Review: D&D’s Strixhaven book understands what makes college memorable

It’s simple to forget the contents of a lecture you took in college or what you composed in that burdensome 20-page last paper, however memories made with your college good friends tend to remain longer than anything that happened in a university class. That understanding is at the core of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Mayhem, a Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook based upon the Magic: The Event set Strixhaven: School of Mages.

Unfortunately, the primary plot of the experience — which is created to take a celebration of about 5 characters from level 1-10 — is a relatively forgettable affair. However the encounters you have with your schoolmates along the method will produce some fantastic minutes at the table.

[Warning: This story contains light spoilers for Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos.]

Strixhaven puts gamers in the function of trainees at the titular university, where they’ll finish their 4 years of research study throughout 4 experiences. If you don’t wish to dedicate to the entire project, there’s recommendations for making each of them modular by tweaking the plot a bit.

Celebrations definitely aren’t anticipated to be comprised totally of devoted spellcasters, and there are brand-new accomplishments associated with each of Strixhaven’s 5 colleges that enable any class to cast 2 cantrips and a first-level spell. However the video game’s styles will most likely work finest if everybody plays a character who has at least a little wonderful taste, which can suggest having your rogue be an Arcane Trickster or motivating your barbarian to welcome the Course of the Ancestral Guardian and draw power from spirits.

An in-game invitation to the Magister’s Masquerade, held by Lorehold College in Kollema Hall.

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 video 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 wonderful doll with a notoriously foul mouth.

A collection of co-eds from Strixhaven, Magic: The Gathering’s elite college.

An assortment of the module’s romanceable NPCs.
Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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 taste. 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.

A party puts their hands in for a cheer. There is a giant green hand, a mottled blue hand, a brown hand with claws, etc.

Image: 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 brand-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 Mayhem will arrive at retail on Dec. 7, with a special collector’s edition available only at local video game stores. The book was reviewed with a pre-release copy of the book supplied by Wizards of the Coast. Vox Media has affiliate collaborations. These do not affect editorial material, though Vox Media might make commissions for items bought by means of affiliate links. You can discover extra details about Polygon’s principles policy here.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.