way – increasing your speed – and gives you three ways to apply your Bardic Inspiration die directly to that attack, after you roll a successful hit. In short, this feature makes you a bard-by-way-of-Battle Master.
- Defensive Flourish adds the die to damage and your AC. That’s sometimes a stratospheric AC. You won’t be able to play at being a defender for long, though – if you’re using this every round, well, that’s 5 rounds per short rest. It also means you’re not using any of your other Bardic Inspiration options.
- Slashing Flourish splashes damage to another nearby enemy. This is a great way to get in a little damage against a high-AC target standing next to a low-AC target, but it won’t get the job done in itself. Still, the day you use this to take down two enemies in a single attack, you’re going to feel frickin’ amazing.
- Mobile Flourish is weird because it’s a push, but one that deals in individual feet of distance rather than 5-foot segments of distance. It’s… fine? But I feel like this could have been handled with more useful consistency. It’s a place where rounding all fractions down shaves off a lot of function.
- Extra Attack does what Extra Attack does.
- Master’s Flourish is the currency fixer, comparable to but FAR more potent than Relentless, Sorcerous Restoration, and so on. Now you can use a watered-down Defensive Flourish or Slashing Flourish every round! Well, “watered down.” We’re talking an average of 3 points of damage and whatever the peripheral function is. This feature is a huge deal, but considering all of the demands on the Blade’s Bardic Inspiration and action economy, there’s going to be a constant struggle between casting a spell and the Attack action. They don’t, after all, have a Battle Magic feature. I’m honestly surprised there aren’t more melee-friendly bard spells, but I guess Magical Secrets to lift a paladin smite spell or two will have to do.
What I see here is a class that is stretched very thin for bonus actions if it chases two-weapon fighting, since Bardic Inspiration and some key bard spells need bonus actions. It’s also so hungry for uses of Bardic Inspiration that it’s a tough row to hoe at 3rd and 4th level, until Font of Inspiration comes along at 5th level. Until Master’s Flourish mitigates this somewhat at 14th level, it has a deep tension between selfish (Blade Flourish) and support (all other Bardic Inspiration functions) playstyles, which is about on the level of playing a cleric who refuses to prepare even one healing spell. You can play that way, but your party likely wonders what the hell you’re doing.
I could be wrong about this. Maybe playtesting showed that all of my concerns are total non-issues and the action economy and Bardic Inspiration supply are totally fine, and players don’t mind the tension of being full-progression spellcasters that seem to spend most of their turns not touching their spellcasting. Let’s say I’m dubious, to a degree that would steer me away from playing this as a PC. (I’d build an NPC stat block on it in a heartbeat, though.)
College of Whispers
Man, these guys are bastards. Even Fiend warlocks don’t skirt this close to the edge of “are you sure you’re a good guy? I mean, look at your powers!” And, well, the flavor text backs that up with a vengeance. If it were less overtly magical, I’d say that this was the perfect fit for Athasian assassin-bards.
- Psychic Blades is their unique Bardic Inspiration application. It’s a damage kicker that keeps up with Sneak Attack, though it tops out a bit lower. Instead of requiring advantage or an adjacent ally, it costs a precious Bardic Inspiration… but as long as you have 20 Cha by 15th level, that looks a lot like 40d6 to me.
- Words of Terror is sort of a psychic time bomb that takes a minute to set. Since it’s once-per-short-rest, you need to pick your target carefully and hope they fail their save, but boy can you create a lot of chaos in a social interaction, and set the stage for a big advantage in combat. I think this is supposed to model the way Grima Wormtongue controls Theoden. It does a great job of that, but… ew, I don’t want to see Grima as anyone’s PC.
- It’s also interesting to see, in a rare case, that this mind-altering effect explicitly covers its tracks and leaves no memory of influence.
- Mantle of Whispers is the really creepy one. First, you murder someone. Then you pocket its shadow for a little while, and you can use its shadow as a very good disguise and a source of all surface-level information. Fortunately, you don’t learn secrets, so this isn’t speak with dead cranked up to 11. The level of social-manipulation and murder-mystery shenanigans you can create with this feature is well-nigh unfathomable, as long as all of the pieces of your plan don’t need you in “costume” for more than hour. (I mean, sure, you can just disguise self or whatever after that.) This is seriously sinister and I love it, but this might be too dark even for your average antihero.
- Shadow Lore is magical intimidation for bringing someone into line for a nice long duration. It’s the charmed condition (so a lot of potential targets are immune), plus a lot of peripheral benefits like obedience out of fear and the extortion of material goods (“favors and gifts it would offer a close friend”). The text doesn’t say that immunity to the frightened condition affects this, but it mentions fear repeatedly. As I keep saying with this subclass, this is super dark.
The College of Whispers is a fascinating design exercise, and it’s great that three of their four features are about social interaction rather than combat, but wow. This is the kind of character where you need a couple of showers after you play them, to get the slime off. I would allow this into a campaign only after a long talk with the player about their aims and expectations.
That’s it for Part One of what I expect will be a very long series. I have a lot of critiques here, but I’m excited about the great majority of what I see in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. The barbarian and bard subclasses spin their classes in directions we haven’t seen a dozen times before (once before, in the case of the College of Swords).
You could define a great campaign setting by throwing a lot of emphasis on which subclasses you allow and which ones you ban. For example, I can imagine some great, meaty conflicts in a setting where all members of the barbarian tribe (many of whom do not have the barbarian class) have to choose for themselves whether they follow the Totem Spirits, the Ancestors, or the Zealous Outsider Tradition. Members of the barbarian class within that tribe become leaders with these three groups, supported by other conceptually-appropriate classes. (For instance, the Totem Spirit types can look to my Spirit Domain for clerics, and the options for the Zealous Outsider Tradition pretty well write themselves.)
A bard-heavy campaign or storyline that pitted Lore, Glamour, and Whispers against one another would be amazing, all the more so when you draw in the Investigative rogue and either the Cavalier or Samurai fighter, if appropriate to the setting cultures. To put that another way, the first six subclasses seem determined to explode pre-conceived notions of what D&D is about, and that is all I can really want from a book that is pointedly not titled Player’s Handbook II.
Thanks for reading! Next time, I hope to cover cleric domains, druid circles, and possibly fighter archetypes found in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.