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Star Student or Flunked Dropout?
Strixhaven is the latest Magic the Gathering plane to get a D&D 5e treatment. Players will enroll into a magical college split into 5 schools of arcane disciplines, either in the included adventure paths or in a new school bound adventure of the DM’s making. But in true “magic school” trope fashion, not all is right in Strixhaven, and the players will have more to deal with than exams. Get a flask of endless coffee ready cause we’re doing an all-nighter as we go through everything you need to know.
What’s in the Book?
Candlekeep Mysteries clocks in at 224 pages, and can usually be found for $29.99, which is dead on exactly the sweet spot that WotC seems to have settled on for this kind of supplement.
A little over half of the book is devoted to an adventure path running from 1st level to 10th level that can also easily be divided into 4 smaller self-contained adventures, each one representing 1 year of the player’s magical college degrees. The rest of the book contains the fluff and history of Strixhaven, some new player options and spells, and a decent bestiary. All told you can find the following in Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos:
Campus Kerfuffle, 1st-3rd Level Adventure.
Hunt for Mage Tower, 4th-5th Level Adventure.
The Magister’s Masquerade, 6th-7th Level Adventure.
A Reckoning in Ruins, 8th-10th Level Adventure.
The New Owlin Playable Race.
5 New Backgrounds.
2 New Feats.
5 New Spells.
8 New Magic Items.
44 New Monsters/NPC stat blocks.
We get a decent dip into the lore of Strixhaven’s world, and it has some very interesting things going on with the “star arches” and the “archaics”, but ultimately the “world” is largely irrelevant in the face of the school itself. The world is just a backdrop for this magical academy and all its detailed students, faculty, and campuses. The writers knew this, and the school can be easily ripped out and placed into any D&D setting you feel like. The campus is a cosmopolitan melting pot of races and cultures, and most magical settings will find that Strixhaven’s school fits right in (with only a modicum of retcons).
Curriculum of Chaos Adventure Path
Strixhaven contains one grand adventure path that takes the players through from their first day as new students to their graduation and a grand magical conflict 4 years later. Each year can be run as its own contained adventure, but as we’ll go into the players are encouraged to build relationships throughout the campaign as a whole, so I’d really only recommend running it as a full adventure from 1st to 10th level.
In tone and content, the adventure really does resemble Harry Potter, in ways that I’m certain were intentional. I’m not saying they stole anything, but if you read or watched Harry Potter (or a lot of magical school properties quite frankly) you’ll be able to make a lot of easy comparisons. The adventures start out light and bubbly, full of whimsy and fun, then as time progresses the stakes get higher, and the tone shifts darker as a dark wizard villain’s plans go into motion.
What impressed me was how much of the adventure feels right for magical school tropes. Players will be cramming for magic exams, pushing into danger at the dares of school rivals, and even forming college romances. They could easily have made a generic adventure module with some magic school trimmings, but Strixhaven manages to capture the tropes and work them into the game properly.
One of the best examples of this is the “Tracking Sheet” you’ll be giving your players. Each player will select classes, extracurriculars, take exams, and form relationships with NPC students. What makes this special is that all of those things have mechanical effects and benefits. Did you pass your Arcanobotany exam? That’ll grant you bonuses on your Arcana and Nature checks. Got caught cheating? Now you can’t go to dragonchess club while you’re stuck taking make-up exams. Got a job at the campus cafe? Now you get paid, and hey, that cute silverquill waitress seems interested in you, maybe you should show her some of your poetry?
This is both Strixhaven’s best strength and weakness, in that it’s not a traditional D&D adventure. It’s closer to a young adult novel, or a dating sim in D&D form. You are incentivized mechanically to form relationships and really play out the whole awkward college experience in a fantasy setting, and that may be perfect for some gaming groups but for others it may not be what they’re looking for.
You’ll still have combats, a few dungeon crawls, and devious plots going on in the background. But all of this is the punctuation, the side dish to the adventure’s core gameplay, which is well, attending a magical college. Up until the final act of the final chapter (which is a full dungeon crawl), you’ll find that the school activities are the meat, and the occasional monster fight is the potatoes. Which is either perfect or awful, it just depends on you and your playgroup. If you think your playgroup will enjoy picking out dresses for what is basically a magical masquerade prom, then this is amazing. If you think your players will be bored until they have a chance to kill something, it might not be the best fit.
Owlin Playable Race
The owlin are, quite frankly, very basic. We got a look at “owlfolk” back in the folk of the fey unearthed arcana, and the final cut is definitely nerfed down a bit. They get a proper fly speed (which is where all the design space went), darkvision, and a skill proficiency. I’m not saying they’re bad mind you, just at least to me very bland. Still, any new options are welcome, and owls are cute.
5 New Backgrounds
This is a little deceptive as they’re all really campaign specific. Each background correlates to a different one of the 5 magical schools and is quite frankly a bit overpowered compared to normal backgrounds. They grant extra spell options themed to the schools in addition to all the normal background goodies.
2 New Feats
This is also deceptive as new offerings as they’re extremely connected to the setting, so much so that all the players are supposed to start with one of them and the other uses the first as a prerequisite. The Strixhaven initiate feat grants cantrips and spells based on the player’s chosen school. Honestly, it’s here to justify players who take martial classes as students in a “magic college”. Even if you pick a fighter, you’re still going to know some spells. The second is a variation on improved find familiar, except themed around the many school mascot creatures.
5 New Spells
I was quite frankly expecting more than this out of a magic school themed book, but we get 5 spells, each one themed around one of the 5 schools. All of them are good and fun in their own ways and will be making their way into my next campaigns. I should however address the new spell silvery barbs. When this spell was first revealed there were a lot of ripples throughout the D&D community shouting how strong and broken it is. And they’re right for the most part. Silvery barbs is a powerful combat spell that as a reaction forces a reroll on your enemy, and lets you grant advantage to an ally, all for the low cost of a 1st level spell slot. Is this now one of the best spells in 5e, yes, definitely yes. Is it a game breaking monster that should be banned from every table? Ehh, maybe? But I doubt it. I recommend letting it loose on your tables and testing it out for a while before making your call as a DM. Personally, I think it’s very strong, but not a game breaker. You should at least be aware of the potential with the spell though and consider it carefully before adding it to your games.
8 New Magic Items
5 of these items are school “primers”, basically your magical school textbooks that you can consult when dealing with skill checks related to those schools, and a once per day 1st level spell. You also get a little magic mascot toy, a glittering team pennant, and a bottle of endless coffee. As a caffeine addict I have never before wanted so much to make a magic item real. All these items are right on theme, fun, and should be welcome additions to your collection.
44 New Monsters / NPCs
We get a quite impressive bestiary here and the lion’s share of them are something that I’ve been sorely wanting for some time now, varied and interesting spellcasters. More than half the stats are for mages of different themes, powers, levels, and styles. I ate them up and hope to never use the boring “mage” stat block again. I’m impressed we got so much in such a short book, and I’m sure I’ll be using them for this and future adventures.
What’s Good About the Book?
Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos embodies the “magic college” setting and transcribes it into 5th edition D&D beautifully. The adventure is satisfyingly meaty and absolutely filled to the brim with roleplaying. While I do recommend running the full adventure, it’s also flexible enough to work for shorter campaigns all across tier 1 and 2 play. It includes a hefty bestiary, a few fun new player options, and mechanically represents the relationships and “school drama” of the magical college setting far better than I’ve seen before.
What’s Bad About the Book?
If the phrase “D&D magic college dating sim” doesn’t spark much interest with your playgroup, you’re going to have a bad time. It offers options to remove that portion of the roleplay and mechanics, but without them you lose a lot of what makes the campaign interesting. It’s also a taxing adventure for the DM, as they’ll need to keep track of many relationships and rivalries, as well as propel much of the campaign through improvised roleplay, making for a tough job if the DM is inexperienced. Finally, I did feel a bit let down by the player options on offer. I expected more spells, more magic items, and we only got the one bland player race. Owls are fun, but in a setting where dryads, trolls, and vampires are all regular students I’m disappointed we didn’t get more.
Strixhaven feels like a middle ground found between the formatting of a setting book like Ravnica and a short adventure collection like Candlekeep Mysteries. It’s mostly an adventure path (or 4 smaller adventure paths), but there’s enough setting content to run your own adventures in Strixhaven should you want to. I feel there were some missteps in the player facing options but as a DM tool for a campaign I’m impressed. The catch is honestly going to be up to your playgroup. Strixhaven’s adventures are driven by roleplay, and really achieve the feeling of living out the “magical school” tropes, right down to cramming for exams and college romances. Wargame leaning playgroups will hate it without anything to fight as they pick out prom dresses, and more roleplay leaning playgroups will literally fall in love.
Final Score for Roleplay Leaning Playgroups: 9 out of 10
Final Score for Wargame Leaning Playgroups: 6 out of 10
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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