Magic schools are a well-established fantasy trope and have been for decades. It’s easy to see the appeal; we all have memories of school and for most people it’s a time of discovery, adversity and wonder. Mix in some magic and your have yourself a very simple formula for adventure. Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos is D&D’s first real entry into this very popular sub-genre.
The campaign setting takes place in a magical university called Strixhaven. Characters can be any background or class, though spell-casters will get more out of the setting. That said, the book liberally throws around magical abilities, so if your character doesn’t begin as a spell-caster they soon will be. The idea is this a pan-dimensional school, drawing beings from across the multi-verse. It’s heavily inspired by any college/high-school drama you’ve ever seen, with a lot of Worst Witch, A Wizard of Earthsea, Vampire Academy and The Owl House thrown in for good measure.
It’s very different from most D&D settings; it focuses broadly on wonder and high-school hijnks, rather than stuffy knowledge worship. (Making it the polar opposite of another recent D&D book, Candlekeep Mysteries.) It’s less about the learning and more about the wonder of learning. They are five colleges, each designed to conflict in some way with one of the other colleges. Each has been founded by a powerful dragon and each college has it’s own faculty and staff, who are detailed just well enough to be used in a hurry, but not so heavily that their isn’t room for improvisation and expansion by the DM.
Much like The Wild Beyond The Witchlight, this book is more of tool kit, blending setting material with a full adventure and additional campaign ideas and mechanics. It allows Dungeon Masters to create their own ‘magic school’ adventures. The adventure itself is merely okay; it pales when compared to Witchlight or IceWind Dale , but it’s fun enough. Mostly it’s there to showcase the various features and fresh mechanics this book brings. This does mean that some of the cooler ideas are wrapped up in the scenario section of the book, however.
We get all the cliches a ‘magic university’ book requires. Weird mascots, bizarre sports, an end of term prom, more than one conspiracy, sinister mages and guidance on how to run rivals. (And yes, of course there’s a chance you’re going to skip class to team up with your greatest academic rival to do something heroic; that’s almost required in a setting like this.)
Most DM’s will want to expand on the core scenario anyway and the book provides the tools to do this. This is very much a setting that has a plot, but actually expects the party to ignore chunks of it, do stuff they think is cool and somehow end up engaged in the main story anyway. It’s a much more freeform approach than more classic adventures such as The Tomb of Horrors, and that’s a good thing. In the age of Critical Role, games want more relaxed scenarios.
Rules wise, the new ‘Owl Person’ race called Owlin is nice; they can fly (but not very well) and fit the setting well. Some of the spells are quite powerful, but it makes sense in setting. This book ties-in with the Magic the Gathering series of the same name, and it shows in a few places, but not in a way you’d notice unless you looked for it.
As always, the art is amazing, the map in the back is a bit tricky to get out and there’s an alternate art cover that combines ‘cool’ with ‘school text book’ quite well.
Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos has a lot of cool ideas, rules and monsters. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a great setting with something for everyone.