I Hadn’t Played D&D IRL In Years, And Then We Played Spelljammer In A Space Museum

I Hadn’t Played D&D IRL In Years, And Then We Played Spelljammer In A Space Museum

I don’t know if you know this, but Dungeons & Dragons is a very good game.

I used to play quite a bit of D&D, whiling away whole Saturdays with friends as we picked our way through various campaigns. The game’s 5th Edition ruleset, in many ways it’s most accessible ever, had allowed us to bring new friends and players into the fold. There was always a game on the go.

That was, of course, all in the Before Times, which now feel like a lifetime ago. My last in-person D&D game, sat around a table with friends, would happen in late 2019. January of 2020 was a maelstrom of life milestones for many people I know. Jobs were changing. People were moving, some interstate. Houses were under construction. Babies were being born. The intrusions of adult life in our mid-30s had finally ganged up on us. It was going to be hard to get everyone together for a little while.

And then a pandemic broke out in March.

While we all sat in quarantine and successive lockdowns dragged on, we tried to get games going via Discord. It worked, sort of. We could play, but it wasn’t the same. The spark that fuels D&D at the table, the immediacy and the energy that comes from Yes, And-ing a story with your friends, just wasn’t there online. The more we tried to play digitally, the less we wanted to play. Perhaps your group is different, and playing online is no barrier — if that’s you, know that my envy runs deep.

In 2022, I’d played no D&D at all. None, that is, until last week, when I was invited to play in a session from the new Spelljammer set.

Image: James Oorloff Photography

Spelljammer: Adventures in Space

Spelljammer is an old D&D setting. The Spelljammer: Adventures in Space campaign setting was first released in November 1989 for D&D‘s 2nd Edition ruleset. Though it only spawned a handful of adventures in its day, its space-faring, science fantasy setting left an indelible mark on the game.

In the last few years, as D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast began to explore campaign settings beyond the well-loved Forgotten Realms, calls to resurrect Spelljammer from within the game’s community became too loud to ignore. The time had come to pull the setting out of the drawer.

The new Spelljammer kit is more than a standard campaign setting release. Previous 5th Edition campaign settings like Eberron: Rising from the Last War and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft have arrived in a single volume. Spelljammer is a three-book set that mirror’s the game’s trio of core rulebooks. The first book, the Astral Adventurer’s Guide, is designed to give DMs and players everything they need to create characters and build stories in the Spelljammer setting. The second, Light of Xaryxis, is a short but exuberant introductory campaign set among the stars. The third and final book, Boo’s Astral Menagerie, is a Monster Manual full of new and returning creatures from the Astral Sea.

It’s clear what Wizards is going for: if you have friends interested in trying D&D, but they’re not super into fantasy, now you can tempt them with some juicy sci-fi.

If the goal of any new campaign setting is to provide a different flavour, the Spelljammer finds the back of the net with ease.

Roll for initiative (in space)

I, along with journos from outlets like GamesHub and PC Gamer, was invited to an evening of Spelljammer recently. Our game was held, after hours, on the top floor of Melbourne Emporium at the Neighbourhood Earth exhibit. There, surrounded by projected images of stars and planets, we explored a tiny part of the Astral Sea.

Our session was run by performer and DM Jesse Thomas, familiar to fans of the Dungeon Mastery and Tabletop Unknown podcasts. Because we only had a few hours to play before centre staff would have to kick us out, Thomas leaned into the Light of Xaryxis adventure’s brisk pace. This, in turn, informed the playstyles coming out at the table. Direct solutions to our problems were required. Faced with escaping a world on the brink of destruction and blockaded by pirates, our party used a combination of banter and creative spellwork to get what we were after. Safely aboard a Spelljammer, a kind of space-faring galleon, we made our way upward and into the Astral Sea. Thomas would later remark that we were extremely objective-driven, pushing into content from the adventure he’d not been prepared for us to reach.

That’s where the best D&D comes from, of course. When you blast through the material your DM has prepared, forcing them to wing it? That’s where the real magic happens.

Me, seen here getting way too into it. Image: James Oorloff Photography

“You’ve never been off-world before, have you?” laughed Thomas, in character. I realised no, I hadn’t. No character I’ve ever played in D&D had ever left the setting they’d been created for, much less the world they were on. It was a strange and fleeting feeling of scope. I could see the scene before me, our Spelljammer rising into orbit, a lonely lifeboat against the backdrop of a mysterious, crystalline creature consuming the planet below us. We would later subvert a mutiny aboard our vessel, followed by some Alien-esque theatrics as we explored a derelict Illithid ship. Spelljammer‘s gift is that it can provide you with these kinds of adventures. Xaryxis is built to give you a taste of everything, and it sets the mind whirring. There’s no other setting in D&D that can do that without significant homebrewing. Now, you can construct that Flash Gordon campaign idea you’ve had rattling around your head for years. You can build that slow-burn monster-on-a-derelict-ship story. You have everything you need.

My character, a Leonid monk, named Krios, was a force to be reckoned with. As a class and background combo, I can’t recommend it enough. Krios also rolled four natural 20s throughout the night, changing the course of the short campaign several times. The dice I used belonged to Thomas himself, and I was reluctant to hand them back at the night’s end. I hope he’s got them somewhere safe. They’re very valuable.

This was the first in-person game of D&D I’d been able to play since 2019. Spelljammer gave me something new and exciting, it’s true, but it gave me something back too. It gave me back the spark I’d been missing, the little thrill of laying the narrative tracks before the train, together. It was right where I left it, at the table.

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