Spelljammer brings a lot of interesting concepts to 5e, but it doesn't give us anything the original AD&D setting hadn't already. Coupled with an uninspiring adventure and thinned-out rules, the box set feels a bit like wasted potential.
In the world of DnD, a spelljammer can be many things. It’s the name of a ship used to travel the Astral Plane, where your party can find strange new planets and adventures; it’s the name of the spellcaster in charge of manoeuvring said ship; it’s also an old-school campaign setting that’s long been due a 5e revival.
The wait for Spelljammer 5e is finally over. Spelljammer: Adventures in Space set off on its maiden 5e voyage on August 16, and Wizards of the Coast were kind enough to send Wargamer an early copy for review. Bear in mind I’ve been busy drafting a homebrew adventure entirely populated by Space Clowns, so my opinions are currently based on reading and planning Spelljammer adventures as opposed to playing.
Like space itself, the Spelljammer setting is an open plane of possible wonders. This, combined with huge levels of hype and nostalgia surrounding the setting before the box set had even been released, meant Spelljammer: Adventures in Space had big shoes to fill. And while I’m glad a new wave of D&D players will be introduced to the setting, its space-y potential feels a little wasted. For me, the good ship Spelljammer 5e hasn’t quite stuck its lunar landing.
Before I dive deep into why I feel this way, let’s recap exactly what Spelljammer is.
What is Spelljammer: Adventures in Space?
Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is a three-book revival of the 1989 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons box set of the same name. The 5e set includes a bestiary (Boo’s Astral Menagerie), a rules guide (Astral Adventurer’s Guide), and a new pre-written adventure (Light of Xaryxis).
The Astral Adventurer’s Guide offers a trimmed-down version of the 2e set’s space-related rules. AD&D Spelljammer’s advice on creating solar systems, accounting for weather, adjusting spells, and tracking crew morale and experience levels have all been stripped away. The core rules for things like air and gravity remain largely intact, but ship combat can now be summarised in just two pages.
Speaking of ships, these are the main attraction of the Astral Adventurer’s Guide. Many of these are based on real-life nautical galleons and boats, but just as many are designed to look like spiders, turtles, and sharks. Again, these designs will be very familiar to Spelljammer veterans – expect to be welcoming back Nautiloids, Tyrant ships, and Squid ships as old friends (albeit with more streamlined 5e rules).
In addition, the Astral Adventurer’s Guide offers six new playable races, as well two new backgrounds to slot your character seamlessly into the new astral setting. Like the monsters found in Boo’s Astral Menagerie, the majority of these race options are adapted from existing 2e material. Fans of the original Spelljammer will recognise the gun-toting hippo humanoids known as the Giff and the malfunctioning robot race of Autognomes.
If these character options sound a bit wacky, just wait until you crack open Boos Astral Menagerie. Vampirates, Space Clowns and Giant Space Hamsters add a good dose of silliness to the setting. There are also Cosmic Horrors and a few other Lovecraftian monstrosities to ensure the darker side of ‘weird’ is covered too. It’s no Into the Odd, but there’s enough here to generate some nightmare-fuel in the hands of the right DM.
Spelljammer is perhaps its least wacky self in the Light of Xaryxis adventure. It openly admits the 1980 Flash Gordon film was a major influence, and this means it sticks closely to well-established (if campy) sci-fi tropes. Your party is thrust into a space opera which decides the fate of an empire of Astral Elves. There’s a cliffhanger at the end of every campaign session, and failure is absolutely an option – Light of Xaryxis is fully prepared to dole out amusing or dire consequences for bad rolls.
Spelljammer: Adventures in Space – first impressions
The Astral Adventurer’s Guide and Boo’s Menagerie opens up a world of bizarre potential – this is a world where civilisations are built on the faces of dead gods, penguin people make a living as merchants, and Space Clowns shoot at you with laughter-inducing ray guns. The sillier side of Spelljammer appealed to me in particular – but there’s plenty here for DMs who prefer horror or drama to work with also.
Despite this, the Astral Adventurer’s Guide felt a little thin. I partly appreciated how concise this version of Spelljammer was, but a lot had to be sacrificed to achieve this. In particular, I wish they’d held onto the original set’s advice for creating new solar systems and planets. Spelljammer’s core setting may be Wildspace and the Astral Sea, but one of the biggest appeals of sci-fi is exploration. To boldly go where no one has gone before, we actually need somewhere to go.
I also felt myself wishing for a little more crunch when it came to spelljamming. The new, lighter version of running and maintaining your ship is likely going to be less overwhelming for new players, but there’s also less to sink your teeth into. Exploration is one of the biggest appeals of sci-fi, but spelljamming is the main event in a book that’s named after it – and I felt more could have been covered here.
Light of Xaryxis also felt lacking, as it doesn’t take the opportunity to do anything particularly new or exciting. Spelljammer’s best feature (its potential for weird) is overlooked in favour of yet another adventure about the political dealings of elves. Light of Xaryxis does works its socks off to give you the grand tour of the box set’s contents, but it feels somewhat unfulfilling.
This is largely due to how the adventure is structured. The majority of the module tasks you with travelling from NPC to NPC gathering scraps of information you need to achieve your main goal – save your home planet. Meet a new NPC, fulfil a (usually combat-based) task for them to gain their allyship, and discover you need to go meet a new NPC who has the next piece of information you need to further the story – rinse and repeat five or six times.
This showreel of characters is a good way to introduce new players to Wildspace. You’ll meet alcoholic Giff, gallant vampirates, and more than a few Astral Elves – but these characters lack the depth and complexity books like Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel give their NPCs. Granted, this is on-brand for an adventure trying to emulate something like Flash Gordon, but it still left me wanting more in all the wrong ways.
Despite my quarrels with the majority of the module, the finale succeeds in being a grand, over-the-top, and satisfying encounter. Light of Xaryxis also offers some engaging smaller moments, such as a one-off horror encounter and a dice game you can play to bond with your shipmates on the long sail through space. Another honourable mention goes to the time dedicated to describing what happens if your characters fail or choose an unorthodox path forward during the module, and the multiple ways the adventure can end.
Spellajmmer: Adventures in Space offers a lot of rewarding ideas for players and DMs, but the execution of its rules and adventure module don’t quite live up to their potential. And while this was always going to be a reboot to introduce 5e players to a 2e setting, it’s a little disappointing that the best part of Spelljammer is still its ideas – ideas that are now over thirty years old.