iFAQ: University Adventures

I’m still working on Exploring Eberron, but with many of us trapped at home I want to write a few shorter articles dealing with INfrequently asked questions from my Patreon supporters. This week we’ve been tackling the concept of magical education in Eberron. Let’s wrap up that topic with this question.

If you were to run an anime-inspired school-based game, where would you set it?

We’re used to the idea of D&D being about epic adventures and dungeon crawls, but there’s lots of fantasy stories that focus on schooling and coming of age. Set aside anime for a moment; The Name of the Wind and the Harry Potter series are both stories that focus on adventures at a school or university. So whether you’ll looking for anime flavor or the more traditional fantasy of The Name of the Wind, I think this is a fun idea to explore.

With that in mind, I DID explore it… in the Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron. In the WGtE I included three “Starting Points.” This was an early variation of the Group Patrons of Rising, with the point of tying a campaign to a location and a theme rather than a patron. These included Clifftop, a hub for globetrotting adventurers; Callestan, a gritty street-level campaign; and Morgrave University.

So to answer the question: I would personally choose Morgrave University or Arcanix. Which I’d choose would be based on the type of story I want to tell. Arcanix is closer to Hogwarts. It is ISOLATED—heck, the towers are floating, and if you haven’t learned to fly yet it takes time to get down! There’s a supporting village nearby, but there’s not a lot of activity there. By contrast, Morgrave is right in the middle of Sharn, so there’s all sorts of opportunity for trouble just off campus (much as University students in The Name of the Wind can go into Imre). Likewise, Morgrave University is infamous for indulging in dungeon delves and dangerous expeditions as “field trips.” Furthermore, Arcanix is specifically a college of magic, which limits your character concepts; because Morgrave is a more general purpose institution, it’s easier to justify any class.

These are supposed to be short articles, so I’m not going to retread all the ground covered in the Wayfinder’s Guide. But I’ll touch on a few things I’d personally focus on in running a school-based campaign.

Story rewards. I’d drop the standard experience point system and base character advancement either on time or on clearly established milestones. It’s also possible that you could tie specific class abilities to in-game situations. If you want to learn a specific spell, you’re going to have to sneak a particular spellbook out of the Library. You may be a 3rd level fighter, but to get the abilities of your Martial Archetype you’re going to have to find a mentor. This is a way to blend story and mechanics together. In a game at school you’re not likely to be amassing TREASURE—so one option is for the rewards you gain to BE access to locations or the favor of teachers—but those can be linked to concrete rewards, whether it’s access to your full class abilities or something beyond that, such as Supernatural Gifts or Marks of Prestige from the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

How will you handle power? D&D is based on an underlying system of character advancement that provides players with new abilities to explore and the ability to take on greater challenges over time. At the same time, it’s can be bizarre to have your characters become 6th or 7th level characters AT SCHOOL when that’s a level of skill that dwarfs veteran soldiers… especially if the DM wants to present rival students or professors as having even greater power. There’s a few ways to address this.

  • Limit advancement. You can always choose to say that characters DON’T advance in this campaign – or do so very, very slowly. You improve by gaining allies, influence, and information, not by doubling your hit points or gaining new spells. This is perfectly reasonable if everyone agrees, but at that point—if you’re eliminating a significant piece of the rules system—I’d question whether you should be using an entirely different rules system that isn’t based around character advancement to begin with.
  • It’s all relative. Sure, characters gain a level every two sessions. And the evil professor is a 9th level spellcaster. And there’s a lich in the basement. But it’s reasonable to say that this is how things appear because you’re in a microcosm and you’re comparing skills to people in that bubble with you. I would have no problem playing through a school campaign in which characters got up to 10th level and at the end of it saying “Okay, you all graduate. How about when we start the new campaign with you adventuring in the wider world, you all start off at 3rd level?” The point being that 10th level on the SCHOOL SCALE might only be 3rd level outside. Obviously this takes some suspension of disbelief—I used to be able to teleport! I raised someone from the dead! But hey, that was school, kids. Crazy things happen.
  • Ignore it. Sure, it doesn’t make sense for you to be dueling another student and that both of you are 9th level wizards. But so what? If people are having fun, does it matter?

How do you explain character classes? We’ve mentioned before that the abilities of player characters are inherently remarkable… that just at first level you’re pretty amazing. How’s that fit with a school game, where you’re just supposed to be students? Here again I’d follow the it’s all relative approach. Yes, mechanically you’re a 1st level wizard. But in this setting, that reflects the idea that you have an APTITUDE for wizardry and you need to work to develop it. A few quick thoughts…

  • Wizard? Artificer? You’re science nerds. You’re all about figuring out how arcane science works.
  • Fighter? Barbarian? You’re the jocks. Perhaps you actually want to be soldiers when you graduate, or perhaps you’re here on a Hrazhak scholarship. Barbarian, you really need to deal with your anger issues.
  • Cleric? You’re deeply religious and know that your faith in Aureon/The Divinity Within is going to help you pass that math test. Faith and divine magic ARE real things in Eberron; there’s surely a chaplain at school who will want to help you develop your faith and your abilities. You might get divine visions pushing you to do things! Paladin, you’re in the same boat, but you’re ALSO a jock on a Hrazhak scholarship.
  • Rogue? You might be a bit of a rebel—the student from Lower Dura or the bad side of the tracks, who has friends in the Boromar Clan and can get Dreamlily for the party. Are you here reluctantly? Are you hoping to turn a profit on this whole thing? Are you more interested in gambling than studying? Bard, you could follow the same path, but you’re a bit of a know-it-all and hey, you should start a band.
  • Sorcerer? Like the Cleric, sorcery is a thing that happens in the world. You may not have any knowledge of Arcana and may not want to learn, but there’s likely a teacher or professor who specializes in helping sorcerers develop their abilities. One question is whether you’re here by choice, or whether you’re here because you HAVE to be to learn to control your powers.
  • Warlock? You could take this a few ways. You COULD say that you’re working with a particular division of the Conjuration department that cultivates warlock relationships. But if it were ME, I’d play you as Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. You’re the weird kid, the outsider who’s always writing poetry in your journal in the corner, who prefers talking to your imaginary friends to going to parties… except your imaginary friends are REAL and they’re teaching you how to do things. Like the cleric, your patron could give you visions or tasks that push you to work with the other characters despite your preference for isolation.
  • Druid? Ranger? You’re both odd choices for a big city school, but hey, you just moved to town from the Eldeen Reaches and your family insisted you get an education. Shifter Ranger? You’re DEFINITELY on the Hrazhak team, and you’re annoyed because these city kids are playing it ALL WRONG.

Backgrounds obviously overlap with these ideas. Noble background? You’re from a wealthy family. Urchin? You’re the orphan here because one of the professors sponsored you. Sage? You’re the annoying know-it-all. Entertainer? You DO have a band. Soldier? You’re from a military family, and if you screw up here you’re heading back to Rekkenmark. Criminal? OK, YOU’RE the one who can get some dreamlily for the party.

This has turned into a longer article than I’d intended, so I’m going to stop here. But hopefully this gives you ideas! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters!