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Thursday, December 9, 2021

Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos Review


by Magali Villeneuve

You can buy Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos here.

You can get a digital version of this book on D&D Beyond.

Today we're going to go through Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos, another D&D book that converts Magic the Gathering lore to D&D. They call this a sourcebook, but the majority of this book contains a huge adventure that takes place over the course of 4 years.

I've never been very into Magic (although its popularity nearly killed my D&D group way back when), so I went into this one pretty much blind.

Review: Before we go through Strixhaven and pull out fun stuff to look at, let me just tell you what I think about this book: I love it. I love this more than Tyranny of Dragons. I love this more than the Waterdeep books. This is right up there with the best published 5e adventures.

Now, there is one huge catch to this. Whether or not your group will like this depends entirely on your play style. This is not a typical D&D adventure. 

I am guessing that most RPG fans had the same reaction when they read or saw Harry Potter for the first time: "That would make for an awesome D&D campaign." Right? 

That's more or less what this is. A massive adventure that takes place over 4 years, taking the group (students) all the way through their time at Strixhaven University. If your group is up for this, then definitely buy this book.

One more catch: All of the heroes should have at least some spellcasting ability, as that is the focus of the school. There's plenty of leeway, but your players should probably focus on making wizards, warlocks, bards, druids, clerics, and sorcerers.

The Art: A lot of the art in this book comes off as flat or weird to me. There were a few times times when I flipped through the monster section that I thought, "What am I even looking at?" Some of the creatures are very bizarre.

In the past, I've complained about the art being clipped or partially obscured. Often, when you see the full image online, the version in the book doesn't do it justice in comparison. That effect is lessened in this book. The one thing I did note is that the colors still come off a bit flat in the book, but not as bad as in the past.

I have placed my favorite pieces of art from the book in this review. Apparently I am a big Piotr Dura fan.

Now let's go through the book! There's a lot of fun things I'd like to tell you about, so you can decide if you want to buy this product.

Welcome to Strixhaven

by Piotr Dura

Studying at Strixhaven: This explanation appears on page 5:

"Study at Strixhaven isn't about learning to be a wizard, but about learning to be a historian, an artist, an orator, a scientist, or some other profession - while using one's magic to enhance one's studies."

Anyone with any kind of magical abilities can study at Strixhaven. An example given is a barbarian who follows the Path of the Ancestral Guardian from Xanathar's Guide to Everything.

Placing Strixhaven: As I read through this book, I was thinking about how I'd convert it to my campaign. Strixhaven is on a world called Arcavios, which formed when two planets smashed together. The book also mentions that you can place Strixhaven wherever it fits your campaign. 

My first thought is that it belongs in Sigil, as there's already creatures of all types living together in that city. But then, that might take away from the specialness of the University.

Strixhaven is broken into five colleges, each linked to one of the dragons that founded it:

  • Lorehold: College of Archaeomancy (History)
  • Prismari: College of Elemental Arts  (Art & Magic)
  • Quandrix: College of Numeromancy (Math)
  • Silverquill: College of Eloquence (Poetry/Writing/Oration)
  • Witherbloom: College of Essence Studies (Life & Death)

Students: Creatures from "all over the multiverse" attend Strixhaven. Examples include a pixie, a dryad, a giant, a treant, a genasi, and more. I would have a lot of fun cooking up student NPCs.

Snarl: An area where spells can be amplified or distorted. There is a snarl in the campus library.

Star Arches: Floating arches made from spokes of natural materials, and are said to spring forth when a great mage is a born, or where a lost spell resides.

There's more on the Oracle, archaics, and the Founder Dragons, but I don't want to spoil too much. I will say that the archaics in particular are really cool.

Chapter 1: Life at Strixhaven

by Manuel Castanon

We get details on the various locations in Strixhaven, going from one college to the next. We also get info on the main members of the faculty. 

There is a poster map in the back of the book that depicts the entire campus. 

Detention Bog: All of the D&D versions of school tropes in this book make me laugh. They are awesome. When Witherbloom students misbehave, they are sent to DETENTION BOG, a foul swamp that is "...also an excellent place to gather herbs for certain cures and curses."

Chapter 2: Character Options

Owlin: The owlin is a new race - humanoid owls. They are "...distant kin of giant owls from the Feywild." Owlins can fly, right from level one. I always get worried about low-level characters being able to fly, and whether it will ruin an adventure, but for the most part, it never does. Mostly because only that one character can fly. 

Backgrounds: There are new backgrounds for students of each college. They give you access to certain spells, and have their own personality traits and trinkets. 

Spells: We get a few new spells (all of which are 1st to 2nd-level), each linked to one of the schools. The spell that sticks out to me the most is kinetic jaunt, which only takes 1 bonus action to cast and gives you:

  • +10 feet to walking speed.
  • You don't provoke opportunity attacks.
  • You can move through the space of another creature.

Concentration, lasts up to one minute.

There are also about 10 new magic items, 5 of them being primers linked to each of the colleges. These primers give you +1d4 to skill checks 3 times per day, and, when studied at the end of a long rest, you can pick one spell from the bard or sorcerer spell list and, sometime before our next long rest, cast it without expending a spell slot.

Chapter 3: School is in Session

Now we get to the bulk of the book - the adventure! This will take the group from level 1 to level 10. I am dying to see how they are going to handle certain things. The first thing I notice is:

Relationship Points: The players should choose at least one NPC to be either a Friend, a Beloved (!), or a Rival. Seriously.. I am fighting the urge to cook up a huge list of goofy NPC students for the group to pick from. This sounds like so much fun. 

There is a Strixhaven Tracking sheet, which I have posted above. It will allow you to track relationships, extracurriculars, your JOB, and yes, how did on your report cards. I am dying of laughter, what a great idea. Can you cheat on your test? Can you have someone else do your book report? Do you have to roll to see how you did on an oral report? Do you have some kind of science fair where you make a mini-erupting volcano?

Extracurriculars: OK I'm just blown away. I don't want to just go page-by-page here because this review will never end, but this is so tremendous. Doing extracurricular activities gives you rewards - either a student die (which gives you +1d4 to a d20 roll under certain conditions) or a relationship point, which allows the character to boost or diminish their relationship with an NPC.

Some of the extracurricular activities include:

  • Dragonchess Club!
  • Fantastical Horticulture Club
  • Live-Action Roleplaying Guild
  • Mage Tower Cheer Squad 

Jobs: Jobs pay 5 gp per week (I think the average wage in D&D is 2 gp per week), and they gain a relationship point with a co-worker. We get a list of job options, including working at the Firejolt Cafe or the Biblioplex (library).

Exams: We really do get rules for exams. And yes, there are rules for cheating! 

Relationships: This section seems important in a broader sense, as out of everything so far, this system seems like it could be used in almost any campaign involving recurring NPCs.

Relationships Points start at 0 with a given NPC. They increase or decrease by 1 each time a character interacts with them. 

  • When you have 2+ points with an NPC, you gain a Bond Boon
  • When you have -2 (or lower) points with an NPC, you receive a Bond Bane.

Bond Boons and Banes are specific to each NPC. We are given details on 10-15 students, and listed on each are specific boons and banes. 

So, for example, if you gain a Bond Boon with the Chaotic Good Gnome on page 57, you get: "Whenever you travel any significant distance, you can reach your destination in half the normal time."

If you end up with a Bond Bane with her, you get: "Whenever you participate in sports on campus, fouls are constantly called on you." (The NPC in question is a referee on the Intramural fields).

Campus Kerfuffle

by Piotr Dura

This is the first of the four adventures.

Is there a summary of the adventure? Yep. I'd prefer if it was more specific, but we do get a broad idea of what this is about. Again, I don't want to spoil too much. 

The heroes will get involved in an orientation scavenger hunt, and later on, a frog race. Their first examination is on a topic dear to my heart: The Slaadi. There are also exams on owlbears and otyughs.

There is a scenario where the group might do improv on stage in front of the student body, which is funny to me, because usually in D&D if the group gets involved in an in-game play, they don't stick to the script, so I find this to be really fun. The group is expected to do wacky things and for chaos to ensue. 

Exploring Rooms: The one "concern" I have with this adventure is that there are a number of "dungeon" type areas - the group must explore a place room-by-room, each of which has some kind of encounter (often a monster). 

I don't know. For me, as time rolls on, I just don't want to do those any more. At least, not a place with 22 rooms. Just a few rooms is fine. In real life, it becomes a drag because a group can spend 4 hours on just a couple of rooms, meaning that this locale might eat up weeks of game time. It becomes a bit of a slog. 

As I read this, I prefer this adventure to be full of unique scenarios, like the exams. All the "D&D School" stuff is gold. That said, I'm sure plenty of people are expecting this adventure to have dungeon-type locales to explore, so hey it's easy for people like me to trim it out. 

Chapter 4: Hunt for the Mage Tower

It is time for year 2 at Strixhaven! Our heroes are sophomores and should be 4th level.

This chapter revolves partially around a game called Mage Tower, where two teams face off in the stadium and attempt to steal the other team's 'mascot' (mascots are small creatures of various types described in the last chapter).

The heroes might take a test on a glyph of warding. This just cracks me up. I really like this adventure a lot. 

As the year progresses, the group will get into various hijinks (in addition to being stalked by mysterious entities), leading up to the big Mage Tower Game (The "Battle of Strixhaven"). We actually get a Mike Schley map for the stadium. I was expecting piles and piles of rules for the game, but to my relief it's in one single column. 

Although.. I notice that some rules are on page 99, while others are on page 122. Seems like they should have squeezed it all onto a single page. 

Still, it looks like a lot of fun. 

Chapter 5: The Magister's Masquerade

by Piotr Dura

Things get a bit more serious in year 3, where a magic item linked to the main villain is uncovered and might begin to harm the students.

The group may end up involved in the planning and execution of a Masquerade Ball. I still maintain that there is a universal truth in D&D: All players love in-game parties.

We also get something I have never seen in D&D: A fashion show. Sitting back and thinking about it, I'm totally baffled as to how you run this in D&D. Members of the group might be designers, or model (the idea of rolling to see how well you walk in a fashion show is so hilariously awesome to me) 

One thing that jumps out is that a character who is a fashion designer will need to choose someone to model for them. Which NPC? Their Beloved? Does a Rival weasel their way into it just to ruin it? So many possibilities. 

Later, there is a section on taking dance lessons. We actually get a chart of "Dance Partner Quirks" which includes:

  • Treats a dance like a competitive, full-contact sport.
  • Is fantastically clumsy or gets dizzy easily.
  • Tries to mask their discomfort by complaining about how stupid all this is.

This chapter culminates with the Masquerade Ball and the chaos that the mysterious item has created.

Chapter 6: A Reckoning in Ruins

by Jinho Bae

The faculty has become aware that the villain is on campus and the group, now seniors, are expected to help protect the other students.

This might be one of my favorite things in the book: The group are tasked with being detention monitors for a day. What do you go to detention for in Strixhaven? Things like:

  • Accidentally sending another student to an extra-dimensional space.
  • Summoning a storm in the dining hall. 
  • My favorite: "Reprogrammed a janitorial golem to clean his dorm, with disastrous results."

This chapter mostly involves a pair of dungeon crawls, culminating in the heroes attempting to stop the villain from completing a ritual that will likely kill most of the people at Strixhaven University.

Chapter 7: Friends and Foes

by Chris Cold

Monsters and NPCs! Let's take a look at some that stick out to me.

Archaic: Mysterious giant entities that possess great knowledge, complete with a cool secret origin. It has a reaction that allows it to cast a spell that someone else has just cast. It even has a "reverse gravity" type of power.

Mascots: Mascots are pretty prominent in this adventure. Let's look at them real quick:

  • Art Elemental Mascot: (Prismari College) A small elemental with an outer shell of swirling colors.
  • Fractal Mascot: (Quandrix College) A small construct made of "facets of hard light." 
  • Inkling Mascot: (Silverquill College) These tiny oozes are living blobs of ink. 
  • Pest Mascot: (Witherbloom College) Ferret-sized hairless caterpillars that contain 'fuel' that powers Witherbloom magic.
  • Spirit Statue Mascot: (Lorehold) Students bind spirits of the dead into statues, to talk with and learn from them. These spirit statues can walk around, and act as mentors to certain students.

The Founder Dragons: These dragons aren't typical D&D dragons, like a red dragon or a gold dragon. These are unique entities - dragons linked to a certain spellcasting class.

  • Beledros Witherbloom: (Druid) She's interesting because she looks so evil, but she's essentially a draconic druid who focuses on life and death. Her breath weapon is of "decaying energy".
  • Galazeth Prismari: (Sorcerer) A sorcerer, this dragon "embodies the flow of magic from inspiration into artistic expression." Breath weapon: Dancing elements of fire and ice.
  • Shadrix Silverquill: (Bard) A master of light and shadow. Breath Weapon: Illuminating shadow breath that can blind.
  • Tanazir Quandrix: (Wizard) Can alter physical properties and manipulate the flow of thought. Breath weapon: Diminution breath! It doesn't actually shrink you, just weakens.
  • Velomachus Lorehold: (Wizard) Mastered the magic of order and chaos. Breath weapon: Battle Tide Breath, thunderous sound that pushes. 

Daemogoth: Huge fiends with five arms, very cool-looking. They feed on misery and "are creatures of forbidden knowledge." This is one where the translation from Magic: The Gathering to D&D is very apparent in the stat block. I like it, but that "Pact of Pain" power has one long description. 

Daemogoth Titan: These are gargantuan creatures that blight the land around them. These things are really cool.

First-Year Student: I love little stat blocks like this. It has two amusing powers:

  • Excited to Be Here. The student has advantage on initiative rolls.
  • Beginner's Luck (2/Day). When the student fails a saving throw, it can reroll the d20. It must use the new roll.

Final Thoughts

As I said up top, I really like this adventure a lot. One thing that I would change, though, is the villain. I feel weird spoiling what the main villain of this scenario is, but I can say that to me, it's a bit too cartoonish-looking. It's a low level monster that I just don't think I could portray as threatening. I honestly imagine a group actually laughing when they see what it is. 

I would probably change the bad guy so that it was a daemogoth that wants to become a daemogoth titan. I'd probably have to make up some BS story about it being a former student who somehow became a daemogoth - or perhaps it just was a daemogoth who tried to behave itself as part of the student body and failed miserably.

Minor gripes aside, this book shocked me with it's greatness. I definitely understand that this isn't an adventure that every group will like, but if your group is up for playing a Harry Potter-type campaign, definitely consider running it.


I added lore from this book to a few of my other guides:

Guide to the Slaad

The Great List of Food and Drinks


KKRP said...

I find it interesting that WotC and Paizo BOTH put out "D&D school" games this year (Pathfinder's "Strength of Thousands" AP). Haven't gotten to take a look at either yet, but it'd be interesting to compare and contrast their takes. I know SoT also plays with relationships, school events, etc., though I believe that about halfway through the AP, you go from student to alumni to teacher.

Reading 'kinetic jaunt', I can't help but feel like it's the spell to use when you're trying to rush to class in a crowded school hallway.

"Do you have some kind of science fair where you make a mini-erupting volcano?" YES PLEASE.

Also, funny you bring up a fashion show in a TTRPG! Aya actually played a fashion designer drow in the Eberron campaign I just finished running, and we had a session that was a fashion show, complete with designing outfits & hobnobbing with guests, a rival designer with ties to the mob scaring off her models, and then the other PCs stepping in at the last minute to strut their stuff on the catwalk to win over the crowd. Was great stuff!

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