D&D 5E - Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos review - studies and sorcery in MTG’s magical school
Fun, for a spell.
For all that magical boarding schools have become rather a cliché over the past 20 years or so, the latest entry into Dungeons & Dragons’ library of hardbacks is a deceptively ambitious little book. In just a couple of hundred pages, Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos looks to introduce players to an arcane university; muster up a mid-sized, multi-year campaign; and find a way to mash a combat-heavy ruleset into a setting with more student pranks than dungeon crawls.
The result is a book that feels a little shallow in places and a little inflexible in others, but nevertheless succeeds at its aim to deliver something outside of the usual wandering adventurer rigamarole that defines so many of our campaigns. It isn’t just a book about giving players a cool magical school to explore as part of their wider adventures; it’s a book about going to a cool magical school, and finding enjoyment within its pages hinges on you being on board with that idea from the start.
The school in question is that of Strixhaven, a prestigious arcane college that first made its appearance as the host of a Magic: The Gathering set earlier this year. It’s a well-written enough place, and the card game’s love of dividing things up into nice, colour-coded factions makes for a nicely diverse range of schools and philosophies for the heroes to try out and identify with.
This is an important touch, because when you and your friends enter the world of Strixhaven, it’s expected that the group will be playing as students rather than the typical rough-and-tumble adventurers. Over the course of the campaign you’re expected to take exams, play sports and build relationships with other students, many of which are sketched out in a rather beautiful NPC gallery.
Each of these activities is managed by its own set of brand new subsystems. On a first readthrough of the material it’s easy to look at all the new rules to contend with - such as the addition of special “student dice” that are earned by passing exams and used to bolster relevant skill checks later in the game - and fret about keeping track of it all. However, while the book could arguably do with slightly better organisation - expect to do a lot of flipping between campaign chapters and rules chapters for your first few sessions - all these new subsystems help to make Strixhaven feel truly distinct.
The new subsystems help to make Strixhaven feel truly distinct.
Alongside these new systems, there’s also a fair amount of new rules content for players and DMs alike to toy with. Front and centre among this is the chance to play as owlin - humanoid owl-folk with the biggest, cutest eyes you’ve ever seen in a game of D&D - though the most impactful new options come in the form of backgrounds that tie new characters to one of the campus’ main factions. Where backgrounds are usually just that - elements that offer a bit of flavour and a minor mechanical benefit of limited power - the five on offer here are much more potent, granting a handful of free spells to their bearers.
It’s a wonderfully flavourful bit of rules-writing, and ensures that even characters who’ve chosen classes that need to wait a bit before their spell-casting comes online get to toss around some early magic. However, it does upset the usual modicum of balance that has kept D&D’s current edition from descending into a morass of finely-tuned power builds. If you want to pluck these specific backgrounds out and use them in a non-Strixhaven game, you’d better come prepared with a damned good argument to justify it.
Far and away the biggest amount of content jammed into the book, however, is the four-part campaign that makes up its middle section. Each part is supposed to represent one year spent at the school, so that over the course of the campaign the party will not only climb from level one to level ten, but also grow from fresh-faced newcomers to campus royalty.
The adventures themselves are, unfortunately, nothing special. They’re fun, light and breezy, but despite the occasional brush with danger they rarely feel as though they have any teeth. Problems tend to be of the mystery-of-the-week variety, and in the early parts there is always a powerful NPC waiting just off-screen to swoop in and save the heroes if things start going south. Some of this can probably be attributed to the fact that each of the four sections are theoretically able to be played on their own - gods alone know why you would do that, though - but even the underlying arc about a disgraced former pupil dumping minor calamities on campus feels shallow and underdeveloped.
Strixhaven hints at some truly fascinating mysteries that barely get touched in the campaign.
This is a shame, because Strixhaven hints at some truly fascinating mysteries. Each of the factions is headed by a super-powerful, super-ancient dragon; the campus is roamed by multi-limbed magical behemoths who can see through time; and there’s a secret society of dark mages running around with cool masks and plans to summon a horrifying being known as the ‘Blood Avatar’. None of this really gets touched in the campaign, and only really gets the scantest mention in the bare 27 pages devoted to background lore.
It feels as though the designers have stepped away from this wealth of potential plots because they went into Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos with a very particular goal in mind. Just as The Wild Beyond the Witchlight was an experimentation in low-combat adventuring, this book pushes towards running a narrative-heavy, relationship-heavy, magical school adventure in the D&D 5E ruleset.
Not everybody will enjoy this. Not everybody will want to give up the go-anywhere, do-anything appeal of the core game for the sake of school drama and pseudo-quidditch. Not everybody will like the idea of trying to squeeze the already wildly successful D&D into even more genres.
However, if you’re incredibly keen on the idea of exploring relationships at a magic school and beating up the occasional monster along the way, Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos is a wonderful vehicle for both flirting and fighting. Also, if you’re already invested in the D&D system and are curious to explore the curious paths it’s forging and the subsystems its designers are experimenting with, Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos is a fascinating book.
It falters here and there, and if you’re on a budget it’s hard to justify unless the concept really appeals to you, but it’s also joyfully ambitious and packed with a pile of different ways for The World’s Greatest Roleplaying Game™ to grow. If Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos and The Wild Beyond the Witchlight are anything to go by, it’s going to be an interesting few years.