Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos review

After much build-up, countless essays, and several trips to the banking guild you’ve finally received the acceptance letter to the magical university of your dreams. The question now is, is it everything you hoped for, will you even accept? Here at Dice Cove, we’re here to help you decide whether or not college is worth your hard-earned coin, no not that college, the new Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos adventure(s)!

What’s in the book?

You can’t choose the university without seeing the brochure, so it’s important that we first outline what is actually in this book. It’s primarily focused towards the DM and it may be recommended to avoid this book if you are hoping to play in the adventures unless you’re really good at avoiding temptation! 

The notable parts of the book for players are:

The notable parts of the book for DMs are:

We’ll now review different aspects of the book and give each section a score out of 5, which you may recognize from our guides, and finally rate the overall book. For the purposes of the review, we will consider a 3 or above as a pass but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t, or shouldn’t be better done and it certainly doesn’t mean it passes the strict (or let’s face it for some of us not so strict) quality standards your wallet imposes on your purchases!

Player Options (3/5)

There is very little here for players, it feels like maybe just enough to facilitate players feeling part of the world. It is, however, on par with the number of player options in other published adventures.

Owlin

I know what you’re thinking ‘another flying race?!’ ‘another birdfolk?!’ and the answer is simply yes. Whilst this race is appealing mechanically with 120ft darkvision, 30ft flight, and Stealth proficiency, it largely feels like it was added for the sake of it, or to appeal to players. Whilst Owlin are a variety of birdfolk in the Magic: The Gathering card game, specifically the Strixhaven: School of Mages expansion, 5E already has a flying birdfolk in the aarakocra which could have filled the role. A good race, just an unnecessary one.

Feats

The two feats offered in this book are Strixhaven Initiate and Strixhaven Mascot, the latter of which breaks normal 5E conventions by having a prerequisite of needing the former. Strixhaven Initiate is based on Magic Initiate, offering two cantrips and a 1st level spell, however, instead of choosing a class you choose which Strixhaven College appeals to you. Each college choice gives you a choice of three cantrips to choose your two from, as well as allowing you to choose a 1st level spell from a choice of two different spell lists. This gives you a more restricted cantrip choice than Magic Initiate but allows you to grab spells that would normally be more difficult to acquire, for example by choosing Quadrix you could take Guidance, Mage Hand, and Shield in one fell swoop. This ends up being a little more powerful than Magic Initiate, but in line with the Fey and Shadow Touched feats from TCoE.

Strixhaven Mascot allows you to cast Find Familiar spell as a ritual, but with a significant twist:  allowing your familiar to take the form of the mascot associated with the college you chose for Strixhaven Initiate, in addition to giving you the ability to swap places with your familiar within 60 feet, and sacrifice your attack for them to make one as a reaction. This is a very powerful feat, the swapping ability and having your familiar attack are already crossing heavily into what you would expect from a Pact of the Chain Warlock, but the mascot forms themselves go even further. Each mascot is a ¼ CR creature, each with its own special ability and benefits such as damage immunity or resistances. One example of a special ability is the fractal mascot, for Quandrix college, which is able to increase or reduce its size category as a bonus action up to the huge category. So at 4th level, you are able to command a Huge sized creature, which is not in line with anything else in the game, to say the least. This is attempted to be balanced by requiring another feat and you to be 4th level, however, you’re able to take that first feat with a background and even for Strixhaven games, this is a high power level.

Spells

All five spells added with this book are on the more powerful end of the spectrum, which may be problematic for some tables as they’re all low level, with four of them being 2nd level and one of them being 1st level. These spells certainly give the impression of an incredibly high magic setting, with Borrowed Knowledge allowing you to gain a skill proficiency of your choice for an hour, without the need for concentration. This reliance on magic makes sense for a setting like Strixhaven, an interplanar magic university, but if used in other settings is likely to encroach on other aspects of the game. For instance, if another player had heavily invested in being a skill-heavy character, they may feel negatively about a spellcaster being able to use a single spell to potentially fill large parts of their niche. 

One spell, in particular, has caused stirs in the Dungeons and Dragons 5E community, and that is Silvery Barbs, the only 1st level spell in the book. This spell is a reaction that you can take whenever a creature within 60 feet of you succeeds on an attack roll, an ability check, or a saving throw and forces them to reroll the d20 and use a lower result. If that wasn’t enough, you also give one creature of your choice advantage on the first of any of those rolls within the next minute. This is a very powerful spell, with a very low cost, and with only a vocal component, easier to use than the Shield spell is. Note: There was initial excitement/controversy over this spell overriding Legendary Resistance, this was clarified in Sage Advice to not be the case.

Overall these spells achieve their goal of helping establish a very high magic setting but push the bounds of what may be acceptable in other settings.

Backgrounds

With five magical colleges comes five new backgrounds, one for each. These backgrounds provide the normal two skills, a mix of languages or tools of your choice, and starting equipment. However, instead of having a unique feature like other backgrounds, these go on to give you the Strixhaven Initiate feat (limited to the college that matches your background), in addition to adding a selection of spells to the spell list of any spellcasting class you have levels in, the same way the Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica backgrounds do. 

To be honest these backgrounds don’t make any sense the way that they are presented in the book, which is for characters of 1st level starting their education in Strixhaven. Backgrounds, by their very name and nature, are intended to represent what you did before you became an adventurer. This becomes problematic when you’re at the beginning of your first year at Strixhaven university, but your background is reduced to dedicating your entire life to a field of study of one of the particular colleges, the opposite of how a similar academic pursuit would work in real life. This is actually counter to the school’s structure itself, with first years studying a broad spectrum of subjects to see where their interests and talents lie before choosing a college for their second year onwards.

These backgrounds, and the associated feat(s), would have been better done as a standalone system, such as the piety system in Mythic Odysseys of Theros, or the Dark Gifts in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. This would have allowed a system where players could have unlocked boons based on their progression through school, and perhaps even their academic achievements, and wouldn’t have any potential bleed through to other settings.

DM Options (3/5)

Primarily being a combination of adventures and setting information, Strixhaven definitely has a lot of reading material for any budding headmaster. 

Magic Items

This section is best described as whimsical and disappointing, with five out of the ten new magic items being a primer for one of the colleges which give you 1d4 to college-specific skill checks, as well as allowing you to cast a 1st level spell from certain spell lists. These items feel bland and ‘cookie-cutter’ that don’t really add much to the creativity of the game, whilst feeding into a potential problem: trivializing skill checks. This combines with the Borrowed Knowledge spell and the easy access to the Guidance spell that the Magic Initiate feat provides to make skill checks much easier in general. This is a problem when the book also introduces an exam subsystem that is reliant on you passing skill checks, making it extremely easy to pass your exams, without necessarily making it an interesting process.

The other magic items are largely novelties, such as an endless potion bottle of coffee, or a cuddly toy that can help protect you from fear. It would have been nice to see more common-level magic items related to everyday university life, such as magical quills, or an artifact belonging to each college that was created by their founder. 

Subsystems

With university life comes complications, namely, how do you provide a university experience in a game that revolves primarily around combat? Creating a series of shallow subsystems appears to have been the answer, with subsystems to handle jobs, extracurricular activities, exams, the sport of mage tower, and more.

Exams are a staple of school life, with multiple exams happening every year in a subject the characters are assumed to have taken together regardless of their college choices. Exams are broken into two phases, the study phase, and the actual testing phase, with the former giving you benefits for the latter. Whilst you can study in any manner you wish, testing requires two skill checks that the book specifies based on which exam is being taken. The cracks begin to show immediately, however, with the all-nighter option for studying giving you one level of exhaustion (and thus, disadvantage on all ability checks), but allowing you two rerolls on the exam skill checks, an awful tradeoff. There’s also the amusing option of cheating on your exams which will always use a Dexterity Sleight of Hand and a Charisma Deception check. This highlights another problem, skill checks are very easy to pass consistently if you are able to invest in them, a modest modifier combined with Expertise paves an easy road to success. This is reinforced by the book not ruling out the use of abilities and spells to pass exams, arguably the new player options introduced encourage it. To illustrate this issue, and possibly to enable some of the enhanced exam taking, here is a small list of things to consider come exam season:

  • Guidance (cantrip) – Add a d4 to an ability check of your choice
  • Enhance Ability (2nd level spell) – Gain advantage on ability checks related to a single ability score of your choice for the duration.
  • Bardic Inspiration (Bard class ability) – Add a Bardic Inspiration Die to your result.
  • Psi-Bolstered Knack (Rogue Soulknife subclass ability) – Add your Psionic Energy Die to the check result if you fail.
  • Silver Tongue (Bard College of Eloquence subclass ability) – Treat a roll of 9 or lower on a d20 as a 10 for Charisma Persuasion or Deception checks.

If you set your mind to getting through school on guile rather than acumen, then playing an Eloquence Bard would not only give you a significant advantage on doing so, you can help your friends through their exams too! And here they say Slytherin Silverquill are always the bad guys.

Unfortunately, the other subsystems don’t inspire more faith: the game of mage tower is just more ability checks with set benefits for spellcasting, the relationship system allows you to gain points based on certain interactions with NPCs, but allows you to decide if the points are positive or negative, which greatly undercuts the purpose of the system. 

Bestiary

Strixhaven presents us with 47 new monsters, which use the new style of statblock that Wizards of the Coast is making standard for Dungeons and Dragons 5E. These statblocks are meant to make running these monsters easier, and they achieve this by and large, however, they also highlight something: the disappointing mages behind the university itself. 

Strixhaven was founded by five magical dragons and is run by a head mage dubbed the oracle, the statblocks for the dragons and current oracle are given to us in the Friends and Foes section, and are pretty disappointing. The Oracle is the head mage of an interplanar magical university, yet has less spellcasting than a lower CR archmage, with a relative handful of spells that tops out with Power Word Stun, an 8th level spell. The founding dragons are much the same, with most of their design space taken up by being dragons, and very little of it devoted to actual magic to convince you that these dragons founded the most prestigious magical school in any plane. Whilst both get interesting abilities that are clearly magical, the distinct lack of spells feels odd and leaves them feeling decidedly lackluster. This is likely part of the new statblock design ethos, reducing the amount you need to refer to a spell’s description or keep track of expended spells as a DM. However, that knowledge doesn’t make them look more impressive.

The rest of the monsters on offer are standard fare to fill out what you need to run a game for in the Strixhaven world, including mages for every year and professorship for each college for any given scuffle or duel your party may get themselves into. The mage hunters are interesting in design, making them tricky to deal with for mage-heavy parties but easily dispatched by martial characters. This fits their intent as hunting down the mages of Strixhaven, but makes them feel a little too toothless against a traditional mixed DnD party. Ideally, they would have a slightly higher AC and another debuff besides the grappled condition. This sums up the bestiary as a whole fairly well, it’s not bad by any stretch, but with the odd exception, it won’t be blowing any socks off either. 

Adventures

We’re given four adventures in the book, one for each year of school, with a plot thread of a rejected student causing harm and building nefarious schemes that come to a head in the fourth and final year. Whilst the game suggests that you can run these adventures individually, suggesting that wild magic could be an alternative cause to the calamities, I’m not sure how many people will run these adventures piecemeal like they might with Tales from the Yawning Portal. 

To avoid spoilers this part of the review won’t dive into details of the adventures but aim to give you a feel for how they’re written, which is solidly, oddly, meh. The adventures mix traditional combat with skill challenges crammed into various minigames in an attempt to capture campus life as a different experience than traditional dungeon delving. This works at times but feels stretched and contrived at others with the attempts to both create a magical student game, whilst giving the NPCs some reason to hand over magical items to the winner. One of the contrivances that seem to stick out is that the antagonist has successfully warded himself against any spells from faculty members. This of course sets the scene for the students to move in and deal with the threat as the only ones capable of doing so, but also feels a very obvious plot device. A matter of taste, but the faculty simply being incapcitated or fooled into going to a different location would have left a better taste.

Two things I’d like to highlight positively that the book does with the adventures is to provide you level appropriate random encounter tables, and directly address the infamous lethality of the earlier levels of the game. Whilst the characters are 1st-3rd level there is a more powerful NPC, often a teacher or other faculty member, that can step in once they are knocked unconscious so that the adventure can continue. This doesn’t address massive damage deaths that can occur easily and at random at these levels, but it at least acknowledges the issue and hands the DM a tool to deal with it.

Overall whilst reading the adventures, I felt that they were a shallow taste of what Strixhaven could be, a stepping stone or foundation for DMs to take and make their own. However, I was also left with the impression that whilst not the best-written adventure(s), it would certainly be fun to play through with friends.

Art (3/5)

There’s certainly a large amount of nice art in the book, with a plethora of NPC portraits and thematic side pieces to help build the world in your mind’s eye. That opening sentence might leave you confused when you clearly saw only a three out of five above it, this is a combination of two things:

  • I can only give so much credit to recycled art.
  • Maps.

On the first point, as we have already touched on Strixhaven is originally an expansion for Magic: The Gathering, a trading card game owned by WotC. This meant that a large amount of art was commissioned for cards, boxes, promotional reasons etc., said art has been used well in SCoC. This doesn’t make the book any cheaper than non-Magic books, and leaves you with a distinct feeling of ‘where did the normal art budget go?’

To address the second point the maps are disappointed with the nerve of adding a disclaimer, they note that the maps have been created in a style that makes them easy to replicate onto graph paper for table use. Whilst this is a nice sentiment, I don’t personally pay for a book in the hopes of seeing maps basic enough I can accurately recreate them, nor does it justify why the majority of maps are black and white in an otherwise full-color book. It is also a sentiment that disregards players that use virtual tabletops, theatre of the mind, or just simply enjoy the ease of a blank grid. The colour maps that are included raise the question why is a minority of the maps in colour whilst the rest are not, and the minute detail seen on the Sedgemoor map makes you wonder if the definition of easy to replicate fluctuated between simpler art, and just adding a grid.

The poster map also falls awry of the missing art budget: it looks impressive at first, a large palette of colour, but upon closer inspection lacks any deep detail being more like concept art. This might not have been a problem if it was only used for the poster map, but each section is blown up and used for the college breakdowns in chapter one.

On the bright side, the art pieces that show various parts of the campus in actual detail are very evocative and the inclusion of a removable poster map, that has all other maps printed on the back of it, gives you a useful game aid and game room decoration. 

Lore (4/5)

The book immediately establishes what Strixhaven is and isn’t, for example, one might assume that it is where one goes to learn to be a mage. This assumption would be incorrect, Strixhaven is a university where one learns a profession such as learning to become a historian or orator,  whilst using magic to enhance their studies. You’re also informed that whilst in Magic: The Gathering it is located on the world of Arcavios, you are free to insert it wherever you like in Dungeons and Dragons, be it in your own homebrew world, or an established setting such as Faerun, or the equally cosmopolitan Sigil.

Overall the lore presented is rich and interesting, with deep mysteries in the background of the world to create intrigue and present ideas for other campaigns using this setting. The dragons that founded the university seven hundred years ago, along with the contrasting deans of each college and major NPCs are all given summaries and artwork to flesh out the world nicely. The only thing missing that would have been nice to see is a mysteries of the university section, a place where rumors of powerful missing items, secret passages, and whatnot could have been placed.

Overall

A must-have supplement for any dragon lover, this

With player options that might prove problematic if used outside of Strixhaven, a mixed bag of art, and a slew of subsystems that will feel a little forced, and samey after a while Strixhaven isn’t the strongest entry in 5E’s history. However, if you are looking to run a game in a magical school it does give you a base to work from and evokes a sense that the adventures would be fun to play in despite their flaws. This is based less on design prowess, and more on the environment they create for your party of friends to ‘adventure.’ 

A note here regarding Strixhaven and inclusivity: the book goes out of its way to show that the campus is accessible to all, and there are instances of the LGBTQ+ community throughout the book. This is a great step forward in representation, and does well to present Strixhaven as a truly welcoming cosmopolitan setting.

Overall, this book ends up as a solid average once all is said and done, if the concept interests you or you’re a fan of the MtG expansion then you will likely enjoy this book. If you’re interested in this title for mechanical aspects to rip out for your own games, then this may not be worth your tuition fee.

  • Player Options
    3/5 Neutral
  • DM Options
    3/5 Neutral
  • Art
    3/5 Neutral
  • Lore
    4/5 Good
3/5
Total Score
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