It must be campaign setting season, because Dungeons & Dragons is going to be rolling out a bunch of them over 2022 and 2023. Personally, I’m doing a happy dance over Planescape, but before we get through Dragonlance and the rest, Wizards of the Coast is leading off with Spelljammer: Adventures in Space. And, yup, that is Dungeons & Dragons in space. Think sailing ships but in space, starship-sized dragons, and a bunch of animal-shaped spaceships that may or may not be biological in origin, and all flying around from planet to planet and places in between. Now picture all of that in an over-the-top, almost comedic 1930s adventure comic strip turned into a 1950s adventure television show. That’s Spelljammer.
The Physical Product
For the most part I skip any sort of analysis of the physicality or price of D&D books – they haven’t really changed in the last five years, except for the cover art on the FLGS-only version. Spelljammer is different. It’s a boxed set with three books and a GM screen. My thoughts on the Spelljammer set went something like this:
- Wow, this box set is really fancy looking, I wonder how much of an upcharge they put on this!
- Oh, it’s only $70 MSRP for three books and a GM screen? That’s great!
- Wait … these books are super-short. In fact, these three books together are slightly shorter than most D&D 5E books.
- This just normal, it’s just the same MSRP as a single D&D book + a GM screen.
So, for me, the upside is that this box set does look really cool. It’s got a nice solid presence on your shelf that’s beyond a standard D&D book. On the downside, it does take up a lot more space than if they had just put all of the content in a single book. More importantly, you may not want to pay for a DM screen to go with the book. The Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated is really good, and only $15 even if you’re paying MSRP, and you might already have that. The real issue here, however, is that the Spelljammer DM screen is bad. Sure, sure, it’s got a pretty, thematic picture for the players to look at. But the content on the DM side of things is mostly useless. Almost half of it is random encounter tables. Another one of the four panels is more random tables that you will probably never use (e.g., random task that needs to be accomplished on the ship, like scraping barnacles off the hull). There’s very little basic reference information, and only a little bit of Spelljammer specific information. You’re looking at maybe a panel of useful stuff (skill/ability list, suffocation, weightlessness, ship-to-ship starting distance, crashing, and an image of how gravity and air work around a spaceship). It’s not something I could recommend picking up, but you’re required to if you want the Spelljammer books.
The Books, and What You’ll Find in Them
So, let’s talk about the books then – the Astral Adventurer’s Guide, Boo’s Astral Menagerie, and Light of Xaryxis. Boo’s Astral Menagerie is a bestiary, Light of Xaryxis is an adventure, and the Astral Adventurer’s Guide is the main book.
Astral Adventurer’s Guide
The Astral Adventurer’s Guide can be divided into three sections – character options and new rules, starship layouts, and the Rock of Bral. That first third (~20 pages) is the most important part of the entire Spelljammer set. New playable species include the astral elf (elves adapted to the astral plane), autognomes (built by gnomes, looks like a robot gnome), giff (space hippos with blunderbusses), hadozee (gliding monkey people; these are the ones that prompted WotC to issue an apology for being insensitive), plasmoids (amorphous blobs who probably spend most of their time in a humanoid shape), thri-kreen (insectoids). I likes astral elves, but then I’m biased and I always like more elves. These ones can cast sacred flame, can dimension door a few times a day, and have typical elf stuff (darkvision, fey ancestry, keen senses, trancing, that sort of thing). The giff are the most distinctive species, but their theme and mechanics put a lot of weight on firearms, so how useful they are depends on whether you’re in a campaign that allows firearms (some day I will write an essay trying to figure out why I’m OK with androids and spaceships in my D&D in the appropriate place, but I don’t want guns). And there’s a certain charm to plasmoids, plus a lot of neat things you can do with the ability to squeeze through small holes or extend “arms” 10 feet away. There are also two new backgrounds, both of which can be potent. The wildspacer and their ability to ignore penalties for being weightless is mostly for Spelljammer campaigns. But if your DM lets you be an astral drifter, that’s a heck of a thing, since their feature is to take the Magic Initiate (cleric) feat, which is way more powerful than most background features.
Then there’s the stuff you need to play Spelljammer – rules for how to from place to place and how to fight while you’re on the way. And you’re not going to get the most thorough of explanations, because this whole section is less than 10 pages. You’ve got the Astral Plane. It’s enormous, far bigger than the puny material planes where most D&D adventures take place (or maybe they’re all just different instances of the same material plane, but it’s easier for these purposes to picture them separately). Indeed, you can picture each material plane as a sphere floating in an Astral Sea. That sphere isn’t a single world, but generally a world and the star its orbiting and maybe other planetary bodies, asteroids, whatever. Each sphere is a wildspace system. And each of those systems has the overlapping material/astral plane that you’re used to. Outside of the sphere it’s just Astral Plane. Inside the sphere there’s air to breath on the planets, but then you’re in space and can’t breath without help. Once you leave the wildspace system, there’s air in the Astral Plane, so that isn’t an issue (yes, it’s a bit counterintuitive that the crazy wide-open spaces are actually more hospitable than local space). But the vast distances mean that you need special equipment to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time. And you’re weightless whether you’re in wildspace or astral space. What you need to address all of those problems is a spelljamming ship – basically a spaceship with a spelljamming helm installed (that’s a magical navigator’s chair, not a helmet, by the way). Each spelljamming ship has its own gravity plane (note: it does not work like normal gravity, pulling you to the center of the ship), its own air bubble (which depends on how big the ship is), and has the ability to transverse the vast distances of the Astral Plane is reasonable times. This is fine when there’s just one ship, but when two ships come near each other (for example, during combat) then things get all out of whack, and frankly a party with a picky GM is probably going to find half of the crew falling back and forth in space as gravity switches directions depending as they get closer to and farther away from bigger ships/creatures. But this doesn’t really line up with the general description that gravity is “whatever direction is most convenient,” and I imagine there will be a lot of fudging rather than trying to figure out exactly what these vague rules require.
But most of the Astral Adventurers guide is ship blueprints and the Rock of Bral. The ship blueprints are what you would think – 2 pages each on 16 different spelljamming ships. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to get too excited about (it’s not like there are rules to customize your own ship), but is pretty vital to actually run Spelljammer. The Rock of Bral (basically an asteroid run by organized crime) is OK, but at six pages not really detailed enough to use as an adventure base.
Boo’s Astral Menagerie
Boo’s Astral Menagerie another helping of antagonists, this one a bit skewed towards NPCs, as you get 3+ NPCs of all of the PC species noted above, plus a few more – more githyanki, vampirates, and space clowns (I told you Spelljammer was a comedic setting). On the low end of the CR scale, Aartuks are seastar-ish plant creatures who provide a nice challenge for low-level adventurers. And Psurlons are wormlike creatures in the same CR. I appreciate that there are multiple threats appropriate for low-level adventurers. On the high end there are lunar and solar dragons. There are small penguin-like merchants and also giant merchants (the mercane). There are beholder-kin who masquerade as asteroids. I like the look of the reigar – androgynous and bioluminescent folk who can change their skill coloration and tend to use this to make bright patterns. Kind of wish they had been one of the playable options.
Also, yes, they do have space hamsters in here.
Light of Xaryxis
A distinctive adventure for a distinctive D&D setting, Light of Xaryxis is a campy romp specifically designed to be played in shorter (2-3 hour sessions). On the bright side, this specificity lets them build particular episodic cliffhangers into the adventure. This is the sort of thing that could be really cool. Unfortunately, it probably loses its luster after the 8th time a session ends with “a giant monster shows up to eat you” and then the next session starts with “oh no wait it just wants to say hi and then it left.” I’m slightly exaggerating for effect … but only slightly. Unfortunately, even if you’re into the Flash Gordon camp, it’s hard to get past how little actions matter in Light of Xaryxis – these are some really locked rails that you’re on and you’ll be able to tell when you’re playing through (and I’m not usually one to complain about an adventure being ‘on rails’ – all published adventures have to put the party on rails to some extent – but it really stands out here). Plus there’s a lot of NPCs showing up, kind of doing their thing for reasons not always apparent, and then wandering off to never matter again. I want to applaud the effort to do a different narrative structure and get into Light of Xaryxis, but it just doesn’t work for me.
D&D deserves a lot of plaudits for trying to expand the scope of stories it tells. And mood and tone of Spelljammer really play into that expansion. Unfortunately, the Spelljammer: Adventures in Space box set brings a lot of disappointments, from the poor GM screen, shaky adventure, and muddy starship interaction rules. It’s not that there isn’t a cool concept here to play around with, but the execution of that concept is lacking.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy. Strange Assembly may earn commissions from affiliate links in this article.