D&D 5eReviews

Xanathar’s Guide Breakdown, Part Six

After a month-and-a-bit to cover a few other things, I’m back to continue my deep dive into Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Today, I’ll finish up Chapter One with This Is Your Life and Racial Feats. On the plus side, this means I have time to play with the backstory generator a bit more. By the time I’m done with this article I’ll have two new characters ready to go in everything but stats.

Barbarians and Bards | Clerics, Druids, and Fighters | Monks and Paladins | Rangers and Rogues | Sorcerers, Warlocks, and Wizards | Backstory and Feats


This Is Your Life

It’s not easy to write an even halfway decent text on randomly generating character backgrounds. That’s a lot of evocative 2-3 sentence ideas to toss out all at once, and just between you and me… most people get lazy at around the halfway mark of filling it all in. I’m obviously not digging through every single item here, but I’ll randomly roll two characters and we’ll see if it makes anything interesting. It doesn’t pick my race, class, or background for me (outside of supplemental tables not really intended for that), though, so:

Gnome Rogue, Guild Artisan

  • Parents (88): I know who my parents are or were.
  • Birthplace (9): Home
  • Siblings (7, 1): 3 siblings
  • Birth Order (6, 9, 6): My first sibling is older than me. My second sibling is younger than me. My third sibling is older than me. That makes me the third of four.
    • I’m not detailing my siblings right now.
  • Family (21): I was raised by my paternal or maternal grandparents. Therefore I need to roll on the Absent Parents table.
    • Absent Parents (2, 4): One parent was imprisoned, enslaved, or otherwise taken away. The other parent disappeared to an unknown fate. Plot hooks, y’all.
  • Family Lifestyle (12): Modest. No modifier to the next roll.
  • Childhood Home (73): Large House. Well, for a gnome, that probably means a sprawling underground structure, crammed with my extended family.
  • Childhood Memories (13, plus an arbitrary +1 Cha modifier): I had several friends, and my childhood was generally a happy one. Starting to wonder if this gnome even understood that his parents were missing…
  • Guild Artisan Background (4): I was always good with my hands, so I took the opportunity to learn a trade. It’s the most obviously appropriate outcome on this chart, given what’s gone before.
  • Rogue (6): I’m a sucker for a shiny bauble or a sack of coins. Huh, a purely acquisitive drive is an interesting wrinkle here.
  • Life Events by Age (70, 7): I’m 41-50 years old, with 7 life events. This might take awhile.
  • First Life Event (28): I fell in love or got married. That may be another important NPC in my character’s life.
  • Second Life Event (50): I made a friend of an adventurer.
    • Alignment (6): Neutral evil. Well, this just got more interesting.
    • Class (55): Monk. Do what now?
    • Occupation (84): Politician or bureaucrat. Well, neutral evil is fitting in a little better.
    • Race (74): Dragonborn. Hokay.
  • Third Life Event (82): I had a supernatural experience. Glad to see one of the weirder tables get some use here!
    • Supernatural Events (42): I escaped certain death and believe it was the intervention of a god that saved me. That sounds pretty plausible as a quirk for a gnome rogue – thanking Garl Glittergold or Baravar Cloakshadow.
  • Fourth Life Event (97): I encountered something magical.
    • Arcane Matters (4): I drank a potion of the DM’s choice. Meh. This could be interesting, but it doesn’t sound super compelling right off the bat.
  • Fifth Life Event (53, 7): I spent time working in a job related to my background, and start the game with an extra 7 gold pieces. Nice to know this character had one normal day in his life.
  • Sixth Life Event (92): I committed a crime, or was wrongly accused of doing so. That’s rogues for you.
    • Crime (7): Extortion. I’m betting that my dragonborn buddy got me into this somehow.
  • Seventh Life Event (94, holy cats this dice roller is running high): Another crime or wrongful accusation.
    • Crime (4): Assault. I think I probably got arrested for assault when I went after my dragonborn “friend” for letting me take the fall for his racketeering.

This came together into a coherent story. I think this fellow tried and tried to ignore his greed and keep to the straight and narrow, but he got screwed over and went looking for revenge. Naturally, he hasn’t gotten it yet, and despite his best efforts, he’s spent a lot of the past several years in bad trouble with the law. Baravar Cloakshadow saved him once, but stopped saving him after that, and I’m guessing my character feels confused or guilty as a result.

Oh, and there are name generators at the back of the book! Let’s skip ahead to those (80, 8): Sapply Boondiggles. I can 100% promise you that this is a name I would never come up with on my own or voluntarily play. He goes by a nickname; I’d probably say “Boon” and call it a day.


Tiefling Paladin, Folk Hero

We’ll start with the name this time (98): Zepar. Close enough to an existing character I play that I wouldn’t use it, so… okay, sure, let’s make this a lady tiefling. Vepar it is. (Weary is sort of a strange “virtue” name, and no thanks.)

  • Parents (6): I know who my parents are or were.
    • Tiefling Parents (4): Both parents were humans, their infernal heritage dormant until I came along. Well, this is off to a heck of a start.
  • Birthplace (64): Carriage, cart, or wagon. That sounds like a birth that wasn’t going well and an unsuccessful race to the midwife – a pretty typical cursed tiefling origin.
  • Siblings (3, 2): 1d3 siblings results in 2.
  • Birth Order (10, 8): Two younger siblings. Either my mother survived that dangerous childbirth, or I have a stepmother to worry about.
  • Family (29): Adoptive family, same or different race. Okay, so my parents gave me up for adoption thanks to that scary being-a-tiefling thing? I’m probably going with that, but let’s see if the Absent Parent table suggests something more interesting. (Not likely. It’s only 4 items long.)
    • Absent Parent (1, 3): One died, one abandoned. Yeah, okay. That’s a death in childbirth, followed by my father abandoning me. Thanks for backing up the emergent story, dice! It also suggests I may not know about those younger siblings.
  • Family Lifestyle (4): Squalid. This doesn’t really need explanation.
  • Childhood Home (56, -20 from Family Lifestyle): Encampment or village in the wilderness. That could have been a lot worse! It might fold into Folk Hero nicely.
  • Childhood Memories (7 + an arbitrary 4 for Cha modifier): I had a few close friends and lived an ordinary childhood. I guess that village in the wilderness was surprisingly good for me – intensifying my dedication to protecting it, no doubt.
  • Folk Hero Background (1): I learned what was right and wrong from my family. Eh, the Folk Hero writeup has a more compelling table of its own.
  • Paladin (2): One of my ancestors left a holy quest unfulfilled, so I intend to finish that work. Sure, why not.
  • Life Events (25, 3): 21-30 years old, 3 life events. I was bracing myself to ignore the Current Age roll and stay well under 30, but the dice had the right idea.
  • First Life Event (65, 7): I spent time working in a job related to my background, and start with an extra 7 gold pieces. This is probably mucking out stables or sweeping ashes out of a fireplace, judging by the rest of the story.
  • Second Life Event (77): I went on an adventure! Honestly, just excited I get to roll on that table.
    • Adventures (8): I nearly died. I have nasty scars on my body, and I am missing bits. You know what, I think I’m missing a fair chunk of one horn, as well as 3 fingers. Ouch. This is not a promising start to my adventuring career!
  • Third Life Event (76): But I got right back on that horse and went on another adventure! RNG, has anyone ever told you you’re a little obsessed with some of these results?
    • Adventures (47): I was poisoned by a trap or monster! Oh noes!

This is a highly playable backstory, with a lot of good roleplaying grist. Two for two – I’m quite pleased with these results. Obviously not every character generated with these tables will come together so well, but then you can get a lot of mileage out of these tables without rolling for everything as I’ve done. Surf through them and see if anything catches your eye as a fun jumping-off point for a character. The Life Events tables are particularly compelling, while the background and class tables needed about 10% more flash. That said, there are companion tables for backgrounds and classes elsewhere, so these don’t need to be carrying that much of a load.


Racial Feats

These fifteen new feats target the Player’s Handbook races explicitly, as a piece of the metagame now that the VGtM races are available. Obviously, the Adventurer’s League Core + 1 rule wouldn’t allow you to combine a VGtM race and an XGtE feat, so we can also propose that they’re just declining to troll a major section of their base by writing feats that section of the base could never use. Anyway, it’s fifteen new feats, many of them available to more than one race.

Bountiful Luck pushes halflings’ racial luck to new levels, letting you briefly share your Lucky racial trait with nearby allies (and briefly shutting it off for you). You’ll feel great when this works, but I think there’s room to question whether it’s worth a precious feat. Admittedly, its chance to do something is magnified when any of your allies has advantage or disadvantage.

When I wrote about this feat in my UA breakdown, I said: “The one thing that bugs me: if the halfling has to spend a reaction, does that imply that, in an in-character way, the halfling controls the forces of chance? What does it look like when a halfling uses this feat? Their Lucky racial feature is easy to explain away as the universe bending to favor them, because it happens automatically, without effort from the halfling. Bountiful Luck requires some other story explanation, just because of it takes a reaction to use – so the halfling can’t be stunned or shocking-grasped or whatever. I also wonder how this will alter gameplay for players of halflings – will they avoid all other reactions on the off chance that they need to use this feat?” I think that question is still valid.

Dragon Fear lets you boost a core dragonborn ability score (Str, Con, or Cha) by 1, and gives you a frightening roar that costs your breath weapon activation. The great thing about this is that it targets creatures of your choice, rather than all creatures in the area. The downside is, of course, no effect at all on a successful save. Spending the same 1/short rest usage as a pre-existing feature is kinda disappointing.

Dragon Hide gives you some of the core dragon-like features that dragonborn have been missing: scales and claws, as well as another point in Str, Con, or Cha. The scales are functionally mage armor while you aren’t wearing armor; I’ll say that I think this AC calculation should work even when you’re wearing armor. That way, you could wear magical leather or studded leather and gain its bonuses to things that aren’t AC, while still calculating AC based on your scales. Wearing leather armor doesn’t turn off having scales, is my point. The claws are fine.

Interesting to see that Dragon Wings got clipped.

Drow High Magic lets drow use the longer list of innate spellcasting that they got in their earlier incarnations. Notably, the language used here is learn (spell name), which means that you have no problem fueling additional castings of those spells with any spell slots you might have. That’s also different wording than in the base Drow Magic racial feature.

Dwarven Fortitude grants dwarves more Con (because of course it does) and lets them dump hit dice for in-combat healing with the Dodge action. Dwarves don’t need short rests, because they live by Zombieland Rule #1. This is… fine I guess? Crazy good if you have a way to Dodge as a bonus action. It loses a lot of its draw if there’s a bard in the party, or if you have other characters (Battle Masters, monks, or warlocks, say) that are highly short-rest-dependent.

Elven Accuracy boosts your Dex or (casting attack stat), and lets you reroll a missed attack if you had advantage on that attack. This feat is open to elves or half-elves. I dislike this feat somewhat on principle, because I don’t think it says anything at all new about elves in general or as individuals. I saw it in use this past weekend with a warlock and his familiar. The familiar provided advantage with the Help action, while the warlock went to town with eldritch blast. It was fine in actual use, though I feel like it will slow down play a bit once the warlock is tossing 2+ blasts per action.

Side note: Like all feats open to elves, I’m happy to see some reason to be a high elf rather than an eladrin, if only to the choice stays valid.

Fade Away is the gnomish reflexive invisibility trick that I think we first saw with 3.5 whisper gnomes, maybe? It also boosts Dex or Int, as you might expect for gnomes. It’s a good panic-button defense if you get jumped and need to impose disadvantage on the rest of the creature’s attacks. It’s great for my guy Boon, as described above in this article, because invisibility as a reaction that doesn’t cost anyone’s Concentration? Oh yeah, let’s do this thing.

Fey Teleportation directly addresses the edge that UA eladrin have over high elves. You can spend a feat to get back on par! (While your eladrin counterpart spends a feat getting better-than-you again.) It also offers a point of Int or Cha and teaches you the Sylvan language, so it’s a solid buy, and even more so if you have some spell slots sitting around to fuel still more misty step spells.

Flames of Phlegethos (gesundheit!) is for tiefling fire casters. They cast fire real good, starting with an Int or Cha boost. If fireball is a mainstay of your arsenal, this feat is amazing: you get a boost to your average damage and a free short-term damage shield. If my tiefling wizard ever makes it to 8th level, I’ll be thinking about this one real hard, even though the damage shield loses just about all of its bite by that level.

Infernal Constitution sounds like a political joke waiting to happen, but actually it’s nothing to tiefl with. Er. Sorry. It’s a tiefling feat. Like the name suggests, Con boost. Also, the core diabolic resistance to cold and immunity to poison(ed) come through here as resistance and advantage on saves. I’m not sure there’s anywhere else you’re going to get two damage resistances with a single feat and other stuff to boot. This is probably a little too good as written, but if my game had tieflings I’d be willing to let a player buy it and see how it went.

Orcish Fury is for half-orcs. It grants a point of Str or Con, a 1/short rest damage boost, and an upgrade to Relentless Endurance. If you’re playing a half-orc weapon-wielder, I cannot imagine why you wouldn’t take this feat. Remember, rogues, anything that lets you attack as a reaction is your very best friend, because that’s how you double your Sneak Attack damage in a round.

Prodigy is for humans, half-elves, and half-orcs. It’s like a variant of Skilled (one skill, one tool, and one language) that also grants expertise in one skill. Voof. I mean, I appreciate that its restriction to just three races means it “had to” be arguably better than Skilled, but that’s a lot of stuff, and most classes don’t have any way to gain expertise in anything. It’s not game-breaking, but it does rattle the cages of some general design paradigms.

Second Chance is another feat for halflings, to give them another way to be lucky or evasive. There’s a point in Dex, Con, or Cha to go with it, but most importantly it lets you force rerolls on attacks. Critical hits come to mind. This feature also has an unusual refresh rate: short rests, and when you roll initiative the first time in a combat. I’m glad they remember that there can be incoming attacks that don’t involve a call for initiative rolls – traps, for instance.

Squat Nimbleness is for dwarves and Small races, opening the door for Small races outside the Player’s Handbook to take this feat (just not in the Adventurer’s League). A boost to Str or Dex, a speed boost to erase the normal speed “penalty” of dwarves and Small races, proficiency in Athletics or Acrobatics, and advantage to escape a grapple. Those last two together are a lot of help when dealing with grappling monsters. This feat looks like a winner for any Str or Dex-based character that qualifies. It also justifies its existence alongside Mobile a lot better than it once did.

Wood Elf Magic approximately does for wood elves what Drow High Magic does for dark elves, but with a druid-focused list. Importantly, it includes pass without trace, one of the most impressive low-level utility spells. (There’s nothing wrong with not already knowing how great pass without trace is, but now that you’ve read this, you’re no longer among the ranks of the benighted. It’s a totally dominating party Stealth buff that makes you immune to any nonmagical tracking.) Also, getting a druid cantrip is probably a huge deal for wood elf clerics, though the spells later on in this book shore up some of the gaps in the core list.

And that brings us to the end of racial feats. Overall I’d say that… judging feat design is still ridiculously hard. Only Flames of Phlegethos even begins to compete with the dominance of Great Weapon Master, Polearm Master, Sentinel, Sharpshooter, or Shield Master. None of them are quite the must-buy that War Caster is for some gameplay styles. Some are rare-use or situational (Bountiful Luck), and some leave a lot of common classes for that race out in the cold. I feel like Dragon Fear is way more of a side-grade to the dragonborn’s breath weapon than it really means to be. I want them to find a wider variety of themes to showcase in each race, especially half-orcs.

All things considered, the racial feats look pretty good to me. Unlike when writing most of the rest of this breakdown series to date, I re-read my UA: Feats for Races Breakdown commentary, to think about what had changed. There are clear improvements in a bunch of feats, and most of the less-appealing feats got cut. The massive proliferation of expertise features got cut back to one. Iterative design, A+.

Next time, we’ll start in on Chapter 2: Dungeon Master’s Tools, which is full of modular rules and adjudication advice.