It’s past time I got some thoughts about Endwalker, the highly-anticipated expansion to Final Fantasy XIV, down on paper. Long after the initial rush has passed, long after I’ve finished it and had time to dwell on it. Long after most of the debates about the massive plot points – about the core conflict, about the depiction of empire and nationalism, about the new lore reveals – have simmered down.
I was excited for one thing in particular in Endwalker. Sharlayan. The chance to visit the isolated, exclusionary magical research island that so many characters referred to, the land of Alphinaud’s parents, terrible bread, and so much more. I had high hopes, and what I got, for the most part, fulfilled them. It’s worth saying that this analysis of Endwalker is going to be astoundingly narrow in its focus, completely ignoring all the stuff with depth and substance the game has and focusing entirely on the worldbuilding of one zone you spend a comparatively small amount of time in at a time when it’s not running as normal anyway.
Why? Because I’m very very unsatisfied with a Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook based on a Magic the Gathering card cycle and so I want to talk about Final Fantasy XIV. This makes perfect sense.
Before I begin talking about D&D, let’s begin by considering what exposure to Sharlayan you get in Endwalker – not what fandom has created around it, but how it’s depicted in game in your time there. All through the story its people are presented as idealistically pacifist to a fault, even condemning people who have done great things because they did so by rejecting the Sharlayan philosophy. It’s a place of almost parodic obsession with knowledge and efficiency above all, to the point of inventing nigh-inedible survival foods so academics can spend less time eating and more time studying. It’s an exclusive school. You arrive there and it’s bureaucratic, it’s hostile, it seems stupid. The people in charge are suspicious, there is something weird going on in the underground botanical gardens, and you arrive just off the back of your first introduction to Alphinaud’s parents – important local nobility – being him getting disowned by his father.
A poor first impression, but one tempered over time by moments of the sort of humanity you come to expect from FFXIV. Sympathetic academics like Montichaigne fight your corner, Krile and her friends are a welcome voice of reason, and as the story progresses you learn that even the most wrong people can change. Scenes like Urianger’s reunion with Moenbryda’s family, or the admittedly trivial and silly introductions to characters like the teleporter operator or Kokkol the engineer make the setting – even though you are only seeing a narrow slice of it – feel deeper than it is. More connected to your character than it might be. This is only strengthened if a player pursues crafting or gathering, where you are able to get down to work at the faculty and help a whole other cast of characters with their own rivalries and romances. I’m not intending to over-praise XIV’s writing here, this is only a tiny, largely quite superficial segment of a huge game, but a lot of small nice details add up to a world that feels alive and human. You get enough of a picture through these little slices of Sharlayan lore to see it feel like a place that could exist, could sustain its existence in chaotic, inefficient fashion. It’s a depiction of a school that – when you meet the Studium academics, or the people in the library, gives the impression that it could be a fantasy university, where people do research and experiments and write theses. It’s a depiction of a society that is shown to be right at times, deeply regrettably wrong at others. It has flaws, it causes friction, it has lighthearted moments and serious drama, but ultimately it feels fleshed out and – through the very careful crafting of those little slices of detail – credible. A world you want to adventure in.
I don’t necessarily think calling it “universally relatable” or accessible is correct, and this is where I begin to swing this piece round to the other side of my argument. But to continue for a moment about Sharlayan. It’s a collection of tropes about university life, for sure. Student romances on group projects, weird experiments, eccentric professors, out of touch senior staff, burger bars and so on. It touches on some things that feel like they’re fantasy versions of prestigious universities or private schools. But they’re not really specifically cultural, in a sense because they’re being shown to you after hundreds of hours of learning how these quirks are Eorzean, with all the different cultural references that entails. Now it’s fair to argue the model of university or school it’s based on is intrinsically European, but I think a lot of the tropes at play are generic tropes about school-set fiction which export well. I think there’s something as universal as can be reasonably expected about tropes like “absent minded academic” or “students hang out at the one decent restaurant on campus.” The methods of study – small group tasks, lectures, independent research projects, postgraduates working on niche inventions and books – felt, to me, like a good idea of what university would be like in this setting. It seems to take inspiration from what feels like a more international ideal of higher education.
Now to swing round to another piece of fantasy university themed worldbuilding I came to during my Endwalker journey. Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos is a D&D setting book and module based on a magic university themed Magic the Gathering card set which, when I read it with great excitement at being able to finally run a university-set campaign, left me wondering what was going on. Trying to articulate exactly what my problem was beyond a number of small quirks and jarring details I initially had was quite difficult, and took me reappraising Sharlayan’s depiction in FFXIV to properly nail down. A lot of the small trivial complaints were easily elided over with a little creative effort, but as a whole the world didn’t feel to me like a university, or like much of anything. It didn’t gel with my experience of, or understanding of, university life. A lot of language around education is thrown out but doesn’t convince – the institution comprises five colleges each with “their own campus and faculty”, which sounded reasonable because Oxford and Cambridge have numerous colleges with their own resident academics, but it’s wrong here in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on. There’s no distinction between college as a residential / academic institution and faculty as a cross-college department of study. The setting wants these colleges to be, in a sense, school houses, Oxford colleges and also departments furnished to effectively be their own universities.
Ultimately that’s nitpicking and I know it. But the wrongness about this vision of fantasy student life carried on not ringing true – the whole lingo didn’t gel as an undergraduate experience. Why was it talking about things like school uniforms, homework, detention and so on in a sense that was reminding me more of high school than university? And why was this existing alongside a fairly reasonable postgrad to tutor to resident professor research and CPD pipeline? A moment of realisation set in – there was some tension at play here between writers who wanted a boarding-school setting, and those who wanted a university setting, and it was making the whole thing not hang together right. I can appreciate, in a way, that the writers might not have wanted to publish a whole D&D module about playing schoolchildren. That could be a hard sell, especially if they wanted to also include romance mechanics and so on. But there’s definitely a lot of high school DNA in this setting and story, what with the themed houses with associated spell schools, magic dungeons for detention and so on. This really wants to be a Harry Potter setting and the decision to make that a “university” feels unconvincing.
A Digression – Wholesomeness
Wholesomeness is a thorny topic. I’m not against it. I like it a lot. I have liked lots of wholesome art of G’raha Tia, and Krile, and Ameliance Leveilleur and so on. I love the trivial little wholesome sidestories in FFXIV like the student romance in the Botanist Studium quests, or the Firmament reconstruction. It’s a vital part of making a world feel real and lived in, of humanising your characters and providing a counterbalance to massive existential despair. Ultima Thule would not be so heartbreaking if you hadn’t seen happy Hermes and Meteion in Elpis. So when I rail against, it may seem, wholesomeness here it’s not from a position of contempt for all that’s nice and sweet and good. It’s not out of hatred for diversity or equality or decency. It’s something else that’s hard to articulate.
Something that feels baked into Strixhaven’s DNA as a setting is a kind of blithe utopian world that contributes to the vague artificiality of the whole thing. It’s frictionless, it’s not using goodness as a counterpoint to seriousness, it’s just being vaguely nice. This may sound like I’m advocating for grimdarkness where it doesn’t belong, but there’s a kind of lack of weight or stakes through Strixhaven that feels awkwardly handled. Big Social Problems aren’t a focus here, the world is good, and that’s that – which means the A-plot of the whole adventure is weightless, with the villain a non-entity and the danger being “a lot of people in this utopia will die” but executed in a kind of flat and unengaging fashion. Writing a properly engaging low-stakes story is difficult. I personally think the best utopias are the ones written to highlight that moving above the troubled past and being better isn’t always easy, but people will damn well try and it’s worth believing in them.
As a good example, consider Star Trek, particularly Deep Space Nine. That’s a story about people doing their damnedest to be the best they can, to do the right thing, to make the world a better place even if they run into their own flaws, the things that make it difficult. It’s hopeful, it’s progressive (to an extreme). But it’s not wholesome, I’d say. It can be funny, it can be emotionally affecting. But that’s different to being wholesome in the kind of frictionless YA sense Strixhaven gives off at times. Strixhaven has a call out box early on saying that it’s a cosmopolitan, tolerant world where you can meet a treeman or a talking bear or a giant on campus, and it’s “a place for everyone.” That’s fine. That’s not unexpected of high fantasy, it shouldn’t cause complaint. But in the best stories about these sorts of cosmopolitan societies, it’s very rarely the case that the be all and end all of the worldbuilding is “that’s it, everyone gets along, a line is drawn under this.” That feels like window-dressing, and I think is a major contributor to how frictionless, insubstantial and wholesome the whole thing feels. By drawing a line under social problems in this way, the story feels written into a corner to make the villain an evil wizard who is just evil for reasons.
To try and get to the bottom of my point here, I think if you want to write a story about a supposed utopia, a society open to everyone and equal of opportunity, the most interesting angles to write it from show that this is something that may not be easy to achieve, may not even be perfectly achievable, but is desirable, is something that good people strive for. What you get in Strixhaven feels to me as a GM is, in trying so hard to bring everything back episodically to a wholesome status quo, the natures of the threats and challenges lack a lot of weight. The villains lack character or compelling motivation outside of being evil, because it’s trying very hard to maintain the idea that this is a good and kind and utopian world and some people are just opposed to that. Wholesomeness needs, I feel, to be one end of a scale. The other end doesn’t need to be nihilistic or violent or even necessarily go too far into depicting actual problems, but I find that it’s at its best when it’s cathartic, humanising, refreshing. When it gives people space to be themselves, to be characters whose goodness and humour and – yes – wholesome, cute aspects are what set them apart as good and great. Not everyone is bad, but only some people are the ones you’re really close to.
Now it’s worth having an aside here to say that if I’m going to uncharitably compare Strixhaven to Sharlayan, FFXIV’s magic university has a “uniform” and that’s a very over the top set of white robes with a mortar board hat for Forum members and staff, and there it just adds to the out of touch senior don aesthetic and I didn’t blink an eyelid because I’d been to Cambridge and seen the people walking around the city in cloaks, people at colleges that weren’t so posh usually just thought they were the pretentious Eton set. But in Strixhaven the idea of a university having a compulsory student uniform, combined with the other “this feels much more like a boarding school than student digs” touches, added to the sense of “this doesn’t feel right.”
What this is saying to me so far is when you’re writing about something as relatable to many as student life, vibes – aesthetic, tonal, the tiny minutiae of these things – really matter. Get them right and even if your world isn’t incredibly fleshed out, or able to be interacted with all that much, and the mind can fill in the gaps. Get them wrong and people will notice it feels wrong. And in turn, this leads me to another thing I’ve nailed down as what sits wrong about Strixhaven – where it is evoking a university, it feels to me to be evoking the American style of university as depicted in campus-set stories – so an “idealised” version of a very specific and relatively non-universal kind of student life which in turn, for purposes of dramatic convenience, draws heavily on high-school and pre-university places of education. That is by no means universal, and by all accounts alienating for a very large number of people. What’s sold as a way to depict university life in D&D instead is providing a strange hybrid of US college drama and Harry Potter that doesn’t convince.
That’s several levels removed from many peoples’ student experiences, and is a big part of why it feels so alienated from what I expected. I think you can take this further actually – this is a setting not seemingly concerned with depicting something that seems functional, or developed, but on creating a fantastical aesthetic for what is ultimately a college/teen drama. So much of the encounter-to-encounter writing of Strixhaven has been criticised as “the gang are doing nothing until something quirky happens at the local fantasy Starbucks that coincidentally is a hook to the next bit of the plot.” It’s a level of removal beyond “this is an idealised depiction of day-to-day university life that glosses over the boring parts that don’t make good fiction”, it’s a setting that channels extremely heavily, to the detriment of the wider world building, creating the episode arcs of a specific kind of young adult TV show. Take, for example, an early-game sidequest in Strixhaven – in order to pull pranks, some students offer to pay for the player characters’ lunch for a month if they’ll break into an old storeroom and steal a magic doll that has been confiscated. That takes some mental gymnastics, for my part, to frame properly as the sort of shenanigans first-year freshers might do at university but fits much better into the sorts of japes the boy wizard with glasses might pull. And, indeed, other things I’ve read about peoples’ experience with Strixhaven have corroborated this – “I’ll buy you lunch if you do breaking and entering” doesn’t feel like the sort of wizard wheeze people who could be out in the workplace would do just for the sake of getting a vaguely funny thing. Nobody is getting a traffic cone put where it doesn’t belong, it’s weirdly sober (and the lack of drunken fresher related shenanigans feels very off brand for a university setting.)
A Digression – Classes
Your experience, as an FFXIV player, of what student life in Sharlayan is like is largely limited to anecdotes from Krile and the twins, and NPC encounters off the beaten path of the main story. The Studium deliveries are the best insight here, and actually provide a nice way of exploring how to do something boring (scientific experimentation) in a fun way in the framework of a video game. The culinarian quest line has you follow a researcher called Debroye who is concerned her senior in the department is going to patent an awful foodstuff, as he hates fine dining and is uninterested in how pleasant a food is to eat. It’s a fun little parody of things like Soylent, in a way, but you get a look at how Debroye and Gavroche’s research and experimentation is going, you help make compounds and test new foods, and at the end have to defend your creation in front of a review panel of experts. A lot of the minutiae of this is glossed over so you’re left with the dramatic parts, and that works really well. They’re fun characters, it’s a capstone to a game-wide injoke about terrible Sharlayan food, and it actually fits the fiction of you helping research students and professors work on private projects. There’s been thought put into how to use the idea that Sharlayan is a functional university to integrate crafting and gathering mechanics. And the very idea of it – or the Botanist quests, about gathering local flora and fauna from places to help an eccentric anthropologist recreate different cuisines and cultural environments – is a believable abstraction of university experiments.
Strixhaven also makes classes feel like a part of the campaign, and in so doing feels all the more wrong about what even first-year undergraduate study would be like in a fantasy world. Little about the “exams” and studying feels like it fits the fiction, even if there are similarities. Each academic year has the students studying completely different mandatory topics and subjects alongside elective papers – year 1 is Care of Magical Creatures Magical Physiologies, year 2 is Symbology and so on. I’m aware some countries’ universities do this, and that combined courses, or dual qualifications or even just borrowing a paper from another faculty is a thing. I studied Latin alongside English. But again it’s wrong, it doesn’t sit right. It’s not “studying a related but discrete topic to broaden your higher education” it’s more like the timetabling of… you guessed it, a high school or further education college. This is a theme here. Out of curiosity I compared a Strixhaven Magical Physiologies exam with a Cambridge biology exam structure and it’s… not as bad as I thought it might be, but still feels off. The real-world biology questions were a mixture of multiple choice, essays and practicals across – even in the first year – quite a wide range of topics, while the fantasy ones were summarised as two short essays about a very narrow single entry in the Monster Manual. It didn’t, again, feel credibly like a university education even if you abstract it as a narrow vertical slice of a wider course.
I’m not expecting detail, to be fair. I know very few tabletop groups want to RP actual exams. But firstly, given the choice between roleplaying writing essays as single skill checks and, say, roleplaying a science practical as a series of tests and improvisational aspects one of those has a lot more opportunity for interesting interactions. Returning briefly to the culinarian quests in XIV, it’s notable that in that game you do play out taste testing, sourcing ingredients, arguing with Gavroche and so on and you don’t play out researching types of yeast to make bread.
This is a long article and it doubtless sounds very irritable and critical. It’s full of nitpicks and digressions about how I could clearly do better. But at the end of the day it’s also talking a lot about tabletop RPGs, where the expectation is you look at the printed material and add your own flair to it. Curriculum of Chaos certainly hasn’t met unreserved praise from all corners, it’s considered by some reviewers to definitely need a lot of work to turn into a truly rewarding experience. I don’t know if, when I run it, with my changes – changes inspired by things I do like, things that inspired me – it will be an objectively “good” version of the campaign, but it will be mine, shaped by my experiences, my taste in fiction and shaped equally by what my players will want.