Dungeons & Dragons is the best RPG in the universe. What could possibly make it better? D&D in Space!
In the glory days of old school D&D, the parent company, TSR Inc. (R.I.P., good buddy), had created a number of Campaign Settings for players to adventure in. Greyhawk, Mystara, Dragonlance, and the one we currently all play in, The Forgotten Realms. Well, way, way back in 1989, they created a new campaign setting that could bridge the gap and connect all these different universes. That’s right kids, long before the MCU confused you with the multiverse, D&D confounded its players with Spelljammer!
At its core, Spelljammer is a rules-light, fantasy world where heroes sail the skies on magical ships to other planets and beyond in search of adventure. It’s medieval Star Trek without any of that pesky science to interfere with the science-fiction. Wizards of the Coast has been teasing us for years with easter eggs hidden within several adventures hinting at this world beyond the stars. Finally, they’ve just released the 5th Edition Box Set, Spelljammer – Adventures in Space. But exactly what does it bring to your game? And is it worth the 70 space bucks needed to own it? The answer is a stellar,… Maybe.
At first glance, there seems to be a lot of stuff here: 3 hardcover books; the Space Rules, the Space Monsters, and a Space Adventure, plus a two-sided map and a DM screen. But the cold, dark truth of Space is that there just isn’t much there. The set is full of inspiration, but devoid of any real rules. Especially when it comes to the ships and ship-to-ship combat. But patience, my young padawan, we’ll get there.
First, the good stuff. These books are bursting with inspiration. The art work is astounding and the amount of it is astronomical. Every page is a sunburst of color and atmosphere, perfect to get your creative juices flowing and create bombastic encounters with a universe of unique adversaries. Or you spend a session fishing for Space Guppies; don’t let me tell you how to role-play your game.
The Astral Adventurers Guide (the Rules Book) gives us several player options. There are two new backgrounds, which is good but not great. But there are six new player races, and they are awesome! There are those adorable musket-totting hippos, the Giff, and gliding monkeys called the Hadozee that use gravity to sail up, under, and over the space ships. The impenetrable insectoid Thri-Kreen with four arms (think General Grevious from Star Wars) and the first ever Ooze character, the amorphous, shape-shifting, blob, the Plasmoid. Lastly, there are the Autognomes, a robot-like construct imbued with sentience and free-will (think Data from Star Trek) and the even more arrogant and annoying Astral Elves; if you thought High Elves were pompous jerks, just you wait.
I also really like all the designs of the new ships and they are presented beautifully. Each ship comes with a full two-page spread, with a half page painting, half a page of stats, and a full map of the deck plans. They look great and I can’t wait to drop each one into my game. Most ships fall into one of two themes, nautical vessel or creature based, usually of the avian or underwater variety. There are ships based on sharks, birds, squids, insects, turtles, and of course Spanish galleons. There are 16 amazing space craft presented, but they take up half the book and leave hardly any room for actual rules or anything else. But were sticking with the good here.
The 2nd book of the set is Boo’s Astral Menagerie. Over 70 new monsters are presented to annoy, harass and kill your players. From the eponymous Miniature Giant Space Hamster to the terrifying Cosmic Horror, there’s something for every occasion here. While there are some light-hearted creatures (I’m looking at you, Dohwar), this book really plays into the horror of space. Most of these monsters are truly bizarre; this book delves deeper into the Cthulhu mythos than any other 5th edition book. Many of the monsters deal psychic damage and have psionic powers, perfect to incorporate the optional DMG madness mechanics. Just remember, in space no one can hear you scream.
The final book in the set is the adventure, Light of Xaryxis. I have not read the adventure, for reasons I’ll mention in a minute, but there are several things that I like at first glance. I really like the structure of the adventure. It is designed for characters leveled 5-8, and I love this return to the old AD&D module form. As much as I like the campaign adventure books, I find the time commitment to be too much and interest in the adventure decreases as time goes on. But this is the perfect length, able to be played out over roughly 12 sessions, while keeping the excitement and energy high throughout. Each section ends in a cliffhanger, making the adventure very cinematic. This might make the adventure very linear, but I don’t mind that if I get to play out my Flash Gordon fantasies. I will do a full campaign diary of the Light of Xaryxis, so stay tuned.
Okay, onto the bad. Everything in the books is great, but what they left out is really, really bad. The first missed opportunity is the total lack of any sub-classes. This setting cries out for an astral pirate class or, hello, a Space Ranger. (I wanna be Buzz Lightyear!) And while the new races are great, I wish there were more. Just going through Boo’s Menagerie, I wish they had SSurran and especially Dohwar player options. (I wanna be a penguin Buzz Lightyear!)
But I really wish that they had included the Githyanki player race in this volume. They are a prominent faction in any Spelljammer campaign, with a perfect built-in backstory involving a civil war amongst themselves and a pure hatred for the mind-flayers that created, enslaved, and tortured them for centuries. You want that guy to follow your story? Tell him there’s a mind flayer at the end of the dungeon and he’ll move heaven and earth to kill it. In the book, there’s only one mention of using the Gith as a PC; “go check out The Monsters of the Multiverse sourcebook”, which is a real cheap way to make us shell out another 50 Space bucks.
But the worst omission, is the utter lack of rules involving space travel. There are just 6 pages of rules that explain the intricacies of interstellar travel and they are ill-defined and contradictory. Just as an example, the section on gravity states that each ship has its own gravity roughly centered on the middle of the ship, called the gravity plane. It states that if an object falls off the ship it will end up oscillating back and forth across the gravity plane (like a bobbing cork) until something stops it. But less than a half page later it says that an object that falls of the ship will drift away from the ship toward the edge of the ship’s Air Envelope (another convoluted rule). So, which is it? Bobbing beside the ship or drifting away?
The official answer is whatever the DM wants at that time to fit the story. The rules are specifically vague because they do not matter. The most common answer to how or why something works is “Who cares, it’s magic.” Wizards of the Coast doesn’t want the rules to get in the way of the story or the fun; and that’s fine. But this will lead to all sorts of problems between player desires and DM needs. With no guidelines to follow, the DM will be forced to homebrew a whole batch of rules, judgements, and ret-cons for every unique, individual situation.
This is never more apparent than in ship travel and combat. This section is a horrible. Navigation is non-existent, speed and distances are irrelevant. Each ship magically gets to wherever it needs to go and automatically avoids all collisions. Yet the book also says you can crash into another ship. Wouldn’t the other ship “magically” avoid this situation? Plus, this rule ruins a classic staple of space adventure; the chase through an asteroid field. There is no sense of drama if there is no chance of failure. And rules determine success or failure. Even fake, made-up worlds need rules, or it’s just anarchy!
Combat is even worse. All the ships are equipped with siege weapons but the book wants to ignore all that and have the ships to pull alongside each other for hand-to-hand combat. Why? Because those rules are already in the Players’ Handbook. Weirdly, WotC already developed some excellent rules for ship combat in The Ghosts of Saltmarsh. They could have been tweaked for space travel, but they choose to exclude them completely. And the few rules they did use are wholly useless. For instance, the included siege weapons have a maximum range. But in space there is no range; all objects travel at full velocity forever until they hit something. And don’t get me started on how the catapults on every ship need gravity to work. And where are the cannons?
In addition, I find the included DM Screen to be a complete waste of space, with charts and graphs found elsewhere in the box set. I would have gladly traded that in for another 30-40 pages of actual rules and examples of Spelljammer scenarios. For those of you who are going to play through this setting, I will create a Spelljammer Supplement to clarify and modify most of these needlessly complicated and missing rules.
The box set is lacking in a few other ways. The section on the player’s base space port, the Rock of Bral, is not given enough space to explore properly. I don’t need an exhaustive atlas, but we barely have a map and a list of locations. Speaking of the map, the full-sized, top-side map of the Rock of Bral is fine, but the flip side of the nearly empty underside of the asteroid is a waste. This should have been a giant star map of the known realms and the passages between them. I know navigation is ignored in this Spelljammer universe (a big mistake) but the use of maps and charts and the discovery of lost planets or a hidden star system is a huge trope of these stories. Even the most recent Star Wars movies used this idea. Twice.
But here is core truth at the center of this universe. None of my complaints and criticisms matter when compared to the excitement my kid had when he saw this box set. Rocket boosters on full, my kid is now dying run his very first campaign using this setting. He read the adventure from cover to cover and began feverishly assembling all the minis he would need, including Skylander ships, playdough plasmoids, pistol-packing hippos, and Captain Flapjack – the flumph with a pirate hat!
Will I need to do a ton of work to help my son run this campaign? Yes. Should the books have gone through a few more rounds of playtest and editing? Yes. Is this a very obscure niche of the market that will only appeal to a small subset of the D&D community? Yes. Is this indicative of WotC’s trend toward sillier, more juvenile material? Yes. Are we going to have a freakin’ blast playing it? Yes!
And at the end of our journey through space together on this hunk of rock called Earth, that is all that really matters. The final word is if this setting intrigues you, then get it. But wait until it’s on sale. There’s plenty of regular fantasy make-believe to keep you occupied until then.
As always, to infinity and Game On!
We climbed aboard a starship, and headed for the skies, singing… – Come Sail Away, Styx