Review Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos - First Party Review

Sparky McDibben

Adventurer
Throne of Glass is a YA novel by Sarah J Maas, in which a teenaged assassin is offered commutation if she will serve as the crown's personal killer. The only catch? She's got to exceed everyone else in the running for the job.

So there I was, one rainy day in the Barnes & Ignoble, and I'm looking for something to read for a couple of hours while my car's being fixed (this was back before I had kids and still had time to do stuff like burn two hours in a bookstore). So I pick up Throne, read the blurb and think, "Well this sounds great! Kickass hijinks, high action, and since it's YA, there's probably a neat romance angle in there too." I sat down, read it, and concluded that it was not for me. The promised action was quickly subsumed by the POV character forming a book club, getting into a love triangle, and discussing the myriad ways in which menstruation makes assassin training not fun (I empathize; that sounds naughty word). So I chalked it up to a divide between the author's vision and the marketing team's angle, and put the book down. But I frequently think back to it as a textbook example of how not to market a product.

I tell y'all this so you'll know how I usually deal with media that disappoint me - I just put them down and walk away. Strixhaven falls into a different category, that of "Products That Actively Piss Me Off," for reasons we'll discuss at the end.

Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos is the third (and so far, final) Magic: The Gathering setting released in a D&D supplement. It released 12/21 in the US for $49.95. I was excited as hell for this; I put it on pre-order for my Christmas gift that year. Theros had been excellent in helping realize divine beings' role in a campaign. Ravnica was genuinely revolutionary and helped usher in no fewer than six intrigue campaigns in my personal knock-off city. So getting a Magic setting for a magical school? Oh buddy, I was over the moon.

And then I sat down to read it and just...felt all of that excitement drain out of me. Strixhaven isn't just poorly designed and written. It's actively subversive to the characters making meaningful choices, which is the whole experience I am seeking in an RPG.

So in this review, I am going to go through Strixhaven and we're going to see what I mean. I'm going to take this chapter by chapter, and we'll discuss the various ways it removes agency, dismisses player choice, and fails to consider practically even the most obvious player actions (thereby setting the DM up to fail). At the same time, we're going to discuss what Strixhaven gets right, because there are some things it does very well, and that I think can be ported over and learned from. At the end, I want to take everything here and discuss how I would run a magical school campaign, how we can use Strixhaven's materials to make it more interesting, and what we can do to have some more fun with this material. As always, if you like Strixhaven and this is your absolute jam, this is not any attack on you. My tastes differ from yours, and I'm just offering my opinion on the work.

Things I will not be covering:
  • Anything not in the book; if you've got developer interviews, live-plays that "prove it can be fun," etc., go ahead and post them, but I'm not factoring that into my analysis here
  • The impact of any of the spells / magic items / backgrounds outside of the Strixhaven setting
One thing I want to clear up: Strixhaven ain't Harry Potter. Strixhaven also ain't an adventuring academy. Strixhaven is very clearly dealing with adult or near-adult students, in the context of the American higher-education system. No, not the one we actually have, but some kind of utopian made-up one that only exists in John Hughes' fever dreams. For example, you could reasonably expect stories set in higher education to deal with / comment on:
  • Student inequality on campus (wealth, race, gender, ableist, etc)
  • The predatory nature of student lending
  • The exploitative nature of student athletics
  • The frequently brutal nature of faculty politics, assignments, and perquisites
  • How underfunding the education system places students and educators at risk
  • The risks imposed by censorship or political control over curricula
  • The benefits provided by higher education, including the specific case for studying the humanities
If you thought Strixhaven was going to deal with any of these, congratulations! You have thought more about this book than the developers did. Strixhaven instead deals with the more pressing matters of frog racing, steam mephits harassing kitchen staff, and magical sports. Now, if you were worried there might be some stakes to any of this, don't be! If anyone falls unconscious, a faculty member shows up, deals with the problem, heals the PCs, and tells them, "Better luck next time, champ." Did you want to treat social stakes seriously and wonder if your character might be expelled for misbehavior? Nope! It never comes up. Wondering how your PC will afford tuition at this elite university? Well, don't! There's no map for the bursar's office, and it's never ever described how anyone pays for college.

Are you also wondering how they square the circle of having an Edenic, safe, respectful college while also having opportunities to adventure? Please stop. The adventure mostly handwaves this concern with, "The teachers are caught out of position to stop the threat; only the PCs can help!" This, of course, raises two questions in my mind. 1) How often does this happen? Are there just mounds of dead students not coming back from field trips? 2) How do these poor teachers not all have PTSD? If they're busy trying (and failing) to save students, how do they deal with the stress? God I bet alcoholism is secretly rampant here!

This is why the "It's low stakes! Don't overthink it!" argument fails to move me. It's not "low-stakes" it's a complete lack of stakes.

So let's GET STARTED ON STRIXHAVEN!!!!! All aboard the Strixhaven Express, the railroad the book never mentions but you should definitely put in!

Strixhaven retails for $27.99 on Amazon, but $49.99 from Wizards of the Coast. It details a magical school, Strixhaven University, where students use magic to enhance their studies. The vibe they're going for here seems to be somewhere between "utopian" and "Edenic." The students never need to worry about tuition, never need to refill their meal plan, and there's an occasional owlbear rampage but the teachers deal with it. This might be going for lighthearted, low-stakes storytelling, but the text functionally offers no stakes the PCs need to be worried about.

Strixhaven is governed by five different magic colleges. Lorehold is mostly concerned with history, Prismari with art, Quandrix with math, Silverquill with social sciences, and Witherbloom with life sciences. All five adjoin the central campus, with all five being on separate demiplanes linked to the main campus in the middle. Each college was founded by a dragon who embodies the tensions within each college that produce magic itself. So within Witherbloom, magic is produced by the tension between life and death, and only a true master can fully understand both. The idea of magic as a dialectic is genuinely interesting worldbuilding! Honestly, I wish it went somewhere, but it's mostly just ignored for the rest of the book.

After that, we get into Chapter 1: Life on Campus. This 20-page chapter leads off with a quick discussion of how students chart their courses of study. Each student gets two faculty members who coach them in the nuances of that particular college, helping those students decide which part of the false dichotomy of the college to engage with. So in Prismari, you might have one professor who encourages you to refine your technical skill (Perfection) and another who encourages you to view life itself as a canvas you can paint on (Expression). How does this inform class selection? Don't know. The book literally never makes any of this concrete. A lot of this is walls of text that could be safely cut without risk. There's literally a section on what an instructor is.

The main campus is detailed in a few pages, including the professor emeritus' house, the local café, library, etc. This is all thumbnail sketches, with notes that "This location comes up in Chapter X." So if you want the map for the Firejolt Café, it's located in the encounter about frog-racing. Hope you like bookmarking.

After that, each college is detailed in a three-page spread. Each college has the conflicts within it detailed pretty thoroughly. Each college also has five faculty described, though it's never really identified why a dean would interact with undergrads that extensively. Each campus also has some key areas get roughly described, and then we're on to the next college. This is good information to know, but none of it keys into an adventure, or an encounter, or really anything I can use to put in front of my players:

Ce8QzCM.png

Thanks! What the hell do I do with this?
Like, that's good to know that the Lorehold campus has this massive row of effigies you can walk into, but what the hell do I do with that to create an adventure? Where, in fact, is the adventure in this book? It's full of happy, well-adjusted people having fun! That's awesome! It's also kinda boring. There's nothing to do; no adventure to be had. By this point in Ravnica I had at least three characters I wanted to play. In Theros I was gobsmacked by how much my gods were leaving on the table when they've been interacting with PCs. Here? I got nothing.

The phrase I most associate with Strixhaven is "missed opportunity." They really could have made this book shine. I mourn what could have been; but that's it for tonight, y'all. Tomorrow, Sparky's gotta go do some BUDGETING!!!

Oh Yeah GIF

BUDGETS ARE RAW CHAOS UPON WHICH WE INSTILL THE WILL TO LIVE, BROTHER!!!

Next time, folks, tune it to discuss Chapter 2: Character Options!
 

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Libertad

Hero
And then I sat down to read it and just...felt all of that excitement drain out of me. Strixhaven isn't just poorly designed and written. It's actively subversive to the characters making meaningful choices, which is the whole experience I am seeking in an RPG.

I found Strixhaven to be downright soulless in comparison to a lot of other WotC campaigns on the market. Even with less than stellar ones, you still had an outline for an adventure, challenges to face, villains to vanquish. Stakes of some kind. Strixhaven feels like someone's unfinished draft, or one of those systemless online RPs that are more like collaborative creating writing exercises than a TTRPG centered around heroics and derring-do.

If you thought Strixhaven was going to deal with any of these, congratulations! You have thought more about this book than the developers did. Strixhaven instead deals with the more pressing matters of frog racing, steam mephits harassing kitchen staff, and magical sports. Now, if you were worried there might be some stakes to any of this, don't be! If anyone falls unconscious, a faculty member shows up, deals with the problem, heals the PCs, and tells them, "Better luck next time, champ." Did you want to treat social stakes seriously and wonder if your character might be expelled for misbehavior? Nope! It never comes up. Wondering how your PC will afford tuition at this elite university? Well, don't! There's no map for the bursar's office, and it's never ever described how anyone pays for college.

I'm reminded of how in Dragonlance: Shadows of the Dragon Queen there were several events that would ask for PCs to roll a skill check or do something else with an element of risk...then either have it so the adventure can't continue on a failure or the adventure proceeds as normal regardless of the result. Strixhaven is a more blatant example of this, but I feel that WotC is growing increasingly allergic to adventures that allow for variable outcomes. A sandbox format like in Curse of Strahd could do a good job of giving more player freedom without expanding the page count, but that adventure was lightning in a bottle and I don't think those are the company's strong suit anymore.

After that, we get into Chapter 1: Life on Campus. This 20-page chapter leads off with a quick discussion of how students chart their courses of study. Each student gets two faculty members who coach them in the nuances of that particular college, helping those students decide which part of the false dichotomy of the college to engage with. So in Prismari, you might have one professor who encourages you to refine your technical skill (Perfection) and another who encourages you to view life itself as a canvas you can paint on (Expression). How does this inform class selection? Don't know. The book literally never makes any of this concrete. A lot of this is walls of text that could be safely cut without risk. There's literally a section on what an instructor is.

I may be skipping ahead, but this is also something I really disliked about the book. The actual mechanics for study are relegated to a few Exams that boil down to a singular skill challenge. And your reward is a 1d4 Student Die you can add onto a check relevant to the Exam and is gone once you spend it. Literally Discount Guidance.

I get that actual homework is overlooked in a lot of school-based media, but if you're studying at a MAGIC SCHOOL, I'm expecting that being a good student will let you do magical things better or have some kind of substantial benefit to show for it.


The phrase I most associate with Strixhaven is "missed opportunity." They really could have made this book shine. I mourn what could have been; but that's it for tonight, y'all. Tomorrow, Sparky's gotta go do some BUDGETING!!!

Oh Yeah GIF

BUDGETS ARE RAW CHAOS UPON WHICH WE INSTILL THE WILL TO LIVE, BROTHER!!!

Next time, folks, tune it to discuss Chapter 2: Character Options!

Strixhaven was kind of the nail in the coffin for me for expecting quality work from WotC. Now I treat every new release on the same level as taking a gamble in buying an obscure third party product from the DM's Guild. I realize that this might sound harsh, but with WotC's other scandals and low quality work I don't have much faith in them in general. While I did sort of like 5e Dragonlance, it's honestly disappointing that a AAA developer in the TTRPG space released such a book in its unfinished state.

  • Anything not in the book; if you've got developer interviews, live-plays that "prove it can be fun," etc., go ahead and post them, but I'm not factoring that into my analysis here
  • The impact of any of the spells / magic items / backgrounds outside of the Strixhaven setting

I don't have anything like this to share specifically, but there is a cottage industry of both professional content creators on the DM's Guild, a subreddit for DMs, and an accompanying Discord group dedicated to plugging up the many holes in the default adventure. And from what I've seen of some of them, they do quite a stellar job in filling up the adventure with bonus content and actual mechanics to the studying and social relationships. People really want a Dungeons & Dragons magic school adventure/setting; you don't see this kind of fanwork for Tyranny of Dragons, which going by several online rankings is the only adventure that scores consistently worse than Strixhaven.

And while I can respect the work these people are doing, it still feels icky in that a lot of this is the kind of thing WotC should've done. It's giving me flashbacks to unpaid modders patching the bugs in Bethesda games the parent company never seems to get around fixing when their rereleases hit store shelves.
 
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Sparky McDibben

Adventurer
I found Strixhaven to be downright soulless in comparison to a lot of other WotC campaigns on the market. Even with less than stellar ones, you still had an outline for an adventure, challenges to face, villains to vanquish. Stakes of some kind. Strixhaven feels like someone's unfinished draft, or one of those systemless online RPs that are more like collaborative creating writing exercises than a TTRPG centered around heroics and derring-do.
Very much agreed.

A sandbox format like in Curse of Strahd could do a good job of giving more player freedom without expanding the page count, but that adventure was lightning in a bottle and I don't think those are the company's strong suit anymore.
Yeah, but it shouldn't be. Hell, Drakkenheim told them how to do it with their own system! Why are these later adventures so bad?

Strixhaven was kind of the nail in the coffin for me for expecting quality work from WotC. Now I treat every new release on the same level as taking a gamble in buying an obscure third party product from the DM's Guild. I realize that this might sound harsh, but with WotC's other scandals and low quality work I don't have much faith in them in general. While I did sort of like 5e Dragonlance, it's honestly disappointing that a AAA developer in the TTRPG space released such a book in its unfinished state.
It was the last book I bought from WotC, and will probably be the last book I buy from them for the foreseeable future (due to both quality issues and the OGL debacle).

I don't have anything like this to share specifically, but there is a cottage industry of both professional content creators on the DM's Guild, a subreddit for DMs, and an accompanying Discord group dedicated to plugging up the many holes in the default adventure. And from what I've seen of some of them, they do quite a stellar job in filling up the adventure with bonus content and actual mechanics to the studying and social relationships.
That's great! If you've got any reviews you want to link to, or subreddits you want to drop in here, feel free!

Alright friends! Let's keep it going with Chapter 2: Character Options!

This chapter covers a lot in only 12 pages. The first character option is a new race: the owlin! They're adorable owl people with Stealth proficiency, 30' fly speed, and 120' of darkvision. The owlin are, broadly, inoffensive. My only complaint is that we don't get any socio-cultural background like we do for elves or dwarves, so they feel very tabula rasa. Meh.

The next section talks about how choosing a college impacts your character. It includes this delightful prose:
6kJkMo9.png

Choosing a College, Step One: Choose a College
I'm honestly not sure if this was an intentional tautology, or just happened through sloppy editing. Either way, not great. The colleges express themselves mechanically through backgrounds; each college has a unique background. Each one gives you two skill proficiencies, language or tool proficiencies, the Strixhaven Initiate feat, and ten extra spells on your spells known list. Each spells added list has a unique spell for that school (so silvery barbs, as an example).

I have three broad issues with this as a design decision. First, the backgrounds only have personality traits and trinkets. There are no ideals, bonds, or flaws. So it's less of a background and more of a "One Fun Quirk!" I hate this; if you're going to have backgrounds in your game, for God's sake make them interesting to players. This is low-hanging fruit. My second issue is that the spells chosen are not very thematic to the college's aesthetics. For example, Witherbloom has the first level spells cure wounds and inflict wounds. OK, that should be fine for the college that's all about growth and decay, but what does cure wounds have to do with growth? Why not entangle, or goodberry? It's kind of baffling when you're reading this; it's like they made choices that deliberately screw up the aesthetics they're working so hard to set up. Finally, my third issue is that these extra spells only add to what you can cast if you have the Spellcasting or Pact Magic features. So if you're playing a battlemaster fighter...good luck?

I have no problem with a magic school helping students learn magic; I simply think that magic needs to be better focused toward the school, and I think everyone should gain the ability to use it. Rather than add spells onto a spell list, I'd almost prefer an invocation-like system, where you got additional benefits from the school as you level up.

Alright, onto Feats! There are two: Strixhaven Initiate (which everyone is expected to have via their background), and Strixhaven Mascot. Initiate gives you (in addition to the 10 extra spells known) two extra cantrips from a list of three and a first level spell known (by college - hilariously, guidance is an option for Quandrix, rendering almost every other Student Dice bonus you get later completely moot). This might be salvageable if it gave you the Spellcasting feature, but it doesn't, so no thanks.

Strixhaven Mascot lets you summon a mascot (which all have statblocks in the book) as a familiar. These guys are all about 1/4 CR, significantly higher than most regular familiars, and all have special abilities they can use. I don't think it's terribly interesting, but you do you.

After this, we get into the new spells. These have mostly been discussed to death, especially silvery barbs. In broad terms, I don't actually have a problem with any of these, including silvery barbs, but I'm significantly less focused on mechanical balance than most other DMs. I also haven't seen these in actual play, so I can't really make a determination. So this gets a shrug from me.

Alright, we're keeping this train a-moving with Magic Items! There are eight new magic items, including the bottle of boundless coffee, a magic item that can magically give you arrhythmia (OK, it doesn't do that in the game, just in real life). Then there are the various college primers. Each primer has three charges. Spending a charge will let you add 1d4 to one of two specific skill checks (so Lorehold, the history college, gives you +1d4 to History and Religion checks). Alternatively, you can choose a 1st level spell to cast without spending a spell slot. Hooray! Free shield spells all around! I mean, you could use it for other stuff, but we all know that shield is what it's actually going to be used for.

And finally, we get this little thing:

A7nJVPs.png

MgXmj74.png

Here, have a plushie in case you get scared at this elite magical college!
Every character here should be a grown-ass person. Personally, I would find this ferociously infantilizing. Like, seriously? Come the hell on, you utter douchenozzles.

Alright, y'all, next time we're going to get into the actual adventures at Strixhaven with Chapter 3: School Is In Session!
 

NRSASD

Villager
Oh dear. That college selection paragraph really was written by college students padding out the word count!

We had our own magic campaign pre-Strixhaven and we made it both wondrous and lethal by having all of the PC students be dirt poor newcomers. It rapidly turned out the school was less a place for education and more a polite way for archmages to insult one another by sabotaging their apprentices (aka us). Tremendous fun and deeply alarming because we never knew how much of the chaos was a deliberate wizard plot out to spite our instructors or just rampant magical energy running loose.

The one thing I do love about silvery barbs (if I remember right) is that it goes off only on a die roll failure. This means there is an in-character way to detect which actions require die rolls and which do not, which is hilarious. Knowing my players, they would stop being adventurers and open a theoretical physics lab to analyze these results immediately.

“The Gods play dice with the universe, and now we have proof!”
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Very much agreed.


Yeah, but it shouldn't be. Hell, Drakkenheim told them how to do it with their own system! Why are these later adventures so bad?


It was the last book I bought from WotC, and will probably be the last book I buy from them for the foreseeable future (due to both quality issues and the OGL debacle).


That's great! If you've got any reviews you want to link to, or subreddits you want to drop in here, feel free!

Alright friends! Let's keep it going with Chapter 2: Character Options!

This chapter covers a lot in only 12 pages. The first character option is a new race: the owlin! They're adorable owl people with Stealth proficiency, 30' fly speed, and 120' of darkvision. The owlin are, broadly, inoffensive. My only complaint is that we don't get any socio-cultural background like we do for elves or dwarves, so they feel very tabula rasa. Meh.

The next section talks about how choosing a college impacts your character. It includes this delightful prose:
6kJkMo9.png

Choosing a College, Step One: Choose a College
I'm honestly not sure if this was an intentional tautology, or just happened through sloppy editing. Either way, not great. The colleges express themselves mechanically through backgrounds; each college has a unique background. Each one gives you two skill proficiencies, language or tool proficiencies, the Strixhaven Initiate feat, and ten extra spells on your spells known list. Each spells added list has a unique spell for that school (so silvery barbs, as an example).

I have three broad issues with this as a design decision. First, the backgrounds only have personality traits and trinkets. There are no ideals, bonds, or flaws. So it's less of a background and more of a "One Fun Quirk!" I hate this; if you're going to have backgrounds in your game, for God's sake make them interesting to players. This is low-hanging fruit. My second issue is that the spells chosen are not very thematic to the college's aesthetics. For example, Witherbloom has the first level spells cure wounds and inflict wounds. OK, that should be fine for the college that's all about growth and decay, but what does cure wounds have to do with growth? Why not entangle, or goodberry? It's kind of baffling when you're reading this; it's like they made choices that deliberately screw up the aesthetics they're working so hard to set up. Finally, my third issue is that these extra spells only add to what you can cast if you have the Spellcasting or Pact Magic features. So if you're playing a battlemaster fighter...good luck?

I have no problem with a magic school helping students learn magic; I simply think that magic needs to be better focused toward the school, and I think everyone should gain the ability to use it. Rather than add spells onto a spell list, I'd almost prefer an invocation-like system, where you got additional benefits from the school as you level up.

Alright, onto Feats! There are two: Strixhaven Initiate (which everyone is expected to have via their background), and Strixhaven Mascot. Initiate gives you (in addition to the 10 extra spells known) two extra cantrips from a list of three and a first level spell known (by college - hilariously, guidance is an option for Quandrix, rendering almost every other Student Dice bonus you get later completely moot). This might be salvageable if it gave you the Spellcasting feature, but it doesn't, so no thanks.

Strixhaven Mascot lets you summon a mascot (which all have statblocks in the book) as a familiar. These guys are all about 1/4 CR, significantly higher than most regular familiars, and all have special abilities they can use. I don't think it's terribly interesting, but you do you.

After this, we get into the new spells. These have mostly been discussed to death, especially silvery barbs. In broad terms, I don't actually have a problem with any of these, including silvery barbs, but I'm significantly less focused on mechanical balance than most other DMs. I also haven't seen these in actual play, so I can't really make a determination. So this gets a shrug from me.

Alright, we're keeping this train a-moving with Magic Items! There are eight new magic items, including the bottle of boundless coffee, a magic item that can magically give you arrhythmia (OK, it doesn't do that in the game, just in real life). Then there are the various college primers. Each primer has three charges. Spending a charge will let you add 1d4 to one of two specific skill checks (so Lorehold, the history college, gives you +1d4 to History and Religion checks). Alternatively, you can choose a 1st level spell to cast without spending a spell slot. Hooray! Free shield spells all around! I mean, you could use it for other stuff, but we all know that shield is what it's actually going to be used for.

And finally, we get this little thing:

A7nJVPs.png

MgXmj74.png

Here, have a plushie in case you get scared at this elite magical college!
Every character here should be a grown-ass person. Personally, I would find this ferociously infantilizing. Like, seriously? Come the hell on, you utter douchenozzles.

Alright, y'all, next time we're going to get into the actual adventures at Strixhaven with Chapter 3: School Is In Session!
Regarding the owlin, WotC has of late decided to forgo providing virtually any socio-cultural background to any of their mechanics, presumably to minimize any possibly of anyone being offending and telling people not to buy their stuff via social media.

Doesn't appear to be necessary in this case.
 

Libertad

Hero
Very much agreed.


Yeah, but it shouldn't be. Hell, Drakkenheim told them how to do it with their own system! Why are these later adventures so bad?

Laziness.


That's great! If you've got any reviews you want to link to, or subreddits you want to drop in here, feel free!

Strixhaven DMs is the subreddit, and this is their accompanying Discord. The subreddit's quite popular, with around 5,000 members. It ain't no r/curseofstrahd, but it has an active community and people regularly chiming in regarding those asking for advice.

Alright friends! Let's keep it going with Chapter 2: Character Options!

This chapter covers a lot in only 12 pages. The first character option is a new race: the owlin! They're adorable owl people with Stealth proficiency, 30' fly speed, and 120' of darkvision. The owlin are, broadly, inoffensive. My only complaint is that we don't get any socio-cultural background like we do for elves or dwarves, so they feel very tabula rasa. Meh.

There exists hardly anything about the world of Arcavios at large, either. Strixhaven more or less begins and ends at the school.

I have three broad issues with this as a design decision. First, the backgrounds only have personality traits and trinkets. There are no ideals, bonds, or flaws. So it's less of a background and more of a "One Fun Quirk!" I hate this; if you're going to have backgrounds in your game, for God's sake make them interesting to players. This is low-hanging fruit. My second issue is that the spells chosen are not very thematic to the college's aesthetics. For example, Witherbloom has the first level spells cure wounds and inflict wounds. OK, that should be fine for the college that's all about growth and decay, but what does cure wounds have to do with growth? Why not entangle, or goodberry? It's kind of baffling when you're reading this; it's like they made choices that deliberately screw up the aesthetics they're working so hard to set up. Finally, my third issue is that these extra spells only add to what you can cast if you have the Spellcasting or Pact Magic features. So if you're playing a battlemaster fighter...good luck?

We got a more refined version of this in Dragonlance: Shadows of the Dragon Queen, where all PCs got a bonus feat at 1st and 4th level. And some of those bonus feats required an appropriate background, like the Mages of High Sorcery and Knights of Solamnia. Strixhaven more or less assumes you will take those 5 school-based backgrounds instead of using backgrounds from other sourcebooks. The Dragonlance writers were keen enough to realize that not everyone is going to want to be a Sturm or Raistlin knockoff, so they still had more general feats given out.

I do agree with you about the backgrounds really screwing over noncasters. Then again, someone opting to be a non-EK Fighter or something in this campaign is already an odd choice. But giving them something like "you can use any of these spells once per long rest" would've been an acceptable conceit.

Alright, we're keeping this train a-moving with Magic Items! There are eight new magic items, including the bottle of boundless coffee, a magic item that can magically give you arrhythmia (OK, it doesn't do that in the game, just in real life). Then there are the various college primers. Each primer has three charges. Spending a charge will let you add 1d4 to one of two specific skill checks (so Lorehold, the history college, gives you +1d4 to History and Religion checks). Alternatively, you can choose a 1st level spell to cast without spending a spell slot. Hooray! Free shield spells all around! I mean, you could use it for other stuff, but we all know that shield is what it's actually going to be used for.

The primers only allow slotless casting once per long rest, so they aren't infinitely abusable. Then again, I don't know if this was previously errata'd or not. I'm going based on their descriptions on Dnd Beyond.

Using infinite Goodberry to solve world hunger would've been amusing, though.

And finally, we get this little thing:

A7nJVPs.png

MgXmj74.png

Here, have a plushie in case you get scared at this elite magical college!
Every character here should be a grown-ass person. Personally, I would find this ferociously infantilizing. Like, seriously? Come the hell on, you utter douchenozzles.

I have the feeling that Strixhaven was initially written in mind to have students be of a much lower age range like in Harry Potter, but changed it around to university later on.
 


I think I can supply a bit of context and some suggestions for how to use Stryxhaven.

Firstly:
Where, in fact, is the adventure in this book?
The trite answer is, this was always marketed as a source book, not an adventure book. But I think what the OP means is "where are the stakes?"

To understand that, I think you need to look at it's literary antecedents.
Throne of Glass is a YA novel by Sarah J Maas
Clearly, they are not this.

Now, the Harry Potter connection is obvious. But what is a lot less well known is Harry Potter itself draws very heavily on the Mallory Towers novels by Enid Blyton. For those who don't know these are novels aimed at a young female audience - it would be possible get into a very long digression about gender roles in children's literature - about life in a girl's boarding school. It is, basically, a soap opera. The "stakes" are generally about who is friends with who, with characters only occasionally at risk of death, or worse, expulsion. If you are interested in running a low stakes game like this I have a few suggestions: Catch a few episodes of the resent BBC adaptation, rather than wade through Blyton's extremely dated novels. Make sure your players are okay with a low stakes game with the emphasis on role-playing rather than combat (i.e. a Critical Role+ style of play). Encourage your players to start out as rivals, rather than friends. Try to avoid too many "all may family are dead" backstories. Family members are very much alive, and are important NPCs with high (possibly unreasonable) expectations.

"I don't like Mallory Towers, what am I supposed to do with this!"
It does synergise quite well well with WotC's adventure collection books, like Candlekeep, Radiant Citadel and Golden Vault. I would aim for something like The Librarians TV show. A mentor sends the students off on an adventure-of-the-week. Make it very close to a comedy. Clearly, this campaign is not going to be a sandbox.

If you like sandboxes, high stakes and combat, then don't buy this book, it's not aimed at you!
 
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As another digression, if you have read Harry Potter, you will be familiar with lots of potentially life-threatening lessons in the school. This is a critique by the author of modern British Education. She clearly feels that the emphasis on Health and Safety is an impediment to learning. Notably, in Mallory Towers, children get up to all sorts of potentially dangerous things, like unsupervised swimming, which would not be allowed in a modern British school.
 

The trite answer is, this was always marketed as a source book, not an adventure book.
Not always. It was initially announced as a sourcebook, but the marketing got increasingly adventure-y as time went by, and by the time the thing was released, the adventure component comprised well over half the page count. I suspect (without any evidence whatsoever) that the content and focus of the actual product morphed similarly from setting to adventure in development.
 

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