Review Strixhaven Campus Kerfuffle and SoT Kindled Fire

!DWolf

Adventurer
(Not sure where to put this, so I chose here because it’s where I mostly post; also disclaimer: I own SoT but I just read through a borrowed Strixhaven at my local gaming store while I was waiting to play battletech and made notes)

Since these two Not-HogwartsTM magic-school adventures have just come out, the first adventures are very similar, and I have a bit of time on my hands after losing my job, I figured I would summarize and review the first adventure in both and then contrast the two to try and glean insights that might be missed by looking at just one. So without further ado:

WARNING: Major Spoilers to follow.

Campus Kerfuffle

  • The adventure starts out with a random encounter table. The table has 4 entries all of which are monsters (this is a complete waste of a random encounter table IMHO, either put a whole bunch of events on it, many of which are roleplay or mystery to fit the setting, or omit it and use the space for something else).
  • Next all the characters are informed they are in a required course, Magical Physiologies, and three other courses. There is a table of six other courses for the characters to choose from or they can make them up themselves.
  • Then we are presented with the characters first day orientation at the library. They are allowed to wander around for a bit if they want, and a keyed map of the library is provided. In a couple of locations are named students
  • Then the characters do a scavenger hunt. They are presented with a list of clues and the option to make a DC 10 intelligence check to unravel them if the characters can’t. Each clue leads to a location where they can complete a task and receive a magical item.
  • Then they get to fight a mimic with a weakened statblock. If they all die a professor comes in to save them. And they potentially get a clue! Which they have no way of following up and the professors dismiss (this is a classic wizard school trope).
  • Several weeks go by. Then the characters are lured into a cafe to race frogs. The cafe is keyed and frog race mechanics are provided.
  • Then the frogs become giant and attack and the characters must fight them while the other students run around helplessly. If the characters get in too much trouble the cafe owner shows up and defeats the frogs.
  • Characters can find a clue! But they can’t do anything with it.
  • Then it’s time for the first exam. Only exams are presented for the required Magical Physiologies course. This one is on Slaadi and Slaadi facts are presented in a sidebar. There are no Slaadi in this adventure.
  • A short while later, the characters are invited to a tavern to play Wizards Gizzard. The tavern is fully keyed and rules for the game are presented. There is a named student working in the tavern.
  • Then they get to kill mephits in the kitchen. If the characters get into to much trouble the manager arrives and defeats the mephits. (Note: it is extremely hard not to be sarcastic about the formulaic structure of each event).
  • Characters can find a clue! But they can’t do anything with it.
  • Then it’s time for the second Magical Physiologies exam. This one is on owlbears and owlbear facts are presented in a sidebar. There is an owlbear in this adventure. None of the facts help.
  • Then the characters get a note asking for a midnight meeting outside a manor to discuss recovering a magical doll. Once there they are peer-pressured into breaking into the manor to steal the doll.
  • The manor is keyed and full of constructs and summoned monsters that attack the players. It also has items for the characters to swipe (mostly magic items, with a couple of silvered weapons thrown in for some reason).
  • If the characters are koed in the mansion, they are collected the next morning and put in a special behavioral class that prevents them from doing extracurricular activities or jobs.
  • Then it’s time for the third Magical Physiologies exam. This one is on otyughs and otyugh facts are presented in a sidebar. There are no otyughs in this adventure.
  • Then there is a quest hidden in a sidebar! The characters are assigned to go to the swamp in order to collect reagents for the characters magical studies professor.
  • After the third exam, the characters learn about the Rose Stage Festival and are on their way there.
  • The stage is detailed and a keyed map is provided.
  • Characters can perform and rules (mostly skill checks) are provided along with a random prompt generator and a prop list.
  • Then they get to fight an owlbear. None of the owlbear facts are useful but if the character did good on the exam they get advantage on attack roles. If the characters get into too much trouble a professor watching the performance arrives and defeats the owlbear.
  • Characters can find a clue! And a professor shows up and figures out what is going on. The characters get to go into the swamp (the same one they are getting reagents from) and apply some holy water to a spring.
  • The characters set out to the swamp to get the reagents and apply the holy water.
  • An extremely small map of the swamp is provided. The characters get to fight worgs, and a poisonous snakes, and finally the modules big boss: a giant scorpion. Then they apply the holy water and the problem is solved.
  • They may find a journal, letting them know that the true villain is still out there.

My Review: Lots of reviewers seem to love this adventure, but I don’t think it’s very good. The scenes are extremely formulaic: PC are enticed into a game, they play the game, a monster appears and if it defeats the players then an older person steps in and take’s care of it, they get a clue that they can do nothing about even though they logically should be able to. The one exception, the manor quest, is just stupid: the characters get double-dogged dared so they have to do something extremely risky and hey, while they are destroying property (but not really a sidebar clarifies that the constructs will self heal), they might as well help themselves to some swag! Its not like the instructors will notice the destroyed constructs/missing items and use their magic to investigate or anything. The required course and exams also don’t have meaning in the overall plot with the exception of on exam giving advantage on attack roles in one later fight. Then the final swamp is way too small for what it needs to do. It should have been more of a fast hex-crawl adventure as the characters trudge through the area looking for reagents and to end the kerfuffles, not a 27x38 grid map.

Finally, I feel that the story structure is flat. There is no urgency or rising action: the kerfuffles aren’t getting worse, no tension is created that requires the characters to solve the crisis. Characters just shrug and say “whatever, these things happen”. The climax is the characters finding a location pouring in some water and problem solved. I would not run this adventure without heavy modification. 4/10.

Kindled Magic
  • The first scene is the characters meeting Teacher Ot and being given a group interview. During the interview the characters are asked introspective questions (in a conversational manner) while being asked to perform a series of aptitude tests (non-magical/innovative solutions are accepted and the characters can work together). Then the characters get to select a symbol from a set of six that gives them an extra cantrip for the first level (until they get their wizard/druid archetype at second level). Finally there is a long paragraph of read aloud text and a final question. Then the characters are given a task to collect beads (a form of scavenger hunt if you will) and ushered off to the dormitory.
  • At the dormitories the characters meet Esi (the ace student) and Chizire (slacker catfolk who offers them moonshine from the still in his room). Esi shows them around and they meet two other students (Anchor Root the socially anxious gnoll with a chicken familiar, and Ignaci the stereotypical gay paranoid former Vidrian freedom fighter who can sell the characters non-bomb, non-poison alchemical items).
  • The dormitory is keyed. Living in the dormitory are some monsters which can either be driven out or befriended. The description of the students rooms is intended to give them characters (one student room smells like drugs and she has a lizard familiar, another has all the furniture pushed against the walls so they can dance, one student is a mother with two children and her room is a mess, etc.).
  • Then it’s off to the dining hall and the student store. There the characters can pick up their beads and meet the people running them. The characters can get work at the dining hall, and get a stipend from the student supply store (40 gp, plus 4 gp per week – this amount is a lot by the way: a person can live comfortable for a year for 52 gp).
  • Then the heroes get to do their Perquisite: a period of public service. Their first task (each task is given by the fellow students and takes a day) is to get rare chickens from a market in town, then they have to relocate some gremlins from a storage barn, then they help collect material to make a gremlin repelling ritual (and there is a combat in the jungle when collecting the ingredients). They can then learn and perform the ritual (the ritual may come in useful later). The next task has them riding chocobos to deliver mail. Finally, the characters have to distill all of the events of the week into a Story.
  • Then there is the introduction ceremony. The PCs are asked to arrive beforehand and interrupt gremlins sabotaging the stage. There is a combat.
  • Interrogating the gremlins, they get a clue. That they can do nothing about.
  • Then the characters get to do some downtime (using studying at least twice if they want) interspersed with quests from the teachers and vignettes from the fellow students.
  • The first quest has the characters collecting bugs for Teacher Koride who is investigating unusual insect activity around campus and includes a fight with a centipede swarm that doesn’t want to be collected.
  • Then Teacher Ot asks them to collect a list of misplaced tomes from an abandoned building that at one point was partially converted into a library. This is a seven room dungeon crawl and there are fights with gremlins and silverfish. There are also spellskeins that can be fought or rehomed. There is also forgotten treasure the PC can collect.
  • Then Teacher Zuma needs some volunteers for magical experimentation. They act as secondary casters in a ritual and get a cool tattoo for a month if they succeed.
  • Then Teacher Ayuwari has arranged a tournament. The characters get to fight leshys in construct armor. There are three rounds with only 5 minutes between round (meaning characters have to expend resources to heal).
  • There are also vignette’s from the students: Chizire wants help to steal crickets from Teacher Koride, Haibram wants a boost to test out his new hang glider, Anchor Root has lost her chicken and needs help finding it, Okoro needs help deciphering rules to a board game, Zachva and Zanvi (who are not technically students) want to throw a surprise party for their mother Tzeniwe (who is a student).
  • Then it’s time for the characters first masking, where they will create the magical masks that mark them as attendants. Then an army of insects break into the place. The teachers and other students fight off the majority of bugs but the characters have to contend with a Giant Goliath Beetle and some small beetles and centipedes.
  • The characters get a clue. That they can do nothing about. No wait. It’s a fake out: the next day characters are assigned to do something about it. Namely searching and mapping the tunnels under the campus for the source of the insects as the teachers mount a massive coordinated response. They get to do a 15 room dungeon crawl, fighting giant insects, swarms of things, and gremlins. One of the gremlins is friendly. They also run into another group of students exploring who got lost and Ignaci is dying and needs help because it turns out he is allergic to bee stings.
  • At the end of the dungeon the characters get to fight the big bad of the module because they were the lucky ones assigned to the section he was actually living in. Then they return to the surface and get debriefed.
  • Finally the characters accompany Teacher Ot to welcome the next batch of students. The are attacked by griffons however. The new students and Ot help the characters fight them off. Resolving where the griffons came from will be part of the next module.

My Review: I liked this adventure. The focus on community service and helping others really gives it a unique take on magic schools. There are a few jarring notes, namely the griffons at the end in what should be the denouement, but overall it seems structurally sound with a slow burn in the beginning that kicks into high gear at the ceremony. I would gladly run this adventure with only slight modification. 9/10.

Contrasting the Two Adventures/Institutions:
  • Campus Kerfuffle uses a lot of unnamed students in scenarios and descriptions and has generic statblocks for NPCs. This makes the school feel a lot bigger. In contrast, Kindled Magic relies on its named cast for almost everything and integrates them much more heavily into the story which makes it feel like a much smaller school.
  • Campus Kerfuffle has the characters do a lot of goofing around (scavenger hunts, frog races, wizard gizzard, etc.) followed by them being attacked by a monster out of nowhere while the other students helplessly look on. If the characters fall to these monsters, there is usually a safety net in the form of a professor/cafe owner/etc. to bail them out. In contrast, Kindled Magic has the characters doing a lot of community services and almost all the ‘side quests’ are framed as them helping someone. Many of the Kindled Magic quests have no monster to fight and are puzzle or skill challenges or the monster is integrated in the quest with the characters expected to take it on. Thus the characters of Kindled Magic seem much more mature and heroic while the characters from Campus Kerfuffle seem a lot younger and more high-school student.
  • Both Strixhaven and Kindled Magic have students lists. But they are presented very differently. Strixhaven’s students tend to fit into high-school stereotypes with a race layered on and extracurriculars and/or a campus job. There’s the band-nerd, the jock, etc. The students in Kindled Magic, despite having their stereotype listed on their stat block (Chizire is a CN | male | catfolk | slacker for instance), are a lot more varied and three dimensional and include neurodiverse (for example Anchor Root who has social anxiety) and non-traditional (such as Strands-of-Glowing-Dawn Tzeniwe who has twin children with her) students. Even those students that appear to be stereotypes such as Ignaci (gay guy into fashion) have depths to them (though being of chelaxian colonial descent, he fought in the Vidrian revolution on the side of the rebels and is somewhat paranoid as a result, he is also a skilled alchemist and sells items to the PCs). Magically (which is important to a magic school), some of the NPCs have familiars/pets and all have developed unique magic which they can teach to characters they befriend. This depth makes it Kindled Magic seem much more college or even graduate school like than Strixhaven where the NPCs don’t seem to have had a chance to mature beyond stereotypes. It also let’s the writers use the characters a lot more in the adventure (because they have a personality). In Campus Kerfuffle some npcs are described at being at keyed locations on a map, but none are described as having any part in the adventure. Instead the DM is expected to insert the NPCs the characters are attempting to form relationships into the quests. That is, in Kindled Magic Chizire is the one who asks the PCs to break into a teacher’s office because that fits his character, while in Campus Kerfuffle it can be literately any NPC the characters want to score relationship points with asking the characters to break into the manor.
  • Both adventures focus on relationships with NPC students. Strixhaven is a lot more structured with the relationship system and uses relationship opportunities to get characters invested in the adventure (that is when you race frogs with <insert character you want to deepen relationship with> you get a chance to deepen a relationship). Kindled fire however is a lot more loose on when interactions occur and when relationships deepen – which is a twist on the normal perception of 5e vs PF2e! This is probably because with detailed histories and personalities and heavy involvement in the adventures, it is very easy for the GM to determine when relationships with the NPCs in Kindled Fire have changed while the ones in Strixhaven, being less detailed, need to help the DM out with a more mechanical system. Note: I’m not going to go into the dating sim/bioware romance/nice-guy implications of this but suffice it to say (and the book does say this) make sure your players are on board before you use the Strixhaven system.
  • Both systems have boons that characters can gain as long as they maintain the relationship. Strength of Thousands also has unique spells/items/formula/feats that the NPCs can teach the players while Strixhaven has banes that the player can choose instead of boons (for all the edgy players?)
  • The study system in Strixhaven with mandatory tests makes the academic portion of the adventure much more front and center than the one in Strength of Thousands. In Kindled Fire you will be able to either Study or Cram twice in the adventure (and there are no opportunities to do Practical Research), while in Strixhaven you will be learning facts about magical beasts, deciding how to prepare for tests (all-nigher, studying together, skipping studying), potentially cheating, and the like. Both systems reward you for passing the exams: Strixhaven gives you temporary bonus 1d4s you can spend on certain checks, while Strength of Thousands increases your branch level (up to a max of 20 in your primary branch and 10 in your secondary branch) which grants you permanent benefits to your character (for example the first level gives you the additional lore feat, the second gives you a bonus on certain recall knowledge checks, the third gives you the Magaambya Attendant dedication feat, etc.). The permanent character upgrades makes it seem like you are learning a lot more from the Magaambya since it gives a significant long-term character improvement while in Strixhaven you more realistically have forgotten almost everything you learned by the beginning of the next semester.
  • Both adventures have the students living on campus. However, Kindled Fire has a long description of the characters housing situation, while Strixhaven has a single paragraph hidden near the beginning of the book (? check this). With the importance of dormitories/housing on student life this seems like a major oversight.
  • Both adventures use the common Harry-Potter style “clue the characters can do nothing about”. Though, Campus Kerfuffle is much more egregious about it with Kindled Magic limiting it to one use (and one fake out). This type of thing works in Harry-Potter because of the structure of the books and narrative makes it very enjoyable when the big reveal comes and all the pieces fit together. I don’t think things like this are good in TTRPGs because players either forget them or the get frustrated trying to pursue them and getting stonewalled. Then the ‘big reveal’ falls flat.
  • Like a traditional college, Strixhaven expects you to pay to attend (800 gp a year, which is hidden in one of the adventures and not in the general section). The Magaambya however pays you to attend (40 gp plus 4 gp per week. For comparison, a comfortable living is about 52 gp per year). I know which school I’m going to :D. It also sort of highlights the different approaches of the schools: the Magaambya is all about helping people (including students) and giving back to the community while Strixhaven is a more traditional American style university that charges an arm and a leg for tuition.
  • In both adventures, the characters choose one of five Not-HogwartsTM houses to belong to. At Strixhaven these are the five colleges founded by ancient dragons (Lorehold, Prismari, Quandrix, Silverquill, and Witherbloom). At the Magaambya characters get to choose a main branch (Rain-Scribes, Cascade Bearers, Emerald Boughs, Tempest-Sun Mages, and Uzunjati) and then also get to choose a second branch. The branches, as noted above, tie into the study system and give different feats and skills depending on the branch, which make them seem more like your major/minor than the colleges of Strixhaven which skew more closely to the Hogwarts mold.
  • In 5e characters select their subclass around third level, while in PF2e they select it at first. Likewise at Strixhaven, the characters select their college at the beginning of the second year (Level 4) while at the Magaambya characters can choose their main and secondary branches at character creation (but can change it freely before their first study check and afterwords with work from the DM).
 

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Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
while in Strixhaven you more realistically have forgotten almost everything you learned by the beginning of the next semester.

Great work. And great observation... I often get the idea that university students are actually using Vancian memorization. As soon as they cast their end-of-semester exam, all knowledge of the topic leaves their mind.
 

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