Spoiler-Free Review – Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos

Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos is the latest Dungeons & Dragons x Magic: The Gathering book. But unlike its crossover predecessors, it is not a setting book. Or, at least, not entirely a setting book. The book presents itself as a series of adventures, but it’s not entirely that either. Rather, Strixhaven is part setting book, part rules framework, and part adventure book – all focused on the wizarding school of Strixhaven.

Characters in Strixhaven are essentially first-year college students at a magical academy. They will go to class, make friends and rivals, get into mischief and, of course, end up having to look into some ominous goings-on at the school. With extensive emphasis on non-combat activity, Strixhaven might be the the D&D 5E book that is most divorced from traditional, old-school gameplay. It also, not coincidentally, probably requires more from the DM than any other D&D 5E book. But if you’ve got a DM who’s up to the challenge of creating a lot of social and academic scenes, then Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos lays the groundwork for a fantastic adventure.

As noted in the title, this is a spoiler-free review, so I’m not going to delve into the details of what takes place in the adventure. I will, however, talk about how the adventure in Strixhaven ties into certain school tropes. To make the obvious Harry Potter comparison, it would be like discussing Hogwarts and talking about how, over the course of the adventure, the students will visit the library, find secret rooms, play a broom-flying sport, go to a dance, and complete in a inter-school magical competition. If you truly want to have no clue about even that sort of generality, you’ll want to tune out.

The School of Strixhaven

Strixhaven is a mage college. In Magic: The Gathering it is set on a particular plane, but that’s entirely irrelevant for using the school in a D&D game. Instead, it will be located wherever you need it, to the extent that it matters at all (because the characters start out at the school, what world its set on mostly matters for deep character backgrounds, not for anything that happens during the adventure). If you must choose, I suggest placing Strixhaven in the multiversal hub city of Sigil … but that’s just because I will use any chance I can get to mention Planescape. This lets characters be from anywhere and gives them a convenient way to go to and from home if need be.

The school of Strixhaven is divided into five colleges (because MTG). In MTG terms, each college is an ‘enemy’ two-color pair. In more philosophical terms, each college represents a way of taking opposite sides of a debate and making them work together. Each college has two deans, with each dean representing one half of that dichotomy. Significantly, the colleges are not just about magic. Each college is is also centered around real-world subjects (this isn’t like Harry Potter where the students never takes classes in math or literature). Very briefly, the five colleges are:

  • Lorehold: School for history, anthropology, and other social sciences. Their dichotomy is Order/Chaos, which tends to manifest in how much military history matters and whether history is dictated by wide-scale trends or the actions of individuals.
  • Prismari: This is the art school (except for theater). Their dichotomy of Expression/Perfection tends to manifest in debates over technique vs. raw emotion.
  • Quandrix: Here’s where you go for math (Quandrix is probably the weakest of the schools at embodying both colors). Their dichotomy of Theory/Substance tends to manifest in debates about whether mathematics exists in the world and is waiting to be discovered, or whether it is a construct of the mind.
  • Silverquill: The school for literature, theater, and other forms of communication. Their dichotomy is Radiance/Shadow, which tends to manifest in whether words are being used to uplift or cut down.
  • Witherbloom: Biology, chemistry, and other life sciences. Their dichotomy of Growth/Decay focuses on different aspects of the cycle of life and death. Note that this does include necromancy, which is de facto not necessarily evil here (like all of the schools, the faculty at Witherbloom ranges from Neutral to Good).

Because this is a school and Magic is all about cycles, there are a number of aspects that run across all five colleges, in addition to the paired deans. For example, each college was founded by an elder dragon (which matters not at all, except that the book gives stat blocks for them). Each college also has a mascot creature, which is the sort of thing that comes up in daily life on a college campus. Personally, my favorite is Prismari, because their mascot is an art elemental.

Physically, Strixhaven is arranged as a hub-and-spokes, with each college having a campus at the end of a spoke. In the center is the main campus, and at the center of that is the Biblioplex, the library and center of campus life. First-year students all live on the main campus. It is only starting their second year that students select a college and move to that respective campus. One challenge to be navigated in running a Strixhaven adventure will be maintaining party cohesion after the first year, when by default students won’t all be living in the same place.

I mentioned earlier that this is a college for mages. One might ask who counts as a mage. Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos tries to give a fairly broad answer to that, but you’ll probably have a better experience if you use a narrower one. The book does say that students should have something to do with magic, but the reality is that an Ancestral Guardian barbarian or an Arcane Thief rogue just don’t work with the notion of a magical school in the way that something like a wizard does. Tellingly, the book provides stat blocks for generic members of each college at different experience levels, and every single one of them is a wizard, sorcerer, bard, or druid. Personally, I would recommend restricting character creation to only full spellcasting classes. This class imbalance might be an issue in a traditional dungeon crawl, but Strixhaven isn’t that sort of adventure.

Character Options and Rules Frameworks

There are several rules aspects that work together to embody academic and social activities of Strixhaven – new super-backgrounds tied into the colleges, rules for relationships, rules for classes, and rules for extracurriculars/jobs.

Let’s start with the backgrounds. Each of them provides the normal array of background benefits (some proficiencies, some gear), but each of the mechanical boosts is getting to add two spells at each level to the character’s spell list (non-spellcasters just don’t get anything). These can be quite potent, allowing characters to play broader roles in combat than they otherwise would by adding healing magic or good damage spells to class lists that otherwise wouldn’t have them. Each of these backgrounds also gives the character a feat (Strixhaven Initiate), which gives the character two cantrips (based on their college) and a 1st-level spell (of their choice from one of two specified class lists). Unlike the college backgrounds, these spells aren’t limited by an existing class, so even the most generic of fighters will get some magic (the 1st-level spell can be cast once per day, on top of whatever spellcasting the character already has). One potential issue with these backgrounds is that they have to be chosen before the character actually joins a school. You could potentially move selection of these backgrounds until the end of first year, but that’s at fourth level, and these mage school characters probably want those extra spell options up front.

All of the other frameworks can are tracked on a character’s “report card” – relationships, classes, extracurriculars, and jobs. Whenever a PC interacts with an NPC student, they can gain (or lose) relationship points. If this score gets high enough the characters become friends, and the PC gains a ‘bond boon’ from the NPC – typically a purely social benefit that is defined individually for each NPC. If the score becomes low enough, the characters become rivals, and the PC gets a ‘bond bane’ from the NPC. For example, if an NPC worked at a tavern, that NPC’s bond boon might be that they will pass on gossip they overhear at work, while their bond bane might be that you just can’t get someone to serve you a drink there. If the relationship score gets even higher, the NPC and PC might become Beloveds (this can, but does not have to, represent a romantic relationship). Each Beloved NPC gives the character one Beloved Inspiration, which comes back every time the PC takes a long rest. Like I said – there are a lot of mechanical boosts here to get around any combat weaknesses that come from the party having no front-line fighters.

Every student can also participate in two extracurricular activities or one extracurricular activity and one job. A job gives the character 5 gp a week. An extracurricular activity (there are 16 to choose from) gives the character a Student Die – a d4 that the character can add to any roll that uses one of the extracurriculars two skills (after seeing the roll, but before they know whether it was a success). For example, a student in drama club can add their die to Arcana or Deception rolls. The Student Die returns after a long rest. Additionally, participating in these activities provides more opportunities to interact with other students and gain relationship points, because every single one of the bank of NPC students (see below) has a job and/or participates in an extracurricular.

Of course, this is a school, so there are classes. There are no rules for class itself – it’s up the DM to make interject some academic scenes. But there are rules for exams. Each exam consists of two ability checks, dictated by the class. For example, an exam in a class that focuses on relics might require an Intelligence (History) test to to recognize the relics and then an Intelligence (Arcana) to identify their magical properties. For each test that the student passes, they gain a Student Die that can be used with either of the two skills used in the exam. Students can also study for exams to try to drastically improve their odds. And there’s no mechanical reason why you wouldn’t study, so you can use a study re-roll to try to make sure you get at least one success in each exam. A student can also simply try to cheat on an exam, but there are – as one would expect – consequences for getting caught (“We could all have been killed – or worse, expelled!”).

There is also a new playable species in Strixhaven, the owlin (basically anthropomorphic owls, although they have both arms and wings). They have no stat modifiers, but get both darkvision and a fly speed.

Campus Adventures

OK, so there’s all of that framework, how do the adventures work? A Curriculum of Chaos is divided into four adventures, with each adventure representing one year at school. Because the book is for characters of level 1 to 10, you can see that students will level up during school years, not just at the end of them.

The first thing that’s provided to the DM is a bank of NPC students, with art, short write-ups, descriptions of their extracurricular activities/jobs, and bond/banes. Some of these students are starting in the same year as the PCs, while some are one year ahead, so there’s a little variety in possible types of relationship. Notably, none of these student NPCs has a defined role in the story. They are there to create relationships with the PCs. They will be used in the adventures, but it’s up to the DM which NPCs will play which roles. The DM will need to consider the existing relationships with the NPCs and PCs, or which relationships might be interesting, when deciding how to round out the student ‘cast’ for various events. Conveniently, there is an event during orientation that will give the PCs an opportunity to interact with most, if not all, of these students, and the DM will probably be able to get a good feel from these introductions of which NPCs the PCs are the most interested in (for woe or for weal).

The adventures proper are largely strings of events, interspersed with exams. There’s one mandatory class each year that everyone has to take, but students select several more options each year. So the DM doesn’t have to come up with course offerings, but they do need to create anything distinctive or eventful about those classes – sure, the characters can still get Student Dice from the exams, but it’s a lot more interesting to have at least one scene of magical wonder and/or shenanigans in each of those classes.

The events run the gamut with, as noted above, the DM generally needing to round out the event by populating it with particular student NPCs. Sometimes these events stand alone. Sometimes there’s an activity and then a brief disturbance for the characters to deal with (e.g., fun magical shenanigans are being had when that animated broomstick over there starts attacking people). Sometimes the characters actually get an assignment of some sort. Campus locations include the library, classrooms, a cafe, a gift shop, a tavern, special-purpose alumni buildings, college dorms, Lorehold excavations, Witherbloom bayous, and Prismari art displays.

Events include orientation, befriending a mascot, breaking into a faculty office, collecting spell components, choosing the right outfit, engaging in a magical duel, going to the school dance, gossiping, planning a party, playing games with unique minor magical items, participating in a sing-off, playing mage tower (the Strixhaven equivalent of Quidditch), racing small magical creatures, scavenger hunts, sneaking into closed buildings, supervising (or maybe being sent to) detention, and working on a play. And eventually, of course, saving the day from a threat that’s slowly weaved across all four of the PC’s years at the college. There’s just a really broad coverage of your boarding/wizarding school tropes, with a D&D flair. Again, however, all of it requires the DM to take that extra step of melding the social aspects into the pre-written adventure components.

The one disappointing aspect of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos is that it ends up not quite being as much of a setting book as I would have liked. In particular, the adventures do not include scenes on all five of the college campuses, so you don’t get as much detail as I would have liked. Yes, you do get a general overview and you get information on professors, but because there’s no combat/exploration segments for some of the campuses you don’t get something like a map of what their main hall looks like.

Final Thoughts

There’s a ton to like about Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. It does a really good job of taking the MTG ‘wizarding school’ location and turning it into a great D&D setting, including a nice pre-made cast of faculty and students. It sets up a good framework to make things like classes and activities and relationships into something mechanically meaningful. But you do need to have the right DM – A Curriculum of Chaos just isn’t something that the DM can pick up and run. A session zero is probably more useful here than in any other published 5E adventure just to establish who these characters are, why they’re at this school, and why they’re hanging out together all the time. The DM needs to keep track of all of the student NPCs and how they interact with the PCs. They need to proactively inject social interactions and, to a lesser extent, academic events, into the story. You can maybe get away with not creating fun scenes during class, but you’ve absolutely got to work in those social interactions (it reminds me of something Powered by the Apocalypse, like the Phoenix Academy setting for Masks). But if you’ve got that right sort of DM – and the right sort of players – there’s a big payoff to be had. For the right D&D group, Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos, will be fabulous.

 

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