A few days ago, my dedicated gaming group and I sat down and made characters for Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. They attended orientation, met and made friends, had an exam on the physiology of magical creatures, and got into some fights. Strangely enough, it was the schoolwork and the character drama that made them the most worried.
For those not aware, Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos marks the second official setting from the world of Magic: The Gathering to show up in the iconic tabletop RPG. The titular Strixhaven Academy is a prestigious magic school where potentially anyone and everyone across the entire multiverse can broaden their minds.
In fact, that was the very first surprise my group noticed as they looked at the new player options. Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos has been marketed as an inclusive supplement. Every single character class can benefit from being a student at this magic college. Much like Strixhaven Academy itself, this supplement wanted to be sure everyone had an equal shot at learning something new. But rather than express this formal form of higher learning with brand new subclasses, the book decides to offer a bit more freedom with five brand new Backgrounds as well as several new Feats.
There are five new Initiate backgrounds. Each one of these backgrounds are based on one of five colleges. Lorehold focuses more on history and uncovering ancient secrets through the study of archeomancy. Prismari is all about controlling the very elements themselves as well as a dedication to the fine arts like painting and sculpting. Quandrix focuses on the magic of mathematics and spatial control. Witherbloom is about the studies of biology, nature, as well as death and decay. Finally there is Silverquill, which focuses more on the bardic power of the performing arts and eloquence. By being an Initiate in one of these colleges, you instantly gain two cantrips and a level-one spell relevant to your college of choice. Better still, if you are not a dedicated magic-user class, the level one spell does not require a spell slot but can only be cast once per long rest. You can even choose which one of three stats (Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma) you use as your spellcasting modifier.
It's a surprisingly elegant solution. It doesn't devalue other magically aligned subclasses like the Arcane Trickster or the Eldritch Knight, nor does it oversaturate the game with overwrought mystical power gaming like the infamous DnD 3.5e supplements by Monte Cook.
A similar “less is more” approach seems to have happened with the new player race: the Owlin. These are intelligent owl people who are able to fly. Given how powerful and versatile flight can be, certain DMs might be worried about power gamers with this race. But aside from a single racial skill proficiency in Stealth (they are based on nocturnal predators after all), the ability to fly is all you get for racial bonuses if you roll an Owlin. This is in comparison to something like the Dhampir from Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft which gets the ability to Spider Climb for free, not needing to breathe, a free bite attack that can either heal or give temporary stat boosts, and an increase to their base walking speed all with no strings attached.
But Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos is more than just a bevy of new player options. True to the title's name, it includes a lot of additional mechanics and systems to properly simulate attending a magical college. The prewritten intro adventure, Campus Kerfuffle, was conventionally tame. There was a fight with a weakened Mimic and a scuffle with some Giant Frogs, all of which did tie into some sort of sinister goings on within Strixhaven's grounds. But what absolutely stole the show was how this supplement handles NPC relationships and major exams.
Both relationship statuses and your overall report card are handled via a Strixhaven Tracker. Each of the book's named NPC students all have their own preferred colleges, personalities, as well as hobbies and interests. As players interact with these characters – attending the same extracurricular activities together, bumping into each other at events, getting into arguments, etc. – Relationship Points are earned. These can turn any character into a rival, a good friend, or even a romantic partner.
And you are encouraged to get out and know people since you will need a study buddy. Since Strixhaven is a school, your players will need to take exams if they hope to graduate. In fact, milestones for leveling up in the rules as written are only obtained after passing these exams. Exams are broken up into two phases. First is the Studying Phase. You choose how you wish to study for the exam the day before, either by pulling an all-nighter with coffee, getting into a study group, or figuring out how to cheat. If you hit the appropriate DC, you can earn Student Dice, or even the ability to reroll an exam check. The second phase is the Exam Phase where players roll against two different DCs, with the results determining whether or not you failed or passed the exam.
Our first session ended with an exam and it was harrowing for my players. In a way it was hilarious. A Goliath Paladin, an Owlin Sorceror, and a Human Artificer tore a Mimic to pieces and bravely saved their fellow students from giant frogs running amok with the kind of frightening efficiency that only a veteran gaming group knows how to do. But the minute the exams started, they were sweating bullets, double guessing how prepared they were for it, and stressing out about it. Thankfully, they were no slouches either with book smarts. All of them aced their first exam much to the support (and some competitive ire) from their fellow students.
Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos still has a difficult road ahead of it. Mixing together the angst and antics of school life with the high-fantasy thrills of a Dungeons and Dragons adventure is not easy. But once our first session ended, my group was eager to see what else this prestigious academy had in store for them. As for how the rest of this world stacks up, that will require a bit more time.
Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos will be available for purchase on December 7.
The copy of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos used in this review was provided by Wizards of the Coast.