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Spelljammer Spelljammer: Adventures in Space Review

The new Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is the latest 5E revival of a beloved old setting, and one that has intrigued new D&D fans because it promises swashbuckling fantasy adventures in space. WotC also decided to do something a bit different by releasing it as a three-book slipcase set with a DM screen. Yet Spelljammer presents some unique challenges that other revivals haven't faced...

The new Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is the latest 5E revival of a beloved old setting, and one that has intrigued new D&D fans because it promises swashbuckling fantasy adventures in space. WotC also decided to do something a bit different by releasing it as a three-book slipcase set with a DM screen. Yet Spelljammer presents some unique challenges that other revivals haven't faced, making it a complicated endeavor.
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What's in the Box, Err, Slipcase?​

As with other recent releases, Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is being sold in two versions: a regular edition for mass market retailers with covers by Bruce Brenneise, Justin Gerard and Ekaterina Bumak, and an alternative cover edition available through game stores featuring cover art by Hydro74. It is also being labeled a “campaign collection” because it has everything a DM needs to run a Spelljammer adventure”. That includes:
  • The Astral Adventurer’s Guide, a source book for players and DMs,
  • Boo’s Astral Menagerie, a bestiary
  • Light of Xaryxis, an adventure
  • A double-sided poster map of The Rock of Bral
  • A four-panel DM screen
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The Basics​

The 1989 Spelljammer was designed to bring space adventures to D&D fantasy, but Jeff Grubb and the original developers were also tasked to not contradict anything already established about other campaign worlds like Krynn (Dragonlance), Toril (Forgotten Realms), or Greyhawk (Oerth). The team decided to dream big and come up with something wild. The result has touches evocative of space opera, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Jules Verne novels, classic sailing adventures, and pulp science fiction like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Spelljammer also mixed in the Ptolemaic concept of planets being moved by spheres. So what we would call a solar system is contained in an unbreakable crystal sphere in Spelljammer and what is within those spheres is called wildspace. The Dragonlance crystal sphere was known as Krynnspace, the one containing Toril was called Realmspace, etc. The crystal spheres float in a flammable sea known as phlogiston. Portals allow passage from within a crystal sphere to phlogiston and the reverse, but portals don't have a consistent location or availability.

Spelljammer ships could look like classic sailing vessels or designs inspired by insects and sea creatures, or almost anything that can be imagined. Depending upon the design, they might be able to land on the ground or sail in an ocean as well. Spelljammer ships were controlled by a mage or cleric through a magical helm.

In essence, Spelljammer as a setting is a realm between worlds that allows a party to experience all sorts of space fantasy adventures. Yet while the original Spelljammer opened up new dimensions of adventure for D&D players, it also added a level of complication.

While Planescape involves, as the name indicates, different planes of existence, original Spelljammer looked at the D&D cosmos as a series of planets in space and the titular spelljammer ships. That sort of fits together, but not exactly.

With the new edition, project lead Chris Perkins sought to connect Spelljammer cosmology more firmly to the cosmology described in the Dungeon Master's Guide. So instead of crystal spheres bobbing in highly flammable phlogiston it works a bit differently now.

In 5E, the space you see when looking up at the sky from Toril, Krynn, etc. is still called wildspace, but it's not contained in a crystal sphere. With a spelljammer ship you can travel that wildspace and visit other worlds. Travel far enough and when you reach the edge of a wildspace system it becomes silvery and misty. Cross into it, and you're in the “sea” of the Astral Plane. From there you could also travel to other wildspace realms or just explore the astral sea.

Unlike space in our world, wildspace isn't a void. It's a bright, colorful “ocean” filled with weird creatures, like space fish, and mysterious worlds. The astral sea is silvery and more conceptual with dead gods floating in space. You don't need to breathe or eat in astral space whereas Wildspace requires both, the former facilitated by air envelopes.

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What's in It for Players?​

The Character Options chapter contains two new backgrounds and six new player races. The Astral Drifter background is for someone who has spent a significant amount of time in the astral sea. That provides longevity, making them older than they should be without penalty. They also experienced “Divine Contact” while in the astral plane, which grants the cleric version of the magic initiate feat regardless of the character's class. The Wildspacer background is for those who have been asteroid miners, explorers, etc. and grants the Toughness background. Wildspacers have also had a harrowing experience in their past with a creature like a mindflayer, beholder, etc.

The new player races are:
  • Astral Elves
  • Autognomes
  • Giff
  • Hadozee
  • Plasmoids
  • Thri-kreen
As the name indicates, Astral Elves traveled from the Feywild to the Astral Planes to be closer to the gods, spending a long time there. They have the usual abilities, such as darkvision, but Starry Step replaces the Misty Step associated with Fey Elves.

Autognomes are constructs created by Rock Gnomes. Besides some logical abilities due to its mechanical nature, such as immunity to disease, resistance to pain, and no need to eat, it gets the cool ability, Build for Success. After rolling a d20 for an attack, ability check, or saving throw, the Autognome can choose to add a d4 after seeing the result of their roll but before learning if it was successful or not. The Autognome can do this a number of times equal to its proficiency bonus, and regains it after a long rest.

Giff are fan favorites—hippo-like humanoids with a passion for explosives, which grants Firearm Mastery. They also get Hippo Build, which gives advantage on Strength checks, and Astral Spark, which allows them to do extra Force damage. Like Build for Success, it can be used a number of times equal to their proficiency bonus and refresh after a long rest. Note that 50 percent of the Giff pronounce their name with a hard G and 50 percent use a soft G and the Giff may come to blows over that.

Hadozee are simian-like aliens with membranes attached to their wrists and ankles that can be used to glide. Their feet are dexterous and able to function almost like hands. They have a special resilience related to their magical origin that allows them to roll a d6 on a reaction roll, add their proficiency bonus to it and decrease the amount of damage they take. Usage and refresh is like Build for Success and Astral Spark.

Plasmoids are creature type ooze but sentient. They can hold themselves into a humanoid shape to match those around them. They have Amorphous shape abilities as well as Shape Self, and can go an hour without breathing.

Thri-kreen are already in the regular Monster Manual, where they're listed as creature type humanoid. As a playable race they have been switched to creature type monstrosities. Along with Sleepless, and Telepathy, and Secondary Arms, they can change the color of their carapace with Chameleon Carapace, which also includes a base Armor Class of 13 plus Dexterity modifier if they aren't wearing armor.

What we don't get in the Character Options are new classes or subclasses. At first I thought that was odd, but after thinking about, the existing classes/subclasses already have everything you need. Spelljammer is meant to be fantasy swashbuckling in space, not hard science fiction and the classes that might require.

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The Rest of the Astral Adventurer’s Guide

The remainder of the AAG, understandably, focuses on spelljamming itself. That includes rules for speed, falling, etc. and a little bit of magic. AAG only contains two new spells (2nd level Air Bubble and 5th level Create Spelljamming Helm) and three new magic items (Fish Suit, which lets you breathe and move in wildspace outside of a ship, Wildspace Osprey, a sort of galactic compass, and, of course, Spelljamming Helm).

AAG contains 16 spelljammer ships, complete with beautiful color images (by a variety of artists) of the ships in space. The spacedeck plans are by Dyson Logos, so the designs are well done—clear, logical, practical, and imaginative.

Some of the ships carryover from the original Spelljammer while others are brand new. If you're an OG Spelljammer fan and don't think 16 ships are enough, don't worry. It's super simple to grab one of your omitted old favorites and quickly convert for 5E.

Lastly, the AAG provides information on the Rock of Bral. Think of it as a sort of Port Royal or Waterdeep in space. Traditionally in Spelljammer, Bral is a location ships return to regularly for supplies or new jobs—and there you might be Large Luigi, a lawful neutral beholder who owns The Happy Beholder bar.

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Boo’s Astral Menagerie

Do we ever get enough monsters? Of course not. BAM contains 39 monsters/species, but several of them come with a number of variants, bringing the number of stat blocks up to 72. For example, the two dragons, lunar and solar, get four stat blocks each: ancient, adult, young, and wyrmling. Similarly, Giff get a Giff Shipmate, Giff Shock Trooper, and Giff Warlord, and Hadozees get Hadozee Explorer, Hadozee Shipmate, and Hadozee Warrior stat blocks. The included adventure, Light of Xaryxis, also contains one more stat block for Astral Blights.

The variety of creatures have a nice blend of NPC species/rivals, straight-up monsters, and astral creatures like space whale Kindori. The also range from utterly creepy, like the Cosmic Horror to the utterly adorable and well-known Giant Space Hamster.

Speaking of cute, the penguin-like Dohwar (art by Brynn Metheney) are an alternative to the typical merchants your players may encounter. They prefer secretive deals even when the products are completely legal. Appropriately, the collective noun for Dohwars is cartel.

If 72 stat blocks aren't enough for your Spelljammer campaign, and you don't want to use Mordenkainen's Monsters of the Universe, BAM explains how to adapt any terrestrial 5E creature for Spelljammer. Simply add the trait “Unusual Nature”, which means they don't have to breathe, and you're all set.

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Light of Xaryxis

Not surprisingly the set's adventure is designed to make the players travel through wildspace to Bral, Doomspace, and more, giving them an overview of what Spelljammer as a setting can do. LoX contains four section of three chapters each. The chapters are designed to be to take about 2-3 hours to play, depending upon how much your group sidetracks, of course.

LoX is for characters of 5th-8th level so it fits easily as a follow-up to the original D&D Starter Set, the D&D Essentials Kit, the new D&D Starter Set: Dragons of Stormwreck Isle, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, or any other adventure that gets the players to 5th level. It doesn't really matter what type of campaign you run or what world you use, including homebrew, because LoX starts with Astral Elves from the Xaryxis Empire attacking your starting world to steal its vital energy to prolong the life of their dying sun.

LoX feels like a Flash Gordon or similar space adventure movie serial. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger and the full-page artwork that begins each chapter has its title in big block letter, which is not the usual D&D style or design. There's even a fight in a warlord's arena while trying to build a coalition and an epic fight with an armada.

While it's designed to let players travel, meet people, and build alliances, LoX is not a sandbox adventure. The plot has a definite order to it, though it does branch a bit depending upon choices characters make. Still, those plot branches usually have opportunities to come back together at a later point or there are options for “if the players win” and “if the players lose”.

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Changes for the Better​

This may ruffle some fan feathers, but I always liked the idea of Spelljammer far more than the way it was executed in 2nd Edition. The crystal spheres bothered me, especially since portals through them could be difficult to find and inconsistent. I know I wasn't the only one who hated that the mage or cleric helming the ship couldn't do anything else while controlling the ship. Add in how flammable phlogiston was and instead of feeling like a challenge, it just felt frustrating—or required home rules to compensate.

So I like the changes 5E made to Spelljammer, switching from crystal spheres to wildspace realms separated by the astral sea and getting rid of phlogiston. The person attuned to the helm can transfer the attunement to a willing person with a touch. But you do still have to maintain concentration, as if casting a spell, to maintain control of the ship. Mages can know what's going on around them while in the helm, which is an improvement, but I question if it's enough. If there's a solution to that in the set, I keep missing it because I looked.

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What I Liked​

The slipcase format has some advantages. A DM can hand the AAG to players to check a rule or the new species and not worry about them seeing adventure material. A GM can also have a page of BAM open to the creature they need and do the same with LoX instead of flipping back and forth. And getting a custom DM screen with the set, complete with encounter tables, is very handy.

I love the art. Perkins said they bought more art for Spelljammer than usual, and it shows. Some pieces are reused from earlier books, like a piece of Giff artwork, but the new art clearly establishes the scope of a Spelljammer adventure. The regular covers are very good and the alternative covers by Hydro74 are stunning. Dyson Logos' map for the butterfly-shaped Xaryxis Imperial Citadal is fantastic and clever.

I really like that the LoX adventure can start anywhere, including on a homebrew world. Depending upon how LoX ends and what the players want to do next, they could also return home for new terrestrial adventures. It's a nice flexibility as is the fact that the Rock of Bral can be placed anywhere in wildspace (in 2nd Edition it was near Toril).

And LoX does have the feel of pulp space adventure or a comic book with its swashbuckling feel and cliffhangers. LoX also does a great job of teaching characters about wildspace adventures.

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Stumbling Blocks​

Most of my complaints have one of two causes—length and objectivity.

S:AiS is a setting, an adventure, and a bestiary, but it's the smallest product in terms of written content of anything similar. Each book is only 64 pages whereas Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frost Maiden was 320 pages, and Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus is 256 pages. S:AiS's total of 192 pages isn't just a smaller page count, but when you factor in full- and half-page art, it's even less written content.

That wouldn't be so bad if it didn't feel like they left things out. BAM fairs the best in that regard. While only 72 stat blocks and limited lore/background content to go with it would be skimpy for the average dedicated bestiary, it's typical or better than usual for the monster appendices in a lot of the books.

LoX suffers the most from its tight page count. Many chapters are just three pages long. While Perkins said LoX is more of an example adventure and introduction because DMs like to make their own adventures I still wanted a bit more meat on the bones than we got. The writers for the adventure—Justice Ramin Arman, Sadie Lowry, and Jeffrey Ludwig—did the best they could with what is obviously a tight word count, and they were working from adventure developed by Perkins and Dan Dillon. I've definitely enjoyed Arman, Perkins and Dillon's work in the past so the book length seems to be the culprit. The writers needed more space to flesh things out.

Spoilers below for those playing the adventure:

The limited page count is felt most at the ending. The characters are put in a difficult situation in which at least one seems likely to die—but wait, there's a deus ex machina plot point to save them. I hate that. The ending does have a legitimate emotional dilemma that will allow the players to argue among themselves and with NPCs in their alliance about what to do, and someone is going to lose in the scenario.

I think the ending bothers me because not only does it feel rushed, but it's also unsatisfying. Save your homeworld (and several others) and another world will die (and vice versa). That's rather heavy for a setting that loves playing up the swashbuckling aspect (there are Vampirates, for example).

AAG falls in the middle in terms of how badly the short page count affected it. The Character Option chapter is fine, though more info on the new player races wouldn't have hurt. A little more info on running a spelljammer might have been appreciated. But the Rock of Bral really suffered with most locations on Bral only getting a couple of sentences. I wasn't expecting anything as extensive as the original Rock of Bral supplement, but only five pages of written content (when you deduct the portion of the pages taken up by art) isn't enough. AAG would have benefited from at least another eight pages.

I suspect the short page counts were for financial reasons. Three 64-page hardcovers are more expensive to produce than one hardcover of 192 pages, and the price goes up when the slipcase and durable DM screen are added. Switching to softcover books wouldn't be a solution. Fans like the more durable hardcovers, it's part of the 5E branding, and the hardcovers allow for metallic ink alternate cover editions for game stores. So I understand it but dislike it.

So if most of my problems with S:AiS are related to its limited word count, my other complaint is that it needed a final look by an editor who could represent the newcomer's perspective because a few sections fell into the category of “can't see the forest for the trees.”

For example, the sequencing problem in AAG. The first chapter, which is only two pages long, has a column of “terminology” to introduce Spelljammer's “Vast Oceans of Adventure.” Chapter 2 is Character Options. Chapter 3 is “Astral Adventuring” with the subhead, “How Spelljamming Works.” The problem is it doesn't actually start with how spelljamming works but begins with speed and other technical details like air envelopes, falling, and gravity planes before more firmly explaining the astral plane and moving through it. Starting with helms instead, how they work and control a ship would have made much more sense than speed. And while it seems the person at the helm isn't quite as limited as they were in 2nd edition a bit more clarification would be nice.

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Summing Up Spelljammer for 5E​

If you loved the original Spelljammer you'll probably like this one. I don't think getting rid of the crystal spheres and similar changes will be a deal breaker for anyone and the easier attunement switching will be appreciated. BAM has a good creature selection with an option to convert more. IoX needed more space to breathe, but if Perkins is right and people like customizing adventures then that's not necessarily a drawback even though it bothered me.

For me, while I like a lot of S:AiS, the stumbling blocks keep me from giving it top marks even though I'd love to. That said, I hope it does really well so we can get more Spelljammer products.

If you like Spelljammer (or are more forgiving than I am), it's likely an A- or better. For me, the short page count led to too many problems, from IoX feeling rushed at the end to the skimpy treatment the Rock of Bral got (it didn't need exhaustive coverage but more than five pages is reasonable), and more meant that it only gets a B from me, B+ if I'm feeling generous.

Do I recommend it if you want something different or like space adventure? Absolutely. Just be prepared to flesh more things out that you would in the typical D&D adventure. At the minimum it would be a fun change of pace from the typical D&D campaign, and that can be well worth it.

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Beth Rimmels

Beth Rimmels

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I crit!
Dyson Logos also made this ship
Living Ship - "The Bigjammer"

With this week’s release of the new D&D 5th edition Spelljammer books (featuring a bunch of my redraws of classic Spelljammer deckplans, and a few new ones), I’m excited to release this “non-canon” ship deckplan that I drew for George Loki Williams’ campaign in the same style as the deck plans I did for the D&D5e book.

The Spelljammer itself is a massive living ship that can maintain a population of thousands but requires no actual crew to operate. It reproduces by spawning a hundred or so smaller versions of itself known as “Smalljammers” that grow to the size of a small spelljamming vessel until the Spelljammer itself dies, then one of the smalljammers begins to grow to become the next Spelljammer.

However, it appears that this system is not a perfect process. Here we have the “Bigjammer” a Smalljammer that has grown to be significantly larger than its brethren without growing to anywhere near the gargantuan size of the Spelljammer itself. As a Smalljammer, this ship had some significant adventures that took it deep into the astral sea and obviously something during these expeditions and adventures triggered the growth of the ship into something larger…


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