IFAQ: Strixhaven in Eberron?

Every month, my Patreon supporters select the topics for the articles I write. I only have time for one major Dragonmark article, and in a choice between Strixhaven, Fizban’s Treasury, and the role of the Astral Plane, Astral won out. So I’ll be exploring the Astral Plane in depth later this month. But while this will be a short take on the topic, I still wanted to address the question…

How would you add Strixhaven into your Eberron campaign?

At first glance, this seems like a question with an obvious answer. Eberron already has a famous university of magic—Arcanix in Aundair. The Library of Korranberg is another option; while not explicitly a school of magic, it is a famous institute of learning that canonically has a rivalry between its aligned colleges. In the Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron, the Starting Point: Morgrave University discusses the idea of a campaign where the exams may be greater threats than any monster. But none of these really feel right to me. Consider the following…

  • Strixhaven is described as being very exotic in its makeup—”you’re as likely to meet a pixie, a dryad, a giant, a treant, or another fantastical creature on campus as you are a humanoid.” Beyond this, “it is unremarkable to meet someone who hails from a far-off land, since almost everyone on campus is from somewhere else.” Neither to these things especially fit Arcanix, which is primarily an Aundairian institution; and at Morgrave University, the presence of Flamewind the Sphinx is remarkable. Most students of Korranberg, Morgrave, or Arcanix are humanoids, and most are from the familiar nations of Khorvaire.
  • Strixhaven is known to be founded by five dragons, and those dragons are still around; graduates can join the Dragonsguard, “an elite group of mages who work directly with the Founder Dragons.” The Dragons of Eberron certainly have the knowledge and power to do something like this, but on Khorvaire dragons are so secretive as to be nearly mythical. And to a certain degree, asserting that Arcanix was founded by dragons would undermine the concept that it’s a seat of humanoid innovation.
  • Strixhaven is largely a self-contained setting that interacts little with the world around it. It’s driven by the tension between life and death, order and chaos—not the tension between Thrane and Aundair. Beyond this, the general level of common magic depicted is a higher than even that of Aundair. It’s an example of what the Five Nations could become, but it feels a little more wondrous than they are at the present. One of the things we’ve said about Arcanix is that player characters are remarkable, and that there are many professors at Arcanix who don’t actually have the full power of a wizard or a sorcerer, rather understanding magic in theory and working spells solely through rituals, like a magewright. Strixhaven is more of a chaotic place where powerful magic is constantly at play.

So, the Strixhaven book presents a host of rules and ideas that you can use piecemeal in a campaign set at Arcanix, Morgrave, or Korranberg. But personally, I wouldn’t just change Strixhaven’s name to “Arcanix” and use it as is. So if the question is how would I add STRIXHAVEN to my campaign—using it as it’s presented in the book—there’s two ideas that appeal to me.

A School of Dragons

The dragons of Argonnessen are the oldest surviving civilization in Eberron. Long ago they shared their arcane knowledge with other creatures. This ultimately resulted in the destruction of Xen’drik and is now known as kurash Ourelonastrix, “Aureon’s folly.” But what if a cabal of dragons wanted to try this again? What if these five Founders created a campus in the heart of Argonnessen, far from prying eyes, where hand-picked students and faculty from across Eberron and beyond it could delve into the deepest secrets of magic and philosophy? With this in mind, part of being a student at Strixhaven would be proving yourself worthy of this knowledge; your final exam would in part be an evaluation determining whether you should be allowed to take the knowledge that you’ve gained back to your homeland—whether you can be trusted to be a worthy steward of this knowledge.

One of the things I like about this approach is that it’s an easy way to add depth to the Chamber. the Colleges of Strixhaven aren’t known in the wider world, but they represent factions within the Chamber itself, and the five Founders can easily become the most influential members of the Chamber. The Dragonsguard become an elite order chosen to work directly with the Chamber as they oppose the Lords of Dust and work with the Prophecy. Whenever encountering Chamber agents, the DM can consider if they belong to any of the Colleges of Strixhaven, and reflect this in their abilities and actions. We’ve always said that the dragons of the Chambers are scholars and philosophers; the Colleges provide a quick set of philosophies to work with, though I wouldn’t say that they are the ONLY philosophies found within the Chamber.

As a school within Argonnessen, Strixhaven maintains the idea that “almost everyone on the campus is from somewhere else.” Likewise, it fits the idea that the students and faculty can include giants, awakened plants, or other exotic creatures; it’s a school for teaching members of ALL of the “lesser species,” not merely humanoids. Humanoid students could be drawn from anywhere on Eberron: you could have Qaltiar drow, Cold Sun lizardfolk, Akiak dwarves, Demesne tieflings, and similarly exotic choices. A central part of this idea is that this is an experiment—that the faculty carefully chooses students and wants to see if they’ll prove worthy of this knowledge. With this in mind, one question when creating your character is why were you chosen? Do you feel that there’s something remarkable about your character? Do you believe that you’re representing your nation, species, home town, or something else? Or are you mystified as to why you were selected? I really like the fact that this is a chance to bring together characters from very diverse cultures—a Riedran farmer, a Sulatar drow, a Carrion Tribes barbarian—and have the students learn about one another and find common ground even while mastering magic.

Faculty in Argonessen’s Strixhaven would likely include a significant number of dragons—younger than the founders and likely often seen in humanoid form, but still, dragons. On the other hand, faculty could also include former students. This could be a voluntary position, but I could easily see someone who was judged as unfit to return to their society with the knowledge they possessed and offered a choice: remain at Strixhaven and teach, or return home but with their arcane knowledge stripped from their mind. I would keep the Oracle as a humanoid, the embodiment of Strixhaven’s mission to share magic with non-dragons and tasked to ensure this power is not abused as it was following Aureon’s folly. Snarls could easily be an unusual form of manifest zone, possibly unique to Argonnessen just as wild zones are found on Sarlona. Star Arches are another question. While these could easily be draconic artifacts, part of the purpose of the arches is to be mysterious. One option would be to say that they are left over from the Age of Demons, and that even the dragons don’t know their origins—that some believe them to be creations of the Progenitors themselves, or “the bones of Siberys.” Another option is that they are relics of a fallen Draconic civilization. I’ve mentioned before that the degree to which the dragons fear the Daughter of Tiamat implies at least one devastating incident involving her release. With a hundred thousand years to work with, it’s entirely possible to imagine that draconic civilization has endured at least one massive collapse—that the Star Arches could be creations of Ourelonastrix and his peers, but that the dragons of the present day don’t understand them or know how to replicate them.

This concept of Strixhaven is somewhat similar to the city of Io’lokar, presented in Dragons of Eberron. Personally, I’ve never liked Io’lokar and don’t use it in my campaign. What I prefer about using Strixhaven in this way is the idea that it’s an experiment, constantly bringing in new students from across the world as opposed to just keeping a stable, stagnant population in isolation. With that in mind, I’d likely suggest that it’s a fairly RECENT experiment, at least as dragons measure time—no more than two or three centuries old. Among other things, this would hold to the idea that the Founders are still evaluating the experiment, and that the actions of the player characters could play an important role in this. Could the Conclave shut down Strixhaven? Could heroic characters inspire the dragons to share their knowledge more freely?

As a campus in Argonnessen, Strixhaven would be exotic and isolated, but still grounded in the material world. But there is another option I might use…

A School of Stories

Thelanis is sometimes said to embody the magic we wish was in the world. The layers of Thelanis and the Archfey embody iconic stories. So consider the story of a school of magic, a place of countless wonders that exists just around the corner from the reality we know. Everyone knows a story of a youth who didn’t fit in or didn’t meet expectations, who one day took a wrong turn and found themselves in a wondrous school where they had the chance to unlock both the secrets of magic and their own true self. With this in mind, I would place Strixhaven in Thelanis. One option would be to treat it as a Feyspire, placing it in the Moonlit Vale; however, I would be inclined to make it a distinct layer of Thelanis, because the story of Strixhaven generally stands on its own; it’s possible that students could get involved in the intrigues of the Moonlit Court, but it’s not an everyday occurrence.

Placing Strixhaven in Thelanis plays to the idea that the students and faculty can be extremely diverse and exotic—almost impossibly so. Giants, treants, sprites, sentient animals, talking statues; if you could imagine it in a story, you could find it at Strixhaven. A secondary aspect of this is the idea that many of the students aren’t, at the end of the day, REAL. Exploring Eberron talks about the idea of the “Supporting Cast” of Thelanis—lesser fey who are drafted to fill whatever purpose the story needs them to fill. Does this scene need a bully? An arrogant rival? The school can MAKE one for you. This applies to the teachers as well. Some could be greater fey with their own identities or former students who have chosen to remain, but there could definitely be teaching assistants, maintenance staff, even teachers who only exist as part of the story; you’ll never actually see Professor Greenroot except in his office or in the classroom, and he doesn’t really have any opinions on anything that’s not related to his classes. Speculating on who’s real and who’s a manifestations of the story would surely be a common pastime among students; when it comes down to it, can you be absolutely sure YOU are real?

As with Strixhaven—Argonnessen, Strixhaven—Thelanis could draw its students from across Eberron. Unlike Argonnessen, the Strix-Thel isn’t an experiment and the students aren’t being chosen to represent their people; instead they’re being chosen for their stories, and the question to think about when creating your character is What is your story? This is a fairy tale about someone stumbling onto a school of magic. Are you a luckless urchin from the streets of Sharn? A privileged Aundairian prince who needs to learn a lesson in humility? The unnatural nature of Thelanis could add a further twist—you could take a leaf from Rip Van Winkle and add students or faculty from different points in the past. Perhaps there’s a young elf at Strixhaven who, it turns out, is from the as-yet unerradicated Line of Vol—or a conniving student from one of the war-mazes of Ohr Kaluun. In such a scenario, a key question would be if there’s any way for such students to return to their own time, or if they are the last remnants of civilizations long dead.

In developing Strixhaven-Thelanis, a key question is who are the archfey of the school? An obvious possibility is that the Founders are the Archfey who define Strixhaven. They may APPEAR to be dragons, but that’s a cosmetic detail. If this is the case, then the Founders might be involved in the ongoing intrigues of the Moonlit Court; perhaps four of the founders are associated with different seasons, while one remains aloof. On the other hand, it could be that the Oracle is the anchoring Archfey, and that the Founders are themselves part of the Supporting Cast—for all their supposed power and despite the many legends associated with them, they don’t actually EXIST until there’s a particular reason for them to exist. This ties to the question of whether the Dragonsguard actually exist. If the Founders are Archfey, the Dragonsguard could be their personal agents in endless, immortal intrigues and adventures within Thelanis. If the Oracle is the Archfey, the Dragonshguard themselves might not truly exist; they are also simply part of the story.

Part of the appeal of placing Strixhaven in Thelanis is to embrace the unreality of the situation, the fact that it is a story made real; you can embrace the tropes, because that’s ultimately what the school is. It’s likewise interesting to explore what it means to be real, mortal people in an environment that is only semi-real; it’s a bit of Harry Potter blended with The Truman Show. With this in mind, it’s easy to add the Snarls and Star Arches. They COULD have a deep and mysterious role. The Star Arches could be remnants of a shattered Archfey, or tied to the underling archtecture of Thelanis itself. If you want a truly epic story, the Snarls could be an early symptom of the fact that Thelanis itself is starting to unravel; perhaps the students must find a way to save the Faerie Court itself!

A secondary question with Strixhaven—Thelanis is what happens to the students who graduate? Why haven’t they transformed Eberron with their amazing mystic knowledge? Well, one advantage of the Thelanis approach is that there don’t have to be that many actual students; you can have all the supporting cast you need, but only a handful of students truly are protagonists who COULD finish their studies and return home. Another option is the Narnia approach: students stumble into Strixhaven from all across the world and can eventually become masters of magic, wielding powers far beyond the everyday magic of the Five Nations… but when those students return home, much of that power melts away. Should they return to Strixhaven, answering the call of the Founders in their hour of need, all those powers will return; but in Eberron itself, they may be more limited. This could give the interesting option of having adventurers meet a young NPC in Khorvaire who assures them that she’s one of the greatest archmages of all time, but who can’t even cast third level spells… until they’re all drawn to Thelanis, and her true powers return to her. If you take this approach, you might say, for example, that there’s quite a few Strixhaven alumni spread across Arcanix… but that the true treasure they retained from their time at the school was self-knowledge or a deeper understanding of the philosophies of the colleges as opposed to immense practical magics.

All this only begins to scratch the surface both of ways you could use Strixhaven or of the interesting stories one can tell in an academic campaign, but I did say at the start that this was going to be a “short” article… and with that in mind, I’m not going to expand too deeply on this concept in comments. For now, the Astral Plane awaits! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who help choose these topics and who make these articles possible.