Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos - First Party Review

Moonmover

Explorer
Correction:
The PC's don't reach 3rd level until they finish up at Captain Dapplewing's manor (page 86). Even by the standards of this book, it'd be pretty bad pacing to level up after a single fight against four mephits.
 
Last edited:

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Sparky McDibben

Adventurer
Correction:
The PC's don't reach 3rd level until they finish up at Captain Dapplewing's manor (page 86). Even by the standards of this book, it's be pretty bad pacing to level up after a single fight against four mephits.
This is accurate - I botched that. The actual order of events is that the PCs complete the owlbear exam, then do the heist, and then advance to third level. I also left out that at the end of the year, they advance to 4th level. That's on me, and I'm sorry.

Alright folks, I'm feeling froggy tonight, so we're going to do THE WHOLE NEXT CHAPTER!!!! WOOO!!!! NO CAFFEINE; JUST PISS AND VINEGAR!!!!

So let's talk Chapter 4: The Hunt for Mage Tower!

The first thing that happens is that the PCs wrap up their first day on campus, and a friend approaches them to tell them about Mage Tower. There's a once-every-three-years Mage Tower game with the stakes of "bragging rights" and half off tuition for this year. We're told this is effectively 400 gp, implying that a full year's academic tuition is 800 gp (each), but this doesn't matter because no one is charged tuition by the adventure. In fact, bringing this up is likely to cause confusion as players wonder if they should have been paying tuition this whole time. Are they on scholarship? If the PCs are reluctant, the adventure literally tells the DM to "emphasize that every peer they speak with wants them to participate." Choo-choo, indeed. Even weirder, this Battle for Strixhaven takes place between two teams. No brackets, and apparently no other teams are registered. So this amazingly competitive game only ever gets 10 folks to sign up.

We also get the rules for Mage Tower, and the general idea is pretty good. You grab some of these mascots and then use them to score goals in the various towers that surround the stadium field. We'll see how the specific mechanical implementation is handled later, but the broad strokes I'm OK with.

So if the PCs decide to compete (or hold out until everyone they know is beating down their door to get them to compete), they eventually go to the school guidance counselor. She's in a bit of a bind, because she needs to get the mascots for the game later in the year. She had them all corralled, and then they broke out. So she needs the PCs to hunt them down and tag them with these rings. This is good! Doing a favor for an authority figure gets you status, and elevates the PCs actions as they come to identify with the institution of Strixhaven, not just some of the people. I'm all for this (although it doesn't justify the railroad used to get them here).

The actual hunting of the mascots is done in a pointcrawl fashion, except time and encumbrance don't matter because you're just going into a swamp to find some mascots. There's some more evidence of Murgaxor's presence, and those of his Designated Minions this term: mage hunters (to be detailed in the monsters section), in the form of chitin. There's some social activity (helping a fellow student and convincing a mascot to wear the tag willingly, etc). The only weird thing in this part of the adventure is that someone has discarded an ioun stone (awareness), despite the fact that 1 minute can fix it up just fine. Somebody just tossed a Rare magic item instead of spending the literal minute to repair it? OK, clearly there are some incredibly rich students on this campus. The key works, there's more to do, and the PCs don't have teachers racing to rescue them. This is an actual D&D adventure! Yay!

Once they tag the mascots, the counselor rewards the PCs with a free uncommon magic item from the library's store (one total, not one each). Perfectly reasonable.

Next up is a Scrivening & Symbology exam, with both DCs set to 15. Holy cow, some actual risk! At this point, the PCs advance to 5th level.

After that we get another Fun Strixhaven Game in which the PCs have to stack some mascots. The idea here is at least potentially interesting, but the only mechanical options the PCs have are one of three skill checks. The setup is a typical Strixhaven railroad: someone they like says, "Come check out this thing!" Those who don't want to form a team can either encourage a team or heckle a team. So it's skill checks all the way down - no real interesting interactivity. "Roll dice, add number." There are a few other ways you could go about this, like presenting options to calm the mascots so they wriggle less, use illusion magic to try to make your stack bigger, etc. None of that is even identified as an option for the DM, though.

At the least, though, the prize is worth having: a belt of dwarvenkind. This was put up by one of the students. Her parents gave it to her, but she thinks it's more fun to offer it as a prize. Just to call out the obvious: this belt is probably a family heirloom, and it should definitely not be the stakes for a friendly game of "mishandle the cuddly magic critter." I would probably change it to being the student's midterm project - she got a good grade on it, and is now putting it up as stakes for a competition.

Predictably, after the Fun Strixhaven Game, the thing they were playing with tries to kill them. In this case, the mascots amalgamate and turn into a chimera (sans breath weapon). Once defeated, they disamalgamate, and puke up bits of chitin. I have three problems with this. One, we've previously noted that Murgaxor's magic could turn harmless stuff into deadly stuff, but it always looked like black ichor. Changing it to chitin makes this weirdly discontinuous. Secondly, this is like the fourth time the adventure has pulled this particular gag. It's starting to get old. And finally, the adventure does this thing where it pretends the PCs won't even want to look into this obvious mystery, roadblocking them at every turn.

After this, a student referee for the Mage Tower game approaches the players to tell them the Aerojaunt Field is reserved for their team practice the next day. That referee will help them learn the rules of Mage Tower, and (as long as the PCs aren't rivals with her), promises them a stone of good luck. That seems like some clear favoritism on the referee's part, but I'm sure someone gave the other team a stone of good luck, too. Definitely.

The actual practice takes place on the wrong field (for Aerojaunt, a sport for which we get a full key, map, and zero rules), but the student ref declares this field is more fun. Sure. The PCs split into two teams and move dummy mascots around. This would seem to be a delightful time to use the combat mechanics in a non-lethal fashion. But instead, it's either make a skill check (from a list of three) or cast a spell (1st and 2nd level spells give someone else advantage, 3rd level spells and higher are auto-successes). Whichever team gets more successes wins the scrimmage.

Man, somebody at WotC is in love with skill challenges, I'm telling you. I'm honestly not sure how you could weave this into the fiction; there's one example given, but it's pretty loosey-goosey. You'd need to abstract a lot. Personally, I'd run this as a mock combat with no damage possible to either team. So if you cast thunderwave, you don't deal damage, you just potentially shove the other person back. I think that plays to 5E's strengths better than the skill check focused approach they're using here.

By the way, the key for the Aerojaunt field has stuff lying around like a cloak of displacement, a cloak of elvenkind, and an oil of slipperiness. Who just leaves a cloak of displacement lying around?

After the scrimmage, a blue slaad shows up with chitin embedded in it, and attacks. The adventure says that the PCs can look at the chitin embedded in the creature's hides and conclude something chitinous goaded the slaad to attack. This sort of elides the main question I have: where did the blue slaad even come from? Is someone smuggling them in for a laugh?

After this, we have another exam. Afterwards, a professor asks them to find a book, without which he cannot prepare their next exam. If they help, they get extra credit! But if they don't help...don't they not have an exam? I mean, I know which one I'd prefer. Maybe that's just me personally, but this is practically incentivizing players to not help the NPC. Moreover, doesn't this imply the instructor is preparing the exam with materials the students haven't seen? Better to say that without it, the professor can't finish an important research thesis, and he needs help. He'll give them extra credit and a notice as temporary TA's.

The adventure assumes (naturally) that the PCs rush to the aid of the struggling faculty member...right after they go drinking! The adventure swerves weirdly to the tavern, and there's yet another Fun Strixhaven Game! This time it's mage's skate park.

rzyalyL.png

I was going to make fun of how cringy the boxed text is, but honestly, I haven't the heart.

By this point, you know the score: railroaded setup, skill check with zero interactivity, monster attacks at the end, no way for the PCs to discover anything actionable. It's so predictable it's boring.

Next the PCs go hunting for this book. It's an Investigation check (DC 13), and it's assumed that each character can make it, so there's roughly a 1% chance that they won't find what they need. If they all fail the check however...there's no workaround. The adventure just stops. More importantly, if they all fail, they don't find the information on mage hunters, or on the mysterious student expelled from Strixhaven 200 years ago for black magic experiments strikingly similar to what's happening now.

So this is bad design - the classic "don't put the thing the characters need behind a secret door" trap. Not great. Give yourself an out, like a friendly librarian, or a thief trying to steal the book the PCs need. From there, they're attacked by a grick disguised as an astrolabe (weird), and once again it looks like there's chitin on it! Gasp! But now, armed with the information on mage hunters, the characters will surely track them down, or lay a trap, or find a teacher to ask, or...

Nope. The next thing is the exam. If they helped the professor, they get a pass if they failed both checks, and if they failed one check, they instead are treated as having passed both. This offsets the DC 17 difficulty of the exam, which requires History and Insight. While I'm not a fan of teachers playing favorites, I do like that there's a stress valve here for the PCs to pull in case they just can't hit that 17. It stresses the social nature of the environment, which is good to do!

xdXT5AB.png

Oh not again with the singing fireballs! Do you know what this does to our insurance premiums???
Next up is a sing-off, baby! The PCs are challenged by their Mage Tower rivals to a sing-off. "We'll crush you in song before we crush you on the field!" announces their leader, confidently. I have to admire the chutzpah of whatever designer put this in here. This is right up the improv actor's alley. For my group, they are going to mercilessly mock the absolute crap out of these NPCs. It's gonna be brutal, and maybe that's the point, but the book seems to think the PCs will instead ad-hoc rap battle the DM. Even better, the DM gets to go first! Sooo...good luck with that. It all boils down to a DC 15 skill check anyway, so there's really no need to play this out.

After that, the reference librarian tells all these damn kids to get away from the library (where people are trying to work, for Pete's sake!), and it's time for Mage Tower! This epic clash, built up over the whole year, a meeting of titans, surely has some serious decisions the characters will have to make!

Nope. It's another goddamned skill challenge. Pardon me while I scream into this pillow in frustration. This was a layup for some fun combat mechanics! You could have taken advantage of the statblocks developed for all the mascots! You could have extended it into a several round game, with each one being matched against better and better foes! You could have leveraged some awesome social drama by having a PCs paramour go all Knight's Tale and telling them to prove their feelings by losing, then changing their mind later in the game! This could have been so awesome!

After this, the PCs go back to the locker room. They are attacked by the mage hunters, and defeat them. Mage hunters, for the record, are nasty foes, each one a CR 5. They have some interesting abilities, like a reaction that lets them take half damage from a spell, and force the caster to save or take the other half. So this is a tough fight, and no one comes to help. My only problem is that this is once again a white-room fight - no terrain or interesting equipment to use to make it easier. After all this setup, I figured the final fight would be more interesting!

After this, the PCs are celebrated, they advance to 6th level, and bask in their glory. There's no indication that Murgaxor set these things on them at all, making it weirdly disconnected from the main narrative.

Personally, my thoughts on this chapter are mixed. The repeated use of the same gag gets stale, boring, and predictable, but the fact that the safety net is starting to get removed is interesting. The hamfisted railroading relentlessly undercuts the expected investment in the setting, but if you can invest in the setting, at least some of these beats might land, which is better than Chapter 3 managed to do. So it's getting better...but it's nowhere near good enough.
 

NRSASD

Villager
Glorious! I am quite enjoying this review, so thank you for marching onwards. You mentioned earlier wanting a dynamic tension between going to school and solving the mystery, and I think you’re right on mark with that. In our magic school game we ran, it was a brutal endurance challenge to maintain a passing grade without collapsing entirely from exhaustion while also solving the mystery. We homebrewed in a system for food and sleep tracking and were constantly trying to study every second, only to be interrupted by wild magic surges (like waking up at 2am because you can’t breathe due to your suddenly-sprouted gills), monster attacks, or other archmages trying to sabotage us.

Honestly, our WW2 games felt safer.
 

Sparky McDibben

Adventurer
Glorious! I am quite enjoying this review, so thank you for marching onwards.
Thanks! I appreciate folks engaging with the material, so I'm glad it's of use!

Honestly, our WW2 games felt safer.
Sounds like it was pretty awesome!

Alright, folks, on to Chapter 5: The Magister's Masquerade! This chapter is all about the character's junior year. They've leveled up to level six at the end of last year, so now they're ready to take on some Tier 2 nonsense! The big focal point of the year is an investigative scenario about how Murgaxor is using a magic item to control one of the college deans. Everything comes to a head at the end of year Magister's Masquerade!

So, there are some problems with this setup. First off, the lore and history professor gets snared by a cursed magic item. Did she not know to cast identify? Having a professor get snared to act as Murgaxor's dupe seems implausible, at least the way the adventure has it laid out. I'd either do a secret traitor (a la Quirrell from Harry Potter), or Murgaxor's charmed like thirty students to work for him on campus, spreading his curse. See, the whole point of what Murgaxor's doing is to curse people. The curse itself is mechanically toothless - it can drive people to attack folks around them, and potentially knock cursed targets out. Curiously, the adventure makes the decision to avoid having the PCs get cursed. I suspect this is because they made the curse a little too effective on the NPCs (there's no save), and did not balance it against PC abilities.

Personally, I'd want to butch this up a bit. Murgaxor's magic is specifically the life-draining kind. I'd probably have the curse remove spell slots or hit dice from the PCs, then also give Murgaxor some kind of meta currency (like Doom points) that increases whenever the PCs crit on something. This makes it far more consistent with the lore dropped in the last chapter, without the curse removing player agency.

At any rate, the adventure introduces the big social set piece at the start of term. The Magister's Masquerade takes place at the end of the year, and is a required school function. Everyone gets a free disguise self charm along with their invite. Weirdly, using the charm outside the Masquerade gets you withdrawn from any extracurriculars (despite the fact that it mimics a 1st level spell that's trivially easy to get hold of). Even weirder, the adventure then expects that PCs will actually dress up, despite the fact that they have an illusory costume they can perfectly control. The whole setup here is just bizarre.

The first day back to classes is capped off with a reception at the campus tavern, where PCs are invited to learn about the Masquerade, and that the student committee might ask them to do certain tasks to help with it over the year.

At the end of the reception, someone (the adventure suggests one of the PCs rivals) challenges them to a magical duel in the Furygale Repository. This is a dumping ground for magical art projects, and it's a little nuts. There are statues that can animate and try to kill you, secret doors hidden in the living walls of elemental energy, and all of it is functionally meaningless. The book expects PCs to stand in a spot and cast a bunch of magic at their rival. There's literal X's where you should stand, y'all, I'm not even kidding. God, it's like they didn't even try to make this interesting! You could have had dynamic terrain! Active threats that interrupt the duel! There's so much you can do with this setup! And we get, "stand on an X and cast magic." OOF.

Anyone who drops to zero stabilizes and recovers, thus removing the possibility of a Goku-style "I beat you then saved you so now we're friends" moment. At the end of it, the curse intervenes, knocking out four students and causing the last one to panic and summon an oni. There's nothing more to this, the adventure goes out of its way to block further investigation, and it's another Classic Strixhaven "That's Weird" Moment. Reading this book at times makes me want to punch something.

The next thing that happens is an actual lecture on ancient relics! You guys! They're finally putting classroom time into this adventure at a magical school! Too bad it starts in junior year. Oh well, better late than never, I suppose. This whole scene is a big flashing sign that "HEY! THERE'S SOMETHING UP WITH THIS TEACHER AND HER WEIRD MAGIC ORB!!!" The teacher in question is Dean Tullus, and the orb is Murgaxor's orb that spreads his curse around. Never mind why a professional educator is showing a group of students an unidentified magic item, or how that might be really dangerous, no, we're just going to have this poor teacher get pwned by the bad guy. After this there's an exam, which thankfully has a higher DC (17!!).

After this, the Dean announces that everyone should dress in a way that honors Strixhaven's history throughout the years. Students can go do some research on this, potentially getting some extra credit on their next exam, and possibly learning some critical context to the mystery for this year, though again the adventure does everything it can to stop the PCs from following up on this.

After that, there's a fashion show. The most remarkable thing about this is that it isn't interrupted by a monster attack.

After that, there's two literal fetch-quests for the Masquerade committee. The PCs have to go find stuff in the swamp (again? What is it with this swamp?) and move stuff out of the library. This is largely pointless and involves a lot of running into random encounters. The encounters are at least funny, but they're not exactly interesting.

The PCs then get their next exam, which have a robust DC 18, but since Dean Tullus (the charmed professor) doesn't show up, the cheating DC is only 12. Add in the potential extra credit from their research earlier, and this should be a walk in the park. After that, the adventure tells the DM that the PCs might want to check up on the Dean! The adventure is finally anticipating probably PC actions! It only took them two adventures to start doing that. Sheesh. Any credit I'd give the adventure for this is quickly neutralized when the adventure advises the DM to "Ultimately, fuel the characters' suspicions, but they shouldn't have a chance to act until the Magister's Masquerade." This is some Dragonlance-level railroading. JFC.

After this there are some dance lessons. Nice fodder for the PCs to play matchmaker with any NPCs they care about.

The PCs then have to help set up for the big dance. There's a bunch of little problems that interfere, including several cursed students who rampage through the hall, afflicted with the orb's madness as they (in terror) try to fight other students whom they see as monsters. It's quite confusing and not well linked to the Dean Tullus mystery, but it does foreshadow something, so yay! They're trying! The adventure then provides some actual next steps! The problem is that at this point you'll need to point the PCs at the possibility of investigating, because the last two years have been stonewalls. Regardless, the adventure sets up some on-rails investigating, trying to keep the PCs in the dark until it's time for the Big Reveal. While I hate the implementation, at least they're letting players do something, even if the results can't affect much.

At this point, the PCs level up to 7th level.

There's one more exam, and then we're off the Masquerade! There's a great table of disruptions that could happen to the PCs as everything from a poorly timed rain to their date backing out at the last minute could upset the PCs plans. These would be awesome, except that most of them tie into affecting the PCs attire, which (as we discussed earlier) can be covered over by the disguise self charm.

The ball itself has no structure, and no way to further character goals outside of just free-form improv. Free-form improv ain't bad, but I'd prefer something with some more substance (again, see Pendragon). There's a great section where the head of an ancient Lorehold monastic animates and tells everybody to be on their guard, yada, yada, yada. Boy, it would be great if it could tell people what to be on guard against.

Finally, it's time for the Big Reveal! Three students get cursed with the "Attack anyone" madness, and start going nuts. Subduing them gives clues that it was actually Dean Tullus all along!

I know, I know. I had to really sit with it for a minute, too. Not like the adventure's been hamhandedly signaling this for the last 20 pages or anything.

The PCs follow Tullus, potentially rob a bunch of teachers' offices, and then cheerfully beat the snot out of the Dean. Huzzah. After that, Murgaxor's orb reveals his projected form, and he taunts the heroes with...absolutely nothing useful. Also huzzah. The PCs break the orb, and that's it. Everyone levels up to 8th level. This feels empty to me - the PCs only interact with the villain once? C'mon, y'all. Put that villain in front of the PCs early and often and let it impact the campaign.

This chapter came the closest for me of fulfilling the promise of the book. There was a campus investigation, social stakes, and some drama. For me, the weird railroaded nature of the investigation significantly undercut the stakes of the game with hand-holdy BS. Look, either let me solve it on my own (with proper support), or let me fail to solve it and watch evil influence keep spreading. But aside from that, this is what I figured chapter 3 should have been. This chapter, with better execution, is the starting point - so it does not speak well that it took two whole chapters to reach that mark and then botched the implementation.

Alright folks! Next time we're going to circle back with Chapter 6: A Reckoning In Ruins!
 



Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
The issue is that college students are adults.
The concept of "adult" is a social/legal construct. In Japan, the age of consent, voting, drinking, smoking, driving, etc is 20, not 18. In the US, legally people can't drink until they are 21; yet they can drive at age 16. Point being - the idea of "adult" is squishy, and varies by culture and even within the same culture.

This article is interesting. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0959354319876985. One point I'll highlight is that it wasn't until the 1920s, just a mere 100 years ago, that psychology began to seriously place "categorization" of "correct behaviors" based on age.

All of which to say, in your fantasy games, you can have whatever tropes you are comfortable with for people of whatever age you want them to be - at your table. As long as everyone's on the same page and relatively robust safety tools are being used...
 


Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Thanks! I appreciate folks engaging with the material, so I'm glad it's of use!


Sounds like it was pretty awesome!

Alright, folks, on to Chapter 5: The Magister's Masquerade! This chapter is all about the character's junior year. They've leveled up to level six at the end of last year, so now they're ready to take on some Tier 2 nonsense! The big focal point of the year is an investigative scenario about how Murgaxor is using a magic item to control one of the college deans. Everything comes to a head at the end of year Magister's Masquerade!

So, there are some problems with this setup. First off, the lore and history professor gets snared by a cursed magic item. Did she not know to cast identify? Having a professor get snared to act as Murgaxor's dupe seems implausible, at least the way the adventure has it laid out. I'd either do a secret traitor (a la Quirrell from Harry Potter), or Murgaxor's charmed like thirty students to work for him on campus, spreading his curse. See, the whole point of what Murgaxor's doing is to curse people. The curse itself is mechanically toothless - it can drive people to attack folks around them, and potentially knock cursed targets out. Curiously, the adventure makes the decision to avoid having the PCs get cursed. I suspect this is because they made the curse a little too effective on the NPCs (there's no save), and did not balance it against PC abilities.

Personally, I'd want to butch this up a bit. Murgaxor's magic is specifically the life-draining kind. I'd probably have the curse remove spell slots or hit dice from the PCs, then also give Murgaxor some kind of meta currency (like Doom points) that increases whenever the PCs crit on something. This makes it far more consistent with the lore dropped in the last chapter, without the curse removing player agency.

At any rate, the adventure introduces the big social set piece at the start of term. The Magister's Masquerade takes place at the end of the year, and is a required school function. Everyone gets a free disguise self charm along with their invite. Weirdly, using the charm outside the Masquerade gets you withdrawn from any extracurriculars (despite the fact that it mimics a 1st level spell that's trivially easy to get hold of). Even weirder, the adventure then expects that PCs will actually dress up, despite the fact that they have an illusory costume they can perfectly control. The whole setup here is just bizarre.

The first day back to classes is capped off with a reception at the campus tavern, where PCs are invited to learn about the Masquerade, and that the student committee might ask them to do certain tasks to help with it over the year.

At the end of the reception, someone (the adventure suggests one of the PCs rivals) challenges them to a magical duel in the Furygale Repository. This is a dumping ground for magical art projects, and it's a little nuts. There are statues that can animate and try to kill you, secret doors hidden in the living walls of elemental energy, and all of it is functionally meaningless. The book expects PCs to stand in a spot and cast a bunch of magic at their rival. There's literal X's where you should stand, y'all, I'm not even kidding. God, it's like they didn't even try to make this interesting! You could have had dynamic terrain! Active threats that interrupt the duel! There's so much you can do with this setup! And we get, "stand on an X and cast magic." OOF.

Anyone who drops to zero stabilizes and recovers, thus removing the possibility of a Goku-style "I beat you then saved you so now we're friends" moment. At the end of it, the curse intervenes, knocking out four students and causing the last one to panic and summon an oni. There's nothing more to this, the adventure goes out of its way to block further investigation, and it's another Classic Strixhaven "That's Weird" Moment. Reading this book at times makes me want to punch something.

The next thing that happens is an actual lecture on ancient relics! You guys! They're finally putting classroom time into this adventure at a magical school! Too bad it starts in junior year. Oh well, better late than never, I suppose. This whole scene is a big flashing sign that "HEY! THERE'S SOMETHING UP WITH THIS TEACHER AND HER WEIRD MAGIC ORB!!!" The teacher in question is Dean Tullus, and the orb is Murgaxor's orb that spreads his curse around. Never mind why a professional educator is showing a group of students an unidentified magic item, or how that might be really dangerous, no, we're just going to have this poor teacher get pwned by the bad guy. After this there's an exam, which thankfully has a higher DC (17!!).

After this, the Dean announces that everyone should dress in a way that honors Strixhaven's history throughout the years. Students can go do some research on this, potentially getting some extra credit on their next exam, and possibly learning some critical context to the mystery for this year, though again the adventure does everything it can to stop the PCs from following up on this.

After that, there's a fashion show. The most remarkable thing about this is that it isn't interrupted by a monster attack.

After that, there's two literal fetch-quests for the Masquerade committee. The PCs have to go find stuff in the swamp (again? What is it with this swamp?) and move stuff out of the library. This is largely pointless and involves a lot of running into random encounters. The encounters are at least funny, but they're not exactly interesting.

The PCs then get their next exam, which have a robust DC 18, but since Dean Tullus (the charmed professor) doesn't show up, the cheating DC is only 12. Add in the potential extra credit from their research earlier, and this should be a walk in the park. After that, the adventure tells the DM that the PCs might want to check up on the Dean! The adventure is finally anticipating probably PC actions! It only took them two adventures to start doing that. Sheesh. Any credit I'd give the adventure for this is quickly neutralized when the adventure advises the DM to "Ultimately, fuel the characters' suspicions, but they shouldn't have a chance to act until the Magister's Masquerade." This is some Dragonlance-level railroading. JFC.

After this there are some dance lessons. Nice fodder for the PCs to play matchmaker with any NPCs they care about.

The PCs then have to help set up for the big dance. There's a bunch of little problems that interfere, including several cursed students who rampage through the hall, afflicted with the orb's madness as they (in terror) try to fight other students whom they see as monsters. It's quite confusing and not well linked to the Dean Tullus mystery, but it does foreshadow something, so yay! They're trying! The adventure then provides some actual next steps! The problem is that at this point you'll need to point the PCs at the possibility of investigating, because the last two years have been stonewalls. Regardless, the adventure sets up some on-rails investigating, trying to keep the PCs in the dark until it's time for the Big Reveal. While I hate the implementation, at least they're letting players do something, even if the results can't affect much.

At this point, the PCs level up to 7th level.

There's one more exam, and then we're off the Masquerade! There's a great table of disruptions that could happen to the PCs as everything from a poorly timed rain to their date backing out at the last minute could upset the PCs plans. These would be awesome, except that most of them tie into affecting the PCs attire, which (as we discussed earlier) can be covered over by the disguise self charm.

The ball itself has no structure, and no way to further character goals outside of just free-form improv. Free-form improv ain't bad, but I'd prefer something with some more substance (again, see Pendragon). There's a great section where the head of an ancient Lorehold monastic animates and tells everybody to be on their guard, yada, yada, yada. Boy, it would be great if it could tell people what to be on guard against.

Finally, it's time for the Big Reveal! Three students get cursed with the "Attack anyone" madness, and start going nuts. Subduing them gives clues that it was actually Dean Tullus all along!

I know, I know. I had to really sit with it for a minute, too. Not like the adventure's been hamhandedly signaling this for the last 20 pages or anything.

The PCs follow Tullus, potentially rob a bunch of teachers' offices, and then cheerfully beat the snot out of the Dean. Huzzah. After that, Murgaxor's orb reveals his projected form, and he taunts the heroes with...absolutely nothing useful. Also huzzah. The PCs break the orb, and that's it. Everyone levels up to 8th level. This feels empty to me - the PCs only interact with the villain once? C'mon, y'all. Put that villain in front of the PCs early and often and let it impact the campaign.

This chapter came the closest for me of fulfilling the promise of the book. There was a campus investigation, social stakes, and some drama. For me, the weird railroaded nature of the investigation significantly undercut the stakes of the game with hand-holdy BS. Look, either let me solve it on my own (with proper support), or let me fail to solve it and watch evil influence keep spreading. But aside from that, this is what I figured chapter 3 should have been. This chapter, with better execution, is the starting point - so it does not speak well that it took two whole chapters to reach that mark and then botched the implementation.

Alright folks! Next time we're going to circle back with Chapter 6: A Reckoning In Ruins!
Welp, I think I'm going to go look at the DMs Guild strixhaven support items, maybe report back what I find if anything seems interesting. Either way these reviews have convinced me that I don't want to use the adventure in the book.

Also, I'm going to ignore everything outside the university - ie there's no such thing as Arcavios. Strixhaven is a demi-plane that's just it. Maybe I'll build out a town outside Strixhaven where all the employees of Strixhaven live...? We'll see...

I think I'm going to use Golden Vault, Radiant Citadel, and Candlekeep. And maybe Yawning Portal and/or Saltmarsh. And that the dean of the Quandrix is also on the "board" of the Golden Vault; that the dean of the Silverquill is an ambassador to Radiant Citadel, and the dean of Lorehold is the sibling of the head librarian at Candlekeep (note, I have not read any of those 3 books yet either lol so forgive me if this doesn't quite work). Maybe the dean of Witherbloom is connected to Durnan of the Yawning Portal. Oh, and perhaps the Dean of the Prismari is from Greyhawk, and specifically a little village called Saltmarsh. Why not, right?

And then each trimester, the PCs will study up on things they need for the adventure that will be their "final project" for the trimester; ie going and solving each of the adventures. And the reward they will get for passing their trimester exam for each of their classes is an Inspiration Die they can use in the upcoming adventure. And if they complete the final project, they level up. So by the end of 4 years, they graduate as 12th level graduates (4 years x 3 trimesters).

Since they get a bunch of killer stuff as members of the houses; and I'm going to give them extra Inspiration dice - I think I'm going to go with the suggestion above (forget who) to have a lower standard array to start.

I'd really like to figure out if in some or all of the various Golden Vault, Radiant Citadel or Candlekeep adventures there could be a way to fit in a rival party that's going for the same goal - in other words a rival student group from school?

I think during the trimester, I'm going to do some more robust "downtime" type things; although how that's going to work I'm not sure yet. But i'd like to tie something to the ExtraCurricular and the Job. Yes, that will be a lift - hoping there's a DMGuild supplement that can give some juice to that. Even better would be a way to tie some aspect of the NPCs to be found at the EC or Job to an upcoming "final project" adventure.

While I want to reconsider every single spell in PHB, Xanathar's and Tashas and re-assign them to a Strixhaven school - that's not going to happen.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
I just went to the DMs Guild and checked out about 15-20 products. A bit less than half I could see adopting in my campaign, although some only conditionally (see campaign above, my notes below).

Here's links, and a brief (very brief) note about each.


Strixhaven Faculty Handbook - this supplement points to other areas in the rules corpus to provide things Strixhaven (hereafter abbreviated as SH) does not. For example use the Rivals rules in Xanathars. It does provide additional "cladding" around those rules too. Has a Renown system that could be a good add. For US$2.99 for 28 pages, I'm going to buy.

Strixhaven: A Syllabus of Sorcery - 144 events for the classes offered in the SH book (4 events each). Makes the classes more spicy and interesting. Also more class mechanisms; a group points system; and a different rivals system. 53 pages for US$1.99. I'm buying.

Titanhall Academy: Rivals of Strixhaven - a supplement for "martial" classes that fills out the other 5 color pairings that SH doesn't have. "5 Unique Colleges: Leafcloak, college of survival; Felforge, college of cratsmanship; Saberguard, college of strategy; Memnor, college of trickery; and Hjertseir, college of combat and balance." Unclear on how it is suggested to use this for a group of PCs. Maybe can be blended with SH instead of set as Rivals. 60 pages for $14.95. Not an auto-buy for me, but intriguing none the less.

Students of Strixhaven - The 18 NPC other students in the core SH book, as well as 2 new students to give each college 4 students each - are each given a stat block for each of their 4 years there. If the PCs are really vibing with the other NPC students - this is a must buy. If not, can probably leave this on the shelf. US$3.95 for 31 pages. I'm going to take a wait and see position.

Strixhaven Supplemental Volume I: Course Catalog and Staff Directory - 127 new classes, with punny names. Each new class also has a reward that gives players a bit of a reward. Also 31 new professors and more details on the faculty in the SH core book. $4.99 for 28 pages. I'm going to pass on this, unless the players seem underwhelmed by the class catalog in the core SH book; or in case I need some more faculty.

Strixhaven Supplemental Volume II: The Rulebook - intriguing stuff in here. "Student Skills" that shape the type of student each PC is. Rules around classes, homework, and labs (if using volume I). More structured rules on Free Time. Not sure how useful that would be. Finally rules to make the Mage Tower at the end more engaging/interesting. 7 pages for US$1.50. Reading the Preview, I don't think these rules are for me - but if my players are clamoring for more granular rules around their classes, I might come back to this one.

Strixhaven Supplemental Volume III: Creature Compendium and Item Index - for those who like Magic Item and Creature supplements, this is the book for you. $4.99 for 18 pages. Since I'm mostly going to be using SH as a framing device and the adventuring will take place in other adventures, I think I can skip this one.

Strixhaven Supplemental Volume IV: The Bulletin Board - 27 new ExtraCurriculars (EC) run by the Professors in volume I above. In addition the 16 published ECs get expanded notes (they do away with Athletics for the Dead Languages Society). Jobs get a few more details and Silkball gets 2 sets of rules which also require a magic item. 7 pages for US$1.50. I could see buying this if I also bought volume I. Otherwise, I'm going to pass - again pending on the predilections of my players.

Off to complete my purchase. Then (soonish) I'm going to read over the SH Faculty Handbook and the SH Syllabus of Sorcery. If they don't meet my needs, I'll probably grab the SH Supplemental series (all of them). I'm going to ask my players about the Titanhall idea.
 

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