D&D 5eReviews

Xanathar’s Guide Breakdown, Part Eleven

Here I’d been thinking I’d be writing a UA breakdown this week, but no. I don’t think you really need me to tell you what goes on with one page of character development tables for duergar from Mordenkainen’s Burn Book. (Anyone who keeps a Tome of Foes is skating way too close to Richard Nixon for comfort.) Anyway, let’s hit it with some more spells.

Barbarians and Bards
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Thirty-eight spells to go. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

Power Word Pain (Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard): I feel like spells that are about speaking WORDS OF POWER (tee em) should really go to the bard, too. Like other power words (other than power word heal), this uses a hit point threshold and either instantly works (no save) or does nothing at all. I still don’t understand why they like this mechanic – there’s so little transparency for players that it’s a great chance to see a precious 7th-level spell slot go nowhere. Also, immunity to the charmed condition – one of the most common immunities, among monsters – solves this spell completely. The effect is suitably debilitating, though you can shake it off with a successful end-of-turn saving throw. The best part is that your target has to pass a Con save just to cast a spell, to say nothing of maintaining concentration.

Primal Savagery (Druid): New druid attack cantrips are good to see. This one is particularly on-theme for Circle of the Moon druids who have run out of Wild Shape uses. Sure, it’s melee range, but d10 damage scaling is nice to see. I think there’s probably a melee Pact of the Tome warlock that gets good mileage out of this too, somehow.

Primordial Ward (Druid): Providing a kind of counterpoint to the investiture spells, but only for druids, this is strong but short-term broad-spectrum defense against the more elemental damage types, and you can dismiss it for immunity to one damage type until the end of your next turn. Finally, a kind of immunity I am completely on board with! Also, remember how much I liked the dismissal effect on holy weapon? It’s great here too. If anything, I’m just sad to this is as self-only and requiring concentration – I think that with the short duration and such, they could have improved this spell just a little bit more, in some area.

Psychic Scream (Bard, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard): There’s a new sheriff in town when it comes to 9th-level attack spells. Sure, it deals the book’s recommended damage for a 9th-level spell and not the much higher damage of meteor swarm, but it targets creatures of your choice in a huge area, and it stuns the targets until they pass a save. Sure, a lot of what you’re fighting at 17th+ level spends a use of Legendary Resistance and moves on with eating your face, but if that doesn’t happen, this can be a serious fight-ender. Look out for it in enemy hands, because it could lock down most of a party in a single action.

Quick note on meteor swarm: So uh, 14d6 expectation, versus 40d6 output? Sure, it’s hard to use in close fighting, but why even have guidelines if you’re going to include spells that deal 285% of the suggested damage? It’s one thing to have a signature spell be a little more appealing, but let’s find some perspective here.

Pyrotechnics (Bard, Sorcerer, Wizard): This brings back a spell from the 3.5 SRD, known in earlier editions (I think) as affect normal fires. (It’s a good change, even better than changing to Latrine from Shithouse.) Anyway, it’s always been a tough spell to use well, because it’s just not common enough for enemies to be very close to an area of nonmagical fire. A 10-foot-radius blinding effect is great, don’t get me wrong, and turning your target’s light into a smoke bomb is great too, but unless you can throw a torch into the midst of your enemies before casting, it’s going to stay all too corner-case.

Scatter (Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard): I’m a little surprised this isn’t a bard spell, thinking back to some of the hostile teleportation effects of 4e. This spell is sort of a teleportation bomb, letting you rearrange nearby enemies around a much larger area. You still have to have a clear view of the destination spaces, but if there’s a Cavalier in the party, they’ll love you for surrounding them with foes. In short, this is an unbelievably versatile way to set up lots of horrible things happening to your enemies. It’s also potentially a great villain getaway spell, teleporting some or all of the PCs to the other side of a chasm or the bottom of a 120-foot deep pit… or to the other side of a wall of force. One of the best all-purpose 6th-level spells I’ve seen.

Shadow Blade (Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard): Even if this isn’t a general bard spell, the College of Whispers needs this one bad. It gives you a new melee and ranged attack option, not unlike the core concept of the Soul Knife mystic. If you’re a Shadow sorcerer, you owe it to yourself to at least see what kind of fun you can have with this spell. (To the Shadow sorcerer in my game, you have permission to respend Spells Known and pick this up immediately, if you wish.) It’s also great in the hands of a Pact of the Blade warlock with Thirsting Blade. For an Eldritch Knight, it costs a precious non-abjuration, non-evocation Spell Known, but you’re talking about a +d8 psychic damage add for a minute of attacks. Do eet.

Shadow of Moil (Warlock): My take on this spell is that it is the dark fire wielded by the Flame of Udûn, except that it looks like it does a better job against the Flame of Anor than Durin’s Bane did. Gandalf probably has some feature that lets him ignore resistance to radiant damage. Anyway, this is a warlock-only damage shield that also dims the light around you – go ahead and buy Devil’s Sight first. Otherwise, this looks like a pretty good spell for front-line warlocks, so long as their party members won’t get screwed by the darkness.

Shape Water (Druid, Sorcerer, Wizard): This is an elemental non-attacking cantrip like any other, except that fire elementals have an unusual trait: Water Susceptibility. “For every 5 feet the elemental moves in water, or for every gallon of water splashed on it, it takes 1 cold damage.” Dan Dillon, Dan Dan the Ranger Fan, brought this issue up over in Twitter, and the response came down to “fire elementals should avoid being instantly killed by the shape water cantrip by making sure they are far from water.” This is what one can gently call the non-answer, since adventure writers have manifestly not approached level design on this assumption. The second bullet – animating water for up to an hour – suggests that even this would not be enough. Better answer: allow the fire elemental a Dex save to avoid significant, but not instantly lethal, damage.

Sickening Radiance (Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard): Man oh man, if you want a demonstration for why weird isn’t kicking out enough damage or effects, compare it to this spell – five spell levels lower. This is a long-duration zone (10 minutes!) rather than a concentration area effect. Potentially stacking up multiple levels of exhaustion, especially if you use allies and forced movement to push enemies back into the zone, make this spell hilariously overpowered – stacking up enough exhaustion to kill a creature looks feasible. Sure, it takes a lot of failed saves, but still. It’s well below the expected damage for a 4th-level spell that doesn’t deal damage on a successful save, but the lengthy duration, large area, and secondary effect more than make up for it. I’m going to call it “borderline OP.”

Skill Empowerment (Bard, Sorcerer, Wizard): For a +2 to +6 bonus to a skill, a 5th-level slot seems awfully high to me. I dunno. It’s also constrained to things you’re already reasonably good at doing. I am glad this effect is available in a spell, but with concentration requirement and the limitations on how you can use it, this seems too constrained to me.

Skywrite (Bard, Druid, Wizard): When you need a daytime signal visible for miles around, this is a great choice. Interesting that it’s a ritual; disappointing that it requires concentration. It puts me in mind of large-scale combats I’ve seen in games, and I assume it would quickly lead to players using it to troll enemy commanders. Two casters could communicate over a distance of a dozen or more miles with this spell, ten words per ten minutes. Presumably German is an ideal language here.

Snare (Druid, Ranger, Wizard): This is a great spell for preparing for a fight, with a long casting time and long duration. The restrained condition is good enough that, if you’re sure there will be creatures to trigger it, it’s a good use of every 1st-level spell slot you can get your hands on. It’s a little surprising to me that it uses Intelligence (Investigation) to detect it – I like that, but I feel like Wisdom (Perception) gets used for trap detection almost exclusively. Anyway, solid spell, and a spell theme I’ve played with a bit in the past but never fully refined.

Snilloc’s Snowball Swarm (Sorcerer, Wizard): Another edition-by-edition recurring spell, I think I first saw this one in Pages from the Mages, which means that an Alert Reader may well come along and tell me the 1e-era Dragon Magazine where it really first appeared. It’s another improvement to the way that 2nd-level spells typically lack direct damage. At the same time, I seem to recall that it’s always been a little disappointing on damage output – I can’t guess why it deals 1d6 less damage than the Spell Damage table suggests for area spells. Maybe WotC is trying to tell us something about Snilloc’s general competence?

Soul Cage (Warlock, Wizard): I’m always a fan of turning dead enemies into creepy magical effects. This spell offers four different options, and you can use the soul six times among those options. It’s an outstanding source of self-healing (12d8 for a 6th level spell), by the standards of the warlock and wizard spell lists, so the synergy with life transference is great. Or it’s speak with dead, or a source of advantage, or a proxy clairvoyance. The first three effects are great, but they’re all things you can do some other way; the last feels like a clever workaround for one of the main limitations of clairvoyance. (Also it grants both visual and auditory info.) My favorite part is how it represents a haunting. In short, I love this spell.

Steel Wind Strike (Ranger, Wizard): I feel like there are a lot of sorcerers and warlocks who need this spell too. Probably bards as well. Anyway, this is a pseudo-area effect that could kick out a ton of damage if you’re facing five or more opponents. Its expected damage is about 5 points higher than the table suggests. Making this a melee spell attack makes it much better for wizards than for rangers, since (as we’ve discussed) it’s so hard for rangers to push their Wisdom as high as a primary spellcaster would. I like that we’re giving rangers more spells! But stop making them so substandard when applied to ranger ability scores, or let rangers make melee weapon attacks rather than spell attacks.

Storm Sphere (Sorcerer, Wizard): This is yet another form of spending a spell to turn your bonus action into solid damage output; this version has a 1-minute duration, requires concentration, and doesn’t have a usage limit other than its duration. I feel like I need to build a comparison chart of all the different spells that do this. The terrain effects here are less damaging overall, but the spell still rewards you for keeping enemies in the spell area. Impressive, but moderately complicated.

Summon Greater Demon (Warlock, Wizard): Another in the vein of low-control sinister conjurations, much like infernal calling. There are a lot of different failure states here, but it’s not doomed outright: if you can get an enemy to attack the demon and stay within the demon’s reach, you don’t need to give it any further orders (or allow the demon further saves to escape your control). This spell is full of story, and I dig it. The downside of this and all spells that conjure creatures from the Monster Manual is that making decisions requires some working knowledge of the Monster Manual. These spells are definitely not for low-to-medium-engagement players.

Summon Lesser Demons (Warlock, Wizard): This spell offers less control than summon greater demon in every element. It’s more like lobbing an Abyssal hand grenade that explodes into random low-end demons. As long as you summon the demons on the other side of the ranks of your enemies, they’ll probably die before getting to you; also, you can just end concentration to get rid of them. Again, fairly risky for any allies you have on the field, but pretty cool. There’s also an implied tactical solution to fighting against this spell: if you can put more distance between you and the demon than between the demon and the caster, preferably also defacing the caster’s protective circle on the way out, you can break their aggro against you.

Synaptic Static (Bard, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard): This is a psychic fireball followed by a sort of unusual debuff: instead of disadvantage, it applies a -1d6 penalty to a bunch of things. Looks like it could be a devastating opening-round spell. Also, I’m glad to see the school of Enchantment get a nasty attack spell, and one that isn’t shut down by immunity to the charmed or frightened conditions. (I mean, psychic scream is also Enchantment, but 9th-level spells are waiting too long to solve the problem.)

Temple of the Gods (Cleric): This does for clerics what mighty fortress does for wizards. If it’s wizards and not clerics that get a mighty fortress, I have to wonder if there just aren’t any Lutherans working for WotC these days. Ahem. This is an interesting, cool spell that provides convincing protection against many kinds of high-level threats: scrying, ethereal intrusion, and hordes of celestials, elementals, fey, fiends, or undead. Someone who knows the trick to destroying it can still destroy it, probably, but everything needs some weakness. I’m a fan.

Tenser’s Transformation (Wizard): Making this wizard-only feels like giving wizards a weird, unlisted class feature… that will be far more appealing to a bard’s Magical Secrets feature anyway (since they’re more likely to have good stats for weapon attacks). As Tenser’s transformation has always done, this spell gives you a tool in your arsenal against magic-immune creatures – rare in 5e, but extant. Finally, if you get your hands on gauntlets of ogre strength or a belt of giant strength, then I guess you’ve finally got the perfect use for it.

Thunderclap (Bard, Druid, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard): A point-blank AoE attack cantrip? Don’t see a lot of those. This shouldn’t be anyone’s go-to, but it’s a decent second or third attack cantrip once you’ve got all the utility cantrips your party needs you to take. A melee bard, druid, or warlock might find a way to move it up in priority, but its best-case user is Magic Initiate or an Eldritch Knight. (Note to self, remember this spell next time my EK gets to choose a new cantrip.)

Thunder Step (Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard): An attack spell that is also a decently long combat teleport? This is one of the greatest panic-button spells I’ve seen. It pays a fairly steep price on damage output – 16.5 versus an expected 21 – but as a whole package, I love it. I expect most sorcerers and wizards want this one, and only the tight warlock Spells Known limit brings that into question for them.

Tidal Wave (Druid, Sorcerer, Wizard): This area effect damaging spell has an unusual shape and knocks targets prone on a failed save. It weighs in at 3 points below the chart’s target, which prone probably makes up for in a hurry if your melee buddies act before the creature has a chance to stand.

Tiny Servant (Wizard): I’m gonna just leave this here. You’re not casting this spell for its combat effectiveness or its capacity to solve any remotely likely problem. You’re casting this spell because you have a soul and you know that it’ll be fun. If I were playing a Transmuter, I would chase this spell; otherwise, I’d wait and see if it fell into my lap, but I’d be happy to have it.

Toll the Dead (Cleric, Warlock, Wizard): This is another one that is weird to not give to bards. It has a musical component! It’s also a great high-damage option for warlocks who declined Agonizing Blast on principle, god bless them. It’s also competitive with fire bolt for a wizard’s go-to attack cantrip.

Transmute Rock (Druid, Wizard): This brings transmute rock to mud and its reverse back into the game. These have always been major terrain-control spells with a lot of potential for havoc, and that’s still true here. I like the breadth of potential applications, though it feels like you’re paying a higher spell slot level than necessary for the privilege. One of the most important things to see here is the duration – no concentration here, just “until dispelled.” I foresee wizards building bridges over chasms with this, just to screw over anyone with the temerity to roll up on them with an antimagic field running.

Vitriolic Sphere (Sorcerer, Wizard): This is to fireball what Melf’s acid arrow is to scorching ray: some sacrifice of up-front damage for a nice second-round effect, coming to a total of 37.5 average damage. Its first-round damage covers the expected output for a 4th-level area spell, so the second round is just bonus. There’s a useful benchmarking lesson in that.

Wall of Light (Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard): If you can tell me, in thematic terms, why this is a warlock spell and not a cleric spell, I would love to hear it. I’m also in some perplexity as to how this fits into the early design remarks about not giving warlocks excessively complicated spells of 5th level and below, because Pact Magic means they’ll be casting them all the time. In any case, this is a wall of fire that decided to eat its Wheaties or burn them to a crisp or whatever walls of fire do with bowls of celebrity-endorsed cereal. As with most wall spells, it’s a great way to divide a party or make your getaway, if they can’t just laugh off 4d8 damage. It also gives you a new at-will attack action that slowly consumes the wall. That’s a lot of fiddly management, but it is really neat, so as long as it’s not in every combat, I like it.

Wall of Sand (Wizard): I am sure I don’t know why this doesn’t go to druids too. It creates a hindrance, eating up 30 feet of movement and blocking line-of-sight teleports, but deals no damage in itself. It feels like a good gimmick for a desert-themed wizard, but it’s forgettable for most other situations. I salute the party that successfully uses this to pull off defeat-in-detail against big groups of foes.

Wall of Water (Druid, Sorcerer, Wizard): This spell seems like an unnecessarily complicated way to create difficult terrain and impose disadvantage on ranged attacks. Its best-case scenario is instantly killing a whole lot of fire elementals, I guess, but beyond that, it really wants you to fight creatures that only have ranged fire attacks. I expect that in most situations, you had something better you could have done with this spell slot, both in spell preparation and in casting. Of the XGTE walls, it’s the only one that can go taller than 10 feet, though the wall of light can float in midair at any elevation.

Warding Wind (Bard, Druid, Sorcerer, Wizard): Disadvantage on ranged attacks is still going strong as an effect. It’s an interesting metagame element: melee attackers have to worry about opportunity attacks, damage auras, damage shields, and a lot of other adjacent or close-range monster features. All of these things influence their play, and “influencing their play” ultimately means either costing them hit points or reducing their damage output. For archers, it’s almost all on reducing their damage output with widespread disadvantage. There are a few other beneficial effects, as well as the mixed blessing of temporary deafening. This is one of the lowest-level defenses against ranged attacks of this kind that we’ve seen, so it’s a good purchase for when you need it.

Watery Sphere (Druid, Sorcerer, Wizard): This strange spell is the same level as Otiluke’s resilient sphere, but offers a different set of tradeoffs. It’s less of a hamster ball, and it’s more escapable, but it can hold more creatures, and it restrains them for the duration. It’s… probably useful in slightly more situations than Otiluke’s rubbery balls, but you’re still working pretty hard to get as much mileage out of this as other 4th-level spells.

Whirlwind (Druid, Sorcerer, Wizard): This is another area effect spell that kicks out plenty of damage and forced movement. It can also restrain targets. It creates tons and tons of chaos for enemy formations, unless they are Huge or larger, or can stay ahead of it. This spell is involved enough that it would probably give me a headache every time it got cast, but overall it’s probably fine; situations where it’s the right way to go are hardly universal.

Word of Radiance (Cleric): I’m glad to see clerics get two new attack cantrips, since sacred flame is pretty underwhelming. This does for clerics, with radiant damage, what thunderclap does for everyone else. Clerics who belong in melee are more common than some of the classes that get thunderclap, though, and it’s limited to creatures of your choice. So, a strong second attack cantrip (right after you have toll the dead, guidance, and probably light).

Wrath of Nature (Druid, Ranger): This turns natural, plant-covered terrain into your favored murder weapon. It has a lot of different effects, mostly on your turn, and it cares about positioning of each tree in the area. As with other ranger spells, it really wants a solid Wisdom bonus to boost that save DC, but maybe that’s something you’ve handled by the time you’re casting 5th-level ranger spells. As long as you’re in suitable terrain, it’s probably one of the most entertaining druid spells available.

Zephyr Strike (Ranger): This is a great movement buff to help rangers be better skirmishers. It also offers a one-off attack and damage bonus. This is a great pick for rangers, which is not a phrase I get to use often.

That brings us to the end of the spells, and I don’t have anything meaningful to offer on the Appendix A: Shared Campaigns rules. Any application I could imagine having for these rules would work completely differently, because I don’t share the fundamental concerns of the Adventurer’s League. That’s not a slam, just an unrelated set of goals.

Appendix B: Character Names gets a thumbs-up from me. I’ve heard a lot of grumbling about it, on the principle that some other content could have hypothetically filled these pages. I would counter by suggesting that XGTE already has a higher density of useful content than probably any other splatbook I’ve ever seen. Secondly, “go find a name generator online” is a crummy answer if you don’t know for sure the needs of DMs and players – many groups still play without tablets at the table. I absolutely had a player grab dragonborn names from this section a couple of weeks ago. For the Human Names section, at worst it’s an unsubtle reminder of Torilian multiculturalism (which has been canon since forever).



Well, it only took me eleven articles to cover all of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. It is… not perfect; there are core problems that I think they missed a chance to address, and minor issues here and there. Overall, though? This is a great book, head and shoulders better than any splatbook I can recall in all of D&D’s history. (Not including setting books or boxed sets.) I’ll grant that there may be some strong competition along the way – Book of Nine Swords and anything named Tome of Magic, take a bow – but until further notice, I’m standing by that judgment.

Best non-core-three, non-setting book of rules content in D&D history.