One of the features of long running gaming franchises is that they tend repeat themselves, banking on nostalgia to keep older fans engaged and to encourage new folk to explore the whole thing. Dungeons and Dragons has been around since 1974, which means it has decades of old material that can be re-imagined, re-created and polished up so it’s new. Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is an example of old idea that no one expected to see return, and some may be disappointed that it has.
Spelljammer is a campaign setting that takes your normal fantasy D&D party in a fantasy version of space. It’s still a magical world; it’s just that rather sailing across the ocean in big wooden ships, those vessels ply the Astral Sea. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but think outlandish wooden ships that don’t have to worry about barnacles or physics. Think Pirates of the Caribbean, but in a cartoony version of space.
It’s deeply silly, and they’ve kept the crazy, pulp-fantasy feel that made the original edition of this setting so fun; it’s space-opera, but with pirates and magic rather than anything resembling science fiction.
Wizards of the Coast have also done something a little different with this setting; it’s not just a big, well put together book. Rather it’s three books and Dungeon Master’s screen in a slipcase.
The DM’s screen is okay; we get a lovely picture of some weird space-borne beasties on the side you show the players and the information on the screen is a mix of rules unique to the setting and rules many of us forget. It’s not the tightest DM’s screen in terms of design, but it does the job and it’s nice to have.
Book one is the Astral Adventurers Guide, and it’s the bit that’s crammed with goodies for the players. We get some new spells, new character options, and place for the party to hang out in (called the Rock of Braal) and different types of freaky ships to fly around the Astral Sea in. For example, there’s a straight up pirate galley, but also one with huge moth like wings, one that’s basically a huge spider and so on. The new playable races are fun; Astral Elves are elves who live in space, autognomes are steampunk robot gnomes and giff (pronounced with a hard g) are hippo people who like primitive firearms and uniforms. We also get the insectoid thri-kreen, the slime-like plasmoids and gliding monkey-people called the Hadozee. These are mostly a welcome edition to the game, though the Hadozee needed a little more time in development (a thing that’s fixed in newer prints of the book). It’s nice to see old creatures presented in new ways and yes; they are hippo people. This game is silly.
Which brings us to Boo’s Astral Menagerie. Named after the hamster character from the Forgotten Realms, this is mostly a monster manual with space monsters in it. We get solar dragons and lunar dragons of course, because it wouldn’t be D&D without them. But also Space Clowns and Vampirates. And Giant Space Hamsters. These are all actually fun monsters, but yes, this game is setting is not about the angst. Except when it is, as we also get terrors like xenophobic slavers, the spider-like Neogi and a being literally called a Cosmic Horror. Which makes the over-all tone something
Finally we get book three, Light of Xaryxis. It’s an adventure, and it’s very much a mixed bag. On the one hand, this is a swashbuckling, whistle stop tour of the setting. We held off our review of this until we had a chance to properly run it a couple of times and broadly, it’s very good. It’s a cinematic horror-comedy that is a mix of Guardians of The Galaxy by way of The Dragon Prince. It’s cinematic, fun and weird. It also starts at level 5, so if you want to run it starting from level one, check out the Spelljammer Academy digital supplement (it’s free) on DNDBeyond. Xaryxis does suffer from being deliberately tough; the idea is to encourage the players to think and roleplay their way through problems rather than just throwing spells and weapons at things. It’s got some nice twists and it’s fun.
Rules wise, it’s okay. They aren’t any huge paradigm shifts in design and a lot of the cool things like the ships themselves are there to make the characters look cool; this edition of Spelljammer wants your players to swing from a rope to attack a living space-rock monster or attempt to seduce something forged from the heart of a star; it doesn’t want your players to spend hours figuring out comparative distances or working out how much water they need to put in the cargo hold. As such the focus is on player actions and abilities, not stats for ballista and hull strength. It would have been nice to see more details of space around other parts of the D&D Multiverse, but they’ll probably get round to that in future releases.
It would be wrong to describe Spelljammer: Adventures in Space as the comedy setting; it can easily be ran straight. But don’t do that; let that big goofy smile loose on the players and lean into the sheer joy of pulp sci-fi. But with dragons.