Continuing our review of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, we discuss Chapter 2: Dungeon Master’s Tools. This section takes up another third of the 192-page supplement with nearly 60 pages of content ranging from rule modifications, new uses of tools, sub-paragraphs covering burning questions that seem have been made frequent to the developers such as Jeremy Crawford, Chris Perkins, and Mike Mearls. Spellcasting received some new interaction rules, clarifications on how to quantify and measure area of effects, polished rules on building combat encounters, and tables of random encounters based on environment and level tiers. There is a nice section of new trap ideas and designing traps of various degrees of complexity.

Downtime activities are seriously addressed, both from an Adventure League perspective but also from a game mechanics perspective along with ideas on crafting rivalries. Crafting Magic Items finally has more mechanical applications though does not address the underlying problem of magic items, wealth, and influence in the game itself. There is a new way to reward magic items (which I have taken a particular interest, see more below). There are some new magic items, but almost all of them are parlor tricks at best. One thing that any Dungeon Master will appreciate will be the magic item tables that group them by rarity and whether or not they’re classified as minor or major magical items.

There are some considerable ideas and inspiration for any Dungeon Master to draw from this section of the book, which should be emphasized to be “guidelines” and alternative rule suggestions and not some unbreakable law of gameplay. Dungeon Masters are the final authority for judgment of enforcing rules and mechanics, content written in official sources should and are considered to be guidelines at best. This is an important distinction to make when you’re running your own games. Additionally, these rules may or may not have implications for the Adventurer’s League gameplay as these are treated as optional rules more so than actual rules of play.

Reviews of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything:
Class Options Pt 1 | Class Options Pt 2 | Class Options Pt 3 | Spells

Custom Rule Alternatives – Who follows the rules anyway?

We have some modifications to Falling, especially when dealing with flight, descent apparently was an issue, and instead of doing complicated physics equations, we have a rough ruling to help expedite the process. Granted, falling damage is supposed capped at 20d6, with a 1d6 of damage per 10 feet you fall. It’s doubtful a creature will survive past a 500-foot fall, as a Dungeon Master, that’s a personal choice to just ignore the original rule and either deal 50d6 worth of damage or write it off as instantaneous death.

The rules for Sleep seems an out of place section, but I’m going to assume that the issue of sleep and awareness has been brought up a lot more than suspected. Tying Knots as an alternative rule, however, seems quite fun and exciting to implement as it links Intelligence to Sleight of Hand. I honestly use non-traditional skill checks like Dexterity (Arcana) for a caster using mage hand or something like that. It removes the ability to metagame and makes my skill challenges much more unique.

The most prominent highlight of the alternative rules section (at least for me) is the new uses for tools and tool proficiencies. Tools were an exciting flavor add-on for characters and useful for DMs when implementing skills checks like using an Intelligence check plus proficiency bonus when using cartographer’s tools to read a map or creating one. Giving examples of specific uses for these tools is an excellent aid for DMs especially if the character uses said tools often as part of their identity. I’m going to go over all of the tool proficiencies, but I appreciate the inclusion of the Cook’s Utensils, the fun with the Gaming Set (especially on cheating in a game) and Smith’s tools.

Spellcasting rules – Because remember 100+ pages of text wasn’t hard enough already

Some new spellcasting rules cropped up in this book, many of which answered one of the issues (from a narrative point of view) about spellcasters using counterspell to dispel an incoming spell. Ideally, a caster should identify the spell before determining whether or not to counter it; upon failure to counter it, the caster must declare which spell level slot they choose to expend. In such a scenario, they could waste a high-level slot for a low-level spell they couldn’t identify. While the chances of missing the check are unlikely, the chance to miss it is the essential factor. Some may consider this a bit underhanded for casters, but I honestly believe it serves to reduce metagaming. I personally used this alternative rule when I first started crafting my campaigns for Team BAJA, and it has helped me well. The DC is a lot higher than I personally expected but I made my more scalable with my NPCs than a static value, though to be fair, a 9th-level spell would need a DC 24 to identify it, which is questionably tricky. If we were to assume a +4 skill modifier & +6 proficiency bonus, that’s a +10 bonus to an Intelligence (Arcana) check at a minimum for a player character, which would require a sizable 14+ to identify the spell. That seems like a worthy challenge, I’m not sure I would agree with giving advantage on the check if the spell is within the character’s spell list, I would personally change it to advantage if the spell is already known to the character. That might require more work for the Dungeon Master, but honestly, it’s important for a DM to be aware of your player’s capabilities including spell choices.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide touched on areas of effect on a grid, and they are expanded upon with more illustrations with template methods to token methods which honestly do the same thing. Unfortunately, there are no specifics with Theater of Mind implementation which I felt was a missed opportunity. But from a profitability point of view, we got to see miniatures after all and therefore we try to ignore the existance of Theater of Mind as a term even though we have plenty of examples of Dungeon Masters on board media platforms using this style of DMing for many years now.

Encounter Building – the tragedy of numbers & underestimating class option capabilities

One aspect of Dungeons & Dragons that has plagued players and DMs has always been the delicate balance of challenge and empowerment. It’s crucial to make heroic classes feel and be powerful against foes, but it’s also important to have challenges that actually live up the capabilities of your playgroup. I’ve discussed my issues with encounter building (click here) and while the rules were presented in a previous Unearthed Arcana article (which I did not review), I feel this is a critical opinion I need to state: the design philosophy of 5th Edition D&D assumes a sporadic distribution of magical items. Always keep that statement in mind when selecting monsters and creatures. If you’re playing a high magic fantasy setting (like mine), the original math and encounter building is practically useless to you and will not provide an adequate gauge of a challenge. As it was stated in Xanthar’s Guide, it’s essential for any DM to gauge the damage output of your party, the healing capabilities, the tanking capabilities (including AC and hit points). These sort of factors will give you a better analysis of what should provide a challenge for your party versus something subpar. There’s a new way to gauge solo monster encounters, but honestly, unlike in 4th Edition (I know, I know but bear with me), which supported solo monster encounters, there is only partial support in 5th Edition. I usually homebrew legendary actions, and lair effects for my solo boss or monster encounter to give me more options against the plethora of choices the players receive from their classes.

I’m not a big fan of random encounters, EVER. That said, I do understand the simplicity of having preestablished encounters based on the level tier of the party. BUT my one issue will always be the excessive need for preparation for random encounters versus meaningful ones. If you’re going to use random encounters in an environment, I would suggest keeping the list concise and that if you’re going to have such entities interact with the party, it should fit within the logic of the area. Also, I should note that jungle environments were overlooked again. Jungles are not the same as forests, I just wanted to point that out.

Make better and deadlier traps – Just hire a kobold instead

When traps were given a board stroke in the Dungon Master’s Guide, I was shocked at the lack of content. Granted, traps are based on personal taste and flair more so than having examples drafted for you. But there were very little ways to help new DMs craft their own traps or at least provide a framework to making them. Now I understand that in older editions of D&D when new DMs were plagued by tables and charts, and while it’s nerve-wracking at times, sometimes it’s useful to have guidelines to build ideas from. That said, I enter the trap making portion of this review with mixed emotions of satisfaction and weariness. This section is amazingly useful and handy for providing benchmarks for DMs when crafting traps either ahead or on the fly, but I should warn that players one way or another will always find a creative solution to circumventing your traps and obstacles. My advice: keep the traps to a handful, and you’ll save yourself a lot of agony

Downtime activities – In-between adventures & magic items mischief 

The Downtime Activities section provides a plethora of ways for characters to spend their time between adventures, gaining proficiencies, and even training. The real highlights are buying magical items and crafting magical items, Wizards of the Coast’s design philosophy has been rather adamant about sporadic magic item distribution (which I discuss in another post here). I want to point out that the Forgotten Realms (the child campaign setting that 5th Editions is deeply rooted) has a strong tradition of magical items.

The mechanics of buying magical items offers complications and finding quality sellers, which was previously stated in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The player can spend time and gold to improve their check which enhances their chances of acquiring better items. There is a clause for adjusting the check based on the potency of magic in your campaign setting, which makes even the most ordinary magical items feel rare and exotic. I really enjoy the magic item complication, especially if they find very rare or legendary items; all of which provide a great hook for an adventure. Even rare items like swords can be handy to craft into a story.

The most anticipated rule is crafting magic items, more so than buying magic items. In previous editions, purchasing or crafting magic items resulted in a slew of min-max gameplay and an over-reliance on optimization, which is understandable why Wizards of the Coast has taken a very conservative approach on magic items. Offering these rules as optional rules remove the implication of making them into core rules which personally fits within the overall philosophy of 5th Edition. In the magic item crafts, you have times and monetary costs for creating kits, potions, and actual items. Legendary items take 50 weeks or roughly a year to build with a sizeable fortune that most civilizations could barely afford. I do enjoy the magic crafting complications, especially for the higher rarity items, that would provide a great quest or adventure side hook.

Moving from downtime activities, I’m going to tie-in the alternative rules for rewarding magic items (as discussed here), ironically a lot of the implementations fall in line to my personal suggestions of distribution by rarity within tiers. Having major or minor items does alter some of my own math, but it offers a balanced distribution of items. Though I still believe that personal adjustments should be tailored by the DM based on their setting. In a lower magic setting, it’s more probable that legendary items are seldom present or barely exist at all while high-magic fantasy settings are expected to possess more instances of items. The separation of minor and major magical items could be better described as minor having mostly consumables with some gear that only offer non game-changing effects while major magic items are stat related and usually all gear.

Final Impressions

The DM Tools offer a wide variety of ideas and alternative rules that many DMs, I feel, have already implemented into their own games. While these rules are considered optional and therefore not core rules (and should not be treated as such), they do provide some spice in the regular gameplay. Consider these extra rules as D&D 5e+ while the core rules (PHB & DMG) as D&D 5e Basic. The reason for 5th Edition’s success stems from its accessibility for new players and Dungeon Masters, Xanathar’s Guide provides depth and complexity for more veteran groups and those seeking mechanics to facilitate their storytelling with less improvisation from the DM. Improvisation is a skill many DMs will use and being prepared with knowledge can help alleviate moments of being awestruck. One important thing that needs to be reiterated: “these are guidelines.” Try not to take these alternative rules to heart, if you don’t like them, you do not have to use them (the same goes for most of the core rules too).

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