What Do I Know About First Impressions? Strixhaven–A Curriculum of Chaos (D&D 5e)
I’ve read way less of this book than would be standard for one of my First Impressions but worry not! I still sat in my living room with a notebook, stopping every few pages to take notes. If you have been cut off from the greater D&D hive mind for a while, Strixhaven–A Curriculum of Chaos is the latest Magic the Gathering setting to get converted to a D&D setting in fifth edition. It is set in a magical college that takes in students from all over the multiverse and is divided into multiple houses.
First off, not only have I not had the opportunity to use or play through any of this material, but a lot of it is still unread (particularly the adventure details). While I have this on pre-order, the reason I can take a look at it early is due to the kindness of the always awesome Brandes Stoddard sending me one of his extra copies.
While I’ve Got You Here
There were some interesting mechanical experiments that WOTC previewed in Unearthed Arcana months ago. Ultimately, these experimental mechanics didn’t make it into the final product, but if you haven’t seen what might have been, I did take a look at them in a previous First Impression.
Wherein We See My Random Thoughts
I think the first thing I wanted to touch on is that I am increasingly enjoying the Magic the Gathering settings in 5e. While Ravnica had some interesting tools in generating individual missions for different guilds, I had a hard time envisioning a campaign arc for the setting. It felt like it was trying to present ten different campaign ideas at once. Theros on the other hand felt very strong as a setting. It provided WOTC a chance to play with a Greek mythology-based setting, along with mechanics for piety and divine blessings and it felt like a contained, well-delivered package.
Strixhaven feels very useful as a D&D setting for the opposite reason as Theros. While Theros had a self-contained setting story, Strixhaven is intentionally envisioned as a setting where characters from multiple worlds come to study magical theory. The book specifically mentions that the intention is for players to be able to have characters from different D&D settings to attend this school. Minotaurs, and centaurs, and warforged, and harengon for everyone! And also, the new owlin character ancestry.
I really love the flexibility of this. Even beyond the official D&D releases, it means if I have a player that really wants to play a bearfolk from Midgard, there really isn’t anything stopping me from saying yes.
One thing I have noticed in this book is that while previous Magic the Gathering (nope, not abbreviating this anymore) settings have used the term “multiverse” to specifically refer to other Magic settings, this book specifically ropes in more D&D conventions as part of the setting. What do I mean by this? Well, creatures that have not traditionally been included in Magic make an appearance in this book as creatures being studied. Genasi show up a lot, for example, and the testing process refers to Owlbears. It’s a little thing, but I kind of like that D&D is flowing back into a D&D presentation. To mention Ravnica again, it felt that was going out of its way to only reference Magic the Gathering versions of the species and reframing familiar D&D species as having their Magic backstories and traits.
Metaplot? What Metaplot?
One of the things that has been consistent with the Magic the Gathering 5e settings has been a lack of connection to the Magic the Gathering metaplot. Not that the world doesn’t mention elements of the setting’s “story,” but maybe not the most recent developments. For example, Guildmasters of Ravnica mentions Jace as an absentee guildmaster, but it doesn’t mention the current card set metaplot of Nicol Bolas invading the plane of Ravnica.
Strixhaven is a young setting, so it doesn’t have a lot of metaplot going on. That said, if you are looking for Professor Onyx, the secret identity of Liliana Vess, everyone’s favorite goth planeswalker, I can’t find any evidence of her appearing in the book. Given what Strixhaven is trying to do, i.e., present itself as an open campus for the multiverse of D&D, I don’t think this is a bad thing.
What’s In The Book?
In case you haven’t caught any of the Table of Contents that might be floating around, here is a breakdown of the different sections of the book:
- Life on Campus (with details on the individual colleges within Strixhaven)
- Character Options (Owlin, college-based backgrounds, feats, new spells, magic items)
- School is in Session (Introduction to the adventure, with rules for extracurriculars, jobs, relationships, and the students you can interact with in those systems)
- Hunt for the Mage Tower (4th to 6th level section of the adventure, year two)
- The Magister’s Masquerade (6th to 8th level section of the adventure, year three)
- A Reckoning in the Ruins (8th to 10th level section of the adventure, year four)
- Friends and Foes (Monsters and new NPC stat blocks)
In a 220-page book, about 140 pages is devoted to the sample adventure. While some of the other setting books that have come out have had adventures associated with them, given that this adventure takes characters from 1st to 10th level, this is effectively as much adventure content as the adventure books that have been released.
What Jumped Out At Me?
Given that I did a quick skim of the book, I wanted to hit on the things that caught my attention. I also wanted to say, even as I was skimming this book, I was excited about the contents. There are a lot of things I want to dig into when I get the chance.
The Snarls–It may be a weird thing to focus on, but I really like the idea that weird magic or dead magic is pre-explained in the setting, so that if the DM wants to use that tool in the campaign, it feels less like nerfing spellcasters to make the DM’s life easier, and more about a setting element that gets telegraphed early.
Strixhaven Itself–There have been a lot of discussions in the D&D online sphere about characters having a “home base” to return to, and the idea that the players are portraying students at a university builds that concept into a campaign.
Strixhaven Backgrounds–The Strixhaven backgrounds give away more than any background in official D&D products up to this point. Not only do you get additional spells that are thematic for the college you attend, but you also get an attendant feat. Would you want to let a Strixhaven graduate into a party outside of a Strixhaven campaign? Maybe not. You might get things to balance out by giving the non-Strixhaven students a free feat. But that’s not what interests me about the backgrounds. What these backgrounds make me think about is, “what if we got this kind of beefy background in adventure books to tie them more directly to the events of the adventure?”
Spells, New–I’m not even going to try to dive into everything that has been said about silvery barbs, although beyond any balance issue, I just wanted to say that I’m not a fan of “this is a reaction, which causes a thing immediately, but also gives someone a thing they need to remember to apply later” as a structure. Wither and bloom does a thing mechanically that I’m surprised we don’t see more often, that being “this spell lets you spend your hit dice outside of hit dice spending time.” It was a nice 4e flashback.
Spells, Existing— What the extra spells given out in the backgrounds recalls, however, is that old advice about “be careful what you give warlocks because of how they regain spells.” Not entirely because of warlocks, but because spells communicate theme, and now you have a background and a subclass both competing for that thematic space.
Magic Items, Part One–There is no way the Bottle of Boundless Coffee should be a common magic item. People would be tracking that magic down from across the multiverse and creating shortages across the planes. And I want one.
Magic Items, Part Two–I love the primers. There are primers for each of the colleges, and when attuned to them, a character can spend charges to add a die to certain skill checks, as well as adding an additional spell to your arsenal. This feels like what a magical book should do, and I’d love to see other thematic primers show up.
Shipping, er, Relationships–The relationship section is intertwined with the adventure, essentially, for different actions you take, and different ways you spend your time, you get relationship points you can spend with existing characters, and at different points, you get a specific benefit from that relationship. It sounds more transactional than I would like when explaining it mechanically, but I like the idea that this isn’t a system where you find a certain NPC and make checks to convince them into a relationship. It’s a meta-choice, knowing that some NPCs are available, and by assigning relationship points, you are building aspects of your character by showing who or what you care about. I’m sure others will explain this system much better than I am in this summary, but in short, I want to see this in other adventures. I know this feels like a logical element for a college story, but I want to Bioware up a few other adventures with these choices.
Tests–The adventure also introduces the concept that players can study for, and then take a test, and depending on how the player characters does on the it, they gain a certain number of dice they can spend at different times to enhance their rolls. I would love to drift this idea towards characters doing research on upcoming missions (“let’s make some rolls at Rivendell when we ask about the map, so we get some bonus dice on sneaking in to Smaug’s lair!”)
Monsters, Part One–There are a lot of useful monster stat blocks in this section. I especially love the creepy mage hunters, and I would love to tempt players with the Daemogoths. They have a nice “mini-warlock pact” mechanic that would be fun to introduce to a game.
Monsters, Part Two–There are a lot of new stat blocks for spellcasters. Because the colleges have different specialties, the spellcasters have different attacks that can be repurposed for different kinds of spellcasters in a story. For example, the Witherbloom stat blocks make for some fun “necromancer” stat blocks. That said, I’m still curious about how the “they don’t use spells” spellcaster stat blocks are developing. Many still have the “this can be a melee attack or a ranged attack,” and a few have “this is a melee attack, but with a huge reach.” What this means is that these spellcaster stat blocks can’t be wrong with their tactics (okay, that is kind of an exaggeration, but you see what I’m saying). These kinds of casters never need to worry about their attacks being less effective if they get pinned down. I feel like this is still a developing thought process.
I think the Magic the Gathering settings are getting stronger the more that are developed. I think the settings are gaining more of a solid vision of what they want to be, and I really like the idea that we get a 1st-10th level adventure as part of this setting. There is no question about what a Strixhaven campaign should look like when it’s part of the presentation of the setting.
I like that a lot of the Magic the Gathering settings provide functional NPC stat blocks. I also really like the idea of giving some starting elements for a lot of different thematic NPCs, such as the “scholars” tables that appear in the sections detailing the colleges.
I originally wondered if we were going to see rules introduced in the Magic the Gathering settings translating to other settings. We haven’t seen “Backgrounds give you bonus spells” show up since Guildmasters of Ravnica, until this product. But while piety hasn’t made the leap to any other product, the Mythic Actions from Theros have made the leap. That makes me hopeful that we’ll see either beefier, adventure specific backgrounds, and that maybe we’ll even see a few relationship options in future releases.