Well, this was a long time coming. The introduction of the Spelljammer in Dungeons and Dragons was one of those things that everybody had been waiting for from the moment 5E broke the surface. It’s certainly an easy pitch: all the stuff you love about D&D, but with steampunky, magical spaceships and a more cosmic take on the classic fantasy adventure.
I was certainly excited about it, especially when the cover art depicted both a hippo with a musket and a hamster with resting bitch-face, suggesting that Wizards of the Coast have abandoned quaint, earthly ideas like “restraint” and “common sense” in favour of something bigger.
That certainly boded well. And when I opened one of the three books and was greeted in quick succession by an asteroid with teeth, a race of penguins, a sly joke about the pronunciation of “GIF” and a living homage to either Stephen King’s It or the movie Killer Klowns from Outer Space… that also all boded very well.
What is it, and how does it work?
Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition: Spelljammer: Adventures in Space, c is actually a collection of three Dungeons and Dragons books, which we’ll discuss in the rough order in which they should probably be read.
The Astral Adventurer’s Guide is a good place to start and is basically what you’d expect it to be – a supplement to the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, which informs all the new spacefaring mechanics. There’s combat in anti-gravity, spaceship operation, new astral-themed races and backgrounds, various types of spelljammer ship, and some brief explanations of the worlds and lore, among other things.
Then there’s Boo’s Astral Menagerie – aka, the Monster Manual as written by Starfleet. Once you’ve flicked past the new races represented as NPCs, things very quickly get weird, including super-centipedes, Lovecraftian monstrosities, and two new flavours of dragon – Lunar and Solar.
Finally, there’s Light of Xaryxis (Zariksis? Sairickzes? Sarricksays?): a short and punchy adventure module intended for a party of levels 5-8, which the book suggests would take about twelve sessions total (though this could be more depending on how much they explore space and have random encounters). This story focuses on the players’ homeworld being attacked by an empire of Astral Elves, and the heroes jaunting into space to swordfight, spellcast, seduce, or just generally bumble their way to a counterattack.
There’s also one extra party favour thrown in: a new Dungeon Master’s Screen, which has all sorts of helpful tables on the back, usually focused around random encounters in the depths of space, and the new mechanics you might need – weightlessness and asphyxiation, for example. Admittedly it wouldn’t be much help with more terrestrial games, but it’s a perfect addition to Spelljamming sessions and especially helps build on the random chaos of interdimensional piracy.
Is it any good?
Let’s start with the obvious issue of Spelljammer: it’s incredibly broad, but, maybe by necessity, pretty shallow. The need to squeeze new rules, monsters, character creation mechanics and an adventure all in one package has resulted in a somewhat squashed version of the intended experience.
It’s a bit unfortunate. Rules are sometimes hard to follow. Mechanics feel lacking in depth. Lore is often a hypothetical handwave, rather than a comprehensive explanation. Spelljammer ships themselves don’t need fuel to fly, or specialist skills, or anything really beyond a chassis and a magic chair, so flying doesn’t feel very involved as an experience, at least mechanically. I know that “shallowness” is the big criticism that follows 5E all the time, but Adventures in Space is probably guiltier of it than most.
Still, the clear joie de vivre with which the new rules are orchestrated is wholly apparent, and there’s an emphasis on the whole swashbuckling angle, designing flight and space battles to be slick and speedy rather than slow and rules-heavy. This may lose some players who were hoping for a more methodical and considered approach, but Spelljammers wants no time wasted to reach the point where spaceships can be firing cannons while heroes draw cutlasses and swing from deck to deck.
And the big strength of pretty much everything in Spelljammers is just how damn colourful and vibrant it is, both mechanically and conceptually. The guiding ethos was clearly: “Why not?” Why not have vampire pirates and double-ended maggot priests as NPC monsters? Why not have flying monkeys and balls of goo as playable races? Why not have spaceships made out of repurposed moons or sentient trees?” We’ve left Faerun far behind, and if some elements seem thin, it’s all because this concept goes so very, very wide.
That vibrant mindset carries over the visuals, which verge on overwhelming at times. Space is not the blank, silent void seen in media like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but instead a swirl of divine colour, filled with life and potential, a Kirby Crackle that illuminates every page. The only exception to that is the player side of the DM Screen, which is weirdly muted and sombre for a module with a bartender beholder named “Large Luigi”.
Oh, and speaking of beholders, I noticed rather quickly how the general standard of enemies is a little deadlier than normal for D&D. Spelljamming as a whole seems like an advanced adventurer’s profession, and many of the monsters prowling astral space will pick their teeth with an adventuring party who aren’t at least level four and up. It’s not even a criticism, just something to keep in mind for potential buyers. The Solar Dragon’s lair alone will vaporise anybody without three figures of hit points, and the beast itself need never show up at all.
Overall – should you buy Dungeons & Dragons: Spelljammer: Adventures in Space?
Spelljammers is, by and large, the experience that players have been hoping for. However, it does ask them to meet it halfway in actually providing the adventure and patching a few holes, some of which feel more egregious than others. Don’t expect the carefully-constructed maps of Tomb of Annihilation or Icewind Dale here; Light of Xaryxis feels more like an introduction to Spelljamming than a full odyssey through it, and when asked about what’s actually beyond the hub areas, the books throw out some vague ideas, then hope you can take it from there. This is more about providing a bedrock of mechanics and concepts than a fully-realised realm – which does make it a little galling when those mechanics don’t have enough meat to them.
BUT – and let’s be clear about this – Spelljammer is still a supplement that gives you magical spaceships, which is as brilliant a pitch as ever, and enough raw material for any DM who likes writing their own adventurers to do some great things. There’s a lot of fun to be had simply in the procedural random encounters of space exploration, and those, with time and creativity, can probably take this adventure to places your players will remember forever.
How we tested Dungeons & Dragons: Spelljammer: Adventures in Space
This review copy was provided by Wizards of the Coast, and we spent the week we had with it reading through the entire set of books, as well as running an experimental session focused mainly on the spelljamming mechanics, new races, and monsters with a party of seasoned adventurers (thanks, Longtooth Crew). Without the time and opportunity to fully play through the Light of Xaryxis module, we can only speak to its quality as readers, not players.
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