Honestly, having this book in my hands makes me wish we could properly coordinate sessions in which the DM gets terrorized. Anyway, here’s a review of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos, from our friends at Wizards of the Coast.
First released 7 December 2021, the Strixhaven book has two covers: one featuring the students of the titular university goofing out in the library – I mean, Biblioplex – and the alternate one with the Strixhaven star. I prefer the alternate one myself, as it makes it feel more like the magical tome it ought to be. Available in hardcover, the contents are all printed on glossy paper for that real premium feel (and explains the price that hits quadruple once the exchange rate is factored in).
There’s more text than art as you might expect, it being a guidebook of a new setting and all. There’s a full size poster map and a full page version of the campus, the latter of which I appreciate so that I can just leave the poster alone. The various subsections and chapters are laid out neatly for any of you newbies (like me) for easy reference. Important areas get their own maps to better help with visualization.
As a guidebook, any aspiring Dungeon Master can peruse their copy to either expand their campaign, or use the prescribed one in the book to kick off an adventure. Since this is akin to say, a DLC, the book does assume you have the core set of rulebooks before you play around with the new stories, characters and systems.
As someone with the barest knowledge of the whole Dungeons and Dragons thing, the wording is pretty easy to understand. The opening pages give a concise summary of what to expect as you dip your toes into the magical world of Strixhaven University: from its history, to the colleges and eclectic staff members that you may find. I like how the book makes it a point to note that the facilities here are meant to be inclusive.
While the campaign assumes your player characters will be students, at the end of the day, it’s meant to provide some roleplaying fun, so tweak it as you like according to your universe, applying the framework for another fandom instead if you so wish.
There’s more text than pictures, as expected. There’s not to say there’s completely no art, with a variety of illustrations peppered throughout the book to give an idea of how life is like at the university. Captions are small and don’t obstruct the view, but also makes it hard to read and notice.
Across 223 pages, there’s even a recommendation to have an orientation for the players to understand the workings and systems. It’s definitely going to be a lot if you’re having newbies in the party, when there’s notes for dress codes to faculty member statistics. If you’re running the campaign, keep some bookmarks handy to make it easier to flip back and forth as required. That’s not even mentioning the cross-referencing you might need from the core books.
EASE OF UNDERSTANDING
Like I mentioned, I’m not well versed in D&D. Considering how the book expects you to have the core books, knowing the basics is definitely handy. I’ve basically scoured the web for things I’m not sure about, coming across homebrew / custom things that I find interesting.
I’m at a 50/50 split on how easy it actually is to understand. Things are nicely sorted under their respective subheadings, and on the other, I don’t know what most of these things do without looking them up. I’m still not sure how spell levels or mechanics like long rest work, so I need my dearest DM to hold my hand.
Speaking of Dungeon Masters, the instructions are very clear on where to refer, or what to do, and notes on which parts you may choose to exclude to make things more flexible. The general structure should be easy to follow.
The Owlin race is one of the new additions with Strixhaven, and of course, you’re free to bring it to other campaigns if you’d like. The basic traits are all provided, with any precise numbers obtained from the Player’s Handbook. As a player, you should already start having an idea of what your character is going to be like, as there will be colleges, proficiencies, equipment, spells and so forth to take note of. The DM can begin preparing from the suggestions on how to start the campaign.
From chapter 3 onwards is where the campaign can really kick off. You have the option of playing the chapters 3 to 6 consecutively with its main story arc, or have shorter sessions based on single chapters. There will be suggested plots you can take into consideration if you’re only doing a single chapter, as well as the necessary details for character levels, relationships, etc. to best fit the structure.
For starters, there’s a tracking sheet for the various activities characters may find themselves in: optional ones, like jobs or extracurricular activities, or exams. You can even cheat on an exam, provided you get the right rolls! Just be prepared for the repercussions if your character really mucks up.
Extracurriculars and jobs in particular, would be your options to gain relationship points with a particular NPC, to be further elaborated. Jobs, as you might guess, can get you coin which you may spend on frivolities, or good ol’ supplies. Non-player characters are arguably quite central to Strixhaven, even if they’re not faculty members. Your fellow students have their own biographies, alignments, associated boons and banes that can really affect how your story could play out.
I’ve always heard of the jokes of how players seduce every NPC in every campaign. In Strixhaven, the potential relationships have more weight thanks to the boon and bane mechanics, besides having an official working system. Conceptually, it’s simple, as you may raise or deduct relationship points with a given character depending on your answers or actions. Gain enough positive points, and you might choose to pursue a romantic relationship for even greater benefits.
You may also choose to leave a relationship if you’re not automatically removed from one after too many misses. It’s a really great opportunity to have you lean more into the Role Playing aspect of D&D, over “just” action. It might be in your character’s best interests to befriend someone for a bonus they’d really like, or maybe you’d just always get jeered by another person’s clique, who knows…
Comparing Strixhaven to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is the easiest one you can make, the former leaning more to an older age bracket. There’s in-universe games such as Mage Tower – capture the opposing team’s mascot to score – smaller activities like sing off challenges, to make the setting that much more fleshed out with accompanying flavour text and material. Something like Mage Tower gets dedicated sections for practice arenas and the actual stadium for game day.
You have to juggle your social circle, not terribly disappoint your advisors, and have fun while some background villain is trying to put their nefarious plans into motion. There really is a lot.
I do already like settings like Strixhaven, so I’m definitely interested in playing it. As in-depth as the guidebook is, it’s recommended for 4 to 6 players, so you’ll have to make the necessary concessions for smaller groups on your own. As a companion book to introduce an exciting new setting, there’s a lot of notes and details for both DM / player to tweak as they like. Just very definitely do not get this as your very first D&D book, due to its nature as essentially being an expansion guidebook.
While I praise its flexibility, there are numerous points where the prescribed campaign makes it mandatory for your players to participate in certain plots. Here’s where you’ll need to decide how far you’d want to deviate, and how comfortable your group is with this relative rigidity.
That said, it’s still Dungeons and Dragons at the end of the day. If you’re looking for some fun school magical shenanigans, then pick up a copy of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos, and watch the sparks fly.