Dungeons & Dragons’ Spelljammer Setting Gets An Update But Keeps Things Weird

Dungeons & Dragons’ Spelljammer Setting Gets An Update But Keeps Things Weird
Image: Michael Robson, Wizards of the Coast
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After teasing the setting in a few of the previous 5th edition adventures, Wizards of the Coast announced the official return to Wildspace during its first-ever Dungeons & Dragons Direct early this year. Adventures in Space marks the first major update to the Spelljammer campaign setting in almost 30 years.

Ahead of its launch, Kotaku Australia was invited to a press briefing for the new Dungeons & Dragons adventure, hosted by Chris Perkins, the principal story designer for Dungeons & Dragons and the Dungeon Master of Dungeon Masters. There, Perkins gave us a preview of the campaign setting, what we can expect while journeying through Wildspace and a look into what it takes to rebuild a universe.

What is Spelljammer?

spelljammer adventures in space
Image: Bruce Brenneise, Wizards of the Coast

Spelljammer first appeared as a setting in 1989, as part of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. After a few supplementary 2nd edition adventure modules were released, the Spelljammer setting had mostly fallen to the wayside in the following editions of D&D. Despite this, it has remained a fan-favourite setting. It’s D&D in space, what’s not to love?

In Spelljammer, you travel through what is known as Wildspace – a great, astronomical void that houses your universe. There, you can visit different celestial bodies, like planets and asteroids, while using a ship known as a spelljammer. These ships are piloted through the use of magical chairs known as spelljamming helms.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that space travel in this magical, fantasy universe doesn’t operate like its real-world counterpart (“Wildspace isn’t freezing. It’s actually quite pleasant”, Perkins assures us.)

“Every ship has a gravity plane and an air envelope, so when you’re travelling through Wildspace, it’s just like being on a ship on an ocean.” Some of these ships look like sea-faring galleons, while others are much more unique, like the Nautiloid pictured above.

So what happens if you leave your ship’s air envelope? Well, according to Perkins, wizards can cast the spell to create an air bubble around their heads, which is reminiscent of the fishbowl-domed helmets of campy 1950s/60s sci-fi. Alternatively, a druid could cast “Wild Shape” and transform into a space fish to avoid suffocating.

For non-arcana users, there’s a new magic item called a Fish Suit, which acts as the fantasy equivalent of a space suit and will protect players from things like gases and poisonous atmospheres.

Of course, this is Dungeons & Dragons,  so Wildspace and its various celestial bodies contained within it are full of strange and unique creatures. Some are friendly, some definitely aren’t.

What is Adventures in Space?

Dungeons & Dragons’ Spelljammer Setting Gets An Update But Keeps Things Weird
Image: Wizards of the Coast

Spelljammer is, inherently, a weird setting, and the vibe of this campaign is reflected in its presentation. Compared to previous 5th edition supplement books, Spelljammer‘s form factor is a little more experimental. Spelljamer: Adventures in Spaceisn’t just one new book to add to your shelf – it’s three.

The slip-cased set includes a rulebook, The Astral Adventurer’s Guide, which will help players and Dungeon Masters navigate their way through this setting’s unique mechanics, along with a few new playable races and spells. The set also includes a DM’s screen that features Spelljammer-centric rules as a handy quick reference.

There’s the intergalactic monster manual titled Boo’s Astral Menagerie, featuring stat blocks for weird and wonderful creatures like space eels, space hamsters that are as big as a bear and solar dragons that live in suns. And yes, longtime D&D and Baldur’s Gate fans, it’s that Boo.

And, finally, an adventure titled Light of Xaryxis, which was created to be fast and fun (Perkins estimated that most groups should be able to complete the full adventure in 12 sessions). The adventure is designed for characters of levels 5 to 8, so it might not be ideal for first-time D&D players – especially when you’ll need to learn all of the Spelljammer-specific rules on top of the game’s core rules.

However, Wizards is offering a beginner’s adventure called Spelljammer Academy, which includes four adventures that’ll gently ease players into the setting, preparing them for their first journey into Wildspace. Spelljammer Academy is free to download with a D&D Beyond account.

Perkins’ hope is that by making these books a little bit more approachable and digestible, the setting will feel more welcoming to new players and DMs.

Expanding the universe

Dungeons & Dragons’ Spelljammer Setting Gets An Update But Keeps Things Weird
Image: Justin Gerard, Wizards of the Coast

When updating Spelljammer for a more modern ruleset and audience, Perkins’ goal was to try and preserve what’s unique about the setting. To help ground the players, Adventures in Space includes a reimagined version of the Rock of Bral, a massive asteroid that is meant to serve as the campaign’s hub city.

In the original Spelljammer, every planetary system was contained in a gigantic crystal sphere. You’d crash into these spheres when you hit the “edge of the universe”. If you could make it past these crystal walls, you’d then find yourself in a sea of highly flammable ether called phlogiston. In short, travelling between universes was more trouble than its worth and an easy way to lose an eye, hand or party member.

In this new edition of Spelljammer, these spheres and phlogiston have been removed. Now when you reach the edge of the universe’s Wildspace, you enter what is known as the Astral Sea – a swirling void of silver fog, that becomes denser the deeper you move through it. But the key thing here is that you can move through it, which means that travel into other universes is possible.

“It’s got tremendous versatility and it opens up doorways to other parts of our multiverse,” Perkins tells us. “Some of which we haven’t explored yet, but will in future products.” We can only hope that a return to Planescape isn’t far away.

Intergalactic influences

Dungeons & Dragons’ Spelljammer Setting Gets An Update But Keeps Things Weird
Image: Scott Murphy, Wizards of the Coast

Previous D&D adventures like Rime of the Frostmaiden were inspired by horror classics like John Carpenter’s The Thing and the works of H.P. Lovecraft, while The Wild Beyond the Witchlight drew from The Wizard of Oz and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

For Spelljammer, Perkins was predominately inspired by science-fiction movies from the 1980s – in particular,  Mike Hodge’s cult classic, Flash Gordon, and how it mixes fantasy and sci-fi. Perkins also name-checked the space vampires from Lifeforce and the eponymous monsters from Killer Klowns from Outer Space, while showing off art directly inspired by the latter. In space, no one can hear you honk.

The pacing of Light of Xaryxis is also inspired by the original Flash Gordon comic strips. As Perkins explains it, he loved how these serial adventures would always end on a mini cliff-hanger, leaving the reader on the edge of their seat in anticipation. His goal was to replicate this feeling by having each chapter of the adventure end on a similar note. “What I loved about that was just the feeling that might create at the game table. The suspense of just sort of hanging on a critical note, and getting players excited about coming back for the next session.”

Despite these influences, Perkins emphasises that “Spelljammer is not a science fiction setting, it’s a fantasy setting.” The module has also been designed with genre versatility in mind.

D&D has always sort of run the gamut when it comes to playing with genres,” he explains. “Some D&D games are very serious, some are very sort of dark. There’s horror D&D, there’s a lot of whimsy in D&D. Basically, my only goals or instructions in that regard was to just make Spelljammer feel like a D&D setting by making sure all those elements were present so that a DM could then choose what sort of fantasy Spelljammer game they want to run.”

“If they want to do cosmic horror, there are cosmic horror-type creatures in Boo’s Astral Menagerie. If they want to do something that’s sort of swashbuckling, campy and whimsical, there are creatures and elements along that lines as well.”

Shipshape

spelljammer adventures in space
Image: Jessica Nguyen, Wizards of the Coast

Wacky and wonderful ship designs are a big part of the original Spelljammer‘s aesthetic and appeal, with many of them being modelled after creatures. While discussing how the new campaign aimed to maintain these designs, Perkins proudly showed off a piece of art depicting a Neogi ship shaped like a giant spider, gliding through an asteroid field.

The Astral Adventurer’s Guide includes deck plans for 16 new ships, giving adventuring parties the ability to pick and choose the type of ship that best suits their identity.

Capturing Wildspace

spelljammer adventures in space
Image: Jessica Nguyen, Wizards of the Coast

Compared to previous releases, the Adventures in Space books came with a bigger art budget and are much more illustrated. In terms of aesthetics, Spelljammer‘s can be best described as one of those fantasy scenes that you see airbrushed onto the side of a van (usually featuring a wizard) combined with New Age psychedelia. Stare long enough at this gorgeous depiction of kindori tumbling through Wildspace and you’ll hear Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”.

Perkins wanted to make space seem unreal, almost like an overexposed Hubble telescope image of a nebula – a sort of hyper-colour reality that’d give the setting a sort of “spectral fantasy feel”.

“So right at the outset, we set up all the artists with a sense of colour palette and both for Wildspace, which is sort of psychedelic and kaleidoscopic, and very bright colours.”

“Very rarely in Wildspace do you actually see the colour black, we wanted it to be vibrant.”

Where can you buy Spelljammer: Adventures in Space?

Dungeons & Dragons’ Spelljammer Setting Gets An Update But Keeps Things Weird
The alternate cover set (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is set to retail for $100, and includes three 64-page hardcover books, a Dungeon Masters’ screen and a reversible map of the Rock of Bral.

Like previous D&D books, Wizards is also offering a set with alternate art, including variant covers drawn by Hydro74 and a DM screen with art by Jedd Chevrier. Both versions of Spelljammer: Adventures in Space will be available in Australia from 16 August.

You can pre-order Spelljammer: Adventures in Space here and the alternate art set here.

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