It’s easy to forget the contents of a lecture you took in college or what you wrote in that onerous 20-page final paper, but memories made with your college friends tend to linger longer than anything that took place in a university classroom. That understanding is at the core of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos, a Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook based on the Magic: The Gathering set Strixhaven: School of Mages.
Sadly, the main plot of the adventure — which is designed to take a party of about five characters from level 1-10 — is a fairly forgettable affair. But the encounters you have with your classmates along the way will make for some great moments at the table.
[Warning: This story contains light spoilers for Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos.]
Strixhaven puts players in the role of students at the titular university, where they’ll complete their four years of study over the course of four adventures. If you don’t want to commit to the whole campaign, there’s suggestions for making each of them modular by tweaking the plot a bit.
Parties certainly aren’t expected to be made up entirely of dedicated spellcasters, and there are new feats associated with each of Strixhaven’s five colleges that allow any class to cast two cantrips and a first-level spell. But the game’s themes will probably work best if everyone plays a character who has at least a little magical flavor, which can mean having your rogue be an Arcane Trickster or encouraging your barbarian to embrace the Path of the Ancestral Guardian and draw power from spirits.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon
Students don’t join a college until their second year, though a set of powerful new backgrounds correlating with the five groups strongly encourages players to make their choice immediately. The five colleges of Strixhaven are each based on opposing colors in Magic: The Gathering, and their descriptions in A Curriculum of Chaos play up that concept by having them focus on conflict to produce rigorous academic debate. For instance, the College of Lorehold is helmed by one dean representing order and another chaos, and they deliver conflicting lectures on whether history is governed by predictable forces or the actions of particularly ambitious people.
Perhaps the most surprising thing in the book is that there isn’t a singular evil faculty member pulling strings behind the scenes. It’s understandable that the designers wanted to avoid Harry Potter comparisons by having a de facto evil school, but when the vampire leader of Witherbloom, a school focused in part on necromancy, is neutral, you have to wonder what the point of alignment even is in this game.
The campaign gets off to a gentle start — in all the fights from level 1-3 there’s a powerful non-player character able to provide the player characters with backup should they fail. It’s a mechanic that lets the party feel good about victory while avoiding accidental death when the group is at their most fragile. Most of the encounters also feel like low-stakes antics, such as a chest on move-in day turning out to be a mimic. Even dungeon crawls tend to be a bit silly, like an after-hours escapade through a manor on campus to take back a confiscated magical doll with a notoriously foul mouth.
Most encounters are built around social events using the new relationship subsystem developed for the book. Players are constantly hanging out around campus with a cast of detailed and quirky non-player characters (NPCs), and the decisions they make can result in them being friends, rivals or even romantically entangled. There are main events, like the school improv festival, where the party will all be together, plus individually chosen downtime actions in the form of extracurricular activities and campus jobs.
Each of these activities give players extra chances to interact with key NPCs and also receive other benefits. Club membership gives players a d4 “student die” they can roll once per long rest to retroactively boost a check using an associated skill. For instance, participating in the Fantastical Horticulture Club makes their character a bit better at Nature and Survival. Jobs are disappointingly bland by comparison, rewarding characters with just five gold pieces every week. Considering characters will be earning plenty of quest rewards throughout the campaign, this doesn’t seem like a worthwhile trade unless the player really doesn’t care about skills.
Characters also take tests that can give them student dice for associated skills they can use before the end of the adventure. Doing particularly well on an exam might provide extra benefits later on. There’s a lot of fluff provided in the first-year section, listing trivia about owlbears and slaadi students are expected to have learned, but sadly less attention is given to the exams in later sections.
The testing mechanics also don’t quite work with the flavor. Studying for an exam provides a reroll to use during their testing skill checks, and pulling an all-nighter provides two rerolls but gives the character a level of exhaustion until the exam is over, meaning that they have disadvantage on all their ability checks. An extra reroll can’t come close to counteracting how bad it is to have to roll two d20s and take the worse result. An easy house rule would be to have the exhaustion only set in after the test, leaving the character in bad shape for any encounters on the same day. Studying as a group gives the characters advantage on the ability check, effectively negating the exhaustion, but you’re still much better off never taking the all-nighter option as written.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon
The book is well organized and visually appealing, drawing on art from numerous Magic: The Gathering cards along with providing detailed maps. There is also plenty of original imagery. I especially enjoyed the included flyers and invitations to campus events. It also demonstrates publisher Wizards of the Coast’s commitment to inclusiveness and accessibility. Strixhaven’s buildings magically shift to accommodate anyone regardless of their size or mobility, and the book contains trans and nonbinary NPCs.
Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos isn’t a perfect book, but the new subsystems and whimsical adventures provide some really fun material, whether you’re running the adventure as written or borrowing elements to slip into a homebrew campaign. Like any college experience, how much you enjoy Strixhaven will really depend on finding the right friends to share it with, and knowing what rules you can ignore in the interest of having a good time.
Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos will arrive at retail on Dec. 7, with a special collector’s edition available only at local game stores. The book was reviewed with a pre-release copy of the book provided by Wizards of the Coast. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos
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