Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos - An In-Depth Review

Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos is the latest D&D 5E book based on a Magic the Gathering set. That's led a lot of people to refer to it as Harry Potter meets D&D, but that's not accurate for reasons I will explain below.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Wizards of the Coast has raised the bar when it comes to their adventures, sourcebooks, and supplements for Dungeons & Dragons, so to provide a more useful grading system, we will henceforth compare all new material to the best product WOTC has produced. This sourcebook/adventure is being compared to Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft (A+) and Wild Beyond the Witchlight (A+).

If Strixhaven had been released in the '80s, I think it would have been produced as a box set because it involves a variety of elements. Obviously, there's the setting of Strixhaven University, but that involves more than just player options. It also includes new mechanics to help simulate college life. Instead of just having an introductory adventure, SACoC has one for characters 1st through 10th level. It could be played straight through as a campaign or divided into four segments that can be played individually. Games within Strixhaven also have their own rules. It's rather amazing what's packed into its 224 pages.

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The Broad Overview​

Based on MtG's Strixhaven: School of Mages expansion from earlier this year, many people assumed the D&D version would be a school where wannabe wizards go to learn how to do magic. It's actually a university where magic is used and applied to various fields of study—history, eloquence, life and death, mathematics of nature, and the elemental arts, though it's even more complex than that. Each field of study contains opposing points like reason and emotion, order and chaos, etc. because the MtG card set has opposing colors that create philosophical tension within each college.

To put it another way, it's not a university about learning to become a spellcaster so much as a place where casters learn to apply their magic to specific disciplines. Most new students will already know a little magic. However, non-caster classes are also welcome at Strixhaven and the various colleges give examples of non-magical subclasses that could be attracted to a given Strixhaven college. A Strixhaven feat can give those subclasses a little magic of their own. More on that later.

Strixhaven has its own mythology and planar environment based on the MtG lore. A DM could also set the university in any campaign world from established ones like Forgotten Realms or Eberron to a homebrew campaign.

Regardless of the world setting, the five colleges of Strixhaven were founded by ancient dragons who were among the first beings to learn magic. The founding dragons, as they're referred to, are still alive and have turned the running of the colleges to their deans and are now out exploring. Students study broadly in their first year before selecting a college in their second year. The colleges within Strixhaven are:
  • Lorehold, the College of Archaeomancy
  • Prismari, the College of Elemental Arts
  • Quandrix, the College of Numeromancy
  • Silverquill, the College of Eloquence
  • Winterbloom, the College of Essence Studies
One of the hallmarks to SSoM is that each college contains “opposing forces” represented by opposing colors. In MtG the five colors (White, Blue, Red, Black, and Green) have distinct meanings that affect how cards of those colors are used and played. The D&D version expresses this through “philosophical tension” within each college. As a result, each college has two deans, each one representing one side of the debate. Strixhaven students, similarly, get two counselors after selecting their college.

The Strixhaven landscape also includes Snarls and Star Arches with the descriptions of both lifted almost exactly from MtG descriptions. Snarls are places where the Weave (in the D&D version) has tangled or knotted, causing magic there to be unpredictable, distorted, or magnified. Star Arches are geometric shapes that float, defying gravity. They're a mystery in both versions of Strixhaven, and some believe they occur in places of great magic. For those who like numbers, SACoC contains 45 stat blocks.

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Making a Student​

We previously got a peek at “owlfolk” in the Unearthed Arcana preview earlier this year. Now called “Owlin” this species is a player option that differs slightly from the UA version. The Magic Sight is gone and Darkvision is now 120 feet instead of 90. They keep Silent Feathers, but “Nimble Fight” is just “Flight” now—no reaction when falling. Owlin still look totally cool. Their wings are on their backs and they have clawed hands with normal arms.

Five new backgrounds are available, one for each college. In addition to spell proficiency, equipment, and languages, personality traits, a spell list, and trinkets are provided, as well as access to the Strixhaven Initiate Feat for their college. The Initiate Feat allows students to select two cantrips and one 1st level spell from the appropriate list. More importantly, they can cast that 1st level spell without a spell slot (it recharges on a long rest) or in any spell slot available. You also get to choose between Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma as the corresponding spellcasting ability when you select this feat

Besides fleshing out a player's spell list, this feat allows a character of a non-spellcaster subclass to have some magic. It won't make them the full magical equal of a spellcaster, but it reinforces the idea that anyone interested in the application of magic can attend Strixhaven.

At 4th level, a student with the Strixhaven Initiate Feat can choose to take the Strixhaven Mascot Feat. It starts off similar to the Find Familiar spell with the familiar looking like the mascot for the student's college.

In addition to the usual abilities a familiar has, two additional abilities are granted. The student can give up their attack action and grant it to their mascot. Also, if the mascot is within 60 feet, as a reaction the student can swap places with the mascot. To do this again it needs to either recharge on a long rest or the student has to expend a 2nd level spell slot.

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New Spells & Items​

If a previous edition had released a setting or adventure at a college of magic, it probably would have been accompanied by an abundance of new (or new to the edition) spells. SACoC only has five new spells because the current team has been careful to avoid system bloat or overpowering it. Despite the limited number, the Strixhaven spells have some distinct benefits.
  • Borrowed Knowledge (2nd level) provides proficiency in a chosen skill for one hour.
  • Kinetic Jaunt (2nd level) improves movement speed, allows the character to move through occupied space without difficult terrain limitations, and they don't provoke opportunity attacks for up to one minute.
  • Vortex Warp (2nd level) allows you to teleport a creature in range to another location in range if they fall a Constitution save. They can also choose to fail, and it scales at higher spell slots.
  • Silvery Barbs is an interesting 1st level spell. It's cast as a reaction when a creature within range succeeds on an attack, saving throw, or ability check, forcing that being to roll again and take the lower of the two rolls. I won't digress into a math geek tangent, but anyone familiar with probability can tell you that it means this 1st level spell could be very handy. Even better, the caster can then select one creature in range, including themselves, and grant advantage on that being's next attack, ability check or save roll.
  • Wither and Bloom (2nd level) is also useful. It imposes the magic of both life and death in a 10-foot radius sphere, forcing each being of your choice within to save vs. Constitution or take 2d6 necrotic damage, half on a save. Non-magical vegetation in the affected area also dies. At the same time, the caster can designate one person in the same area to spend and roll one of their unused Hit Dice and regain hit points equal to that plus the caster's spellcasting modifier. It also scales with a higher spell slot.
The book only includes eight new magic items, five of which are college primers. The latter have charges that can be used to provide a bonus on ability checks and, if you studied after a long rest, the ability to cast a chosen 1st level spell without a spell slot. The conditions on which abilities and spells this can be used with vary by the college.

My favorite new magic item is the Bottle of Boundless Coffee. If I could give such a thing to a few friends, the world would a better place.

The Strixhaven Pendant glows with light when activated. The Cuddly Strixhaven Mascot is a toy you can attach to yourself. The magic items are useful in the case of the primers and fun in the case of the rest, but only the Bottle of Boundless Coffee made me smile.

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Academic Life​

What makes SACoC unique from other D&D adventures is that the mystery and action has to be blended with the activities of a school year. Usually adventurers go off to another location or, even if they're campaigning in a city like Baldur's Gate, they're focusing on the adventure. Here, the adventure has to fit in among study, exams, extracurricular activities, and maybe even a job.

To support the setting and create the feeling of school year, SACoC offers tools and mechanics. A few of them could be implemented in other campaigns. First and easiest is a tracker to help characters manage the details needed for the school year.

Studying gives students a chance to reroll when taking Exams. Passing Exams provides Student Dice that they can use to add a d4 to an ability check involving one of the skills involved in an Exam they passed. Additional rules cover Pulling An All-Nighter, Studying Together, and Cheating.

Relationships, good and bad, are also a crucial part of the college experience. NPCs can be friends, beloved, or rivals. Relationship Points help the DM and players track how strong or difficult the relationship is. A Beloved Relationship can provide Beloved Inspiration, which functions similarly to the Inspiration rules in the Dungeon Masters Guide. Friends and Rivals can also provide Bond Boons and Bond Banes, respectively.

Extracurricular Activities allow characters to earn both Relationship Points and Student Dice. Jobs provide both money and Relationship Points. Indulge in so many Extracurricular Activities plus a job and it can affect Studying, which, in turn, can lead to failing Exams, mimicking real college life.

And what is college without interpersonal drama? SACoC includes 18 student NPCs that players can cross paths with in classes, on their job, at Extracurricular Activities, etc. How the characters interact with them will determine if the NPC is a Rival, Friend or Beloved.

Each NPC has a name, image, college, personality description, Bond Boon, Bond Bane, and maybe a job. An example of a Bond Bane is how that NPC might taunt or do things to make the character's life miserable. Bond Boons are favors that might be done for the character or advantages they receive as a result of the relationship with the NPC.

These student NPCs are not designed to go along when the PCs explore the mysterious events affecting Strixhaven. If, however, stat blocks are necessary, a chart correlate's that NPC's student year to the First Year, Apprentice, or Pledge Mage stat block for their college.

The NPCs also cover a nice span of species. Humans are the most common, but other NPCs are Fire Genasi, Owlin, Dryad, Gnome, Orc, Dwarf, and Elf. A Minotaur and Loxodon are also included, which means looking at Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica if you want more information.

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Academic Adventures​

The first adventure takes characters from 1st to 4th level. Campus Kerfuffle involves a variety of challenges and activities that allow the PCs to explore the university, get a feel for the colleges, acclimate to the school year, get into shenanigans, and get hints as the larger plot weaving through all four adventures.

The second adventure is Hunt for the Mage Tower, which is a reference to an intramural game played at Strixhaven. The core rules of that game were established in MtG's SSoM, and it is featured, obviously, in this adventure. Mage Tower isn’t just a Quidditch knock-off. Both are intramural sports played on a field where teams are trying score enough points to win, but Quidditch involves scoring by getting balls through hoops and capturing the Seeker ball. In Mage Tower, a team is score by stealing the opposite team's mascot and then bring that mascot back to their own Mage Tower. Spells can be cast during the game so long as the spells do not harm players, mascots or the audience.

The Magister's Masquerade is the third adventure, by which time the PCs will be 7th and then 8th level. The titular event is a major campus event for students and fancy dress ball. As before, students have to juggle plans for that event with studying and school activities as well as the larger mystery. By the end of this adventure, the PCs should know who the larger villain lurking behind the scenes is.

The last part of the adventure, A Reckoning in Ruins, will allow the PCs to progress through 9th to 10th level. I credit the writers for providing a reason why the faculty can't deal with the villain on their own—he has warded himself against their magics so they need the student's help to find him. After all, it's required trope of the magical school genre that the students actually save day, not the teachers, or to at least have the focus be on the students as the teachers help.

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The Good Bits​

I love a lot of SACoC. The team did an excellent job of creating the feel of college in a magical setting. It's obvious that a lot of thought went into essential elements that would need mechanics, like studying, exams, and relationships, and fleshing out things like Extracurricular Activities and on-campus jobs. The rules do what is necessary for the setting without bogging things down in unnecessary complexity. Instead they hit a sweet spot.

The NPC students and faculty are well done and have an interesting variety. While we only get one new player option, I really like the Owlin.

The D&D team has been experimenting with adventure types, which I really love, and SACoC fits in with that nicely. While the ultimate stakes in the campaign are serious, it’s lighter and more fun than Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden and Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus are. The change of pace is nice and an adventure without a lot of doom and gloom is appreciated during a pandemic.

I also like the novelty of having to juggle school, studying, exams, activities, and a job with solving mysteries and fighting villains. That also all combines for an adventure where players who enjoy role-playing can really sink their teeth into all of those elements to really have fun.

The art is great—consistent in tone and feel, and evocative of the setting. Some of it is recycled from MtG, but that doesn't diminish it in my opinion. Plenty of new art is included anyway. Scenes depicting people have a good range of types to reflect a truly cosmopolitan college.

The wide release cover by Magali Villeneuve sets the tone perfectly with students, including an Owlin, chatting while they study—or take a break from studying, depending upon how you look at it. The limited game store distribution cover by Hydro74 may be my favorite work by that artist yet. The cover is a symbol of unity while the back features sigils for all of the colleges.

WotC has been building flexibility in its recent books, more than just assuming that DMs will mix and adapt the published material. Strixhaven fits in very well with this. For example, the founding dragons could be mixed with some of the Fizban's Treasury of Dragons material, whether that means blending them with the gem dragons or others. The Wild Beyond the Witchlight sets the stage for potential student characters to start fresh and enrolling in Strixhaven could be their next step.

If you raid the published adventures for homebrew, like I do, SACoC gives you a lot of options. The NPCs could be used any number of ways. The relationship mechanics could be beneficial in a variety of campaign types, especially city-based campaigns where they'll run into a lot of people over and over again. The adventure is naturally divided into four parts. Each section has a paragraph or two on suggested changes if you're only running that segment by itself.

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The Disappointing Bits​

I like a lot about SACoC, especially the premise. However, the execution of converting MtG's Strixhaven: School of Mages into D&D's Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos was awkward when it came to describing the colleges. By contrast, I believe that Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica was a much better fit in adapting MtG concepts to D&D.

The issue partially lies in the fact that what works for a collectible card game doesn't necessarily fit an RPG, especially one with as distinctive a magic system as D&D. The problem wasn't insurmountable, but the writers seemed to go for the most convoluted explanation of the dichotomy at the heart of the “opposing forces” within each college.

For example, Silverquill is known as “the College of Eloquence”, but then SACoC describes Prismari's opposing forces as “Perfection and Expression” with its deans being the Dean of Perfection and the Dean of Expression. Wouldn't expression go with eloquence? SACoC then goes on to explain that “perfection and expression” actually represent “intellect vs. emotion.” That's a long way around to make the point.

By contrast, MtG describes Prismari mages as not seeing a difference between art and magic. The MtG version doesn't use fancy titles for the dichotomy. It refers instead to the colors of magic foundational to MtG, but even without the “perfection versus expression” label the MtG version is clearer in my opinion—Blue magic is artistic theory and training while Red is elementalism, so students magically harness the elements to create art. That’s much easier to comprehend than the SACoC version, which describes how Prismari can overlap with Lorehold and Silverquill without really improving the clarity much.

Witherbloom is another example of how the first chapter makes what could be clear but thematically rich opposites unnecessarily convoluted. It's also especially frustrating because the name of this college captures the dichotomy beautifully—bloom and wither. The MtG version talks about how Green magic focuses on life energy and growth. At Winterbloom the Black magic is about necromancy and dark spells fueled by decay. That's also clear and easy to understand.

Instead of something that simple or even talking about how students at “the College of Essence Studies” manipulate life energy to either encourage further growth or exploit decay for powerful means, SACoC refers to its dichotomy as “Root and Vein”. The latter makes me think of blood, which is essential to life, but SACoC uses “vein” to represent decay. It then goes onto to explain that vampires frequently favor this side of Winterbloom, which helps, but the point could have been made more easily.

Similarly, Silverquill is the College of Eloquence, but then that's labeled as having opposing philosophies of Radiance and Shadow because “students learn to manifest brilliant light or inky darkness”. What does that have to do with eloquence? The MtG version is more to the point—Silverquill's White magic uses the power of language to inspire and uplift while its Black magic uses the power of language to attack enemies and reveal stinging truth.

Ultimately, the SACoC descriptions do work, but while reading them I often felt like I was reading a dry textbook or the brochure for a college trying to demonstrate its lofty scholarship instead of actually focused on appealing to and attracting students. Coming in the first chapter made it worse because this where you want to pull in readers and make sure they're hooked. It should make me want to reach for my editing red pen.

My other complaint might seem trivial, but the big villain annoys me. He feels weird, not particularly threatening, and more comical than dangerous. Maybe that was deliberate to show that not all villains have to angst ridden or to show that even unconventional can be a threat. It felt like a letdown for an otherwise enjoyable adventure.

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The Conclusion: B+​

I like SACoC a lot and recommend it with a few caveats. First, if you're expecting Harry Potter dropped into the D&D multiverse, SACoC isn't it. Magical schools come in a variety of styles from Ursula K. LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea to Sarah Gailey's Magic for Liars and Diana Wynn Jones' Witch Week in the Chrestomanci series to Lev Grossman's The Magicians and beyond, and the MtG card set draws from such a broader range of inspirations. It's also firmly focused on college-age students, not 11-year-olds heading off to Hogwarts. I recommend Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos if you:
  • Want a fresh adventure approach
  • Enjoy the magical school genre
  • Like or are interested in MtG to D&D setting adaptations
  • Want an adventure with a lot of opportunities for role-playing
  • Are in the mood for a more light-hearted adventure that still has action and drama
As I said above, I didn't like how this group of writers translated the meanings of MtG's color magic system into the college descriptions. They are using the same concepts, but the execution in the first chapter was a turn off. I was excited to learn about the colleges, but it soon felt like my eyes were glazing over while I tried to grasp their awkward labels. I'm not sure if the writer(s) of that section was trying too hard to distinguish the material from the MtG or maybe they thought these labels and descriptions were elevating it, but it didn't work for me. After reading the whole book, it bothered me less when I went back and reread that part of the first chapter, but that shouldn't be necessary. I think I'm more surprised than anything because it seems like a self-inflicted wound to the project.

I also wanted more on the school. Nothing felt skimpy so maybe the thought that went into on-campus locations and jobs, etc. just whetted my appetite for more, but I wish the section on the school had been even longer.

If Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos had come out earlier in the year, I would have given it an A- because the adventure has a fresh approach and there is lot of good content in the book. But after Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft and The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, the D&D team has raised the bar, so it gets a B+ from me.
 

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Beth Rimmels

Beth Rimmels


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whimsychris123

Adventurer
I happen to really like the setting, but I’m frustrated with this “sourcebook.” I sure wish they had focused more on the setting and less on the adventure. It feels incomplete.

I would have liked more info on the world and student life, such as dorm rooms/residence halls, cafeteria food, more sports, more clubs, lists of more classes, off-campus hangouts, etc. The world itself has so little detail. For example, Lorehold College sits on top of ruins. What ruins? Where do they come from? What about the Oriq? Can we get more details about them? The world just doesn’t seem very fleshed out. I literally was able to find further information on the M:tG website to get more details on the setting that isn’t in this 224 page “sourcebook.”

All might have been forgiven if we had a better adventure. The adventure itself seems very railroad-y and also half conceived. The villain isn’t particularly scary or interesting, his motive being particularly weak. And it really takes a lot of DM work to make each school year feel fully conceived and memorable.

That said, I like the setting enough that I plan to run a campaign. But I have some work cut out for myself to truly make it seem like a complete world and a thrilling adventure.
 
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AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
Insulting? Please.

I didn't write BadRavenloft or Ravenbad 2.0 or some other such thing. And even if I did, that's not offensive either.

If those pearls get clutched any harder they'll turn into diamonds.
The people who are outraged by the changes in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft are the ones that are "clutching pearls". It's perfectly fine if you don't like the changes, but to call it "BadRavenloft", "Ravenbad 2.0", or "Wokenloft" (as I've seen some people online call it) is the pearl clutching, not the people that actually enjoy it and don't appreciate something they like being called that.

It's not "pearl clutching" to object to people smack-talking something you enjoy. That would be like accusing someone of pearl clutching when they say that they don't like it when their favorite TV show is insulted by someone else.

You don't have to like it, but you also don't have to insult it and call something that people enjoy bad just because you have a different opinion.

(Side Note: Pearls are primarily composed of calcium, so clutching them, no matter how hard, will almost definitely not turn them into diamonds, which are made out of pure carbon.)
 


TheSword

Legend
The people who are outraged by the changes in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft are the ones that are "clutching pearls". It's perfectly fine if you don't like the changes, but to call it "BadRavenloft", "Ravenbad 2.0", or "Wokenloft" (as I've seen some people online call it) is the pearl clutching, not the people that actually enjoy it and don't appreciate something they like being called that.

It's not "pearl clutching" to object to people smack-talking something you enjoy. That would be like accusing someone of pearl clutching when they say that they don't like it when their favorite TV show is insulted by someone else.

You don't have to like it, but you also don't have to insult it and call something that people enjoy bad just because you have a different opinion.

(Side Note: Pearls are primarily composed of calcium, so clutching them, no matter how hard, will almost definitely not turn them into diamonds, which are made out of pure carbon.)
To be fair to @eyeheartawk , he didn’t call it any of those things. He called it NuRavenloft and got slapped down for it.

Which is odd as it seems as good a way of describing the wordy title Van Richtens Guide to Ravenloft, as distinct from original Ravenloft.

I for one, think a system that bases it’s scoring on a comparison to other products scores to be a bit flawed. I certainly wouldn’t rate Wild Beyond the Witchlight as A+ and I would struggle to give the same for The-New-Version-of-Ravenloft. So a system that references them as the gold standard, is saying from the start that the score is off.

I’m also confused by the principle of scoring 5e books differently to other products. If someone is deciding to buy something or not and its being scored lower than another publisher as a matter of policy I find that a bit off. That kind of thing is going to undermine confidence in the accuracy of the site’s reviews.
 
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eyeheartawk

#1 Enworld Jerk™
The people who are outraged by the changes in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft are the ones that are "clutching pearls". It's perfectly fine if you don't like the changes, but to call it "BadRavenloft", "Ravenbad 2.0", or "Wokenloft" (as I've seen some people online call it) is the pearl clutching, not the people that actually enjoy it and don't appreciate something they like being called that.

It's not "pearl clutching" to object to people smack-talking something you enjoy. That would be like accusing someone of pearl clutching when they say that they don't like it when their favorite TV show is insulted by someone else.

You don't have to like it, but you also don't have to insult it and call something that people enjoy bad just because you have a different opinion.

(Side Note: Pearls are primarily composed of calcium, so clutching them, no matter how hard, will almost definitely not turn them into diamonds, which are made out of pure carbon.)
Please, re-read what I wrote.

I specifically write that I didn't call it those things. Writing Nu-Ravenloft instead of takes deep breath Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft is not insulting in any rational universe. It's clearly shorthand. That aside, my assertion that even if I had, it would be non-issue I stand by. Like, it's offensive to you that somebody doesn't like the inanimate object/thing and makes fun of it that is personally offensive to you, the living breathing person who is clearly distinct from the inanimate object/thing in question? If that's the case, yeah man, maybe it's time to take a step back for minute.

Also, I'm aware that crushing pearls will not yield diamonds, but it's not nearly as pithy.
 


JThursby

Adventurer
I’m also confused by the principle of scoring 5e books differently to other products. If someone is deciding to buy something or not and its being scored lower than another publisher as a matter of policy I find that a bit off. That kind of thing is going to undermine confidence in the accuracy of the site’s reviews.
If that’s the intent with this new scoring policy I’m highly against that. Doesn’t matter it’s meant to boost or diminish WOTC works, I’d rather have them compared flat out to the competition. The curve being laid out also doesn’t make sense to me; I thought Ravenloft was pretty good and witchlight was a bit boring, neither would be top of the list in my book, so having both be the gold standard of the edition already says the ratings aren’t going to reflect how I find value in the books. I suspect many other posters feel the same way.
 


Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
When it comes to games and game books, I always preferred the tv show XPlay scoring's method for scoring game and gaming related stuff. 5 points. Unfinished/Broken/Worthless, Bad/VeryNiche, Fine/GoodAndBad, Great/Niche, Perfect/MustBuy.

Especially when it comes for a game like D&D that goes in 50 different directions, I feel the only fair way to judge product for it is a combination of its goodness and specialization.
 


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