27 September 2022
Reach for the Stars
If you’ve ever needed a reminder that Dungeons & Dragons has never been the exclusive domain of devout medievalists intent on historical simulation, you need look no further than the existence of Spelljammer.
Quite possibly the weirdest, wackiest, and eighties-ist of the famous game’s many settings –and remember, there’s one where halflings ride dinosaurs into cannibal raids – Spelljammer blends the highest of fantasy and lowest of sci-fi into a single, glorious mess. Founded on a core idea of ‘D&D, but in space,’ it gives official permission for GMs to reject the influence of Lord of the Rings and instead crib from Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and the campier side of Shatner-era Star Trek.
The core idea of the setting has always centered on the titular Spelljammers – arcane ships that can travel between the many worlds, planes, and dimensions of the D&D multiverse. This incredible freedom allows for some of the most creative and enjoyable play imaginable, and ensures that players feel both excited about the possibilities and keenly aware that an angry god might lurk at the end of the next journey.
As glorious as the idea is, however, Spelljammer’s space-elves and gun-toting hippo-men have always struggled to find a proper place to flourish. The setting has spent the past few decades relegated to cameos and nod-and-wink references in the official canon of the game, which have acknowledged the setting as present but provided little in the way of rules or content.
In many ways, Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is everything a player could possibly want from a new setting. Rather than settling for a single sourcebook, it sprawls across an entire slipcase set comprised of three separate volumes. One of these provides all the rules you could need, another is a bestiary packed with astral monsters, while the final part provides a Spelljammer-based campaign that allows you to put everything into action – never again will a glorious setting sit unused for want of a decent adventure. There’s even a new GM screen that provides all the core info you need to keep a spelljammer operating.
This is all supported by some truly impressive art and a swashbuckling tone that makes you want to duel with a pirate queen while a nebula explodes in the background. The pages scream with the sound of freedom and adventure, and everything pops with energy and excitement. As you flick through the books, it’s hard not to be seized by the desire to drop a rock on your current party and go fight a lunar dragon right this very second.
So many things are handled wonderfully. The fan-favourite Giff, a race of intergalactic hippos best known for their love of guns and Victorian-era accents, are a barrel of fun. Their rules text even comes with a note about a species-wide row over how their name is pronounced (for the record, this reviewer favours the hard ‘g’ and is willing to die fighting on this hill) and nifty rules establishing their skills with black powder weapons.
As you move from a casual speed-read toward a proper interrogation of the material, however, the initial high sputters out. Yes, Adventures in Space is exciting and fun, but it’s also rather shallow.
To be absolutely clear, this is not the same thing as ‘bad.’ The rules for spelljamming are fine, and the monsters are entertaining – if you aren’t immediately enchanted by the idea of a vampirate, you are 100% not the target audience - but there just isn’t very much substance to anything.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this lies in the length of the books. Yes, there are three of them, but they all top out at a mere 64 pages. The entire slipcase set actually has fewer pages than the most obvious point of comparison among D&D’s existing sourcebooks, the nautically themed Ghosts of Saltmarsh. In truth, the set is only noticeably heftier than the books that came before it because every volume comes in a hardcover that takes up almost as space as the pages themselves.
Of course, this is a relatively petty complaint. If the books had been filled to the brim with ideas, rules, and innovations, we wouldn’t think the pagecount worth a mention. However, the reality is that that many of the core tenets of the setting guide are undernourished.
The practicality of spelljamming, for example, is glossed over in a matter of a scant few paragraphs and without anything really approaching clear rules. Characters can throw on a magical hat and everything kind of works – there’s no system in place for navigating or getting lost, or for running out of fuel, or needing to maintain the ship.
While this may work for some groups who don’t want to deal with the faff of new rules or rolling, the sheer shallowness of it all can take the thrill out of the process. Without anything substantial to hold it together, piloting a spelljammer feels less like exploring the unknown and a lot more like clicking the ‘TRAVEL TO NEXT PLANET?’ icon in a videogame.
It doesn’t help that the Astral Adventurer’s Guide skimps heavily on the background lore. Wildspace – that is, the void around a planet – is “like an ocean,” but what does that mean? Everything is kept light and breezy enough to be handwaved, which is great for keeping adventures snappy but irritating for GMs looking for something consistent to build on.
Honestly, the Guide feels like it would make a great primer. But that’s not what players look for when they shell out for a fancy slipcase set entitled Adventure in Space.
Still, while this does sour the experience somewhat, it would be foolish to pretend that this set doesn’t have anything going for it. Perhaps the brightest feather in its cap is the short-ish campaign, Light of Xaryxis. While it still isn’t particularly substantial, the adventure is enough to take players from level 5 to about level 8, and does so with enormous enthusiasm.
Because it starts at so (relatively) high a level, the adventure can be neatly slipped into an ongoing campaign with very little effort. It assumes that the players are operating on a relatively conventional D&D planet before whisking them off for a battle with Astral Elves and a jaunt onto an asteroid-city. There are starships, rebellious princesses, evil galactic emperors, and everything else you’d expect from a 70’s pulp novel. It’s camp as can be, and all the better for it.
Ultimately, the core concept of Spelljammer is just as delightful now as it was in the 80s, and while the rules (and the setting information, and the bestiary) might be a little sparse, they’re still enjoyable to mess around with. For some groups that will be enough. For others, it’s a comfort as cold as the depths of space.
PLAY IT? MAYBE
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED Ghosts of Saltmarsh
Honestly, you could do a lot worse than ‘borrowing’ some of the sailing rules from Saltmarsh to flesh out Adventures…
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
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