Students, get out your textbooks and turn to page 394, in the section discussing the care and management of multiple high fantasy brands. Can anyone tell me the best method for synergy between them? Nobody? Well, then let’s look at a new example of such a thing, shall we? Let’s look at Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos, D&D’s final book for 2021 and their third direct synergy with parent company Wizards of the Coast’s other mega successful property: Magic the Gathering.
Strixhaven follows two previous journeys by D&D into the world of Magic, Mystic Odysseys of Theros and Guildmaster’s Guide To Ravica. Unlike its predecessors, Strixhaven takes a more focused approach and only deals with the happenings within the titular magical university. It’s also a setting much more compatible with D&D than the previous two, with only a few races and the different magical system of the plane of Arcavios making it feel different from the Forgotten Realms. As such, it’s been the easiest one to get into as someone less versed in D&D. It’s also got a story and setting that I think will appeal to almost everyone, though I can say that it doesn’t have some drawbacks as well.
Strixhaven University is a very strange place, situated on one of the magical “snarls” at the core of the magic of the setting. It’s founded and run by immortal dragons and led by a magical oracle who, upon death, goes back to the foundation of the universe to then inhabit a gigantic moving statue that talks in puzzles. Yeah, the fluff is weird.
UNDER the wild nonsense at the edges, Strixhaven has basically every magical school trope you’ve ever seen, read, or heard about all rolled into one. I’m convinced they took this page from TVTropes and saw it as a challenge. Now, most of this is colored (heh) by the sensibilities and trappings of both MtG and D&D, but you still can kind of see where things are going early on. There’s plenty of touches reflecting what you expect from a fantasy school with flairs of modernity here and there. The idea of working a side job at the cafe or going to join the business club are not things you normally see in these kinds of stories.
The first chunk of the book is dedicated to fleshing out the school, its five colleges, and the important faculty of each. The different colleges all have focuses that correspond to a specific pair of elemental colors from magic, which is represented in D&D by two deans representing the dual philosophies. Lorehold is a red/white school of historians and archaeologists, Prismari is a red/blue art school, Quandrix is green/blue and and focused on math magic, Silverquill is a white/black college of writers, poets, and performers, and finally Witherbloom is black/green and revolves around the use of nature in spells. Each are well rounded and readymade as backstory for PC’s to work with, while also laying out conflicts that the adventure of the book will delve into.
The campus of Strixhaven has a lot of really cool things on it, including a detention swamp, a roiling chaos of abandoned magical art projects, and a living equation that nobody can get rid of. Plus normal stuff like a bar, a coffee shop, and athletic fields.The entire campus gets explored during the book’s adventures, and it’s fun to explore the nooks and crannies of the school. The D&D team has been great at putting in little details everywhere and this is a setting that rewards that immensely.
Players get a few new options in Strixhaven, though as you’d expect most of them revolve around being a student at Strixhaven. The different schools each have their own benefits should you player choose to join them, giving you access to new spells and companion creatures. Five new spells have been added: Borrowed Knowledge (1st level, gain proficiency in a knowledge skill), Kinetic Jaunt (2nd level, increase speed and move through squares with the power of dance), Vortex Warp (2nd level, teleport another creature), Wither and Bloom (2nd level, deal necrotic damage to some and heal another), and Silvery Barbs (1st level, give one creature disadvantage and another advantage). Nothing too crazy, but each spell gives a good representation of its college. Magic items aren’t much to write home about, other than the Bottle of Boundless Coffee, which I really wish I had in real life.
Magical School Daze
The series of adventures contained within A Curriculum of Chaos stretch across the four years a group of students spends studying at Strixhaven, and it seems calculated to check every single school adventure story box possible. It really has EVERYTHING: a school dance, a big game, house competitions, sneaking around after hours, an ancient evil lurking under the school that only the heroes can defeat. Nobody is ever going to accuse D&D of being too creative with its adventure plotting but damn this book really takes the cake. It even has rivals and love interests that recur throughout the adventure, but in them we find the best part of the book.
The thing that will make Strixhaven fun for most people isn’t the combat or the overall plot of the adventures (which can form a cohesive campaign or be played as one offs). It’s those little details of college life that you get to act out that really makes it something special. Players aren’t just fighting monsters and collecting treasure. They’ve got to study for exams, balance their extracurriculars, and prepare for major school events like the aforementioned dance. In fact, the overarching dark plot rarely gets in the way of school shenanigans until the very end.
The best part, for me, is the relationship mechanics built in to the adventures. The writers of Strixhaven have crafted a small stable of NPC students in the PC’s year to act as companions, rivals and, yes, romantic prospects. Yeah, Strixhaven is the closest D&D has gotten to letting you just roleplay a dating sim. The NPC’s represent all sorts of personality types, races, and interests. You might meet them in your adventure, at your after-school job, or in whichever extracurriculars you might join. Befriending them gets you tangible benefits while crossing them will make your life harder than it needs to be. They help integrate the students into the university and give the DM some room to flesh out the faceless students filling out the school. And, yes, per co-writer T Alexander Stangroom, all of them are queer!
- A lot of attention has been paid to accessibility in Strixhaven. Professor Plarg, one of the heads of Lorehold, is a blind orc who’s crafted a way to create magical braille. The book also makes a point of mentioning that the campus is accessible to disabled students as well as those who aren’t necessarily human sized or shaped.
- Most of the art is recycled from the Strixhaven set. About 80% by my guess. This isn’t really a negative since a lot of the interest in the book is that crossover and it IS gorgeous art, so I’ll give it a pass.
- You don’t have to be a magic user to study at Strixhaven, and even barbarians can find a place among the hallowed halls.
- You haven’t had fun until you’ve rolled to heckle.
- Some of the extracurriculars availiable to you include a Dead Languages Society, The Strixhaven Iron-Lifter’s Society (building strong bodies and stronger friendships), and a LARP Guild that seems a tad out of place in a fantasy setting.
- While the color system of Magic is pure flavor in this book, its presence makes D&D’s normal alignment system look even more restrictive. Luckily, Strixhaven isn’t overly concerned with such things.
You can grab Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos starting tomorrow wherever D&D books are sold, including Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and your FLGS. As always, your FLGS will have a special cover by Hydro74 available (they also did the fantastic alternate cover for Rime of the Frostmaiden). Online, the book is on Roll20 and D&D Beyond, the latter of which have also released a free adventure for first level players set at the Firejolt Cafe called “No Tears Over Spilled Coffee.”
Images and review copy via Dungeons & Dragons
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