In my initial review of the D&D 5e version of Spelljammer, I praised the boxed set for everything but its DM screen. Since that review, there's been widespread disappointment in its sparse rules about ship combat and in the Hadozee race. Recently, I finally had the chance to sit down with the books to read them cover to cover, and to judge whether my initial excitement over the product was correct or premature. This post covers just the Astral Adventurer's Guide, and I'll cover the other two books in future posts.
Before delving into Spelljammer 5e, I want to describe how I view the 5e line of products as a whole. A few years ago, Wizards of the Coast sanctioned some online-only products called Plane Shift. There were a few of them, all by James Wyatt, and they took established settings from Magic the Gathering (MTG) and described how you might run a D&D adventure in those worlds. It was exciting mostly because it was an official cross-over of two games that many people loved equally. A typical Plane Shift booklet was "only" 40 pages, so it relied heavily on prior knowledge of the setting, which was fair because its primary audience was MTG fans who also played D&D.
I purchased Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica upon release, and it's one of my favourite 5e books and settings. However, it occurred to me that even though it was over 200 pages, it only contained about as much lore as one of the old Plane Shift booklets. There's so much more to Ravnica than the quick summary paragraphs provided in the single chapter about the Tenth District, but you wouldn't know any of it without reading the MTG stories, or buying some card sets and cleaning lore from the flavour text and art.
Personally, this is how I view the 5e product line in general. Every book released is a Plane Shift booklet summarizing a greater story. It's been this way from the start. The Adventurer's Guide to the Sword Coast is largely overlooked by most 5e fans, probably because it contains so little lore that it barely equips the DM to run a game in the Forgotten Realms. Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft similarly takes 30 domains of dread, formerly covered across several books back in 2nd and 3rd Editions, and reduces a few to 3 pages each and others to a single paragraph.
Each 5e setting book is a conversion guide.
And that's not necessarily a bad a thing.
There's a lot of great material about Spelljammer from ages past. You can still buy those books, through print-on-demand, from drivethrurpg.com. Frankly, I'd rather buy those books plus a 5e conversion guide than have to essentially re-purchase a bunch of books that I already owned since 2e or 3e.
The misstep, I think, is that the D&D authors don't point 5e readers to the historic books so they know where to find more information. A conversion guide is only as good as its source, and when you don't identify the source, it's hard for people to complete their research.
So how's the Spelljammer conversion guide?
Chapter 1 contains player options, including two backgrounds and some new races. The Autognome is my personal favourite, probably because they're intriguingly constructs that can also benefit from healing spells (in addition to the Mend spell, as is usual for constructs.) However, it's great to see the Giff and the Thri-keen, both of which are certifiably classic D&D races. All the races have an interest trait of some kind, and in general it feels like this a pretty comfortable place for the D&D team. It probably helps that Unearthed Arcana playtests come out regularly to help the designers understand what works.
Chapter 2 is the chapter about spelljamming. Most of it's good, especially if you view it as a conversion guide of what's already been established. Here's the new setup for adventures in outer space:
Essentially, Wildspace is everything within a single setting. If you want to travel to a different setting, you just travel until you run out of Wildspace, you enter the Astral Plane and think yourself over to the next Wildspace System.
If you want to have an encounter on the Astral Plane, you can, but you're no longer in Wildspace, you're on the Astral Plane. It's a lot like entering the Drift in Starfinder, or hyperspace in Star Wars.
Within Wildspace, you can travel up to the speed of 4,166,666 miles an hour (that's 100 million miles in 24 hours). However, as in the old editions, your Spelljammer ship drops to tactical speed (that's the speed listed in the ship stats) whenever it gets within a mile of something big or, to be fair, significant to the plot. At that point, your ship travels at the speed listed in its stats.
I do think the book could use better separation between environmental concerns of the Astral Sea and Wildspace. As it's written, you have to remind yourself often that gravity and air envelopes and drifting and all that doesn't apply in the Astral Sea. I think it helps to think of Wildspace as where adventures in space take place. If you have an adventure on the Astral Plane then you may happen to be in a spelljamming ship, but all the usual rules of the Astral Plane apply: everything is driven by thought, you don't have to worry about food and air and gravity because you just think yourself aright.
Chapter 3 is a brief summary, in the style of Adventurer's Guide to the Sword Coast or Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, of the Rock of Bral. There was a 94-page source book about the Rock of Bral for 2nd Edition, and there are maybe 6 pages here, so this is just the basics.
Strangely, Bral's actual location is [still] not mentioned. Is it in Wildspace? If so, which Wildspace system? Is it in the Astral Sea? Does it travel from system to system? Is it meant to be placed in whatever system you please? There's just no mention of it, which feels like an odd omission.
If the intent is that the Rock of Bral can be placed into any system (as it is explicitly stated in 2nd Edition), then it would be nice to have that in writing. If the intent is that it travels around like a big Battlestar Galactica, then that would be nice to have in writing. If the authors don't care one way or the other, that would be nice to have in writing. In other words, I think that point could have used a little clarity.
All in all, though, not much has changed since 2nd Edition. Prince Andru is still in charge, and Bral is still pretty much Bral. If you're happy to build your own version of Bral based on the couple of pages this book provides, then this is sufficient. You get key locations, and a few names and brief descriptions of some significant locals.
I do feel like I could use Bral in a campaign with what's been provided. It's as complete as many of the Pact World descriptions in Starfinder's Pact Worlds source book. If you want everything spelled out for you, then the original source book is what you need to purchase.
In a previous post, I've already stated that I have no problem with the lack of rules for ship combat. Personally, I consider ship combat a different game. It's not an RPG, it's not even a war game. It's like tying the ankles of the player characters together and forcing them to pretend like they have agency while one of them moves the boat around a map. It's awkward at best, demoralizing at worst. Rules-light ship combat rules are available if you need more than "the enemy ship pulls up next to you and four pirates board your ship."
The one thing Chapter 2 actually lacks, in my opinion, are example Wildspace Systems. It briefly mentions Realmspace (it exists) and Krynnspace (it's got a different temperature than others), but otherwise there's no acknowledgement of any of the published settings, past or present. No mention of Ravnicaspace, Therosspace, Exandriaspace, or Eberronspace, much less Greyspace, Athasspace, Mystaraspace, Aebrynisspace, and so on. That's a real problem, to me, because if all 5e is ever going to publish are summarized conversion guides for existing settings, then the 5e team ought to acknowledge that, and most importantly acknowledge in published material that there's a long and storied history to the D&D multiverse, and that they expect you to follow through with research to find out more about them. If they never address Aebrynis or Athas or Ravnica, then how are readers of Astral Adventurer's Guide going to ever find out about them, or understand how they fit into the Astral Seascape?
It's especially confusing that longtime published settings are ignored. I'd have gladly given up some artwork (like the image of empty space bearing the caption, and I'm not joking: "The Astral Sea is like the ocean—a really big one") for a side bar about each Wildspace System. Respecting 5e setting book style, I don't need a whole chapter about each one, but a side bar acknowledging them and identifying the setting they embody would be nice for people who maybe don't know about Mystara and Krynn and others, or why they should care about them.
Another problem is that 2nd Edition elements are adapted without clear provenance. Ships are renamed without clearly identifying which 2nd Edition ship they actually are. If the 5e authors were aware that they're writing conversion guides, then I feel they'd have made it clear that the Tradesman ship in 2e is the Flying fish ship of 5e, and the Man-o-war of 2e is the Star moth of 5e. They wouldn't leave it to you to compare blueprints to figure it out yourself.
I'm pleased with this book. As a conversion guide from 2nd Edition, this suits me. It's got everything I need to dip into Spelljammer for a 5e game, and along with existing 2nd Edition material I have everything I need to run Spelljammer as a complete setting.