Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos is a great entry point to D&D for Magic players

·9-min read
The two covers of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos (Photo: Yahoo Gaming SEA)
The two covers of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos (Photo: Yahoo Gaming SEA)

The venerable tabletop game, Dungeons & Dragons, has been a staple of gamers since its publication in 1974. In 1997, Wizards of the Coast, the company behind the then-growing Magic: The Gathering (MTG) collectible card game, acquired D&D publisher TSR.

Since then, there have been occasions when both worlds crossover, including last year's Adventures in the Forgotten Realms MTG set, which tapped on one of D&D's most revered settings (if you're a fan of the Baldur's Gate PC game series, that's the same realm). And no crossover would be complete without an inside joke or two.

In the Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos sourcebook for D&D, the stat block for a First-Year Student with a Challenge Rating (CR) 1/2 shows that it has a bonus to initiative — sending me chuckling at this clever reference to the Eager First-Year card in the Strixhaven: School of Mages set for Magic.

If you picked up this book because you loved the Strixhaven: School of Mages set, you'll be delighted at the adaptation for the D&D ruleset, as well as the references both overt and subtle.

But if you're a D&D player looking the explore the world of Strixhaven, you might raise your eyebrows at a few of the decision made.

Eager First-Year card from Strixhaven: School of Mages. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
Eager First-Year card from Strixhaven: School of Mages. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos (referred to as just Strixhaven from here on) is a campaign sourcebook and adventure module for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

It is based on the Magic: The Gathering card set Strixhaven: School of Mages that was released last year.

The book covers how to play as a student in the titular Strixhaven, the most powerful magic university in the multiverse, as well as information on running a campaign set there and the creatures that you will encounter.

It also contains several adventure modules that will take characters from 1st to 10th level, as the progress from novice first-year students to mighty fourth-year students by the adventure's end, which feels more like a full-length campaign module.

A party of students in Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
A party of students in Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

The quick review

As an entry point for Magic players to dip their toes in Dungeons & Dragons, does it work? Unabashedly so.

If you loved the lore from the Strixhaven set, then you'll get a lot more of it here. As can be expected, most of the iconic monsters are converted to D&D rules, such as the Mage Hunters, Groffs, Relic Sloths, and Daemogoths (though not as many variants as you'd expect).

The Owlin is a new character race for players (compared to the relatively boring humans and elves), and in keeping with Wizards of the Coast's new perspective on character races, you get to choose which ability scores to increase rather than having those dictated to you. But most excitingly, you can fly at first level as an Owlin!

There are also more sly references, such as the aforementioned First-Year Student and the Quandrif Prof. of Theory's Divide By Zero ability.

However, you'd probably be able to appreciate the full depth of the campaign's flavour as a Dungeon Master (since you'll read everything), rather than a player.

It has a solid link to the Magic: The Gathering set, and even suggests that you pick a Magic card and build a character around it for inspiration.

Divided by Zero card from Strixhaven: School of Mages. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
Divided by Zero card from Strixhaven: School of Mages. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

A novel setting

Looking at it as a D&D campaign setting, it's a novel idea — playing as university students who also manage to find time to fight monsters and thwart evil plots (catering to both fans of a certain wizarding universe, as well as fans of high school anime).

It captures the spirit of college living with subsystems for Extracurriculars, Jobs, as well as studying and exams.

It also introduces new systems for the different relationships you can forge — with Friends, Rivals, and Beloveds as some of the options.

And yes, you can have more than one Beloved (which also grants you more advantages).

Flavour-wise though, D&D's magic seems shoehorned to fit the theme of five different magical colleges (represented by red, green, white, blue and black).

D&D's base magic system is traditionally based on eight schools of magic, which groups spells into eight broad categories of functions (and there's also a balance purpose here, since you can specialise in different schools of magic as a Wizard).

But Strixhaven has five different colleges (because Magic: The Gathering's magic system is grouped into five colours, and each college is affiliated with two colours).

Reconciling this gets a little forced at times, so the five colleges feel more like a school house system than an actual, practical categorisation of magic, more fitting for colouring the relationships that the characters can forge with different NPCs.

Students from different colleges in Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
Students from different colleges in Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Those NPCs aren't gonna play themselves

And while it's a nifty idea, the relationships feel like they'd entail a lot of more on the Dungeon Master's part.

Sure, NPCs are introduced for the players to forge relationships with, and several parts of the adventure modules suggest (or rather, remind) that you use the NPCs the players are close to.

But that's the extent of it. There are no real adventures involving the NPCs, nor is there anything else fleshing them out after the introductory chapters.

Taking a leaf from the D&D CRPGs like Neverwinter Nights or Baldur's Gate would be a good idea here, where each NPC has a specific quest with a very tangible reward, but what's the point of a pre-written adventure module if you have to do so much leg work yourself?

Nevertheless, the adventure modules are very heavily oriented towards roleplaying, which is something that everyone involved in the campaign should be prepared for.

And as you might expect from a campaign set in a magic university, the setting heavily favours characters who can cast spells.

The book attempts to pay lip service towards non-casters, then gently suggests they have subclasses or feats that let them cast spells or have some sort of class feature that allows them to manifest magical abilities.

But by the middle of the adventure modules, there's a virtually mandatory encounter where you can only defeat foes using magic — so, sorry non-magic users, you really aren't invited to this university.

A magical dance in Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
A magical dance in Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

For players who don't like to be railroaded, the adventure modules might be a little too structured.

There are few opportunities to deviate from the set encounters, and even the random encounters table feels like an afterthought.

The individual adventures are also difficult to be used as modular adventures in other campaigns, given the very specific school setting of Strixhaven.

Nevertheless, they form a good template that DMs can use to build their own university adventures from.

But a Strixhaven campaign seems lacking in terms of combat and acquiring magic items — it's unclear if this is part of the adventure design, but the player characters (who will be 10th-level by the adventure's conclusion) seem like they'd be under-equipped compared to a 10th-level party in other campaigns.

Also, a quarter of the student population (the fourth-years) is meant to be 8th-level (or CR 4) — which means that in virtually any D&D world, this could be the most powerful military force ever to exist (the Challenge Rating basically defines how difficult it would be for players to take on these NPCs or foes).

For reference, you have a whole cohort of characters who can cast Create Animated Objects, raise the dead, summon elementals, and call down insect plagues.

Balance-wise, it's nice that you gain levels as you progress in your studies. But to be 8th-level but still working at a part-time Job that pays 5 gold pieces a week is a little strange, tonally.

This is one aspect where design trumps flavour, but if your players are engaged enough, they might not notice this strange discrepancy.

The book review

If you're reading the book from cover to cover (or just for inspiration), then a definite highlight is the bestiary at the end.

You'll find plenty of powerful creatures, such as the five Founder Dragons (all with CRs past 20!) and a high-level Oracle of Strixhaven for adventuress past 10th-level.

However, you do wonder they never make an appearance in the included adventure modules — surely some seeds could have been planted to lead into bigger and badder threats?

But the biggest question is — if you wanted to play a campaign based on a popular franchise about a British wizarding school, could you?

The answer is yes. There are five colleges of magic, yes, but you could combine the Lorehold and Quandrix schools to form four different "houses".

The included adventures have an evil former student who dabbles in death magic as the main villain. And many of the maps and locations could easily be reskinned as famous locations.

There's even a magical sporting game, Mage Tower, that you could easily repurpose as a game where you chase flying balls on broomsticks. So for those looking to create such a campaign, there's very little work required.

Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Overall, Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos is an ambitious project that brings a flavourful Magic: The Gathering set into the world of D&D.

While the magic rules sets can create some odd clashes in flavour, the premise of playing as college students is a fresh idea that's fairly well executed.

And if you're buying this book so you can play as a boy wizard with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead — then yes, this book is perfect for you.

Marcus Goh is a Singapore television scriptwriter, having written for "Lion Mums", "Crimewatch", "Police & Thief", and "Incredible Tales". He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site.

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