I picked up a copy of Spelljammer, the latest release from Wizards of the Coast, and I've spent the past couple of days reading over the three books in the boxed set. This is a quick cursory review of the new setting.
When Spelljammer was first announced, I was excited about it. I've already played Planescape in 5e, including some adventures from the AD&D Infinite Staircase adventure book, but I was eager to see an "official" version of traveling the multiverse. I really wanted Planescape (which conveniently was recently announced), but I was happy to settle for Spelljammer. I pre-ordered the Spelljammer boxed set, dusted off a few old Spelljammer modules, and prepared myself for a game set in space.
And then Wizards released Spelljammer Academy, a series of level 1 to 4 modules designed to introduce players to Spelljamming. And I have to admit, I hated it. It's not Wizard's fault, really, but I have a strong aversion to any fiction having to do with school, academics, academies, and so on. Upgrade that to a violent aversion to anything quasi-military. I find the school trope uninteresting, I don't love institutional structure in real life, and in the context of Spelljamming it just seems a little too convenient. I can believe in magic and a multiverse of gods, but I just cannot bring myself to believe there would be an academy dedicated to Spelljamming. Spelljamming should be, at least in my opinion, surprising. It should be something players discover, not something they sign up for and take classes in.
I disliked the introductory adventure so much, in fact, that I cancelled my pre-order under the assumption that the material would be a continuation of this module.
Lucky for me, my "local" game store (hours away, as I live in a small town) didn't process my cancellation before they processed my order. The book arrived on my doorstep the day after I tried cancelling the order, and so I colloquially chalked it up to fate that I should have the books and started reading. I was pleased to find that Spelljammer doesn't mention the introductory adventure at all, and in fact suggests either Phandelver or Icespire Peak (the adventures from the beginner boxes) as material to get players from level 1 to level 4 or 5 to start the Light of Xaryxis Spelljammer adventure.
Cutting to the chase: Spelljammer 5e preserves all the good parts of AD&D Spelljammer. Even in what it omits it betrays none of the original spirit of the setting, where the "original setting" was:
The 5e version drops technical complications. For instance, the wizard piloting the spelljamming ship isn't otherwise incapacitated. If you're the party's wizard and you find a ship with a spelljamming helm, you can operate the ship but still cast spells and play your character as usual. That might seem odd on one hand, because you might think it would surely take a lot of energy to pilot a vessel. Then again, though, what's a helm for if it can't offload some of the burden? The helm, I guess, does some of the excess processing.
Gone, too, are the crystal spheres. A crystal sphere, in the orginal Spelljammer, was essentially a solar system. To get out of a crystal sphere, you had to use a teleportation spell, a phase door, or portal. If you fly out of a crystal sphere in a spelljamming ship, then you're in the phlogiston, the outer-outer space of the D&D universe, devoid of planar travel but a reasonable avenue between crystal spheres.
In place of crystal spheres, there are now Wildspace systems (essentially a solar system, or a crystal sphere without the barrier.)
These elements were high in "flavour" but collectively they represented a sort of penalty for using the Spelljammer setting. You buy the books to explore fantasy space in your D&D game, but everything about the setting tries to prevent you from leaving your homeworld.
Another thing that's gone is the highly flammable phlogiston, the material of fantasy space. I loved the idea of phlogiston in AD&D and I still technically love the idea that there are "penalties" for using a specific setting.
I like that when you go out into fantasy space, you can't use magic or weapons that cause sparks without igniting the phlogiston around you. I like that you can't go to Krynn and benefit from a god of the Forgotten Realms. I like that when you visit a hellish plane, you suffer penalties to Wisdom checks.
These penalties make different settings feel unique, and they help the Dungeon Master challenge the players. As players get to high tier play, they get really hard to threaten. Put those player characters in Avernus or the Abyss with several penalties to some of the abilities they rely upon, and suddenly the players have to create new strategies.
On the other hand, what happens when your entire campaign takes place in Wildspace? Nobody can use anything that creates a spark for the entire campaign? It's no longer a fun challenge, it's just a way to break a game that features more fire-based spells than any other damage type (probably; I admit I haven't actually counted.)
There's a balance to be struck, in other words. Changes in rules are exciting for an "episode" or two, but not for the whole season, and not for the whole show. Maybe the trick is to impose penalties when characters first arrive in a new setting. Maybe characters have to attune to a plane or a Wildspace system just as magic users have to attune to magic items. But eventually, they equalize, or find a new patron or a new god, or whatever, and play returns to normal. I know that the adventure in Thay has certainly suffered a lot of confusion over the vague "dimensional barrier" rule and, frankly, it's gotten old after a few weeks of play (and after the tenth time we forgot the rule long enough to significantly change the plot.)
Overall, I think dropping the ban on fire in space makes a lot of sense, even though it does initially feel like the setting has lost something that set it apart.
The best thing about this boxed set is that the 5e version of Spelljammer ends up being no different from the AD&D version, as long as you don't look at the details. And trust me, the details aren't exactly easy to look at. The AD&D Spelljammer books were around 170 pages, between Lorebook of the Void and Concordance of Arcane Space. And I'm not confident you'd have a solid grasp on the setting after your first read-through of those.
The new setting is 64 pages, and 15 of those pages are player character options. If you're a Dungeon Master or player who wants to understand the Spelljammer setting, you have everything you need in about 50 pages of content. And even that's overstating it. You actually have most of what you need from page 4: "Every D&D world [...] exists in an airless void known as Wildspace." and "In Wildspace, the Material Plane and the Astral Plane overlap. Creatures and objects in Wildspace [...] are effectively on both of those planes at once."
That's it. Above and beyond that, you only need know that spelljamming ships exist, they carry with them their own air bubble and have their own gravity. Everything about the Material Plane and the Astral Plane remains true in 5e Wildspace, so there are colour pools (as described in the DMG) for planar travel, but you also move around as you do on the Material Plane. It's a little like the Sea of Possibility in Kobold Press's Dark Roads & Golden Hells, and skillfully marries interplanar and interplanetary travel.
The spelljamming ships in the Astral Adventurer's Guide are straight out of the original books. They're great. The helms are a lot cooler now.
Ship combat is, well, ship combat. Like many players, I've complained about ship combat in the past. I've designed a system for simple starship combat that I think improves Starfinder considerably. D&D 5e's ship combat, released as an Appendix in the Saltmarsh book, didn't impress me either. I was hoping for something interesting in Spelljammer.
I guess we got something interesting for ship combat in Spelljammer, in a way. Reading the rules for ship combat in Spelljammer, I think the implication is that you shouldn't do it. Shipboard cannons take at minimum 3 actions to operate. 5e combat is done in 2-action rounds (bonus actions notwithstanding), so I think it's reasonable to expect that you'll only be firing a cannon every other round. Person-to-person ranged attacks are possible, but only within certain distances, obviously. The only guidance provided in the book for ship combat is to use the "sides" initiative variant from the DMG (each side rolls initiative and acts as a group, so you don't have to track initiative of each crew member individually). Other than that, you start the ships at a certain distance (250 feet, 500 feet, or 1000+ feet) and let them go at it.
But really what the book wants you to do, judging by the lack of ship rules, is to get the ships within 5 feet of one another and just have the aggressors board the ship and fight it out person-to-person, using the usual D&D combat rules.
And you know what? That works. It's not exactly ship combat rules, but it does handle combat and ships. You can have ships trade vollies of cannonfire, but it's going to be boring. Ultimately, spelljammers are vehicles to adventure, not an adventure in themselves, and that's fine. There are plenty of great locations in Wildspace for players to explore, both in AD&D modules like Skull & Crossbows, and even Dungeon Magazine articles about the Astral Plane (the city of N'gati became a homebase for some players in my 5e game.)
I don't use a DM screen in real life. I roll all die in the open in my in-person games, and I just don't have room for a screen in my online games. The Spelljammer DM screen is beautiful, but it's hard to imagine a less useful DM screen.
Have I misunderstood what a DM screen is for? I thought they were supposed to have a summary of important rules. I guess the intent here was to create a screen very specific to Spelljammer, but as there are few rules specific to the new Spelljammer setting, they just filled up the space with random tables that would normally be in a DMG.
This is a great set. In fact, it's so great that I wish this had been the format for all settings. I can just imagine a similar boxed set for Ravnica and Ravenloft.
I'll certainly post more about Spelljammer as I read the books carefully, and run the adventure. My initial reaction is extremely positive, though, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this to any adventurous D&D player.
Dungeon Master's Guide cover copyright by Wizards of the Coast, used under the fan content policy.