Due to Spelljammer being a three book set rather than a single hardcover volume, we thought it best to share the duty of reviewing such a massive and crucial set. In retrospect, we may have overestimated the workload, but we hope you enjoy the collected opinions of Tabletop Editor-in-Chief Mike Dunn and our resident D&D Historian Steven Starkey anyway.
STEVEN: Dungeons and Dragons players that have been around for three or four editions often have a preferred setting or two that they would like to see issued under the fifth edition rules. For me, I have been hoping to see Greyhawk and Spelljammer. While Greyhawk remains a pipe dream, I’m happy to finally have the fifth edition Spelljammer in my hands. Cracking this open was a trip down memory lane for me and I was pleasantly surprised, and a little disappointed, by what we got. Looking through these books, I cannot help but compare them to the second edition’s Spelljammer boxed set, which was chock full of goodies for spacefaring adventure.
MIKE: For years we’ve been speculating which settings and rulesets would eventually get released under 5E, and Spelljammer has consistently been near the top of the list. I only ever read through the original Spelljamer softcovers from the boxed set, never actually got to play in the setting, but I was a huge fan of the Githyanki and Illithids, and loved how Spelljammer expanded their backstories and gave them prominence. I was relieved to see this carried on in the new volumes.
STEVEN: The first thing about this publication that stands out from the other fifth edition books is that it is actually three books and a themed Dungeon Master’s screen all in a handsome hard cardboard sleeve. This isn’t the first sleeved set for fifth edition, but the others were collections, like the Starter Set, Core Rules Gift Set, or the Essential Kit, which repackaged previously published materials for specific purposes. The Spelljammer set is all new material, in the form of three books and a screen, that were packaged together. While it may not be intended as such, it strongly reminds me of the old boxed sets, which is super convenient for comparing this with its predecessor. The old second edition Spelljammer boxed set came with a few softback books, some maps, large information cards about the various ships, and a bunch of ship counters for tracking combat on a playmat. The new set doesn’t work that way. Fifth edition’s Spelljammer has been broken into three books: an adventurer’s guide, a monster menagerie, and an adventure and one Spelljammer themed Dungeon Master’s screen – that’s it. To be fair, one of the books has a pull out map.
MIKE: Call me old-fashioned, but I think this would have worked better in the boxed set format. I’m honestly surprised at how slavishly WoTC has stuck to the hardcover format over the last few years, and making Spelljammer a sleeved set of hardcovers feels like an odd match to the material. The specialized Dungeon Master’s screen is very nice, however.
STEVEN: The books are high quality, with thick lustrous pages full of beautiful artwork. I cannot stress enough how nice the art is in these books. Like many other fifth edition publications, this Spelljammer comes with alternate artwork covers which are nice. The coloration and finish lends a lot to the alternate covers, the art is a little plain to my eye. Other than art, the books also have some excellent content. The Astral Adventurer’s Guide explains the basic cosmology, how flying from world to world works, hands players two new backgrounds, several races and a few spells to work with, and provides the Dungeon Master and players with the Rock of Bral – a space base. Boo’s Astral Menagerie is a Spelljammer extension of the Monster Manual. The final book is an adventure for 5th level characters designed to introduce them to Spelljamming called Light of Xaryxis.
The six new character races are great for Spelljamming and add to the over fifty playable races available in the game’s published books. As an old Star Frontiers player, I was pleased to see the inclusion of the races that were inspired by that setting back in the TSR days: the Hadozee, Plazmoid, and Thri-Kreen, of course the Giff are in there as well, being an original Spelljammer race. But my favorite of the group is the Autognome, the second constructed player race, following in the footsteps of Eberron’s Warforged.
MIKE: The separation between the three volumes is sensible and useful. I’ve enjoyed the “exploded” paperbacks of the Beadle & Grimm’s sets, and appreciate the utility of referencing a smaller volume, especially during play (not to mention keeping the adventure out of my player’s grubby little hands). That said, splitting information about the six new playable races between the Astral Adventurer’s Guide and Boo’s Astral Menagerie seemed a bit counter-intuitive. While I love the Hadozee, Plazmoids and Thri-Kreen, I can’t help but think this is the closest we’ll ever get to an official Star Frontiers revival. And while I don’t usually have a gripe with a little silliness in a D&D book, I found the passage referring to two pronunciations of the race Giff (with one starting with a ‘j’ sound) irritating. One might say I’m even animated about it.
STEVEN: The new Spelljammer rules function similarly to the old ones, but with some fairly significant changes. On a positive note, I like how they’ve cleaned up and streamlined some things. The most notable changes center around cosmology and how Spelljamming works. Old Spelljammer contained Wildspace in hard shelled crystal spheres. The inside of the crystal sphere was basically a solar system with planets, suns, moons, etc. separated by featureless space. Outside the shell of the crystal sphere was an empty sea of flammable, mysterious, “phlogiston” on which the crystal spheres floated and over which the Spelljammers traveled. In the new rules, Wildspace is not contained in a hard shell and there are no more crystal spheres. Instead, as you travel away from the center of a Wildspace system (think solar system), the void of space eventually fades into the silvery void of the Astral Sea. Travel between Wildspace regions takes place now in the Astral Plane. This works well, keeps the cosmology neat, and introduces the idea that Spelljammers could travel to the Outer Planes in their ships.
MIKE: It definitely feels like D&D has been building up to this over the last few years, tying Spelljammer and the Wildspace concept together with the multiversal glue that’s been seeded into every adventure and source book since Wild Beyond the Witchlight. Wildspace and the Astral Sea neatly fills in the gaps and opens up even more opportunities for traversing across multiple settings, which will come in handy as we know Planescape is right around the corner. I’m struck with a tinge of nostalgia for the over complexification of editions past, but the more slimmed down approach of 5E Wildspace/Astral Sea definitely feels less cumbersome.
STEVEN: Many of the Spelljammer concepts stay the same between editions, but two changes (other than the disappearance of crystal spheres and the phlogiston) stand out. First the disappearance of all the different varieties of Spelljamming Helms – dropping it down to just one. I like this change, it removes a lot of bookkeeping and keeps the focus on flying ships and not what makes them fly. The second change is the addition of nautical flare to Wildspace and the Astral Sea. In the old set, flying through Wildspace was akin to flying through actual space – no life out there. And the phlogiston was the same, but literally explosive. Except for the occasional large creature or other Spelljammers, there just wasn’t anything to see between the planets and spheres to see. But now, the atmosphere is much more like that of the actual sea. While the rules never expressly explain that there are fish and seabirds and the like floating around, the artwork indicates it, the fact that you can now fish off the side of your Spelljamming ship implies it, and the accompanying adventure, Light of Xaryxis includes this flavor text, “Scores of pelicans, mollymawks, and smaller birds nesting on the asteroid squawk as you approach the rickety dock. At the end of the dock, two gray, shark-like creatures fight over the remains of a pelican.”
The section on creating a Wildspace system is probably the most disappointing section in the book for me. It has one sentence of “instruction” which I quote in its entirety here: “A typical Wildspace system has a sun plus a number of planets and moons orbiting it.” The remaining two sentences in the section direct you to use the two systems in the Light of Xaryxis adventure as guides to help in creating systems. This is so thin, they may as well have just left the section out. But that’s exceptionally sad, because Dungeon Masters creating new adventures from their imaginations could probably use a large section on Wildspace systems. And they wouldn’t have had to make it all up, there’s plenty on this subject in the 2nd edition books! There are paragraphs about different planet types, different creatures, how to create maps, figuring out travel times, and more. This is a significant flaw in these books. Combined with the lack of clarity on the nautical atmosphere, it’s really hard to get a good idea of what Wildspace and the Astral Sea look like in the minds of the publishers. Maybe they are trying to leave it vague, so the home campaigns can be formed as DMs and players see fit. Maybe they didn’t want to spend the time on it. Maybe they were afraid of upsetting somebody. Whatever the reason, the information about the setting is terribly thin.
MIKE: As 5E has been the first version of D&D I have consistently Dungeon Mastered, I’ve definitely come to depend on the freedom the current edition gives DMs and the de-emphasis on heavy rules and bookkeeping, but Spelljammer is such an odd duck of a thing that I feel both players and DMs alike need a stronger foundation than what this book set is giving us. For the first time I feel that the rules as given are insufficient, and the setting and potential situations are so specialized that I’m not as comfortable filling in the blanks myself. It’s easy to think that Wildspace is merely a setting, one that can easily be bent to whatever purpose the DM sees fit. I, however, see Wildspace and the Astral Sea and the navigation of space in a fantasy setting rather than sci-fi as more of a rules concern, and this set feels like it only scratches that surface. Perhaps we’ll see more sourcebooks and adventures under the Spelljammer sub-brand as we did back in 2E, but that would be a very new strategy for Fifth Edition products, and I suspect we’ll see a flurry of offerings meeting that demand on Dungeon Master’s Guild before long that do just that. Of course an enterprising DM can turn to the source books of editions past for more material and translate it into a more modern experience, but this set could have been more comprehensive.
STEVEN: It’s a conundrum really… There is plenty of source material to draw on from the previous editions to fill multiple books. From published adventures and the boxed set, you can get tons of info on creating systems, strange worlds, different kinds of ships, spells, magic items and creatures. Instead, we get a wavetop introduction to all these ideas spread between three books. With the thick covers removed and the thick pages slimmed down this could easily have been one 190 page book. Comparing this to the Wild Beyond the Witchlight, a 356 page adventure that provides essentially the same content but for the Feywild and better done – Spelljammer falls short. The content just doesn’t support splitting it into three tiny books.
MIKE: It’s more than a little shocking to be saying that a box set with three books in it feels a little anemic, but here we are. The books are so thin that the spines work against even opening them up. Then, even more egregious, the paper stock inside the books is significantly thicker than every other volume on my shelf. Ultimately, we end up with a set that is desperately trying to represent itself larger than it actually is, which is a bit infuriating since there’s so much more material from previous editions they could have mined and updated.
Spelljammer: Adventures in Space
For all of the anticipation and leadup to Spelljammer, this set of hardcover books ultimately comes up short and feels like a missed opportunity to more thoroughly modernize and update a beloved setting. Comparing the awkwardly thin books to previous edition materials just underscores how anemic this offering is in comparison. Forcing this into a higher priced set of hardcovers does the content no justice, and sadly, feels like a bit of a money grab.