Dungeons & Dragons’ Newest Magic Crossover Wants Everyone to Feel Home at Magic School
Magic: The Gathering is a game about the most powerful spellcasters in the multiverse, so an entire card set themed around a magical place of study makes sense. In Dungeons & Dragons, adventurers can be martial artists, great warriors, master weaponsmiths—they may not touch magic at all. So when D&D and Magic crossed over in their latest collaboration, an interesting problem arose: how do you build an adventure about a magic school where not everyone in the party can use magic?
After the reveals of The Wild Beyond the Witchlight and Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons during D&D Live over the weekend, Wizards of the Coast had one more trick up its sleeve—the latest sourcebook coming to D&D’s Fifth Edition later this year, Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. Based on this year’s Strixhaven: School of Mages card set for Magic: The Gathering, A Curriculum of Chaos sends player characters across a journey through levels 1-10. But instead of delving into dungeons or taking on mercenary requests like a typical band of adventurers, you’ll be cast as something altogether a bit more different for D&D: school students, even if your school is a repository of some of the most powerful and brilliant practitioners of magic around. Even more uniquely, your adventure will be spread across an entire curriculum of study, as your characters grow through years of tutelage and eventually graduate from Strixhaven’s hallowed halls.
“One of the most exciting things for us on the team is the fact that this book provides all of the tools for you to actually play a student at Strixhaven University, a student at the University of Magic, taking part in all of the different five colleges and discovering the flavors of magic that exist there—and as such, if you choose to play through the substantial adventure content that we’re offering in the book as well,” Amanda Hamon, D&D team Senior Designer, told press at a recent event ahead of D&D Live. Differing from D&D’s previous sourcebooks covering crossovers with Magic—Mythic Odysseys of Theros and Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica—Curriculum of Chaos stands out for its primary focus on story content. “A Curriculum of Chaos [covers] almost two-thirds of the book, which is [playable as] either a long campaign, stretched out over four different chapters that you can play from level one to level 10, or—this is something we are very excited about in the studio—each of these individual chapters can be played as standalone adventures,” Hamon continued. “Perhaps one-shots, if you play a very long session, but probably more like two or three.”
“Each of these chapters are self-contained to represent a term, in academic terms. So we’ve got a chapter that is your first year, a chapter of your second year, your third year, and then your fourth year,” Hamon explained. “And if you choose to play those individually, there’s a standalone, compelling story that unfolds that you are able to solve and resolve by the end of that chapter—and that can be your entire experience. Or like I mentioned, you can play those chapters all together and there is an overarching campaign that’s a much more epic, large-scale story in nature that is also just as satisfying, we hope, to players.”
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While A Curriculum of Chaos will feature some familiar faces from the card set as notable NPCs, the story it tells is largely unique to D&D. Rather than borrowing any of the events that unfolded in the Magic set’s own lore, it adapts the five different colleges of Strixhaven’s mystical disciplines—Lorehold, Prismari, Quandrix, Silverquill, and Witherbloom—and their different approaches to the study of magic. And the study is an important differential there: one thing D&D had to work around in a major way with Strixhaven as a setting was that, unlike Magic, not everyone in a game of D&D is necessarily, well, magical. “What’s really fun we think about the Strixhaven setting is that you don’t actually have to be a mage to take part in these adventures. You don’t have to be a spellcaster to attend Strixhaven University,” Hamon stressed. “It’s not so much a university to learn how to be a caster as it is actually to learn about magic, and the application of magic, and the existence of magic in the world.”
This is important, because Curriculum of Chaos didn’t just put “curriculum” in the title for alliterative purposes; your education at Strixhaven is a vital part of the adventure—and yes, that does mean studying. “This is getting a little bit into the weeds on the adventures, but there are rules that the game includes to help simulate campus life and college life—and one of those is an academic facing a set of rules, called Exams,” Hamon teased. “This allows you… when you are taking part in this class with all of your fellow students and your fellow Player Characters on a specific topic, that is about a specific type of magic within one of the colleges, you are learning about these things. Depending on how well you do on your exams—which mostly consists of some skill checks and some flavor—you get little bonuses mechanically for going forward with the story and overcoming the challenges that are put in front of you. Those are some of the little ways we went with to breathe life into these adventures.”
University life isn’t all work and no play, however—Strixhaven included. You can get bonuses for passing your studies, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of academic life. Not intellectually inclined? Your heroes can choose to seek their bonuses elsewhere, building relationships with other students or taking part in out-of-class activities. “In addition to having some fun rules for ‘All right, did you pass your exams? And if you did, what benefits you get?’, we also have rules for extracurricular activities that your character might be involved in—your on-campus job can give you benefits. We also have rules that allow you to build up not only narratively meaningful, but mechanically meaningful relationships with other students,” D&D Lead Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford added. It’s those extra benefits outside the classroom that Crawford and Hamon really wanted to inject into A Curriculum of Chaos. “Amanda and I early on, when talking about this project, giggled a lot, not only about this, but just about… as we reflected on our own experiences as university students, not only just how much excitement and optimism there can be as a college student, but also just what a hot mess college life can be,” Crawford joked. “This is not the official code name [for Strixhaven development], but Amanda and I, our code name for this has been ‘hot mess!’”
Relationships form a major mechanical element in Curriculum of Chaos, providing not just loyal allies in your campaign, but potential foes. “[They] can become really dear and affectionate, but they can also go the other direction,” Crawford added. “And you can end up with a fellow student who is a frenemy, [which] might end up causing trouble [during the adventure].”
“Like Jeremy had mentioned, we’ve got some benefits—if you’ve got somebody who is your friend, you’ve interacted with them in a positive way a number of times to mechanically have them as your friend, there’s also the opposite,” Hamon continued. “You can have someone who is your rival and there is something that they do—and usually it’s story-specific, something that they’ll do to slightly sabotage something that you’re trying to do or provide you with a disadvantage on a roll, or something else related to their back story. So it all really boils down to who they are as a person and how they built that relationship, and how that PC has built that relationship with those NPCs. We really provide a lot of detail about the NPCs, I think in a way that is very unique in the D&D world. We have an array of fellow students, set out with personality profiles of 18 different NPCs, and all of the different backgrounds about who they are, and what are their colleges—what age they are, and what school year they are in relation to the player character… just what their motivations are and what their interests are going to be, to allow DMs to have those tools to use those characters, and let their the players really feel like they know these individuals and can build up a relationship.”
Making connections at college, magical or otherwise, happens beyond the realms of official school activities, of course. Even powerful spellcasters and students of the mystical arts have to blow off steam sometimes. “Are there house parties [at Strixhaven]? The answer is unequivocally yes, there are house parties! In fact, they appear as part of this relationship system,” Hamon teased. “There are relationship encounters that are group events, and one of them is a house party that is happening, and there are ways that you can take part in what’s happening. There’s an improv festival, there’s a little game you can be taking part in that’s happening in the tavern… you’re basically figuring out how you’re participating in these events, and we give a list of ways that make the most sense of how to participate in the game. DMs can always come up with their own, but we provide some of the more obvious ones—you’re shouting encouragement, comments, or heckling, or other things related to the event that’s taking place.”
“As you participate in that event, you’re interacting with the NPCs in a mechanical way, in a positive way or a negative way,” Hamon continued. “You describe how you’re doing that and seeing that play out between the DM and the player, and that then provides a point one way or another that feeds into these relationship roles. [Strixhaven’s] got lots of very genre-specific group events like that… I don’t want to spoil too many things, but there’s a Pitch Perfect-style sing-off, for example, that happens before a big Mage Tower game (Strixhaven University’s magical sporting event).”
While the bulk of A Curriculum of Chaos’ page count is dedicated to these adventures at the university, the book will also include new creatures and mechanics that play into the adventure or will be able to spread outside of Strixhaven into other campaigns. As well as a bestiary and NPC stat options for a whole host of beings and creatures pulled directly from the Strixhaven card set itself, another being from Magic is being turned into a new playable character option: the Owlin, like the feathered friend seen on A Curriculum of Chaos’ cover. “Anyone who’s familiar with our Unearthed Arcana series online, you’ll know we actually playtested the Owlin a little while ago,” Crawford teased, “and we called them the Owlfolk—we often do this where we sort of change a name slightly, just so that we can keep our cards close to our chests! But that was the Owlin, and playtesters really loved it.”
Another set of mechanical additions includes feats, abilities, and items that players, magically inclined or otherwise, can take to give them the feel of being characters who signed up to be a student at a magical institution like Strixhaven. “One of the [A Curriculum of Chaos adventure] features for playing in the campaign is that being a Strixhaven student automatically gives you a free feat, and that is one of these Strixhaven feats that gives you some magical abilities, regardless of your character class,” Crawford explained. “It’s a manifestation of the hard work you’ve done as a student at this university. There also be some special spells and magical items, including magical textbooks, that you’ll be able to acquire to give yourself some of the magical capabilities that are associated with Strixhaven as you then go on the adventure… there’s a lot of trouble afoot in and near the university, and so [players] are going to need to use these abilities that they learn in class to then go out and solve real D&D adventure-style problems.”
One thing that was previously known about A Curriculum of Chaos that won’t actually be featured? When the book was first teased, Wizards went through the unprecedented surprise of immediately offering a series of subclasses for spellcasters through their Unearthed Arcana playtesting campaign, Strixhaven Mages. After the feedback received during that testing, however, the design team decided to hold off from bringing the idea to fruition as part of the new book. “Unearthed Arcana did the job that we ask it to do for us, which is… we sometimes put very experimental things out in front of D&D fans, and just ask them ‘Hey, you want to see more of this,’” Crawford explained. “And the simple answer was ‘No, thank you, but no!’ We got a lot of great feedback nonetheless from that Unearthed Arcana. And even when something doesn’t make it into a book, it goes into our big cauldron of future design, so it’s always possible something will re-emerge in a later product.”
“But we learned two really important things [from the Strixhaven Mages feedback] that we’ve been seeing from the D&D community since D&D Next. People love for D&D subclasses to speak to the distinctiveness of each class, so fans were struggling with these experimental subclasses because, very intentionally, we weren’t speaking to the distinctiveness of a class,” Crawford continued. “5E Fans also like subclasses to be useable in as many settings as possible, given the fact that so many DMs homebrew, and so there was an uphill climb for these subclasses and for people taking the survey because they were unusual for us, in that they were tied to a specific setting. In this case, we were prepared for this as a potential outcome, and we’re excited about the player character options that are going to be in the book. Often we will do this when we have something more experimental than normal, where we have contingency plans—so we’re going in another direction, and I’m excited that the direction we’re going in is supporting even more character types than those hybrid subclasses.”
But even with that slight hiccup, much of what will make Strixhaven still feel unique to D&D players has remained while retaining at its core that this is not a Magic: The Gathering experience, but a D&D one. “It’s still D&D. There’s a lot of fun, very unique, and very genre-specific elements, like the exams, and the extracurriculars, and relationship systems, some of which we really hope people will sink into. But it’s still D&D,” Hamon concluded. “Everything is still within the D&D context, you’re still presented with challenges and adversaries, and there are plots afoot that you’ll need to unravel as players and player characters. It’s not going to be entirely unfamiliar, it’s just within this new, fun environment that we hope folks will have fun exploring and still feel very D&D.”
Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos will hit shelves on November 16.
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July 19, 2021 at 01:36PM