Storytelling, Tabletop and Pop Culture
What an auspicious occasion, that I should need a first blog post on the Strixhaven release day. But a caveat before we begin. I'm an unabashed homebrewer when it comes to my TTRPG worlds so I tend to evaluate official titles with that in mind. So I'm going to be looking at the non-adventure parts of Strixhaven and seeing what they bring to the table for everyone else to play with.
Unfortunately, the answer is "not much." Strixhaven is an incredibly flavorful setting. The details, the aesthetics, even the attention to the philosophy of each school is incredible. There is a diverse and intriguing cast of NPC's and all sorts of little nods and touches that make the world feel like a fun sandbox to play in.
But if I'm looking for pieces to import into any other setting, it's basically all or nothing. So many of the details are so specific that I'd have to totally tear it down to nothing to rebuild it into something useful. My primary campaign setting has a magic school. But the Prismari or the Quandrix or the Witherbloom are so specific that they wouldn't really make sense if I just dropped them in a la carte.
So let's look at what we've actually got here. First up are the backgrounds. These are such a big factor that either every character should take one or none should. They add 10 spells to your spell list, a huge gain for full list casters and Wizards. There are some great gains for Warlock or Sorcerer but they're still in competition for a limited number of slots so the impact is less severe. Witherbloom really stands out here. This one background basically injects a whole Cleric aspect into your character, comparable with something like Divine Soul or Celestial patron. The school feats are pretty beefy as well, especially since they come packaged with the backgrounds.
A lot of the other character options are fairly simple. The new Owlin race seem like a straight upgrade to the Aarakocra. There are really only functionally 4 new magic items, with the last coming in 5 flavors (matching the colleges) and nothing particularly noteworthy. The 5 spells are all solid additions, including temporary skill proficiency, a movement boost, an involuntary teleport and a harm+heal aoe. Silvery Barbs has drawn a lot of attention for possibly interacting strangely with legendary resistance but that seems like wishful thinking both in terms of RAW and the way most DM's would implement it. It does come off just a smidge too powerful for a level 1 though.
One area that shines is the broad cast of unique NPC's. Each of the five colleges has 5+ staff and faculty and there are 17 classmates, each of whom provides unique bonuses/minor annoyances depending on whether you befriend or irritate them. And when I say unique, I mean unique. There's no cut and paste here. Each student is a gateway to a faction or aspect of campus life and your choice of allies and foes will really shape your experience. Wanna get in with the music scene? Befriend Aurora. Wanna be a consummate nerd and always have a study buddy? Befriend Urzmaktok (but don't use nicknames). But piss off Mina and good luck getting a coffee at the campus cafe. Each NPC feels complex and connected. As an alumnus of a small college they really capture some of that vibe.
And of course, the stat blocks. This is the real winner for me. A magic school book is a perfect place to show off the streamlined new spellcaster blocks and seeing so many back to back really emphasizes how much easier they are to read and use. 5E has honestly needed some more spellcasters across multiple CR ranges and this adds a double handful in one go.
One area I'll admit to finding a bit strange is the "Beloved" category of the NPC relationship system. While the simple video game like affection bar system works fine for friendships it starts to feel uncomfortable added to more significant relationships. And the very mechanical rewards are downright uncomfortable. One inspiration die per long rest per "Beloved" up to a maximum of your proficiency bonus. Well that sounds downright romantic.
I don't as much find fault here with the Strixhaven team but more with the strange editorial choice to never address this topic in any other place up to this point. This seems to be a substantial part of the game for a lot of tables and one particularly prone to either great storytelling or disturbing misuse. It really needs a full heading in a major sourcebook, not a small sidebar in what is essentially an adventure path book. I'd love to see what the authors could do with some more ink.
Altogether, Strixhaven has a lot to recommend it but it should really be taken as an Adventure book and not a Sourcebook (despite the categorization by WotC). If you're looking to build some magic college students and run 10 levels worth of adventure in a unique and flavorful world this is definitely the book for you. You can make friendships that last a lifetime (or at least 10 levels), build a robust social and academic life and go on some great adventures. If you're looking for more assets for your homebrew game and existing worlds this might not do so much for you.
So what are your all's thoughts on Strixhaven? What looks exciting to you or great for your table? Would you have done anything differently? Let me know in the comments and thanks for stopping by!
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.