A new setting for Dungeons & Dragons is on the horizon, Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos, which introduces….
….the fantastical setting of Strixhaven University, drawn from the multiverse of Magic: The Gathering, and provides rules for creating characters who are students in one of its five colleges. Characters can explore the setting over the course of four adventures, which can be played together or on their own. Each adventure describes an academic year filled with scholarly pursuits, campus shenanigans, exciting friendships, hidden dangers, and perhaps even romance.
SIGN ME UP!
One element of running adventures or campaigns that feels intimidating to me is the expectation of scale – the notion that the adventuring party will bounce around to various towns, far-flung locations or even planes of existence. A good part of me wants to keep the players in a smaller area for a long period of time so they can get to know it and feel like they have some agency in what is happening around them. Instead sessions seem to advance into a series of “Go here, and do that” quests that take them all over a map or seven.
Another element that can be challenging is absorbing all the lore and information in recent D&D hardcover adventures. The adventures are a few hundred pages that the DM needs to be familiar with; and I’m aware you can pick and choose what you like from any one of these hardcover books – it remains heavy lifting to get started on settings that you might not know a lot about. I have not been able to juggle various factions, pivotal non-playable characters, and important locations when the setting feels otherworldly.
Stixhaven seems to provide a solution to these concerns in my mind because the setting is incredibly tangible – school!
I was a student for approximately half my life including graduate school. Rather than the party being a collective of adventurers off to seek fortune and fame (or some form of revenge/redemption), the party becomes a bunch of students on a campus. That makes sense to me.
What a glorious shift in the stakes!
The setting allows a DM and players to focus on goals that might link to experiences they have had as a person. How many D&D players have traveled the world battling monsters, explored ancient ruins or navigated trap-filled dungeons? Rather, how many of those same players have dealt with a teacher they adored or despised, faced a rivalry with another student or school, or stayed out late one night and got into a situation that became very complicated? Strixhaven gives gaming groups a greenlight to explore those situations while still being able to say, “Hey, let’s schedule a time to play D&D.”
And Strixhaven will allow DMs to include aspects of Session 0 in the game world. For those unaware, Session 0 is a term used by tabletop roleplaying enthusiasts to describe the initial meeting of the gaming group where ground rules can be discussed and agreed upon before the game is played. Key elements of a Session 0 include expectations for the style of game that will be played (“Do we want all combat, all the time? A lot of story and roleplaying? A combination of both?”), house/table rules (“Are all rolls in the open? What’s the policy on attendance if we have to miss a game?”), and consent and safety tools (“What are topics you want to avoid at all costs during the game – such as graphic horror or abuse, suicide, racism, sexism?”). The discussion of expectations and agreeing upon ground rules by the players is a wonderful way to ensure that everyone at the table is aware of the game they – and everyone else – is playing.
Session 0 is incredibly useful, and it typically takes place outside of the gaming world. For example, a group of friends getting together to start a Ravenloft campaign might share some emails ahead or time and use the first session to work out expectations and boundaries mentioned above. After the flavor of the campaign, house rules, and consent/safety is agreed upon by the players, the DM might then transition to running a quick adventure in the gaming world before the end of the session. In my mind, Session 0 is about working with the players to set the stage so the adventure or campaign can begin with the greatest chance of success.
Strixhaven offers a unique setting that allows DMs to cover essential Session 0 content in the gaming world, which has spectacular possibilities! I discuss two options below.
Session 0 – Freshman Orientation
For example, Strixhaven University is composed of five schools (Lorehold, Prismari, Quandrix, Silverquill and Witherbloom) though first-year students are not assigned/sorted into the schools until after their second year. And that means that it logically follows that all first-year students would have the same freshman orientation.
What a perfect setting for a Session 0 to take place in the gaming world with the players getting an opportunity to inhabit their characters right away! The DM could use one of the faculty members detailed in the Strixhaven book or find inspiration from the library of television shows, films, and books that have focused on school settings to create a leader for the orientation. Perhaps the DM would prefer that different faculty address different components of Session 0. For example, Dean Niedermeyer could review the strictest of rules within Strixhaven University that students must abide by to ensure everyone can achieve their greatest potential. Later, Esteemed Professor Sloan could lead a discussion regarding where each student has come from and what they hope to accomplish during the first academic year and beyond.
The players would need to buy into this setup, though if everyone agreed to run with it and use their character to establish ground rules, no-go topics, and expectations, it would be a wonderful method to include Session 0 elements during an initial session AND breath life into the Strixhaven setting and each character at the table.
Session 0 – Detention
I mean, who among us hasn’t started a campaign with the players in a jail cell? Strixhaven offers DMs the fabulous opportunity to recreate the angst and shenanigans of The Breakfast Club. Again, start with a faculty member informing the students/players that they are in detention for the full day for their recent transgressions. This could be an opportunity to remind everyone of consent and safety tools, which could be in the tone of a kindly figure like Albus Dumbledore or an authoritarian like Principal Richard Vernon or Severus Snape. The faculty member could then outline an assignment that is due by the end of detention by each individual or the group as a collective; the later offers more opportunities for collaborative worldbuilding.
Once the authority figure has reminded students about ground rules – and potentially answered some questions – they leave the room to the players. However, another option available to the DM is to have one or two NPC students in detention that serve as a catalyst for an ongoing conversation about expectations for the game. Clearly, you could steal any of the cast from The Breakfast Club (though I would advise against being as brash and abusive as John Bender) or borrow from the trove of characters from high-school and college shows and films.
Personally, I think it would be useful to have two NPC students in detention to shape the conversations in different directions. One who instigates characters to disclose information (“Hey, why are you here anyway? What do you want out of this place? What did you do to land in here with the rest of us fools?”) and another that tries to maintain the peace while also sparking questions and conversation (“You know, I think we all just need to work together to complete this project. Do you want to get into more trouble? Cause I don’t. I need this place…”). Who wouldn’t enjoy a nervous, straight-laced NPC based on Brian Krakow!?
The DM can use the NPCs to steer conversations into areas that are typically covered in a Session 0 regarding expectations and no-go zones within the gaming world such as, “I mean, you sorta flinched when he mentioned he was here because of a fight. Are you completely against violence? Would you rather just talk everything out?” or, “I’m not here for romance. I don’t have the time or interest. Not my thing. What about you all though?” Sure, you can ask players before the game starts if they want romance in their sessions or you can create one or two noteworthy NPC students to stimulate that conversation in the gaming world.
Plus, sooner or later, somebody is going to suggest they go exploring outside the detention room and who knows WHAT the students could get up to during that time!?
- Strixhaven is going to allow players to tap into new sources of inspiration for characters and adventures because the school setting is such a prominent part of our young, impressionable lives – and it has been featured so much in popular media.
- Session 0 is a great way to start a campaign, and Strixhaven offers at least two paths to include Session 0 content in the gaming world. This will allow all players to live and breath their characters immediately.
- The idea of letting my group loose in the two Session 0 options presented above is delicious. I cannot begin to imagine what they will come up with and where it will take the initial and future sessions.
- These Session 0 options could not only create a safe gaming space, it can also plant endless adventure seeds for everyone involved.