I recently began running Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos. What sets this adventure apart from others are its unique mechanics. In an effort to create the “university vibe”, the campaign introduces jobs, extracurriculars, exams, and relationships. Each comes with its own conditions, rules, boons, and banes.
It is a lot, even for veteran players.
The book recommends explaining these many mechanics during Session 0. But I would disagree. Given the sheer number of decisions that need to be made, the likelihood of ANY of them being remembered is rather small. I tried this route during my Session 0 and it felt like I overloaded the players. As the session went on I pumped the breaks by telling the players:
You know what? Don't worry about any of this. Just know it's out there but we'll cover it when we get to it.
From there I took a more thoughtful approach. Below are my recommendations.
- Start with the extracurriculars
- Tackle exams like a student
- Let relationships develop naturally
- Who really needs a job?
Start with the extracurriculars
It's their first day on campus and they are heading to orientation. They aren't thinking about getting a job. Nor are they worried about mid and end-year exams. They may be thinking about relationships but that will take care of itself. The main purpose of orientation is to get new students acclimated to the University. Highlighting the extracurriculars brings a surprising amount of context to the table. Options range from the fine arts to dragonchess to silkball. Even LARPers have an established group. This is a great way to make the environment feel both alive and grand. It's a university and there is a lot going on.
Instead of setting the players loose on the Bibleoplex as recommended by the source book, give them a guide who is responsible for introducing the university. In my opening session, I had an older student waiting where the portals dropped off new students. The newcomers were then corralled and he began a very canned introduction to Strixhaven. He then led them to the Bibleoplex and provided a short tour.
One of the stops on the tour is the Student Activities Center (B14). This is a perfect time to set the seed for extracurriculars. Have the tour guide mention a number of the options (keyed to the interests of your players) but don't let them sign up yet. Have the guide whisk them away to finish off the tour and get the scavenger hunt underway.
Why? Well, first, it's exactly what would happen on an actual orientation day. But secondly...
Using extracurriculars to introduce NPCs
Unlike jobs, people generally sign up for activities they enjoy.
- You can now use these activities as an easy conversation piece to kick off the role-playing.
- It allows the NPCs to "recruit" the player, furthering the relationship piece.
Tackling exams like a student
Look, every student knows they are going to have to sit for exams. But that reality doesn't really sink in until about the night before. So why worry about explaining the mechanics until the literal in-game night before?
- As the party sits down to study for their exam explain only the studying portion. Let them get creative with it. One of my PCs decided to bake cupcakes (which turned out to be AWESOME)
First, give them the below options without explaining the trade-offs:
- Normal study by yourself
- Study together
- Skip studying
Once they have decided on how they want to study, let them explain how they go about it. If what they explain constitutes an all-nighter, explain to them that that is what happened.
Don't tell them why they are receiving an advantage or the additional re-rolls. This adds a simple puzzle to the mechanic. Now the players need to figure out the optimum studying strategy without all the information.
Detail the exhaustion with something like "after scouring the tomes in the stacks from sundown to sunup, you barely manage enough energy to complete the exam."
- Don't share what constitutes a failed, passed, or aced test. It will likely be obvious, but letting the players arrive at that knowledge on their own is more rewarding for them.
- Don't tell them that cheating is an option. If they think of cheating then roll with it. But this gives the players a sense of freedom. "The DM didn't say that cheating was an option, but I think Rag 'Quick Fingas' Hunchkins would totally try to cheat".
- The change I would make to the student dice is to only allow them until the next exam. I believe there are three exams in the first module. At such low levels (you end Year 1 at level 4) those dice become pretty powerful.
Let the relationships develop naturally
Now that you have established excellent role-playing opportunities for the players via extracurriculars. Use Firejolt Cafe to introduce NPCs who are involved in the activities. Carve out time prior to the frogs for those opportunities.
There is no need to share the boons and banes with the party. Let it be a surprise. It then feels more like a reward for good role-playing.
Who needs jobs?
Finally, I would recommend not even mentioning jobs. There is a high likelihood that each player will choose a different job. So now you have a split party that has to engage in 1:1 role play while they are at work. Not exactly thrilling material for anyone at the table.
You may say, "Wouldn't it be the same for the extracurriculars?" It could be. But I would even recommend those are run differently. (More on this in a future post).
At the end of the day, the sole purpose of the job mechanic is to provide funds to the players. However, I arrived at the below thoughts:
- You can always hand out coins during quests (the manor, winning the frogs, etc.)
- What is there to buy really?
- Introduce extracurriculars during a tour prior to the orientation challenges.
- Use them to establish connection points with NPCs
- Don't explain exam functionality until it is immediately relevant. And even then, you aren't sharing the nuances.
- Allow the boons and banes of relationships to come as a surprise to your players.
- I suggest cutting jobs altogether.